by Kristen Hall-Geisler

Authors of nonfiction books, especially how-to and self-help books, have a special kind of burden to bear. Not only do you have to come up with a title that conveys the content and spirit of your book—every author in every genre has to do that—but you also will want to come up with a subtitle. That’s not so new, but the twenty-first-century twist is that humans in bookstores aren’t the only readers who have to be caught and reeled in by your title and subtitle. The algorithms used by search engines and online booksellers have to read them too.

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You’ve probably heard of (and cringed at) the term “SEO.” It stands for search engine optimization, and it means that the words used in any online content need to be meaningful to the search engines crawling the internet. When a reader types terms into a search box that are related to your book, you want the algorithms to find your book and serve it up on the screen.

There are a lot of ways to go about this, including taking classes and reading tomes on SEO. Or you can remember that the search engines and their algorithms, whether it’s Google or Amazon or any other company, are connecting you—a human—to a reader—another human. You are really writing something both humans and machines can read.

So where do you put these SEO terms? In the subtitle! Check out the title of this article: “Writing for Eyeballs and Algorithms: Creating Titles and Subtitles That Work for Humans and SEO.” The first part, the title, is clever and has some assonance involved so it sounds good. You, the human, may think that title is pretty smart, and I’ll say thank you. But Google’s algorithm might return this result to a med student or Halloween enthusiast who’s searching for eyeballs. Sorry to disappoint, but there are no eyeballs in this article.

That’s where the subtitle comes in. I included the words “create,” “titles,” “subtitles,” and “SEO” to catch the algorithms. It helps that “writing” is in the title too. These are all terms authors are likely to type into the search box when they know their title isn’t working and they want some help fixing it. Hi, authors!

The beauty of the subtitle is that it’s not a list of jargon-y terms piled on top of each other. It still reads fine to a human, so if someone does pick up a book with a title like this one in the bookstore, it makes sense and it’s helpful. Whether they see it on a shelf or a search engine shows it to them on a screen, the title and subtitle together tell the reader what they’ll find inside.

Here are some other examples of titles and subtitles that work well for SEO, pulled right off my office shelf:

  • Fashionably Late: Gay, Bi, and Trans Men Who Came Out Later in Life, by Vinnie Kinsella (our very own!)
  • Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses, by Amy Whitaker
  • The Science Writer’s Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age, by The Writers of SciLance
  • Take the Wheel: A Woman’s Guide to Buying a Car Her Own Damn Self, by Kristen Hall-Geisler (Yup. That’s me.)

Search engines look for more than just titles and subtitles, of course. They’ll also look at the book description, any excerpts, and maybe even reviews to make sure the search results are a good match for what the human doing the searching wants to find. But titles and subtitles are weighted as being more important by most algorithms, so you’ll want to get those right.

Kristen Hall-Geisler spent four years working her way up the editorial ladder as a proofreader, copyeditor, and managing editor at an automotive magazine. She struck out on her own as a freelance editor and journalist in 2006 and joined Indigo as an editor in 2011. She has edited a wide variety of books, but she specializes in creative nonfiction, memoir, how-to, and scientific books as well as research-heavy historical fiction projects. She is the author of three books, two of which have subtitles.