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Building a Website
Successful Bookselling

by Kent Johnson

#97, 18 June 2007

Part II: On the Internet at Least, Content Is Still King

Building a Website for Successful Bookselling Series

A few years ago, when I was relatively new to the Internet and Internet marketing, I helped a friend put together an outdoor recreation website to sell sporting goods through an online retailer's affiliate program. We spent a considerable amount of time and money on the project, and we were sure it was going to make us boatloads of money as promised by the retailer's slick advertising campaign.

And so we built the site. It looked great, it had dozens of product pages displaying brand-name sporting goods of all shapes and sizes, it had an "about us" page with our bios and photographs. We were convinced it would be like Kevin Costner's "Field of Dreams," where "If you build it, they will come." We were already planning new and exciting ways to spend all the money we were sure to make in the months leading up to the Christmas shopping season.

And we waited. And waited. The first month came and went, and we had a grand total of 13 unique visitors to the site, and 0 sales. No problem, we thought, it's a new site; it'll take time for the word to get around. Millions of people were signing up for Internet access around the world every day, after all. Sooner or later a significant portion of them would stop by our site to check out all the great products we had displayed there.

I'm sure you can guess the way the Christmas season went that year. We had a handful of visitors, and two sales, both from family members who took pity on our plight.

Seriously discouraged, we considered pulling the plug on the entire project. We were paying hosting fees, after all, and a monthly charge for credit card processing. We tried buying traffic through the search engines, and we were rewarded with a few sales, but by the time we paid the pay-per-click advertising bill, we barely broke even. Our "Field of Dreams" was looking more and more like an empty cornfield every day.

Not one to take defeat lying down (or seated behind a keyboard), I decided to try and figure this Internet marketing puzzle out. After all, people were spending millions of dollars online every day, so the buyers were out there. I just needed to figure out how those other sites were getting the consistent traffic - and sales - that we were lacking.

And so I scoured the Internet looking for answers. I found lots of marketing "gurus" who would teach me the "magic secrets" of making "$184,673 in two weeks, without doing any work" if I just purchased their $250 information product. Being a believer in the old adage that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, my credit card stayed in my wallet.

I was about to give up in disgust when I stumbled onto a company called SiteSell (through a web search on Google, wink-wink) that actually sounded like they knew what they were talking about. Now this isn't intended to be a commercial for SiteSell, and I'm not affiliated with them in any way. But their philosophy is the first one I came across that made sense to me. What they propose is this: that most people searching on the Internet aren't looking to buy things; they're looking for information. And if you become a trusted and reliable source of that information, you'll position yourself as an expert in your field, you'll build valuable relationships with your visitors, and you'll get lots of free search engine traffic (and eventually, lots of sales).

This was a revelation to me. I always assumed you just put up a store website and people would just magically show up and buy what you were selling. The idea of writing articles and putting up free information to entice visitors to come to my website had never occurred to me. But it made sense. After all, I spend a great deal of my own time on the Internet searching for information, so it stood to reason that others did, too. And having already invested the better part of a year and thousands of dollars on my floundering website (by this time my partner had bailed out on the project), I decided to give the concept a try.

So I got busy and wrote articles. I did keyword research and found out what search terms people in my niche market used on Google and the other search engines. I used those keywords in my article titles and throughout the articles themselves. I wrote reviews around specific products that I promoted on my site. I integrated a blog into the site and invited visitors to comment on topics they found interesting, which added even more content to the site. I started a monthly newsletter, and archived each one as a separate page on the site, adding even more keyword-rich content for the search engine spiders to feed on.

And a funny thing happened. I started to get free visitors from the search engines. Just a trickle at first, but then more and more as my pages were indexed and added to the Google database. Pretty soon my site became known as an authority in my niche market, and other related sites began linking to it as a resource for their visitors. Soon even Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, was linking to the site from several of its outdoor recreation pages. Then, when my site hit 150 pages of unique content, the floodgates opened, and I started receiving thousands of visitors a day from the search engines, across hundreds of different keyword phrases.

Needless to say, sales went up accordingly. And they're still strong, more than three years later, even though I've done little more than routine maintenance on the site for the past year. During the summer months the site basically pays the mortgage on my house, all from advertising revenue and affiliate link sales, without me ever touching a product or processing a credit card payment. The site makes money whether I'm out fishing or book scouting or sitting at home watching the latest Kevin Costner movie.

Great, you're probably thinking, but how does this apply to my bookstore website? Well, I would propose that you do the same things I did. If you have a bookstore dedicated to a particular genre (and you should, because if you think you're going to win the search engine battle against heavyweight general booksellers like Amazon, think again) then put up content around that niche topic. If you specialize in science fiction, write articles about topics of interest to science fiction fans. Write biographies of SF authors that you feature. Write articles around a specific sub-genre like hard science fiction, science fiction romance, or SF from the Golden Age of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Write reviews of the latest hot new titles or authors in the field. Start a blog, and encourage others to post their own thoughts and book reviews. Amazon has done this very same thing and they get tons of free content on their site from customer reviews.

If you don't feel like doing all that writing yourself, you can pay to have articles written for you on sites like Elance or RentACoder.

There you can pay someone in India or another English-speaking country to write a decent article for as little as $10 each, but be aware that they probably won't know as much about the topic as you do, and their writing will no-doubt reflect that. You could also start a forum on your site to generate content, although you'll probably need someone to moderate it or it will quickly become a magnet for online scammers and spammers.

Another option is to go to a article distribution site like EzineContent where you can re-print other people's article for free, as long as you include a link back to their site. The only problem with this is that Google and the other search engines now consider this "duplicate content" and won't give you much credit for having these articles on your site.

If all this sounds like a lot of work and trouble, you're right, it is. Free traffic is free only in the sense that you're not paying for it with money; you're paying for it with your time and effort. It's a lot easier to just put up a cookie-cutter bookstore website that has the same generic photos and book descriptions as every other cookie-cutter bookstore website.

Just don't expect to get a lot of free traffic from the search engines. They're reserving that for websites that provide valuable information for their searchers.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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