SEO (Search Engine Optimization) has been in bad repute recently, with Google’s SEO spamming problems in the news. Actually SEO has never been given much respect in the library world, and this is unfortunate because on a basic level SEO is closely related to the library-centric concept of discoverability — Making it easy for users to find good things on your website.
I’ve been thinking for some time that librarians’ apparent lack of interest in SEO was surprising. But recently I’ve been realizing that my perceptions are colored by my experience in crafting Hardin MD pages to be found by Google, beginning about 2001, before most anyone had heard of “SEO.”
I can understand why SEO has bad connotations for library people who know it only as a bag of tricks used by the dotcom-Adwords world to trick Google into giving a high ranking to their clients’ pages. But I hope the examples of my pre-SEO-Adwords experience that I’ll present here will show why I think optimizing pages so they can be found in Google is very much in the library tradition of bringing together the users and the pages.
Even in pre-Google days, standard wisdom about getting pages found by search engines emphasized the importance of a strong page title that gives a concise description of the page’s contents (advice that still holds true). Much of my early work on Hardin MD that I now think of as using SEO techniques centered on this importance of the title. I was an early booster of Google, so I noticed soon after it was launched, in 2000, that many of the pages in Hardin MD were getting high rankings in searches for title words of its pages. I also noticed that most of the pages that were highly ranked got more traffic. But not all of them. Why was this, I wondered? Finally, with the help of WordTracker (this was long before Google Analytics), I figured out that a high Google ranking goes only halfway — The other half of the high-traffic equation is people searching the term that gets the ranking. Getting a high ranking for a term that no one is searching is useless, like providing a supply of something for which there’s no demand! This simple, basic supply and demand principle is still at the heart of SEO.
The case that opened my eyes about the supply and demand principle was a Hardin MD page with the title “Respiration Medicine” — It got high rankings in Google searches but very little traffic. With WordTracker, I saw the reason why — Hardly anyone was searching for “respiration medicine” — So I used WordTracker to determine the equivalent terms that people WERE searching for, and when I put those words in the title (which is now Respiratory System & Lung Diseases), the traffic increased.
Having discovered the value of using title words that people were searching for, I adjusted Hardin MD pages accordingly. This often meant changing from medical specialty terms to terms that are more easily-understood and widely-used by the public — Ophthalmology was changed to Eye Diseases, Cardiology became Heart Disease … Pediatrics >> Childrens Diseases, Otolaryngology >> Ear, Nose, Throat.
After learning the value of choosing the best words to draw traffic, I applied this optimization lesson to creating the tags that are used at the bottom of Hardin MD pages. The same technique also showed that “pictures” should be used instead of “images” for Hardin MD pages relating to pictures.
I find basic SEO principles especially interesting from a library point-of-view because they have similarities with some of the long-standing principles of librarianship. I’ve written about tagging in Hardin MD that hearkens back to the subject headings used on library catalog cards. And, having had a bit of experience as a library cataloger, I see a similar parallel between the web page title, that I’ve discussed in this article, with the title-page of a book, that was established as the basis for cataloging books several hundred years ago — Principles of information management endure!
Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey