The Road to Discoverability Part 1 – Metadata, SEO and Serendipity

The Road to Discoverability Part 1 – Metadata, SEO and Serendipity

I was asked to chair a panel at Tools of Change conference last week on Discoverability and it was a theme that emerged time and again across the whole of Frankfurt Book Fair. I thought I’d share the research I did beforehand with links to useful articles.  

So let’s start with this, as revealed by Brian O’Leary at the fair last week,  

In 1990, there were about 900,000 ISBNs.Today there are 32 million ISBNs and an unknown number of unidentified books.”  

With this huge increase in volume it will doubtless come as no surprise that, our FutureBook survey has shown that publishers identify Discoverability as the number one reason why they aren’t selling more e-books.  

I didn’t focus my session at Tools of Change on metadata or SEO, but want to reference them here. No publisher should be unaware of the importance of these tools as essential elements of your books' discoverability armoury.

Metadata – the road signs to discoverability  

This now appears to be the mantra to which we work - Discoverability begins with metadata. It’s essential that every publisher has a logical, well thought-out metadata strategy that is embedded in the production process of every title through every stage in that title’s life cycle. This strategy must be implemented right from the commissioning process, through editorial, marketing & publicity right up until the book is released into the wild for the first time.  

Laura Dawson from Bowker put it succinctly here, “Metadata needs to be incorporated from the earliest possible stage of a book’s workflow and each department must take responsibility for the metadata that works for their department.”  

Brian O’Leary goes on to hit the point home, “Metadata is not just for the trade [professional], but also meant for consumers,” O’Leary said. “Metadata is seen as something that everyone else has to do, but it happens in production, marketing and everywhere. If you acquire books you need to know how to describe that book and to price it because this is how we sell books in today’s world.”   

You can read a good write up of their discussions here

And if you are looking for some very practical tips, this is an excellent blog from Nick Atkinson on is also a very useful guide to Metadata from Edward Nawotka explaining some of the basics.  

Successfully harnessing the power of metadata is the building block upon which all your other discoverability strategies will stand or fall so it is vital that publishers invest more in training staff and raising the profile of these issues. There are people and departments that traditionally have never really felt metadata had anything to do with their job functions and it is vital that this belief changes.  

Metadata elements are the road signs that search engines, retailers, social networks and most importantly consumers use to find their way around their digital environments. If you signpost your products incorrectly you are sentencing them to a lifetime in the shadows.  

SEO – The road map to discoverability  

If metadata provides the road signs to discoverability then SEO is most definitely the roadmap. Despite this, SEO is still considered rather an afterthought for many publishers despite the now irrefutable evidence that it boosts sales and drives traffic.  

Chris McVeigh of SEOForBooks suggests that, like metadata, SEO should also be incorporated at the earliest stages of a new project. He says, I’m not suggesting that publishers and authors name their books based purely on easy to rank keyword phrases but having an SEO conversation early on in the commissioning process can really help with the marketing later on. Simply put, the longer the lead time the more successful your SEO/SMO efforts will be.'  More here.  

When coupled with a sensible and comprehensive metadata strategy SEO is a powerful tool delivering real, bottom line results for publishers. If you want to see the impact a coherent metadata and SEO strategy can have on improving discoverability (& sales) of back list titles in particular, more here.   

Let’s assume you’ve factored in SEO and your metadata workflow is firing on all cylinders, what else needs to be considered to ensure your books pack a punch?  

Serendipity – the pixie dust of discoverability  

In the real world, choosing a book relies heavily on serendipity; wandering through a bookshop, browsing, and picking up books. Serendipity has yet to be replicated online and most websites rely on automated search algorithms to recommend books to readers.  

In this great piece, industry commentator, Brett Sandusky discusses this in more detail.  

“Ultimately, the problem with all these discoverability sites is this: their algorithms (if they are even using an algorithm) are based on aggregate data in a one size fits all model…To make discovery work, we have to rely on offering books that speak to a range of tastes, which is best elucidated by a group of individuals who make judgments. This is similar to the “staff picks” section of your local bookstore.”   

So, as Brett suggests, great discoverability involves, first and foremost curation, recommendations from humans and a sprinkling of serendipity. The central job of the algorithm is to offer a level of scalability on top of this and that is where successfully deployed metadata and SEO strategies come into their own.  

If publishers can master these three factors, Metadata, SEO and Serendipity the road to discoverability will become very much easier.  

In The Road to Discoverability Part 2 I’ll move on to some of the practical marketing and sales strategies that can be used to increase discoverability that were discussed during Frankfurt.