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Your author website is useless if people can’t find it. People can’t learn about you and your books if they can’t find your website.
How do most people find most websites? They search on Google.
That’s why ranking on Google is so important for authors.
The process of making your website easy for people to find is called Search Engine Optimization or SEO.
To learn how to improve your website’s SEO, I interviewed Dan King of FistBump Media. He’s done search engine optimization for over a decade, and he’s a DMA Certified Search Engine Optimizer.
How does Google rank websites?
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Let’s start with the million-dollar question. How does Google rank a website?
Dan King: It comes down to keywords. Keywords are the content that drives everything on the internet. Keywords aren’t usually a single word. They’re key phrases people use when they search on Google or Bing.
Thomas: When Google first came out, I was in speech and debate in high school. To search the internet, we used AltaVista, Hot Bot, and Ask Jeeves, which were terrible search engines that looked at meta keywords. Meta keywords were selected by the person who wrote the page and said, “These are the keywords this page should rank for.” And that’s how Amazon searches still work.
But Google said, “People who write web pages are lying when they type those keywords.” People writing web pages were using “business” as a keyword when their web page wasn’t necessarily about business. It was their business, but it wasn’t about business. Those search engines were not giving good, relevant results.
So, Google decided that in order to make search results more relevant for users searching for information, they would look at two factors:
1. Keywords on the web page.
Google ignored meta keywords, which was a big controversy and revolution in 2002 amongst web designers.
2. How many links pointed to a web page.
Google also looked at how many links pointed to a certain web page and how many links were pointing to those pages. If lots of other pages on the internet “vote” that your page is influential, you’re going to rank higher.
That was the secret sauce that. Those two developments, plus a third development that had to do with advertising, made Google a multibillion-dollar company.
After 20 years, Google still looks on your page for keywords, and it looks at the websites linking to your site.
What is On-page SEO?
On-page SEO is the technical term for the words that actually appear on your web page.
What do you need to put on your page to rank well on Google?
Dan: Ask yourself, “What would be useful for a reader or website visitor?” Several years ago, you’d see a blog post where the writer had stuffed keywords into the text of the page as many times as they could.
That’s not effective.
Google is looking for your page to be useful to its users. When I’m working on any website content, I ask, “How useful is this for a user?”
You want to provide the best resources to answer people’s questions.
Look at searching from Google’s perspective. People come to Google looking for answers to their questions. Google wants to provide the best answers. So those keywords are really key elements to sending the right signals. Good SEO is about how you create the best resources around the keywords and questions that people are asking the search engines.
Thomas: That’s right. And these days, Google also looks at the intelligence collected in all the visitor data they create. They created Google Analytics and Chrome, and they have access to all that data. That’s why no one can compete with Google.
If you type, “How do I make spaghetti?” and the first page shown in the search results doesn’t answer your questions, and you go back to Google and click the next result, Google knows.
That user data is also part of their algorithm. When we talk about how Google ranks web pages and why it’s the million-dollar question, they don’t use only one or two things to determine rank. There are tens of thousands of factors that influence the algorithm.
We’re not going to go over all 10,000 of them, partly because some of them are secret. But we are going to cover a few things that matter a lot. What are those factors?
What factors matter most for Google ranking?
Dan: Bounce rate and time-on-site are crucial factors. Some websites turn one blog post into ten different pages where you have to click to continue reading or see the next page. That’s not how it’s done.
Build your site in a user-friendly way, and think about how you can keep that person on your site. How do you keep them reading the page rather than visiting other pages?
Thomas: That’s why having a multi-part blog series is a classic mistake. It’s bad, old advice. In 2010 some people taught that blog posts should be short because people don’t have time to read long posts. Some people still believe that in 2020.
But short blog posts live on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, MeWe, and Parler. Those aren’t the kind of things you put on your blog. Google is looking for is a definitive answer to a question. And if that means it’s a 5,000-word post, so be it.
My most popular blog post of all time was 5,000 words long. It takes 15 minutes to read, and that’s the post with one million views.
SEO for Home Page
Your home page is the first page most people approach. It’s a little bit unique.
When you’re optimizing pages to rank on Google, you normally start with what people are searching for, and then you create the page with an answer to the question.
