If you’ve been watching during the last couple of days, you’ll notice that the appearance of the website has changed several times. That’s because I’ve been doing some long-needed maintenance and making some tough choices. Going through that process reminded me of how difficult it can be for those of us who aren’t programmers or professional web designers. I was also reminded that I didn’t really talk about websites in What a Beginning Self-Publisher Should Know. Well, now is as good a time as any. An author website can benefit you greatly–but only if you know how to configure it and how to use it.
Why Bother with a Website?
Having a website/blog is a good idea because it’s the only piece of Internet real estate over which you have any real control. The Amazon author page is nice, and you can write your own biography for it (as well as feeding your blog posts to it), but otherwise the layout is completely out of your hands. Even something as simple as whether or not to emphasize paperback or ebook editions is decided for you. (Even though most indie authors sell far more ebooks, it’s usually the paperback that is displayed more prominently.)
In my earlier post, I touched on the importance of social media, and that’s still true. You also have a lot more control over a Facebook author page than you do over an Amazon author page–right now. The problem with social media is that the rules are always changing. The one thing that probably won’t change is the importance of social media, so we have to put up with it. That said, if social media is your only online presence, you may be missing out on some ways to interact with an audience. Particularly if you have worthwhile ideas to share, social media sharing is a pretty ephemeral thing. People are seeing what you tweeted today, but they couldn’t dig back to what you tweeted two years ago if their lives depended upon it. Facebook and most other social media work the same way. Looking too far back for something someone else posted very rapidly feels like swimming upstream. By contrast, substantive blog posts can easily be referred to months or even years later. A typical author blog post isn’t likely to go viral–but the attention it attracts over time may be be worth it. Besides, it’s easy these days to automatically feed your blog posts to your social media accounts, killing the proverbial two birds with one stone.
Web Hosting: Free vs. Paid
What kind of website should you create? That depends to some extent on your budget and on your desire to create (outside of your book writing). Free alternatives like Blogger and WordPress.com will get the job done, but your options are limited. Something like self-hosted WordPress gives you an experience much closer to a blank canvas on which you can create pretty much whatever you want. Of course, that kind of latitude can also lead to frustration, as I’ll explain below.
There is also the issue of speed. With a free website, you aren’t going to get the best possible server performance, and as I’ll talk about below, server speed is more and more of an issue these days. Typically, though, paid hosting plans have several tiers, and you don’t need to go with the top one to get acceptable performance.
Shared hosting is the least expensive. In a shared hosting environment, several websites are hosted on the same server, which means fewer resources available to each one. Using Bluehost (my provider) as an example, current shared hosting prices (per month, assuming a three-year contract) are $7.99 for basic, $10.99 for plus, $14.99 for premium, and $23.99 for pro. Each increase in cost involves having to share a server with fewer other websites (80% fewer for pro than for basic) and some additional perks. The pro plan also involves a more powerful server. Check here for more details. With most hosting providers, you can upgrade whenever you want, so a budget-conscious approach would probably involve starting on the lowest tier and upgrading only if necessary–and if the site is doing enough for you to make the extra cost worth it.
Even on the basic plan, I had no problems with Bluehost, but be aware that all providers don’t do an equally good job. With my previous provider I had sufficient slowdowns and outright downtime on a basic plan to make me walk away. The other provider wanted me to invest in a more expensive plan, but I’d already done business with Bluehost on a basic plan without issue, so I decided to take the money I was spending with the other provider and invest it in a better Bluehost plan. If you are considering a paid hosting plan, be sure you check out possible providers very carefully. Some do a much better job for the same money than others.
Website Design: Quality, Speed, or Both?
This is where managing your own website can get frustrating. That’s because you will get conflicting advice. You will be told that your site needs to be visually appealing. In other words, you need to catch a viewer’s eye, not just pitch your text at them and hope for the best. In that sense, creating a website is more like designing a picture book than writing a novel. On the other hand, graphics, as well as other methods of engagement, tend to make a page load more slowly–sometimes much more slowly.
