Your research will be published and read on the Internet far more than on paper. If you apply the same techniques digital marketers use, you’ll be able to increase your work’s likelihood of being found. And read. And cited!
When researchers find your publications and ideas, increase your impact, and advance your research career.
Here’s how to start using search engine optimization (SEO) to communicate your science.
What you’ll learn in this post
Search engine optimization for scholarly publications
As with a website page trying to rank well in search engines, manuscripts can (and ideally should) be optimized for search. This is SEO. SEO for websites involves many factors on-page and off-page, but for a manuscript, it’s simpler.
SEO for scientific publications means using words and phrases that people are likely to use when they search. Unlike with a personal or company website, you have little or no control over formatting, linking, etc.
You can optimize your paper by including the most relevant words and phrases in your abstract, title, and keywords. Do it in as natural a way as possible.
Think about what terms someone might enter when they’re searching for articles related to your work. Two easy ways to do this are:
Find keywords on Google Scholar
Simply go to Google Scholar, enter your keyword, and look at the number and quality of returns. Think of other ways the same term may be stated.
For example, “socioeconomic attributes” shows up about eight times more than “socioeconomic traits”. They generally mean the same thing, but the former is more common. That makes it a better choice to use in your paper, from an SEO perspective.
You can do the same in Google itself, but the returns will include all types of websites and a huge number of returns may indicate that the keyword means something completely different.
Find keywords using a keyword tool
Use a commercial keyword search tool such as Ahrefs or Semrush. These are expensive marketing tools, but they usually offer free or cheap trials. There are many free keyword tools as well. We won’t list any here, as they come and go quite quickly. Simply go to Google, search for “keyword tool”, and try a few of them out.
Keep in mind, they’re generally based on Google data, and they only provide approximations. So they’re better for recognizing trends rather than being seen as actual, precise data.
What readers look for, and how they do it
Titles have the biggest impact on whether someone chooses to read your article. They function the same as headlines on a news story.
The first 50 characters (~10 words) are the most important. Just like your Facebook feed, the first few words are what’s guaranteed to show up. People are increasingly scrolling through articles on their iPhones or tablets, so you need to catch their eye.
Abstracts usually have strict word limits, but a well-crafted abstract will include all the key phrases that a typical reader may search for. If possible, repeat the most important words or phrases at least twice in the abstract.
Don’t “keyword stuff” by putting it in repetitively and needlessly. This won’t help your search ranking; it may even hurt it. Search engine algorithms are looking for natural, authentic English that best answers the searcher’s query.
Keywords can attract a reader who may only be casually browsing or not have full attention on what they’re doing. They may also come from a different field but have overlapping interest. For example, maybe you used a particular type of analysis or methodology that would broadly interest people in multiple fields of study.
Or you may be publishing data about a geographic area that would be of interest outside your specialty. Well-selected key terms will draw those readers to your article.
References that are relevant and appropriate will help people find your paper. Many directories ad search tools (like Google Scholar and PubMed) offer searches of citation history, so someone interested in a particular published article can perform a search of all articles that have cited it.
More tips on using keywords in your SEO
- Make the first two or three words of a title the specific subject of the manuscript.
- Include keywords that are synonyms (e.g., use “alien” and “invasive”; use “folic acid” and “vitamin B9”).
- Include blanket terms on the same topic (e.g., use “global warming” and “climate change”).
SEO for extending your reach post-publication
SEO uses the term “backlinks” to refer to when one site links to another site. A backlink from a credible site can (1) direct readers to you when they’re reading something else, and (2) increase your chances of ranking higher in search engines.
Backlinks are a more complex issue in marketing. In research, a link from a credible website (such as a major news site or an educational institution) will increase your publication’s value in the eyes of the search engine. This means it’s more like to rank higher.
You can create and seek backlinks in many ways. These include:
- Posting your research on social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn, as well linking to it on scholarly social media sites such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate. This expands the chances of readers finding your article, and hopefully to them citing it and/or linking to it.
- Writing and posting a scientific press release. This will summarize and disseminate your research in plainer language, making it accessible to journalists and the general public. You’ll get a link to your study from the online press release itself, and further mention and links if publications choose to write about it.
Contact your institution’s PR department to see if they publish press releases. We offer a specialized press release service for these if you need them written in clear and precise English.
- Maintain your own website. With easy-to-learn content and publishing systems like WordPress, it’s easier than ever to get your own domain (.com, etc.) and start your own website. You can use I simply as an online portfolio or your work, and build it as big as you like, such as by including a blog in which you post your insights.
If you’re part of a lab, you can also look into creating a page for your lab. Either of these approaches give you a resource for listing your own publications, as well as those of your colleagues. That means more links to your work, and better chances of getting it to rank higher on Google and other search engines.