Many people create a page first, then work on the SEO for that page. One reason might be because the SEO features in WordPress, Wix, or SquareSpace are always at the end of the post editor. For that reason, people sometimes think it’s the last thing they should do. But that is backward. That will keep you from ranking on Google.
However, the home page is a little bit different. What advice do you have for getting your home page to rank on Google?
How do I get my home page to rank on Google?
Dan: First, do your keyword research right up front. I identify the keywords that I want to target before I write a word of content or insert an image. The keyword research will provide the direction for the content of the page.
Secondly, you want your home page to rank for your name, your business name, or your brand. For example, one of my clients is a roofer. They repair and replace roofs. I’m not going to optimize the home page for the kind of replacement or repair work they do or any of the terms related to it. I’m going to optimize the home page for the brand name—the company’s name.
Many writers try to optimize the home page for every topic they write about. You don’t want to do that. Your home page should reflect your brand name. For you authors, that’s your own name.
Thomas: Let’s underline that. Your home page only needs to rank for one search term, and that is your first and last name. If it ranks for your name, it’s a successful search optimization. If it doesn’t rank for your name, it’s a failed search engine optimization.
Many authors have home pages that don’t rank for their name, but they’re about page does. That happens when you’ve written your home page in first person, and your name doesn’t exist anywhere on the home page. It might appear in a graphic, but Google doesn’t read that.
If your home page only has a letter to the readers that says, “Welcome to my website,” nobody will read it, and Google won’t find your name on it.
You need to have your own name on your home page.
Sometimes people go to your website to get the correct spelling of your name. They’ll copy and paste your name somewhere. So, have it on your home page.
It’s not bad to rank for your name on your about page. If you do a good job optimizing for your name, Google will give visitors your home page as well as several pages underneath that.
Thomas: If your name is John Smith, don’t say, “Welcome to my website.” You need to write, “John Smith is an author who writes dragon books.”
How do I optimize my about page?
The about page is similar to the home page, but it’s easier.
Remember that your main goal is to rank for your name, and maybe also the word “bio.”
If I’m researching an author and I want to get to their about page quickly, I’ll search for their name plus “bio.”
Have a short two-sentence bio on your home page. Then include a “read more” link. When they click “read more,” it takes them to your full about page where you can have your extended bio with details like where you went to college. That can be used for people researching you.
Dan: It’s also important not to have multiple pages on your website all ranking for the same exact term. That confuses Google, and it doesn’t know which page to present. Some of their recent updates have started to trim down the number of pages they show, so they just pick the one they think is best.
You want to be sure to define which page is the best search result for a particular keyword.
It’s fine to have pages that you don’t necessarily want to rank for anything. If you want your home page to rank for your name, it’s OK if your about page doesn’t.
Thomas: I like to think of it in terms of points that Google assigns.
Each page has a bucket. The page that ranks the highest on Google for a certain phrase is the page with the most points in the bucket.
Let’s say each point is a stone. When you do good SEO things, you put stones in the bucket. When you do bad SEO things, you take stones out of the bucket.
When you have more than one page trying to rank for the same phrase, you have multiple buckets. Instead of one bucket with 50 stones, you have two buckets of 25 stones. And if Amazon has a bucket for your name with 40 stones, guess what? They’re going to outrank both of your 25 stone buckets because they have more points.
But if you were to combine those pages, you might be able to outrank Amazon.
Why would I want to outrank Amazon?
If Amazon ranks for your name, they control your name and your reputation, and that’s scary. If Amazon ranks first for your name, and you’re on bad terms with them, you may not show up in search results. Or what if you want to start selling through another bookstore?
You want people to come to your website first. When they do, you can invite them to join your email list. You can also receive an affiliate commission for sending them to Amazon if you’re an Amazon affiliate. Why send them to Amazon for free when you can get paid to send them to Amazon?
It’s important for you to own your own brand and for people to be able to find you directly.
Dan: That’s huge. A lot of these social media websites can provide some traction for you, but it’s rented space. On the other hand, your website is your own property, and nobody else can impact that.
That’s why it’s so important to make sure your website is the first place your web visitors land.
