Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why Author Websites DO Matter

On Monday I moaned about not knowing what makes a blog worth reading. This is all in connection to connecting with other writers and, someday, readers. This week, Anne Allen has a great post on how to blog, and it had a few points I responded to in her comments. But it seemed to have gotten lost in the ether, so I'm going to reproduce it here because I believe passionately in what I said. (This post is not meant as an argument with Anne--I just wanted to clarify some points.)

So, two important things about writers and websites and online presence:

Getting your name out there is Good; Relying only on Google rankings is Bad
Anne noted that, "The point is to get your name out there where the Google spiders can find you," and then quoted a publishing acquisitions editor who said this: "I don't read the query (sorry aspiring writers!) I look for two things: genre and word count. I then Google the author. I'm looking for the number of times the writer's name appears on the Internet. I'm searching for a website or any attempt to build a platform.”

Ha ha! "Sorry aspiring writers!" Wow.

Here's some news for you: The "number of times the writer's name appears on the Internet" can be fixed and faked. As I said in my lost ranty comment, you can FAKE THIS STUFF and so it all comes back to popularity contest. Several sneaky people have approached me to put links to them on my blog. At first I was all, "why on earth are you asking me? My blog isn't anything!" And then I realized that's the point (which was depressing). "Nothing" blogs are more likely not to care about linking back to you--and back links "up" your search rankings.

This is an echo of the perfidy of Klout rankings and how fake those are--which I discussed a few weeks ago.

I don't deny at all that a blog or the start of a social presence is important, however. Anne is right that you want Google to find you. But just remember that the metrics associated with such thing are unreliable--so if people only use those to see whether someone is a viable commodity or not, there's something sadly missing.

Having an author website accomplishes more than you think it is does
Second thing in Anne's post that I responded to:
That’s why a website you have to pay somebody to update for you isn’t as useful. People want to connect with you—not your web designer. The difference between a website and a blog is the difference between putting an ad in the Yellow Pages or personally giving somebody your phone number. Blogs are friendly. And if you have a blog, you don’t need an expensive website. Here’s what Nathan Bransford said about formal websites:

"The thing about author websites is pretty simple, in my mind. They're expensive. Are they worth the return on investment? I don't know. I can't think of a time I've ever bought a book based on a visit to an author's website. But I have definitely bought books based on author blogs. I know I may not be the average reader, but I still have a hard time seeing how it's worth the investment unless the website is really spectacular."

This set of commentary was a little confusing. I wasn't sure if Anne and Nathan meant you should never pay someone to update a website for you or not pay someone to design a formal website for you. Most websites you pay a designer to do for you are updated by you. If you're a big time author and can't handle updating your site or are too busy, there is still huge value in having the website. But I don't think Anne and Nathan were addressing big time authors with PR teams at their disposal. I shall explain below.

First, full disclosure: I design web sites for authors and other small businesses. Design only. Our clients update their owns sites. You definitely don't want to pay someone oodles of money for a formal website. But if you have no design skills and no clue on where to start for a website, but you know enough to know that a website that looks like a llama vomited all over the screen is going to harm you, then hire someone. It's possible to do it cheap. We offer it cheap.

Know that a blog is a social media tool, and appropriately fits into a website. Here's what you do with both:
  • Use your blog to engage in discussion with people
  • Use your formal website to inform and market to people
This goes for all businesses, not just authors. People visit websites primarily to verify that you are who you say you are. In other words, they want to see that you're real, legit, and worth buying into. In a world where there are way too many choices, that's really important. And then you use your social media tools (blog, Facebook, Twitter, whatever) to engage directly with those people.
I also discussed this in a post a while back called Author Websites: Not Just for Pubbed Authors, but I guess Anne and Nathan didn't see that post. :)
I welcome discussion about this. Thoughts about the Google rankings? The author website? One of the commenters on Anne's post said "Whew, I won't worry about a website for me then!" I hope I've clearly outlined here that a website does matter, and it does communicate other things than a blog does. But it's important to note that for the writer just starting out, you don't necessarily need a website yet. I always recommend getting your own domain name early, however.


Laura Pauling said...

I can see how all that matters. But for me, I refuse to be sneaky about it. For example if I have followers on my blog it's not because I run weekly contests where you have to follow me. I refuse to bribe people into being my friend. I want real ones. I think authors/writers should have a blog and def. a website once you are gearing to publish. People will check you out. I do.

Lydia Sharp said...

What Laura said. :) Great post, Sierra.

Sarah Allen said...

Great post! I've absolutely loved having a blog, and I think if we're wise about it like you suggesting, it can result in some good things.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Sierra Godfrey said...

Laura, thanks for making the point that people check people out. The tinternet is the voyeur's great helper in that regard! Sneakiness is really out, and I always know when someone is trying to be sneaky about getting exposure--cause it stinks.

Lydia- thank you!

Sarah, blogs definitely results in a greater discussion with others.

Roni Loren said...

I'm with you on both of these. The google ranking thing is easily gamed and though it may help you if someone is randomly searching "women's fiction author",I don't see that making a big impact on book sales. I've never searched "romance author" and then just went and bought books of those authors who come up first.

And as for that agent not reading the query just looking at the google ranking--well, not to be snarky, but I'm not sure I'd want that agent. My agent is all about the writing. She wants you to have a website but that is secondary. She has signed people with zero web presence because they had a great story and then just had the author start building a presence ASAP after she's signed them. (A book takes 12-24 months to go to market if it sells, you have time. It's just nice to have something built first not totally vital.)

