Search Engine Optimisation

In recent years there has been an increase in the number of academic articles published. At the same time, readers are finding articles online rather than in journal tables of contents. These two factors mean that we need to think differently about how to help relevant readers find articles. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is one of the best ways to do this.

The three key areas that search engines prioritise for searches are: Key-words, Title and Summary (Abstract).


Key-words are the building blocks of SEO. The most important ones should be used in the title, the summary and throughout the manuscript. Search engines will use these words to determine what the paper is about and where to rank it in searches. Picking the right key-words is the first step to an optimised article and they should capture the key themes and ideas of the manuscript.

  • Consider what words or terms you would search for to find the paper online.
  • Use ‘Goldilocks’ key-words, which fit somewhere in between being too broad (they will be competing with many other papers in search engine rankings) or too narrow (it is unlikely that people will search on them).
  • Use key-words people are likely to search for e.g. Giraffe instead of Giraffa camelopardali.
  • Key phrases of usually no more than 3–4 words can also be used.
  • Appeal to as many people as possible, e.g. if the paper covers ecology and statistics use key-word that both ecologists and statisticians might look for.
  • Avoid misleading or confusing key-words.


  • Use the most important 1 or 2 key-words in the title (for many search engines, the title is the most important part of an article).
  • The title should be descriptive and clearly and succinctly explain the manuscript.
  • Puns, proverbs or pop-culture references should be avoided as they won’t help people find your article (but they could be used as a subtitle and also make excellent tweets to promote the article.)
  • Start the title with the most important key-words as often search engines will only show a portion of the title of a paper. Potential readers will then see them even if they don’t see the full title.
  • As a general guideline titles should be between 50 and 140 characters.

Summary (Abstract)

Whilst the title and key-words are the most important sections of an article in terms of SEO, the summary is also very important as most readers will use it to decide whether or not to continue reading the article.

  • Repeat the most important key-words 3–4 times throughout the summary and the minor ones once or twice. Search engines pick out repeated phrases (amongst other things) in order to determine which searches and how high up in those searches the article shows up in.
  • But, don’t over-use key-words as this will disrupt the flow of the summary and will seem strange to readers. Also, sophisticated search engines will spot this and move the paper further down the search results.
  • For Journal of Applied Ecology the final summary point should highlight management recommendations or policy implications, emphasize what the research shows, and explain how the outcomes should be used to inform and improve management or policy. It will have one of the following subheadings: 'Synthesis and applications' for articles that identify recommendations for management practices. ‘Policy implications’ for articles that are less directly tied to on-the-ground management and include discussion on conservation implications or links to policy.

Other articles

If you would like to read more about Search Engine Optimisation, you may be interested in the following articles:

Phil Stephens. Writing scientific articles in the era of the search engine: gonna change my way of thinking

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

Charlie Rapple. Maximizing the Exposure of your Research

Wiley Exchanges. Search Engine Optimisation and The Journal Article

Open Science. Why and how Should You Optimize Academic Articles for Search Engines?

Joeran Beel, Bela Gipp, and Erik Wilde. Academic Search Engine Optimization (ASEO)

ACS. Publish Be Found or Perish

Wouter Gerritsma. Academic Search Engine Optimization: For Publishers