What An Author's Website Needs to Succeed

A Scripted Freelance Writer Writing Sample

(Note: Due to space limit, this is a modified excerpt of a published article.)

Whether you're applying for a job, pitching a freelance article, or querying an agent, the person on the receiving end of your information will likely look you up online.

Or perhaps someone read one of your articles, essays, or books or heard you speak at a conference and then wanted to learn more about you and your work.

One of the most effective ways to improve your chances of showing up on the top position, or at least somewhere on first page of the search results when someone searches for your name, is to have a website.

Sabrina Clark, director of marketing at Brand Yourself, a company that offers tools for online branding and monitoring, agrees.

"When people want to find information about a prominent figure, such as an author, they are going to look for [that person's] website," she says.

Eric Smith, an agent with P.S. Literary, explains that "buy-in" is the most important reason to have an author website, and that starts with being found.

"A potential reader can Google you, find your site, and learn about you, the author. Your current book. Your previous book. Your short stories and essays. They'll check out those other works. They'll follow you on social media," he says. "All kinds of fun stuff can happen, and that's delightful."

Search engine algorithms are complex and ever-changing, so no one can ever be guaranteed a top position, but there are certainly elements of your website that will help improve your ranking, such as quality of on-page content, frequency of updates (blog posts, for example), website structure/coding, load time, and proper metadata.

Bottom line: When you own your search results, you own your brand.

A hub of activity

A website should serve as the foundation for your brand. Clark says an author website can serve as the authoritative link to all other web-based properties about you, and you can also use social media to send people to your website for more information – they work hand-in-hand.

In fact, being active on other platforms helps increase your search engine ranking and overall visibility online, but a website is one of the only properties we can fully control.

I once heard at a web conference that we "rent" social media, but we "own" our permanent web presence. There's no personal visual branding opportunities on social media, save for a custom profile or header image.

On a personal website, however, you control the look and feel. Your personality can shine through with the color palette, layout and vibe – and that helps the notion of buy-in Smith mentioned.

"The buy-in happens with the media. With librarians. With booksellers. They look you up. They see what kind of author you are. Maybe you blog. Maybe you come off as a delightful person they want to have in their story or library, or interview for their website, magazine," he says.

"[A] publisher is likely mostly concerned with selling your book. You should be concerned with selling yourself as an author. A website helps with that in a big way."

Content matters

The key to keeping your online home up to date with minimal effort is to understand how different content types can work together.

Evergreen content – static pages:

Evergreen content includes static pages, such as About, Bio, Contact, Awards, etc. You'll no doubt have updates to your bio or your list of published works, but the pages themselves do not change.

Another way to look at evergreen content is how you write it: A dated blog post is expected to be timely, but a static page should have timeless information.

Timely content – communicating new information:

Search engines reward websites that are updated frequently, so a blog element to your website is important. Blogging once a week or so not only encourages you to keep writing new things, but it also improves your ability to be found online. When your site goes stagnant, your rankings could drop.

Smith agrees wholeheartedly that blogging should be part of content strategy.

"[Updating regularly] shows that you are active and busy. If you're one of those writers who make the excuse, 'Oh, that takes away from my writing,' then I've got nothing left to say to you. Sorry!" he says, adding that a bio, book details, social links, and event listings are also must-haves.

Conversational and contact elements:

You want people to be able to reach you. Provide contact information or create a simple contact form; this is especially helpful if you're using the website to find work.

Activate comments on your blog so that you can engage with your readers.

Finally, if you're linking off to your social media accounts, make sure you're active there too.

Design matters, too

Some might say that an unattractive book cover can still be fantastically written, but many others won't give it a chance if they're turned away by the design. The same can be said about websites.

You might have great content, but you only have seconds to capture someone's attention before they click away. If it's too busy, too drab, too hard to read, too whatever-your-web-pet-peeve-is, they're gone.

I've seen many online versions of literary magazines with websites designed to mimic print. When I worked in higher ed, I witnessed many academics slapping up a PDF online instead of creating actual on-page content.

Neither of these is a best practice. People read differently on the screen.

Joel G. Goodman, principal of Bravery Media, an Austin-based design agency, agrees.

"Folks who are used to thinking print-first a lot of times end up with tiny type on their websites. I see this with print designers moving to digital all the time. Larger font sizes are a lot easier to read on a screen than small ones, and since screens are a bit harsher on the eyes in general, it's helpful to your readers if you think about their comfort," he says.

Donna T
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Donna has more than two decades of experience in marketing, communications, writing and media, and about half of that time has been in higher education, most recently as director of integrated communications at Elizabethtown College (2010-2015) in Pennsylvania. She speaks at higher education and publishing conferences, writes an adult learner recruiting column for Wiley, and has contributed to Currents (a higher education trade publication), Guardian Higher Education Network, The Writer, mental_floss, Games World of Puzzles, and others. Her creative nonfiction appears in The Los Angeles Review and The Los Angeles Times. She authored a chapter in mStoner's Social Works. Donna teaches or has taught about branding and digital identity in several graduate creative writing programs. She has an MFA in creative writing and an MBA.
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