Maximising the Exposure of Your Research: Search Engine Optimisation and why it matters

This post is an outcome of the ‘Maximising the Exposure of Your Research’ Workshop at the BES 2015 Annual Meeting in Edinburgh (UK). If you’re interested in joining us for our 2016 Annual Meeting in Liverpool (UK), you can find some more information and pre-register HERE.

© Got Credit

© Got Credit

In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of academic articles published. At the same time, readers are changing how they find content, tending towards a point of entry at article level as opposed to journal level. These two factors mean that it is increasingly necessary for authors to make their articles easy for relevant readers to find. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is one of the best ways to do this.

While writing your paper, there are a few things that you can do to optimise it for search engines, such as Google Scholar. The tips below focus on three areas that are prioritised by search engines when looking for content. Following these tips will help you to maximise the exposure of your research.

Choosing the Right Keywords

Keywords are the building blocks of SEO. The most important ones should be used in your title, your abstract and throughout your manuscript. Search engines will use these words to determine what your paper is about and where to rank it in searches. Picking the right ones is the first step to an optimised article.

What Makes a Good Keyword?

Your keywords should capture the most important themes and ideas of your manuscript. This will give readers and search engines a clear idea of what your article contains. When choosing your keywords, there are a few things to consider:

  • Look for ‘Goldilocks’ keywords
    It is a bad idea to use keywords that are too broad or too narrow. For example, if you are submitting to the Journal of Ecology, ‘Ecology’ is not a good keyword to choose. This does not give readers or search engines any additional information about your paper. Also, you will be competing with a huge number of other papers in the Google rankings. Similarly, choosing keywords that are too narrow will not help the optimisation of your paper, as it is unlikely that people will search on them. The ideal keyword fits somewhere in between these two extremes in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone.
  • Tim Strater Giraffe

    Giraffa camelopardalis does not make a good keyword. © Tim Strater

    Avoid obscure terms
    If people won’t enter one of your keywords into a search engine, don’t use it. Scientific names of animals, for example, are not great keywords as people tend not to use them in searches. If you have a paper about giraffes, use ‘Giraffe’ as a keyword, not ‘Giraffa camelopardalis’.

  • Don’t include anything that is misleading
    If you used one of the keywords on your list to search for a paper, would you be disappointed if your article came up? If so, don’t use it.
  • Don’t limit yourself to single words
    ‘Keyword’ is slightly misleading. Your keywords can (and generally should) include a mix of single words and short terms that people may enter into a search engine. Usually these terms aren’t more than 3-4 words long, but there is no official limit.
  • Appeal to as many people as possible
    It’s important to use keywords that will appeal to everyone who you want to find and read your paper. If your paper covers ecology and statistics for example, make sure that there is at least one keyword that statisticians might look for.

There are two ways to find the keywords that best fit your article and, ideally, you should use a combination of them. They are:

Top-Down Keywords: Terms that your readers might try searching when looking for your paper. Sometimes it is useful to try searching these terms to see if the articles that come up are similar to yours.

Bottom-Up Keywords: Terms that you have used frequently throughout your paper.

How to Pick the Ideal Keywords

  1. Make a list of every keyword you can possibly think of using the above two methods.
  2. Remove any that are too broad, narrow, obscure or misleading.
  3. Trim your list down to the number required by the journal you are submitting to, picking out the most relevant keywords.
  4. Keep your full list for later reference. Different keywords might be better for different journals or may become more appropriate after revisions

Brainstorming a full list will help you to think outside of the box, consider what other people might look for and avoid just picking the terms that you personally would look for. Doing this with your co-authors, other collaborators, supervisors, post-doc students etc. can make the activity even more valuable.

Creating a Discoverable Title

For Google, and many other search engines, the title is the most important part of your article. Therefore, it is vital to include your most important keywords in your title. To make your title as discoverable as possible, you should keep the following rules in mind:

  • Be Descriptive
    A discoverable title should leave your readers in no doubt about what your paper is about. Explain your manuscript clearly and succinctly.
  • If you come up with a creative title for your article, use it as a Tweet!

    If you come up with a creative title for your article, use it as a Tweet!

    Keep it Relevant
    It may be tempting to get creative with your title, but it won’t help people to find it. Avoid including puns, proverbs or pop-culture references. (If you do come up with any of these though, don’t forget them. They can make excellent tweets to advertise your article.)

  • Use your Keywords
    Before writing your title, you should have selected the keywords for your article. Make sure that the most important 2-3 keywords are included in your title.
  • Always Front-load
    Often search engines will only show a portion of the title of a paper. Front-loading your most important keywords (i.e. starting your title with them) will mean that potential readers will see them even if they don’t see the full title.
  • Keep it short
    As a general guideline, try to keep your title between 50 and 140 characters.

Writing an Optimised Abstract

Your title and keywords are the most important sections of your manuscript in terms of SEO. Close behind these though is your abstract. Also, most readers will use your abstract to decide whether or not to continue reading your article.

When writing your abstract, you should try to follow these rules:

  • Use Your Keywords
    Usually, you will be able to repeat your most important keyword at least 3-4 times throughout your abstract. Your second and third most important keywords should also be included at least once or twice. Other keywords should be included where possible, but don’t necessarily need to be in your abstract (as long as you have used them consistently in the main text of your article).
  • Don’t Keyword-Stuff
    Natural repetition is the key to writing an optimised abstract. Search engines will try to pick out repeated phrases (amongst other things) in order to determine which searches your article shows up in and how high up in those searches it comes. Don’t over-use your selected terms or phrases though, as sophisticated search engines like Google will spot this kind of thing and move your paper further down the search results.
  • Don’t Forget Your Readers
    Over-using your keywords will disrupt the flow of your abstract and will seem strange to readers. While it is important to make your article discoverable, Google and other search engines are not your audience. Always remember to write for your readers!

Here is an example of an article with a well-optimised title, abstract and keywords:

A well-optimised title, abstract and set of keywords.

A well-optimised title, abstract and set of keywords.

As you can see, the authors have included the terms that are most important to their paper (highlighted in red, blue and green) in all three sections, but without overusing any of them. This article is the top result in a Google Scholar Search for ‘Biodiversity Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’.

To learn more about using Search Engine Optimisation in academic publishing, you can find the slides from Kudos co-founder Charlie Rapple’s presentation at the ‘Maximising the Exposure of Your Research’ workshop HERE.

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