Short Answer: Both!
The problem is that you need both quality content and quick loading. It doesn’t matter how fast your site loads if it doesn’t interest your potential viewers. However, those potential viewers won’t wait for your pages to load for very long. Some authorities argue that if viewers can’t interact with a webpage in about three seconds, they start bailing out in droves. Others argue that even two seconds is risky. Check out the excellent kissmetrics blog for an infographic on the subject. (The blog also has a number of good articles on how to increase speed.)
Speed Can Be Complicated–but Worth It!
The speed issue is complicated by the fact that you can get radically different assessments of how fast a post or page on your site is. I just tested my homepage and got these results:
- Pagescoring.com (test environment not specified) 8.98 seconds to full loading
- dotcom-monitoring (twenty-four locations all over the world), avg. of 6 seconds, median of 5 seconds, low 2.2 seconds, high 30.2 seconds (!), all US sites were 3.9 or lower
- testmysite.thinkwithgoogle.com (testing in a 3G mobile environment) 5 seconds
- webpagetest.org (desktop, cable Internet) 4.992 seconds
- Pingdom (test environment not specified) 2.54 seconds
- KeyCDN (test environment not specified) 2.5 seconds
- Uptrends (test environment not specified) 2.5 seconds
- GTmetrics (desktop) 2.3 seconds
Based on these tests, it’s clear my home page is either a race horse or an old nag–or something in between. That’s because any number of factors between a website’s server and the tester could affect how fast a site loads. There could even be a glitch on the test machine. As you can see from the dotcom-monitoring results, location of the test site also has a great deal to do with the speed at which a site loads–more about that in a minute.
Even more frustrating in some ways is the fact that the way in which different tests evaluate the same page often doesn’t correlate well with page speed. Look at the results from sites that gave numerical scores:
- Google Page Speed Insights (which doesn’t provide a load time) 94 mobile, 90 desktop
- Pingdom 94
- GTMetrix 89 PageSpeed, 90 YSlow
Yes, that’s right: the test site at which the page scored the best time gave it the lowest grade, though not by much.
With so much variance in loading times and disagreement about how to view them, is it even worth trying to fight that battle? Short answer: yes!
At the beginning of the month I took a much-needed look at my websites and was horrified to see how they were performing. The same homepage that tested at 2.3 seconds on GTmetrix today tested at 11 seconds on June 1 (64 Pagespeed, 86 YSlow)! The page was also 3.5 megabytes bigger and made 113 more requests. Google Page Speed Insights, the only other test I ran at the time, gave me 10 for Mobile and 14 for desktop. There was no question then that the homepage was a nag–and headed for the glue factory.
I’m no expert in how to increase website speed, but when I saw figures like that, I learned quickly. I’m not a programmer, so I couldn’t start rewriting the site’s code, but I could do research to see what tools were available. Sites like GTmetrix provide enough data to identify the problems, and a number of plugin makers had already come up with solutions. (I’m going to talk about the plugins I’ve used, but there may be other fine ones available for the same purposes.)
How to Improve Site Speed
Optimize and Lazy Load Images
I didn’t stop there, however. I made sure every single other program setting was at the highest level possible, and I took advantage of its image optimization routine to squeeze the extra kilobytes out of all my images without sacrificing visual quality. (That’s something standalone plugins often do, but JCH Optimize Pro includes a decent routine for it. I was using the free version of Smush, but because the more robust paid version is only available as part of a package that includes a license for all the company’s products–at $45 a month–I went with JCH instead, and its image routine was good enough to do the job.) I also turned on lazy loading of images (meaning images not visible on screen initially don’t load until they’re needed).
Lazy Load Videos
Having a video on the homepage also added to page loading time, but I’d found out that linking to a video on another page wasn’t working well. Besides, the video would slow the loading time for whatever post or page in which it was embedded. However, websites that use video tend to attract more viewers than those that don’t. Fortunately, there was an easy solution. I had been using ARVE (Advanced Responsive Video Embedder) for a long time and liked it, so I bought the pro addon, which among other things can lazy load videos. (It loads the page with an image from the video. The actual video loads only if someone clicks on the picture.)
