Findability: a key technique for expanding your freelance business

Congratulations! You're the world's best writer on the chemistry of fuel cells, the biology of slime molds, or the capabilities of the James Webb space telescope. Fabulous!

Oh, and: If folks who don't already know about you can't very easily find you through a simple keyword-based web search, your brilliance won't matter. You may as well not exist.

Like it or not, search engines have become the arbiter of any journalist's or author's career. Poor online findability (especially, how easy you can be found via Google and other key channels) makes it unnecessarily hard to make a living at doing that brilliant science writing you love.

With so much content available through search engines, you've got more competition than ever before. If people can't discover you, they won't hire you or buy your book. Although you can grow the market for your work through building relationships and traditional promotion, that's a drop in the bucket compared to the work opportunities that good findability offers any writer.

The good news is: Making yourself very findable (which brings more work opportunities and other serendipity your way) is pretty easy, if you use a few basic strategies that will make search engines take notice of you in a good way.

That said: No, it doesn't really count if you're the top Google search result for your name. Most people won't search for your name; they'll search for terms related to the topics you cover. And it may not even matter much if you rank well in Google searches for keywords about your areas of expertise plus the keyword "writer" — because too few people search for writers, rather than what's been written.

If you or your work can be easily found (in the first page or two of results) by someone searching Google strictly for intuitive keywords related to your topics of expertise, you've got the findability you need to succeed in today's media business.

The easiest way to make yourself very findable is to give the search engines what they want: high-quality, clearly worded content that's available publicly on the web in a way that's easy for the search engines to discover and index.

Here are a few basic steps you can take to help make yourself more findable online:

1. Publish a blog. Google loves blogs because Google loves to see lots of fresh content. Also, blogs are structured in a way that's very easy for search engines to index quickly. The more often you publish and keep publishing, the higher your content will rank in search results. Blogs make it easy to publish all kinds of content frequently. You need a home base on the web anyway — so don't make it a static "brochure" site. Your blog can (and should) include special pages for your bio and other brochure-like content, but get ready to incorporate blogging into your everyday activities.

Remember that a blog is just a publishing tool; you can publish any kind and quality of content there that you choose. It's up to you to set your own standards. There are always ways to create high-quality content fast (usually by breaking it into smaller chunks, or writing about what you're reading, learning, or working on).

2. Get a good domain name for your blog. A domain name is the "address" of your blog. For instance, science writer David Bradley registered the domain sciencebase.com. If you go there, you'll find a site loaded with lots of content — from his blog posts and articles to his Twitter posts and more. Google will pay far more attention to your site if it has its own domain name than if it's buried in a hosted blog service's domain, such as myblog.wordpress.com (a "subdomain") or scienceblogs.com/stressrelated (a "directory").

You also want to make sure your domain appears in the address of every page on your site. If that's not happening automatically, ask your blog host how to map your domain to your blog. (Wordpress.com and some other blog hosts will do this, but not all. Make sure you choose a service that offers domain mapping.)

Make sure your blog content appears prominently on the main page of your site — Google wants to see your fresh content right up front.

3. Check the news. People often do searches to learn more about something they hear on the news. Whenever a story in the news relates even tangentially to your topic of interest, write up a quick blog post clarifying that connection. You could provide additional context or fact-checking, explode myths, and more. Make sure you include links to the news stories that spurred your post. If it's possible to comment on those stories, do so — and include a link to your update/expansion.

4. Research keywords. People generally don't search for jargon. To be findable, your content must include the words they use. Try the free Google Adwords Keyword tool to find keywords related to your key topics. For instance, if you're writing about FMRI technology applications, you might want to also include these Adwords-recommended terms in your content: neuroimaging, cognitive, epilepsy, visual, processing. It's especially powerful to include highly ranked related keywords in your blog post title. Also, if you're running out of ideas, this keyword research took can help inspire you by showing related terms that happen to be popular right now — kind of like that grade school exercise where you had to use vocabulary words in a sentence, only you'd be using it to get good story ideas with search potential.

5. Encourage inbound links the smart way. Google will bump up your search ranking when it sees more sites linking to your content. The best way to elicit inbound links is to go to other sites or blogs and read them, comment on them, and link to them from your site. This tends to put you on their radar screen, and encourages them to link to you. Don't bother asking for reciprocal links, such as in a blogroll. Search engines pay far more attention to links from within actual site content. If a well-known site in your topic area linked to you from a story, that'll give you far more "Google Juice" than if you're buried in their static blogroll somewhere.

6. Use Twitter. Of all the social media tools now in use, Twitter seems to give the biggest boost to findability. This is because Twitter is becoming known for its potential as a real-time search engine — and Google is definitely weighting Twitter traffic in its search algorithms. So tweet often about your key topics of interest, follow people who are influential in your field, link to your content (and others'), ask and answer questions, follow and use (and even start) relevant hashtags, and generally be active on Twitter.

7. No pdfs. Too many professional writers — especially science writers — post content such as clips online in the form of pdf files. While those files may look pretty, Google hates them because they're difficult to index. It's much more useful to post your content in HTML format — and then offer a link to a pdf download as an alternate, if the pdf layout really is stunning.

8. Use multimedia. Google loves video, photos, and audio content on your site, and weights it highly. So if you take good photos, video, or audio, be sure to post them to your site (in a gallery, as a podcast, or within your blog posts). It doesn't even have to be your own content — there are many videos, Creative Commons-licensed photos, and more that other people have made available for reuse under certain conditions (attribution, no derivatives, etc.). If the rights are available, the content is relevant, and you have some way to add value, use it.

Also along these lines, post your content to video-sharing services (Blip.tv allows easy syndication to YouTube, vimeo, and elsewhere). Flickr is a great place to post your photos because you can control rights for each image and get involved with topical "photo pools" that will distribute your work. In all of these services, make sure your photo caption includes your site URL, and your user profile links back to your site.

... There are many other ways to enhance your findability, but starting with these will yield significant results. If you're not already doing so, apply a site statistics tool like Google Analytics to your site so you can watch traffic trends, see who's linking to you, and gain insight into what kinds of content are bringing in the kind of traffic you want.

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a media consultant based in Oakland, California. Most of her work involves helping people and organizations (especially news and publishing organizations) wrap their brains around online, social, and conversational media — as well as community media, citizen journalism, and the evolution of media and journalism. Find her at contentious.com.