Strong Websites Increase Indies' Reach

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As a growing number of independent booksellers look to make their online presence a key part of their store identity, it is important to ensure that the bookstore website is as productive as possible. The American Booksellers Association has been working to educate booksellers about the methods that can bring more people to store websites and turn those visits into sales.

ABA Technology Director Matt Supko doesn't hesitate when he's asked how to get more out of a website: “Making sure you have good, fresh content on your website is the most important part. The rest of it is games you play with search engines, but content is key.”

What kind of content? Supko suggests that every bookseller approach content-building from this angle: “What is a question to which your store is the answer?” If a potential customer is looking for a place to buy books in Town A, the best collection of Author B's works, or an authoritative bibliography on Topic C, it's reasonable to suppose he or she will turn to the Internet.

St. Helens Bookshop has turned a specialized offering to its advantage online: the store's website is the second result on Google for “signed Chuck Palahniuk books,” coming in immediately behind the Palahniuk (endorsed) fan site. Because the author, who lives nearby, makes regular visits to the store, St. Helens is able to offer signed stock and personalized inscriptions, both popular with customers. “If they did nothing else with their site, this would make it profitable,” said Supko.

It also helps that Palahniuk's official website links to St. Helens' signed books page. Inbound links – links to a store website from other websites – are a key part of the algorithm Google, Yahoo!, and other search engines use to determine where a website appears in search results.

While inbound links are one of the things website owners are least able to control – after all, you can't force anyone to link to a bookstore website – there are techniques that can improve a site's chances of having others link to it.

  • Author relationships. Like St. Helens Bookshop, other stores have teamed up with local authors who send their fans to a particular store for signed copies. John Scalzi signs books at Jay & Mary's Book Center, and Maggie Stiefvater directs readers to the Fountain Bookstore. Both authors include links to the bookstore websites.

  • Affiliate relationships. In an affiliate relationship, the linking site makes a small commission on purchases, which gives the affiliate an incentive to link to the bookstore website. ABA administers an affiliate program for stores using the IndieCommerce platform, and offers tools stores can use to reach out to potential affiliates.

  • Sharing tools. Widgets like the one that appears to the right of every BTW article make it easy for site users to share links to any page on their platform of choice.

As for the games to improve search engine results that were mentioned by Supko, there's nothing inherently dishonest about them. The techniques known as “search engine optimization” are merely a way to match up a site's content and the types of information search engines look for. “Search engines want you to do well,” Supko said, which means they serve their own ends by allowing site owners to optimize.

  • Keywords. The page title, header, and URL should all reflect the page content, especially the words that a potential customer might use in a search.

  • Cross-linking. Links from one page of a website to another help search engines index all of a site's content.

  • Search engine resources. Google, Yahoo!, and Bing all offer tools that allow the site owner to upload a list of pages within a site, suggest relevant keywords, and provide other information that can improve search results.

How do you know if your website optimization efforts are having any effect? Both Google and Yahoo! offer analytics programs, though Google Analytics is more useful for small websites and businesses with limited staff capacity. Google Analytics allows a site owner to discover how visitors came to the site, what keywords brought those who found the site through a search engine, and where visitors spent their time. Site owners can also use more advanced features to analyze the habits of visitors who meet specific conditions, like completing a purchase.

Booksellers can find more information about the tools available to them in ABA's education handout “Techniques & Tactics for Online Website Promotion.”