Use Economical Social Buttons
All of that still left some fine-tuning to do. Almost everyone agrees that those social buttons that expedite content sharing help to boost visitor engagement and get your content spread around much more effectively, but it turns out that when they display a share count, the way the Jetpack ones I was using did, they lengthen load times. I found a bit of code that would block Jetpack from updating that way, but I still had a problem. Jetpack is great for doing the work you’d need several plugins to do–but the Jetpack buttons aren’t exactly eye-catching, and those floating share buttons I’d seen on other sites were inviting. The problem was finding a plugin that didn’t slow the site down. I went through a large number, each one of which either lost me some of my speed gains or had some other problem. When I was about to give up, I found Social Warfare. Even the free version is pretty good, and the paid one has incredibly sophisticated features for letting your visitors share content in the most effective way on each social network. Amazingly enough, it doesn’t affect load times at all, at least judging by the before and after tests I ran on GTmetrix (but see the note at the bottom of the post). Part of the secret is that Social Warfare updates share counts in the background instead of making requests while the page is loading. It was the only plugin I could find that didn’t have some problem with loading speed or with playing well with the other plugins on my site.
Don’t Use Sliders
Don’t Use Background Images
This morning I made one more change, dropping the background image (which isn’t even that visible on mobile) in favor of a background color. The change reduced the page size considerably but had little effect on load time. I’d still recommend staying away from background images, though. They have a potential impact, even if it doesn’t show up every single time.
Use a CDN
I have been using a CDN (content distribution network) for some time, so I almost forgot to mention it. What it does is mirror a site on severs in various parts of the world to reduce the impact of location on loading times. The test results on dotcom-monitor show that even a CDN can’t make a site’s load time exactly the same everywhere, but most of the times were within three seconds of each other. Without the CDN, the variations would have been much bigger. While it is true that most authors sell more in their home countries, none of us want to completely abandon the international market, right? Then a CDN is highly desirable.
These days a lot of hosting companies provide CDN access as part of the package. For example, Bluehost partners with Cloudflare. Bluehost customers can get access to basic Cloudflare service for free and also have access to a plus plan that incorporates many of the features of the business plan for a lesser cost. CDN providers also plans to individuals directly. As with caching plugins, comparison shopping would be a good idea.
Post Writing Best Practices
As I noted earlier, it doesn’t do much good to have a speedy site if you aren’t offering your viewers anything they want to see. My advice in this area is less technical, but just as important.
Use a Variety of Content, and Advertise Sparingly.
The most important advice is the same as it is for social media: you can’t just advertise your books. Obviously, you need to do that sometimes, but your viewing audience is much larger than the rabid fans who want to hear about what you’ve written 24/7. Everyone else visiting your site may be looking for content of more general interest.
Appeal to the General Interests of Readers
You can assume that the members of your audience are readers. If someone who isn’t interested in reading drops by, you don’t really need to hold that person’s attention. The people you do want to hold are those who may be interested enough by what they see to give your writing a try. That means you need to ask yourself what readers in general and readers of your genre in particular might find interesting. Presumably, you are a reader, too, so ask yourself what kind of articles would be appealing to you. Here are some possibilities:
- book reviews and recommendations (of other people’s books, but probably in your genre)
- suggestions for how readers can get the most out of the experience
- reviews of other media with a literary tie-in (like book-related movies)
- book-related news (particularly if it’s exciting)
You can also include some posts that might appeal to fellow writers, as this one (hopefully) does. Other authors are probably readers, too, so you might pick up a fan or two that way. Other authors are also likely to share content they find useful. Remember that social sharing is becoming more important in SEO (search engine optimization), so getting your content shared is always a good thing.
