Why SEO Matters to Librarians

I spent last Friday at the Knoxville-based Social Slam, an annual one day conference about social media as a tool for business marketing and communication. As usual, I found myself powerfully inspired by ideas from a bunch of folks in professions outside my own. This is how professional development is supposed to happen. Toss yourself headfirst into a gathering of smart people with adjacent but different interests from your own and start talking.

As an educator and librarian, I found a lot to learn from small business owners, marketing reps and social media mavens. I will post some of those lessons along the way.

I arrived late, missing the morning keynote. My first session was a primer on search engine optimization, or SEO. SEO is a series of skills, design practices and habits intended to improve a website’s ability to be found.  Information is not scarce. Attention is scarce. Getting found is as important as having something unique and useful to offer. If you can’t get yourself, your business or your cause found online, you might not exist. There are several essential habits to make your online presence more findable. The panel talked about the importance of clear, accurate metadata. They discussed the usefulness of well-crafted headlines and tagged images. All of these SEO-related suggestions are habits of good web design. They shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all librarians. They make websites, including library websites, findable.

Librarians care about SEO because we need our sites to findable. Students Google my library pages more often than they click to them from college pages.  I have seen members of my own team Google to our page rather than use browser bookmarks. Google (okay, and maybe Bing) are the gateway to getting found and being used.

Nothing shocking. That did not catch me off guard. Librarians should care about SEO because we need to market ourselves and be found.

Then the conversation turned to the social graph and the work Google and others are doing to personalize search results based on shares, clicks and other social metrics. Wonder why Google Plus exists? Google needed to get access to lots of social information about web user behavior and most of the best data was locked up in Facebook. Google Plus exists to shape what users find when they search. Google wants to learn enough about your interests and patterns of web use to predict which 2 or 3 sites will be most useful from a search results page of 23,000,000. They give you thousands of pages of results but really only care about the first few on that first page. They want those to be right, accurate and contextually relevant. They are getting better at it.

Search is getting personalized. As social interactions are folded into search algorithms, the social media footprints of a business or individual becomes more important. The panelists demonstrated how tools like Google Author can lift a blogger up search results and how Google Business listings can create a strong initial landing page in Google results. Well-focused content on Google Plus, Twitter and other sites can tie users to your site and create a kind of gravity toward your pages. Better yet, their check-ins and mentions can create a kind of gravity to bend their friends and their friends’ friends search results toward your site. This is important to librarians for a few reasons.

Librarians must understand and help others to understand how search works. It isn’t only about keywords anymore. Things are more complex.

Librarians need to know how content providers can shape their rankings to become more visible in a targeted market.

Most interestingly, SEO in the age of social search means that search results are personalized. Two people logged into their Google accounts can search for the same topic at the same time and get very different results. The age of one-size fits all library instruction is going away. Search is personalized; the results are custom-tailored.

We are just at the beginning of this new kind of search. I wonder what it will mean for phone-based reference consultations. “Go to Google, type this, visit the third link down” type information won’t work anymore.

We have to let people know how this kind of searching works. We need to advise them on the benefits, which are many, and help them opt out if they wish to do so.

I did a quick search on librarians and SEO and didn’t come up with much. Most people, like me, have been coming to the topic from the perspective of marketing their sites. SEO is how we get found.

I left the session realizing that my profession keeps getting more and more interesting. SEO is about how search works. If we can’t master that concept, we can’t be effective.

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