In February, Google began giving prominent placement to articles in NLM’s PubMed Health. As I discussed in a previous article, NLM and Google have been strangely silent about announcing this new feature, with no discussion of it anywhere that I can find.

It’s especially surprising that Google hasn’t said anything about this because — coincidentally with the NLM boost — Google’s ranking system has been under attack recently, with charges that doctom sites (most notably JC Penney) have used Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tricks that cause Google to give high rankings to their product pages.

As I’ve discussed before, although using SEO techniques to get high rankings in Google is widely discussed in the doctom world, it’s an almost unknown subject to most librarians. This is unfortunate, because without a background understanding of SEO, the next step in the “NLM-CIA conspiracy” story seems completely bizarre …

As I discussed in my previous article, soon after Google began giving prominent ranking to NLM, Jeff Hamilton, who blogs about ADHD, raised questions in his short article PubMed Health Who?:

Where the heck did these guys come from? Try and Google “ADHD” and these guys are the #1 search result!! PubMed Health is a new online resource under development at [NLM-NCBI] … Hmmmm, CIA? Secret Government agency? How does an organization go from not being on the radar to the #1 search engine result for ADHD overnight? … You’ve heard stories about how much control and power the Government has over the Internet…….I wonder if this secret SEO organization would be interested in doing some site optimization for me …

As a member of the medical library community, it seems laughable that anyone would suggest underhanded dealings between NLM and Google, and in my previous article I described Hamilton’s idea as “hare-brained.” But thinking it over I realize that to a non-librarian who’s been reading about the recent Google-SEO controversy, Hamilton’s speculations seem more reasonable. As he says, it does indeed seem surprising that PubMed Health pages suddenly began appearing at the top of Google’s rankings, with no explanation from Google or NLM about why this is happening.

The story gets more meta-interesting because Google’s ranking of Hamilton’s SEO story itself becomes part of the story — If the article had stayed on his blog, it probably wouldn’t have gotten much attention from Google and hence the eyeballs of the world. But instead it got copied on the Psychology Today blog, and that brought it a high ranking (generally between #1 and #6 in the last two weeks) in a Google search for PubMed Health — So, let’s say you’re a health-information-seeking consumer who comes across a PubMed Health page in a Google search — You like the page, so you do some googling to find out more about PubMed Health — And what do you find? Hamilton’s NLM-CIA conspiracy article.

So what’s wrong here? Why is a standard resource by large government site like NLM not able to outrank a blogger’s speculations about its validity in a Google search? Normally, Google does a good job finding “the real thing,” the site itself. The problem, I think, is that there has been nothing for Google to link to for “PubMed Health” — It didn’t even have a home page until last week, when it was announced by NLM/NCBI in Twitter. And there still hasn’t been a press release or longer announcement by NLM or Google. If these sources existed, they and medical library bloggers discussions of them would soon dominate Google’s top ten, and leave wild NLM-CIA conspiracy speculations in the dust. I’d guess that sooner or later, NLM and/or Google will make some sort of announcement. But I’d predict that the longer they wait, the harder it will be to displace Hamilton’s article from its high ranking — In my experience, Google has a persistent memory, and it often holds on to links after they have been obsolesced by events.

I think this is an excellent example of why librarians should learn more about SEO — If people at NLM and in the wider medical library community were paying more attention to SEO, it would have been clear that the sudden appearance of a new resource from NLM at the top of Google searches needs to be explained.

Learning more about SEO — If you google for SEO be ready for a fire-hose of sites offering to help you get a Google ranking. You might want to start out with Wikipedia’s lengthy SEO article or a book on SEO in the Dummies guide series.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

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