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You Don’t Have to be a Technical Wizard or Rich 
to Have an Effective Writer’s Website

By Ginny Stibolt (Originally written in 2004, this article has been updated to reflect more recent technology in 2009 & 2014.)

website construction includes transforming your documents to webpage content. For many reasons, (and I’m not going to analyze these reasons now) writers are often on their own when designing a savvy plan for their websites and other online marketing.  There are some obstacles to overcome: 1) techno-phobia, 2) lack of funds, and 3) limited time.  What I’ll try to accomplish with this article is to provide some starting points, and to strip away some of the mystery.

It’s not that difficult, but a website does require your attention on a regular basis if it is to be an effective marketing tool. It is a real detriment to your credibility if your website has broken links, dead graphics with red X’s, and “news” that is old. So, the most important rule for a successful website is, PAY ATTENTION!! Keep it fresh and timely to give people reasons for return visits.

A.   First, decide on a focus for the website, the marketing plan for your site and for your writing. Search on Google or other search engines for “author websites” or “writers links” to find a variety of writers’ sites. Look at these to see what you like and what you hate. Save these links for future reference, because there will be too many to remember which ones were good, bad, or ugly. (I have a document named “writers’ links” saved in My Documents for easy reference.)

There are three basic types of writers’ sites:

1)  An author-centric site focuses on the writer firstthe books or other writing are secondary. This type of site needs to answer the question, “Why do I want to read anything by this author?”  Most author sites fall into this category. This is the best type for established authors with multiple titles to push and a fan base that wants to know more about the author.

2)  A book-centered site such as http://www.houseofgentlemen.com teases and cajoles about the content. (I found this site after I read the book – a quirky, off-centered novel.) The author may be incidental to the site, but I found the first chapter with her comments quite personal and charming. This type of site needs to answer the question, “Why do I want to read this book?”

3)  An issue-oriented site needs to answer the question, “Why should I care about this issue?”

B.   The next issue is: How are you going to publish your site?

1)  Independently with your own domain. (More on this choice below.)

2)  On a “free” home page site such as geocities or AOL. Why is “free” in quotes?  Because if there are pop-up ads, and the host will use your pages to sell its own stuff, it detracts from your focus.  With most of these sites, you’ll be nearly invisible to the search engines and your URL (web address) will not be easy to remember.

3) As part of a group site such as Authors’ Den, your information is available, and it is visible to search engines. Plus, you don’t need any tools or knowledge to get started. The cost is relatively low. Even if you set up your own domain, you may wish to join one of these group-author sites to increase your exposure. Certainly, this is much better than nothing, but you will look like everyone else, there are ads, and authors who have paid more to be featured will look more important than you.

When you have your own domain hosted by itself, you have complete control over how it looks and what is included - the look and feel of it.  But with the freedom of choice, you need to figure out what it will look like. What says “you”?  This is why looking at other writers’ sites is important.

C.   Where to start?  You may wish to bring in someone else to help you mount the site, but make sure that you have access to update the site yourself. This means that your web person will need to keep it simple – no flash, no frames, and no java.  You will need to get  easy-to-use software, and have the webperson include enough training to get you started.  If you allow the web person to retain exclusive access to your website, it will become a financial drain, and updates and changes will be made according to your web person’s schedule, not yours. Adobe's Contribute is one program you can use to edit your site without getting into too much trouble and any web designer will know how to make it editable with this program.  Paying the $199 for the software will pay back many times over than being dependant upon a web designer—even me.

Buy your domain.  Domain names should be simpleno tricky spelling or abbreviations. It should cost no more than $20 per year.  Hosting be quite expensive for independently hosted servers, but it is less expensive on Internet Service Providers (ISP). You may buy more than one domain and forward each of them to land on various pages within your site, such as www.nameofyourbook.com, which would forward to that book’s page on your site.

D.  Website design and layout - On your homepage or any page where surfers will land, you have less than 10 seconds to capture their attention.  You must state or imply your message instantly.  Your most important information should be at the top of the screen or “above the fold” as they say in newspapers. Buttons or links should be on the leftsurfers tend to ignore the right side since that’s where most Internet ads are located.  There should be no tricky mysterious navigationno underlining unless it’s a link and no links without underlining.  It should be obvious where to click and what you’ll find there.

You would think that the text would not be a problem for writers, but writing for web pages is different. Surfers need to be pulled into your content.  Make it easy to see what your site is about.  Entice them with “benefits” and reward your visitors with information that is NOT available anywhere else.  Provide reasons for them to return.