And I strongly believe in an author having a website AND a blog (that is preferable integrated into their website.)

If you're pre-pubbed, I think a blog only is fine. But once you are going to have books out, a website is the sign that says "I'm a professional and I take this seriously." I want to easily to be able to find out about someone's books and how to buy on a website. I don't want to have to go through blog posts to get that information. A few months ago I wanted to buy a blogger's book. She has a great blog but it took me like 5 or 6 clicks to find a buy link for her book. Not good.

And I think web designers are a great help. I designed my own site but I plan to get something designed for me once (if) I make enough money to justify that. For now, I like what I have and it's easy for me to update. But lemme tell you, it was a painstaking process. If you're not web savvy, you could end up with a big ol mess. So go to a professional if you are web impaired. :)

Sierra Godfrey said...

Thanks Roni. I'm sure I don't need to say that I agree with your agreement of my points :) Also, of your google ranking is easily gamed phrase--that pretty much sums it up. Don't be gamed, people!

DL Hammons said...

I 100% agree with both of your points! And I also agree with Roni...I'm not sure I'd want an agent who bases representation on popularity. :)

Anne R. Allen said...

Thanks for the shoutout--and these are great points, Sierra. I don't disagree with any of them. I know Google can be gamed, just like Amazon rankings.

But it's a fact that most agents and editors do a search for your name pretty early on in the query process. If they can't find one mention of you as a writer on the Interwebz, (when they do a search for your name, not a genre) they're going to question whether you're ready for prime time. Not because they're bad people, but because they have marketing departments to answer to.

My post is labled as advice for beginners for a reason. I think having a blog is a great way for a beginning writer to start establishing a web presence. Better than counting on that school award you got ten years ago to keep you in the public eye.

I also think that if a newbie is still slogging through a first novel, a website is a waste of time. By the time you have a book to sell, you may have a very different career focus. And a pretentious website that sits there asking agents to read an author's work usually looks pretty lame.

Personally, I haven't felt the of need a website yet, but three months ago, I didn't have any books to sell. By Dec. 25th I'll have 5 novels and 3 anthologies. So maybe I'll think about it then. If it's something I can update myself, I might go there. But I have too many author friends whose publishers made them get big fancy sites that were out of their control, never updated, and caused no end of trouble.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Thanks for weighing in Anne. I don't think anyone should have fancy websites that are out of their control and I maintain that if anyone does, there's something seriously wrong. If you have a website or blog, you need to update it. If you have a fancy looking website or blog, you need to update it.

I just want to make sure it's clear and people understand that it is entirely possible to have a nice website that does fancy things, without it being a burden or something you can't update yourself. I promise I am not saying that because I make such things. I'm saying it because websites that are out of your control when you're a business person are bad financial and business moves, period.

It's really important that people understand that websites don't have to be scary or removed from your control. Not at all.

Meghan Ward said...

Hey Sierra - I agree that published authors should have more than just a blog on their website, but I'm curious as to how you enable your clients to update their own websites. I have a website and a blog, but it's really difficult for me (who is not a website designer) to update my own website. My husband has shown me how, but I'll probably need a reminder tutorial from him every time I want to change something. I'm not opposed to writers having websites pre-publication (I've had one for years), but they probably will need help from a techie person to update it. And they should know that they will have to have it redesigned once their book is published. Everyone I know with a new book out has their website designed around that book - with the cover on the front, links to buy the book, etc.

And by the way, as my husband likes to point out, blogs ARE websites. You can customize a blog to BE your author website, with the blog posts on one page and all your other marketing materials on other pages. There are even templates now that allow you to have a home page that is different your blog, which is pretty awesome.

Laurie Sanders said...

Though websites and blogs are similar they are different things and serve different purposes.

A website is largely static and is an information source. An author's website is where a reader goes to find out about an author's backlist, the order of their books in a series, what book is out next, things that they want quick answers to.

A blog is a more interactive medium. Readers go to blogs to interact with the author. While the author may answer the same questions on a blog that they answer on a website often (unless a blog uses static pages with a menu linking to them) the informational pieces that are easily cataloged on a website are lost on a blog as new posts take over top position on the blog.

For authors just starting out who do not have a lot of books I think a blog is probably a good way to go, though I think it is nice if there are some static pages and a menu linking to them (like on the readers' blog at ) The menu that lists static pages is on the left side near the top and lists such things as contest winners, a link to our million pages challenge, how to be a guest author on our blog. These pages don't change often...and they are organized so that a reader can find information quickly and easily.

Blog posts are on many different topics and from many different people and finding information on a given topic within the blog posts would be more difficult.

I think it's important to use the correct media for the job you want to do. You need static pages to show things like the current books that are available and the order of books in a series. An author can integrate that into static pages on a blog, which with Wordpress is really pretty easy to do.

As an editor and publisher it is important for an author (aspiring or published) to have at least a blog that turns up when someone searches for their name. If I type in an author's name and blog I should be able to find the blog pretty quickly on Google...even if they haven't engaged in a lot of linking and such. It's important to me as a publisher because I am going to invest money in their project on the assumption that it is going to sell. I expect them to play a role in alerting the public to the book's existence. If they are completely non-social, non internet savvy, and don't have a computer or know how to use email I have to wonder if they are going to be able to promote the book once it is published.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Thanks for the comment, Laurie. I agree -- and bulleted out the difference between websites and blogs in my post above (the same differences you point out). If I wasn't clear, it isn't a matter of your name coming up in a search and leading to your website-- that is a must. It's a matter of fixing how MUCH your name comes up--and of publishers and agents judging you based on that number.

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