Thomas: Rented space is the nice term. You’re not paying for it, so it’s actually sharecropped space. You don’t even have the rights as a tenant on Facebook. If they want to kick you off or silence you, it doesn’t matter who you are. They can do it.
How to Rank for Your Book Title
If you don’t rank for your own name, you’ll never rank for your book title. But it’s important for authors to rank for their book title.
That’s part of the reason I helped develop the MyBookTable plugin. It’s the number-one
WordPress plugin for authors to create bookstores on their websites.
Authors were creating a books page that listed all of their books. It seemed like an easy way to build a website. But if you have ten books on one page, you are not giving Google a single bucket to send people to.
Dan: That page is not optimized for any of the books.
Thomas: It’s like it’s an arrow pointing in ten different directions.
It’s OK to have a books page that lists all your books, but I recommend you only use the cover image and a sentence or two. Then link the cover image to a page created specifically for that book alone. On that page, you’ll include all of the resources like the discussion guide, buy buttons, back cover copy, and a place where people can download the map of your fantasy world or the checklist for your parenting book.
All those resources live on one page of your website.
How do I optimize my book page?
Dan: Your book page is the single best resource for visitors to learn about your book. Everything on there needs to be about your book. If you’ve done a podcast or radio interview about the book, or if you’ve written a guest post about the book, it should be listed on that particular book’s page.
Some people try to list all their guest podcast interviews on a podcast page. That’s a bad idea because you’re not going to rank for “podcasts I was a guest on.” You’re going rank for the topic you were interviewed about. If it’s relevant to your new book, it needs to be on that page.
Again, remind yourself that Google is trying to provide the best possible answer or resource they can. Your page needs to reflect that.
I caution authors to try to strike a balance between providing everything and creating a page that’s too cluttered. A cluttered page isn’t useful. Provide enough information and structure it in a nice, clean way that’s easy for somebody to use and consume.
Thomas: You can do that by giving the text space to breathe. A long page doesn’t mean that it needs to be squished together.
There’s another old concept that has died, but I still hear people use the phrase “above the fold,” which is the deliciously old-fashioned phrase.
Once upon a time, you could buy a paper that had yesterday’s news printed on it. They were called newspapers. They were folded in half and placed in a metal box with one folded copy displayed through the glass on the box. You could read the first story on the front page, or at least the headline and the first few paragraphs, for free, just by walking past the newsstand.
You don’t see those boxes anymore, and there is no fold on websites. It used to be that “above the fold” in the digital world referred to whatever a web visitor saw before they started scrolling.
But now, most people visit your website on their phone. Scrolling down used to be a hassle when you had to find the down arrow in Windows 95, but now you scroll with the wave of your hand. People will scroll for miles on Instagram and Facebook.
Don’t be afraid to have a really long page.
If you are going to have a long page, one technical key element of search engine optimization is called a heading. You can easily add headings in WordPress and all the other platforms.
Use headings to break up the text.
Think of a Wikipedia page. They’re really long, but they’re broken up by headings. Headings are the big text that floats to the left and says, “History of Byzantine Empire,” or “Economy of the Byzantine Empire.”
You scroll to learn more about the Byzantine Empire. At the top of the page, sometimes there’s an index that lists all the topics in the post. Headings help make a long post approachable for humans.
Wikipedia has really good SEO, and the pages are designed for answering the question that the person is asking.
Dan: Each of those headings is like a bucket too. It’s important to have keywords in your headings. Maybe one of those heading texts should contain the title of your book if that’s the focus keyword.
Try not to be too generic. If you’re writing about World War II history, use “World War II History” in one of the heading texts. Use related keywords in other headings. That gives Google a better understanding of what your page is about.
For each section under a heading, use a range of at least 150-300 words of text to make it easy for your reader to scan.
Give the text room to breathe. Besides dividing your page up with headings, include bullet points where it makes sense, or add an image. Those things will help.
Thomas: Those elements make it easier for Google and humans, which is the whole point. Google tries to be very human-centric, and you get bonus points for the keywords in your headings.
But you can overdo it. If you’re trying to rank for your book title, don’t put your book title in every heading/
Dan: Keyword stuffing is a killer. It’s a balance.