Discuss Your Own Writing in a Variety of Ways
When you do refer to your own writing, do more than just commercials for your books. Here are some possibilities:
- talk about yourself (what inspired you to write, how your life influenced your work)
- explore your genre(s) in general, both from a writer’s and a reader’s perspective
- if relevant, discuss the historical or other background, particularly if it’s interesting and not generally known.
When you do advertise, keep your ads short and engaging. If you want, you can have a section of the website with more extensive information on your books. That can be useful for visitors who are already fans.
The Amazon previews that can be embedded in your pages and posts are also useful, particularly since they include purchase links and encourage impulse buying. Since they display the book’s cover well, they also reduce the need for you to insert the cover yourself. If you’ve never done this before, it’s easy. Amazon provides a link to the embed code for any ebook on the right side of the product page, just a little below the buy box in the same line with the sharing icons. The embed is an iframe whose code you paste into the text view of your post or page. The result should look like this:
As you can see, there are various ways to wrap text around the iframe so it doesn’t have a big white space to its right. In this case, I used the code I found in this article . In the past I’ve also used Visual Composer‘s ability to switch the layout back and forth among different numbers of columns, though the exact amount of white space is harder to control in that way. That said, Visual Composer is a great page design program that enables you to be do complicated layouts without knowing coding. (This part broke at some point. For reasons I haven’t yet figured out, the Amazon iframes don’t show on my posts but only on my pages.)
Create an Appealing Layout
I’m not an expert graphic designer by any means, and I’ve made my share of mistakes. However, there are a few things I’ve learned to do (and not do).
Work for the Broadest Compatibility You Can
First, make sure your layout works well on all devices and major browsers. These days responsiveness (ability to automatically adjust to different screen sizes) is built into most WordPress themes and plugins, so I almost don’t need to mention it, but there are some exceptions. Tables, for example, typically aren’t responsive. Neither are embedded PDF files. You can minimize problems with these by making their frames relatively narrow, but it’s best to avoid having a critical element of a post or page that is nonresponsive.
On the other hand, since most of your elements will be responsive, there’s no reason to create posts and posts in a narrow ribbon. That approach works fine on mobile devices but can look silly on a desktop. I don’t know about you, but that kind of layout makes me feel claustrophobic
Browser compatibility is also pretty much a given, but it’s wise to test your layout on several browsers. I have occasionally spotted compatibility issues that way.
Second, arrange your text so that you don’t have large clumps of it. Keep paragraphs short. (I need work on that one myself!) Images and other elements can be used to keep text from filling the whole screen if the viewer is on a desktop.
Third, use engaging, relevant images. A graphic may look good, but if it isn’t connected to your content in some way, it may be perceived as filler.
Fourth, use a sidebar to give viewers easy access to features you want them to use, like browsing your books or signing up for your newsletter. However, having one on each side of your content my be overkill–that’s something else that makes me feel claustrophobic.
Fifth, organize your content in a way that makes using it as a reference as easy as possible. If the post is long enough, heading are a must. Another worthwhile addition is the Table of Contents Plus plugin that I use on this site. Using it enables a reader to easily locate any section of the post and navigate to it from near the top of the sidebar.
Sixth, keep ads tasteful and relevant. There’s nothing wrong with trying to monetize your site, but barraging a viewer with ads that are overly obtrusive or that aren’t connected to your site is just as bad as incessantly advertising your own books. Most people don’t come to a website to read ads, and most don’t come to an author’s website to buy diapers or lawn furniture.
To Website or not To Website?
As you can see, a lot of work has to go into a website. Given the other time-consuming tasks of the indie author–including writing the next book–is it really worth it?
I think so, but it isn’t quite a no-brainer. This is the kind of question everyone needs to answer for himself or herself. However, I recommend that everyone at least try using an author website. It can be a useful way to generate public awareness. Whether or not it really will you can only learn from experience.
(The featured image was copyrighted by Antonio Guillem and licensed from www.shutterstock.com.)