Here’s an example of the difference these rules can make in the effectiveness of a website.
Before:  www.sky-bolt.com/book/bookpromotionnewsletter.htm &
After:  www.sky-bolt.com/book/bookpromotion.htm

I am not finding fault with Francine: this site is for people who already are familiar with her newsletter, plus she’s really busy with the newsletter and other stuff.  This is a typical situation for many writers, and her site made a convenient example.  As a bonus for any possible embarrassment suffered, she’s switched to this new design.

I found a clip art graphic (not a cartoon, because this is not a kids’ page) that said book promotion to me.  I used the brown font to coordinate, but I didn’t change anything else from the default settings.  I put everything in a table to keep control over how it is displayed, and I inserted bookmarks on the page and links to them.  This way, the reader can see what the page is, and there are easy ways to get to the content without having to scroll.  (Since this was first written, Francine's added much more content and other items on her page, so now it looks like this: www.sky-bolt.com/book/index.htm. It's more polished and professional which reflects the increased content found on the site. And in 2014, Francine's site is centered around Internet radio hosting.)

Some other rules of thumb on website accessibility: You don’t want to eliminate people who use a different browser or AOL for their Internet access, those with slow connections or older computers with less memory or people who may have some vision problems:

  • Colors – Make sure the printing contrasts well with the background.  Almost always, dark printing on light background is preferred.  Don’t use plain red – many colorblind people can’t see it.

  • Don’t use frames or flash but do use tables to control where items are displayed and printed. Keep the tables narrow enough (900 pixels) so the whole width of your webpage may be printed on a standard printer.

  • Not all fonts are available in all environments – use something that is easy to read and something that is in common use – my favorite for normal web text is verdana – it’s open and easy to read on a screen. See Web-safe Fonts.

  • Make sure that with any photo or graphic you include the alternate text.  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but if you can’t see it, it’s not worth anything. The alternate text will at least tell people what was there.

  • Graphics – when you are designing the page choose the size of your graphic, then use your photo editor to resize it. If you just make it appear smaller on the screen, you’ll lose resolution and the file size will be the same.  Lots of people use dial up connections and if they have to wait too long, you’ll lose them.

E. Marketing & PR – “Build it and they will come…” NOT when it comes to your website!  Put your website address in your email signature, on bookmarks, business cards, postcards and on your books and articles. Give people maximum exposure to your URL, a reason to look at it and look at it yourself.

Add your site to any directories that are reasonable for your material, including your publisher’s website. Swap links with other people who have complementary content.  Make sure to look in the independent, human-run, DMOZ directory. (DMOZ is an acronym for Directory Mozilla, reflecting its loose association with Netscape's Mozilla project.) DMOZ powers the core directory services for search engines and portals, including Google, Netscape Search, AOL Search, Lycos, and more.  There are many categories – add your domain(s) to the most appropriate one.

Search Engines - 85% of surfers find information through search engines: Google is the most used right now. If you are using one of those free sites or have your site hosted on some other site, search engines may not find you.

Search Engines use robots or spiders (the names for the searching software programs) to snoop around the Internet to find pages. It may take months before your site and its contents are found and indexed. You used to be able to pay for an initial listing to get started ($29 or $39 per year to get on the major lists within 72 hours), but things have changed.  Be careful about paying anything for getting listed.

Make sure you have meta tags to supplement your content with key words or typical words people might use when searching for you – include some of the likely misspellings of your name and book titles. (Click here for some examples: www.sky-bolt.com/metatags.htm.)

Search engines use your site's popularity (the number of links to it) as part of the ranking calculation. Do the work to be listed on directories and lists. Just find one or two a day – pretty soon, you’ll have a fair number of websites linked to yours.  If you have written articles, post them on line and make sure that your website link is included.

An effective website is one of the most useful marketing tools a writer can have. The Internet has changed the marketing landscape.  Don’t miss out on this incredible opportunity.  And you won’t even need to remove your bunny slippers.  If someone wants to buy a signed book, sell it to them from your website.  You won’t have to cool your heels in some obscure bookstore.  Remember, you don’t have to be a technical wizard or rich to have an effective writer’s website.

Resources:

www.webstyleguide.com - comprehensive guide from Yale University
www.websitesthatsuck.com - amusing, but thorough analysis of bad websites
http://freesitetemplates.com - lots of simple website designs for you to use
www.godaddy.com - inexpensive, but reliable for hosting and registering domain names. Really helpful technicians are on call 24-hours a day.
http://dmoz.org - The open directory project – you need to be listed here.
www.authorsden.com - a group author site.

First published in the Book Promotion Newsletter


© Ginny Stibolt (You may not repost this article, but you may quote parts of it with a link back to this page.)

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