Thomas: There are tools that will help you know if you have a good balance. The most popular WordPress SEO tool is Yoast SEO. One of the big benefits of using WordPress.org is that you get to use the best tools for free.
Nearly every professional I know uses Yoast SEO on their website because it’s really good. There are expensive plugins that do the same thing, but Yoast is free.
Yoast will analyze your page and tell you if you have the right balance. You’ll know if you’re using a keyword too much or too little.
How do I optimize blog posts?
Thomas: Not every author should have a blog. For those of you who are novelists, blogs are not going to be a source of sales. Let me say this again. Blogs are not going to be a source of sales. If you’re writing cozy romance, there’s no blog post you can write that will be a good source of sales compared to other things you can do with that time.
You’re better off writing short stories or doing something else.
A few years ago, there was a big push to get novelists into blogging, and it didn’t work because a lot of them started writing about writing. That’s like a filmmaker talking about making a movie.
For a while, it was interesting. Fifteen years ago, DVDs came with the director’s commentary. It was cool at first. But if you watched one or two director’s commentaries, you got bored because you didn’t care. You’re not going to make a movie.
It’s the same when a novelist blogs about writing advice. Readers don’t care how you wrote your book. They just want to enjoy the story.
You can blog for your existing fans, but those posts aren’t going to help drive sales.
If you’re a novelist and you want to have a blog (you don’t need to have one), use it to answer reader questions.
You might get the same question from readers like, “Why did the character Sarah have to die?” If Sarah is a beloved character who died in book two, and readers email you to ask why, write a blog post saying why Sarah had to die. Then you can direct every email question to that one post.
People may be typing that question into Google. “Why did Sarah have to die in John Smith’s book?” When they search, they’ll get your result, visit your page, and they’ll become a bigger fan. Maybe you can get them on your email list, but it won’t directly lead to book sales.
It’s a whole different game with nonfiction. You can build an empire from scratch by blogging.
How can I get my nonfiction blog to rank on Google?
Thomas: How do nonfiction authors to get their blogs to rank on Google?
Dan: It goes back to keyword research.
What questions are people asking about the topic you write about? If you write about trauma, people might ask, “how do I deal with depression after this tragic event?”
Research to find out what questions people are asking Google.
See which other pages may be ranking for those questions. Then when you create a blog post that is the best resource to answer that question. You don’t have to copy everybody else, but you take your knowledge and experience, the topics you write about from your angle, and the create a better resource. When you have the best resource, Google will say, “That is where we send people when they ask this question.”
Thomas: Again, start with keyword research. This is the most common mistake. Usually, people write the post, and then they try to do the keyword optimization. That is backward. Start with the question before you write the answer.
If you write the answer and then try to figure out what the question is, you’re not going to have a successful blog.
How do I figure out what questions people are asking?
One advanced technique that assumes you’re already interacting with your target audience is to directly answer questions from your audience.
This is why I make it really easy for people to ask me questions on the podcast. You don’t have to be a patron or a mastermind. Anybody can go to AuthorMedia.com and ask a question. I want to know what questions listeners are asking because all our podcast episodes are also blog posts.
If you’re asking that question, chances are, other people are asking it too.
But what if you don’t have an audience or you don’t have readers who are comfortable asking questions? How does that author do their keyword research?
Dan: Reader questions are a huge help. You do the same thing on social media by asking, “What questions do you have about trauma?”
So much data is available out there. Answer the Public is a website where you can type in some keywords, and it will produce a huge list of all the questions that people are asking related to that topic. You can sort through the list and choose the ones you’ll answer.
If you spend five minutes on that website, you’ll have a list of your next 20 or 25 blog posts.
I also use tools like SEM Rush. It’s a premium tool, but there are cheaper tools and free plans. SEM Rush is a great tool for digging and producing lists of questions.
I can filter results by how often a question gets asked. I can see the monthly search volume per term. I can identify some of the best opportunities where if I can answer this question, then I can drive X amount of traffic to my website every month.
Thomas: Answer the Public is a great free tool, and it’s fun. It is a great place to get an idea of what phrases people are already typing into Google.
