Search engine optimization: how library and Internet differ

I have described how searching an online library catalog differs from using a search engine. I have pointed out that libraries have lots of information that is either not available for free on the Internet (most of the best databases) or not at all (most books and periodicals–especially if they are more than 15-20 years old). I have mentioned that library collections must be highly selective, whereas anyone can post something on the Internet. The Internet makes finding information easier than ever. Finding useful, accurate, and reliable information remains as difficult as ever, and one reason is called search engine optimization.

When you type your search into the little box and hit enter, somewhere at the top of the screen Google or whatever other search engine you use will tell you that it found a gazillion results in less time than it takes you to blink your eyes. Most of the time, most people will choose from what turns up on the first screen. If they don’t like any of those, they’ll redesign the search. How many people look at the fifth page of results, or the tenth, or the fortieth? You should from time to time, by the way. Some of what’s buried deep in the search results may be much better for your purpose than what’s on top.

Everyone who posts anything at all on the Internet¬† wants to get on to the first page of the search results if they want anyone but close friends and family to find it. The search engines have certain algorithms to put what seems to be most relevant at the top of the results. They change it constantly and never really divulge the formula, but basically its web crawler looks for certain clues, and the general categories remain fairly constant. That’s where search engine optimization comes into play.
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This post is about libraries and search engine optimization, so how would I go about getting it to the first page of Google? The short answer is that I probably never will, because I’m competing against other, larger companies with teams of experts doing nothing else but search engine optimization. The long answer is that there are certain things that I can do both as I write and after I have published that will influence the web crawler.

One clue is the words in the title. Notice that I have search engine optimization, library, and Internet in the title. That gives not only my potential readers but also the web crawler an idea of what it’s about. That might be enough for a human to decide whether or not to investigate the post, but not enough for the web crawler. I need to make sure to use all of those key words frequently–more frequently than I would think to use them ordinarily, but hopefully not enough to make my post hard to read. At the beginning of this paragraph, I put search engine optimization, library, and Internet in bold. That’s something else the web crawler likes, whether you do or not. You see, I have to write for you, but also for the stupid web crawler, which knows nothing but patterns of zeros and ones.

These and other techniques are called on-site search engine optimization. There are a couple of other things, not at all apparent to human readers but very important to the web crawler, that I need to do. The web crawler will look at how many people look at an article. If lots of people drop by and stick around for a few minutes, the web crawler will see each visit that lasts more than 20 seconds or so as a vote for the site. Inbound links make another kind of vote. If enough other sites links here, the web crawler will count them up. The more votes I get from visitors and links, the higher I’ll rank in the search results.

So what can I do? I’ll mention this post on Twitter, etc. to drum up traffic. Some of my readers will like it and link to it on their sites, but I can’t depend on that. Part of my work includes making plenty of my own links. I can write something else on another site and link back here. I can make a comment in a forum somewhere or on someone else’s blog and link back here (or at least to this blog more generally) in the signature. None of that activity has any bearing on how useful the post is, only how high it gets in search results.

Suppose of all the Internet content about a search engine vs a library, my post is the best and most useful, but the authors of all the inferior ones have done a better job of optimization. All of theirs will rank higher in the search results than mine. In other words, high ranking in the search results has little or nothing to do with how useful or accurate the information is.

In part, anyway, that explains why something on page 40 of the results might be more useful to you than what’s on the first page. An academic, for example, who cares about communicating good information to a human reader and knows nothing about writing to attract a web crawler will find his or her work buried. Corporations who can hire full time staff to do search engine optimization and well-establlshed bloggers who have lots of dedicated readers and so many inbound links they no longer have to work on making their own will outrank the person who writes only for humans every time.

What does that have to do with the library? (By the way, I started to write “with libraries,” but the key word I’m working on is singular.) For one thing, everything in the library has been chosen by a human, not a machine. Librarians used to select each title. Now they’re likely to rely on approval plans with the publishers, but publishers hire human editors to decide which books or articles to publish. None of the authors have to think about sucking up to a web crawler.

Once anything comes into the library’s collection, a human catalogs it. If there’s anything inaccurate about that human’s work, another human somewhere will fix it. When you look in an online library catalog or one of the proprietary databases, you will not find anything that’s written to try to manipulate some search algorithm–no search engine optimization. You will probably get at most hundreds of titles as a result of your search, not hundreds of thousands or even millions. You can make up your own mind what’s important.

Another human in the library, the reference librarian, can help you focus your question to narrow search results even more. Unless you happen to be in a corporate library, neither the librarian you talk to at the desk nor any of the ones working for you behind the scenes will be influenced by corporate interests. Librarians have no stake in trying to manipulate your results.

Now that you know something about search engine optimization, remember that it’s only for the Internet. It has nothing to do with information or services at the library. Of course, you will continue to use the internet. If you need detailed and authoritative information on anything, remember to look on p. 40 of the results. Oh, and look on p. 9 or 10, too. If I’ve written something, my ability in search engine optimization ought to be enough to get me at least that high!

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Some rights reserved by Paloma Gómez

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