When I type the phrase “parenting a toddler,” I see related phrases:
- parenting a toddler and a baby
- parenting a toddler with ADHD
You can dig deeper and start to see the sorts of specific questions people ask.
It’s hard to rank for broad phrases. You’re not going to rank for Byzantium. Wikipedia already ranks for Byzantium. You’re probably not going to rank for parenting because it’s a broad category, and parenting.com is going to rank for parenting.
But you could rank for a specific question that people are asking.
When people go to Google, they’re asking specific questions, and they’re typing in lots of words. Remember, keywords aren’t a single word. They’re really key phrases.
Somebody types the whole question, “how do I parent a toddler and a baby” into Google. That’s the “keyword” you’re trying to rank for.
If you want to get into blogging, spend time exploring Answer the Public because it’s a great, free place to research.
You can also ask on social media. See what questions people are asking in Facebook groups, and see if you can give a complete answer. When somebody asks a question on Facebook, they tend to get lots of really short answers, most of which are awful. And that’s your opportunity. You can comment, “I just wrote a blog post for you. Here’s the answer.” Your post is the long, complete answer to the question rather than little bits of information.
Dan: Once you discover the questions, search for those keyword phrases yourself so you can see what other pages are ranking for those words. You want to evaluate why those pages are ranking on the first page of Google for that answer. Then you ask, “How can I create a better resource?”
Thomas: For instance, let’s say you want to write a recipe, and you want your recipe to rank on Google. The recipes that rank best on Google open with a story and information about the recipe, much to the chagrin of recipe searchers. People searching for recipes just want the recipe. They don’t want the life story of the person who wrote the recipe.
But because Google is looking for longer, more substantive content, that longer post outranks the short, plain brownie recipe.
Recipe bloggers include the story about their grandmother and her life because it works for ranking on Google.
You can’t change Google, but you can dance to the way the world is rather than trying to change the world works. There are times to try and change the world and times to accept the world as it is. Wisdom is knowing which is which.
Do you have any other tools for doing keyword research?
What tools help with keyword research?
Dan: I like the idea of using your own analytics as well.
I regularly Google Analytics to find out which terms my website is ranking for. I can see how people are getting to my website, which pages they’re landing on, and which pages are popular.
I can see what my ten most popular blog posts were in the last three months.
That data will give you some signals and ideas about what’s working.
Google has another great tool called Google Search Console. Use it to dig deeper and understand the search data related to your website. For instance:
- List of the terms that you’re ranking for
- Which Google page you’re ranking on
- How much traffic you’re getting
- Your click-through rate
It’s valuable for uncovering those keywords that you might be right on the edge for. If I’m ranking on page two of Google, I’m close, but no one looks on page two.
Thomas: One solid strategy is to take an old blog post that’s ranking on page two of Google and expand, refresh, and rework it to make it better.
Suddenly, you may find yourself rising to spot number one, which is how Wikipedia ranks number one. Every Wikipedia page is constantly being improved.
A lot of people think that once the blog is written, it can never be touched again.
But how is that beneficial? Somebody who visits your blog in five years wants an updated answer to their question. So, update it. Google rewards you. Your readers will reward you. And no paper will cry because no paper is harmed in the creation of a blog post.
Dan: A lot of writers wonder if they should republish a post. The best approach is to keep the same blog post, keep the same link, but updated= the post, and do some optimization. Add a heading. Expand the information. Some of that optimization can give you the boost you’re looking for.
Thomas: When I substantially update a post, something beyond tweaks to fix the issue, I’ll also update the date, so it shows today’s date. The URL stays the same, which is important. But because it’s today’s date, it now shows up on my home page until it gets pushed off again.
It acts like a new post for people who are new.
As an author, you’ll find you have a lot of new people.
Some of our podcast listeners have been listening for seven years. Some of them are listening to their first episode today. We cover topics over and again. We covered SEO seven years ago, but it’s been too long.
We circle back to topics because new people have joined us, and they didn’t hear it the first time.
How do I optimize the title and meta title?
Thomas: Your page title is that big blue text that shows up in Google’s search results list. The little paragraph underneath the blue title is the meta description. You control both of those in Yoast.
There are rules on how many characters those can be. Yoast SEO or similar plugins will tell you what those rules are because sometimes rules change, but the plugins will always be up to date.
Remember to write for the humans first. But if you want to rank for a keyword, make sure it’s in the title, and make sure it’s in the description. If a human is scrolling past results and they don’t see the phrase they typed in Google’s list with big blue text, they’re less likely to click on it. That will cause your site to fall in the rankings. Because Google also tracks how many times a result gets clicked.
Dan: Yoast does a good job of showing what that little meta description snippet looks like. Many people default to letting the first few characters of the blog post fall into the meta description. That’s probably one of the worst things you can do.
That snippet shows up in the Google search results, and it’s your sales pitch to get the user to click on your title that comes to your website. Once they’re on your website, hopefully your blog post will keep their interest.
Pay attention to that meta description. It’s your sales pitch to get them to click.
Thomas: If you don’t put anything there, Google will choose the text. Google can pull that text from any part of your website, including the comments. That doesn’t happen often. But if it does, you’ve completely lost control.
So, use Yoast SEO. Do your keyword research for each page based on the questions being asked, and you’re going to see better results.
What is Off-page SEO?
Off-page SEO is where the internet votes and says, “this is a good website.”
There are many websites in the world with a lot of nonsense, and many factors influence how Google sorts out the nonsense from the good websites.
When other websites link to your website, they’re essentially voting to say, “this is a good website.”
How do I start link building?
Dan: There are many ways to get other websites to link back to yours, and I would use different tactics for situations and businesses.
One of the easiest ways for authors to get other websites to link back to theirs is to write guest blog posts for other websites. Pitch yourself for an author interview for other bloggers to interview you about your book.
Don’t hesitate to give YouTube and podcast interviews because each of those links provides high-value SEO votes.
Google’s algorithm loves to see a variety. From a “Google Authority” perspective, a lot of blogs may have less “authority” than bigger websites. The big news websites are high-authority, as far as Google is concerned.
If you can guest post for other high-authority websites, like online magazines, you’ll have a good start with off-page SEO through link building.
Many Christian writers I work with write for websites like Patheos and Crosswalk, which are high-authority websites. It’s ideal to have a variety of links that point back to your website because it sends the right signals to Google.
Thomas: This is one way the mainstream media influences what the search results pages show. Google causes a link from The New York Times or New York Post to be worth 1,000 other links from individual bloggers.
Writing guest posts for other bloggers is a good thing. But writing an op-ed for The New York Times or writing an op-ed for your local newspaper can be far more valuable.
Guesting on a podcast almost always leads to a link back to your website. When you visit AuthorMedia.com, the blog post for this episode will include a link to FistBump Media because every time I have a guest, I link back to their website. Nearly every podcast does the same.
One of the advantages of writing guest posts and being a guest on podcasts is not simply reaching that audience, but forever after that link increases the authority of your website. Over time, if you keep doing it, that authority builds until it becomes easier for your new posts to rank because you’ve built that authority.
What SEO mistakes can authors avoid?
Dan: Some authors believe SEO is a one-time event, but it’s an ongoing process. You’re constantly testing and improving.
Every three months, you can look at your traffic and evaluate how you can optimize to get more traffic. SEO isn’t just something you do to a blog post. It’s constantly thinking about how you’re building your writer brand.
When I started blogging, I wrote about all kinds of things, and I lacked focus. When I started zeroing in on issues like global poverty, that helped the search engines understand what I was about. I began to rank for those issues.
I was listening to the Novel Marketing podcasts about creating an author tagline. Finding a tagline helps you focus and understand what you’re about. That’s what the search engines want to figure out too. If you send a confusing message, and you’re just trying to rank for all the keywords, that’s not going to work. But if you focus in one direction and get intentional, you’ll reap some nice rewards.
Thomas: To rank on Google, Google wants to see you as the number-one resource in the whole world on that topic. That requires a great deal of focus. Going through that branding process is painful because it means saying no a lot. But the reward for saying no to all the things you’re not is that you’ll get clear answers about what you are.
Dan, where can people find out more about you?
Dan: I’m at FistBumpMedia.com, where I have several resources to help writers hammer down some of this stuff and make sense of it.
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