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

I tweeted this funny a couple of days ago, and got several retweets …

ericrumsey: :-) RT @wabbitoid “How many SEO specialists are needed to change a lightbulb?” bulb bulbs light cheap affordable

It was only after a day or two that I realized that it was a great chance to laugh at myself! …

As the lightbulb joke pokes fun at SEO specialists who are obsessed with thinking of every possible word that people might search for, I remembered the Hardin MD Chicken Pox / Chickenpox page that I made several years ago –The only page in Hardin MD for which I used a double-element title, because WordTracker indicated that people search for chickenpox as two words and as one word. Traffic data has shown, in fact, that the page does indeed get significant traffic for both terms.

I’ve been blogging on the SEO theme recently, and I’m realizing that my interest in it comes a lot from my experience with Hardin MD, much of it long before I heard the term “SEO.” As the little lightbulb example here shows, though, I guess I have a foot in that world.

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

In another article, I’ve discussed the idea of the WIDE WORLD Web — the idea that people with significant connections outside the US have made disproportionately large contributions to innovation and quality on the Web. I suggest in that article that one reason for this is that Wide World people seem to have a particular appreciation for Simplicity & Elegance. In this article, I’ll discuss examples of this.

First, people and services that I’ve discussed before, with links to my articles about them:

Tor Ahlenius was a librarian at the Karolinska Institute library in Sweden. I first observed the surprising quality of Wide World web work when looking for quality link-lists in pre-Google days, and found that Ahlenius had the most elegant lists on the Web in health and medicine. Beyond Ahlenius, I found in working on Hardin MD that many others of the best link-lists were also from outside the US. Some may question the idea of characterizing link-list-keeping as “elegant” — But in pre-Google days it was an essential service, and comprehensive and well-maintained lists were difficult to find — A simple but critical skill, perfected to elegance by Ahlenius.

Moving forward and on a much larger stage, a couple of examples that are fairly well-known, but not usually thought of as having connections outside the US. But I’d suggest that they do indeed.

Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive, and Apple – Jobs was raised in California by adoptive American parents, but his biological father was from Syria. The secretive Jobs rarely talks about this, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see a connection with his career as a tech-genius. Jonathan Ive, who made the elegant designs of  the iPhone and iPad, has solid Wide World connections, being a native of England.

Sergey Brin and Google -  How would the world be different if he hadn’t moved from the USSR to the US when he was six years old and grown up to help invent Google’s elegant search and design revolutions?

Twitter was not developed by anyone with Wide World connections, but I’m including it because it’s elegant simplicity has been so firmly embraced by the Wide World community. I especially learned to appreciate this from following the prolific tweeting of Portuguese librarian Jose Afonso Furtado. He tweets mostly on library/publishing subjects, but during the serious outbreak of Swine Flu in Mexico in 2009, he tweeted on that and I made good international contacts on Twitter through him.

Below are some Wide World examples I haven’t (yet) written about:

Tim-Berners Lee and the WWW – Lest we forget! — The Inventor of the Web was from England. As John Naughton says in his excellent profile of Berners-Lee, TBL’s great contribution was that he created a simple, elegant way to make hypertext, which had been around for several decades, usable by non-geeks — The World Wide Web.

Luis von Ahn, who grew up in Guatemala and is now on the faculty at Carnegie-Mellon – CAPTCHA inventor and MacArthur Genius Grant winner at age 27. He also was the developer of Google Image Labeler, an elegant application of crowdsourcing/gaming to tag pictures.

Yuri Selukoff – A very recent Wide World rising star – Russian developer of GoodReader, widely hailed as the best PDF reader for iPhone and iPad (and one of the two top-sellers of all iPad Apps). The simple, elegant trick of GoodReader is that it extracts pure text from PDF files and “reflows it” into wrapped text format. Selukoff’s GoodReader work reminds me of Tor Ahlenius, discussed at the top of this article, which was my first discovery of simple, elegant Web work originating from the Wide World community. As with Selukoff and GoodReader, it makes me wonder — Why does it take someone from outside the US to give the world such a simple, useful tool?

Related articles:

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

I first noticed the disproportionate contributions from people with connections outside the US in the early days of Hardin MD. Before Google and PageRank the best lists of links were done by humans. In making Hardin MD, I kept close track of human-generated lists around the Web in health and medicine. A strong impression I got was that a disproportionate number of the most carefully chosen and well-maintained lists were from outside the US. A couple of examples — Tor Ahlenius at the Karolinska Institute library, whom I recently eulogized, and Ildo Shin, a physician in South Korea whose MedMark lists were by far the longest available, and had among the lowest rate of dead links (a common problem in those days).

With Americans being the preponderate population of the web-using world, why was it that it was people in other countries who managed to master the simple task of keeping good lists? I think it has to do with simplicity — I think maybe Americans have trouble cutting through the distractions on the Web that yell out for attention, to cut through the fluff to see what’s really important! I’ve seen this same tendency as the emphasis on Hardin MD has changed from meta-list making to pictures — I find that many of the best sites for medical pictures are also from around the world. The Hardin MD Skin Disease pictures page, for example, has sites from Sweden, Germany, Pakistan, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Taiwan, and Nigeria. As with lists in Hardin MD, the important element here that’s captured by non-US people, I think, is the vision to take advantage of the simple virtues of the Web to accomplish a simple task — presentation of good medical pictures.

So, having been sensitized by my work on Hardin MD, I’ve broadened my observation over the years to see how an appreciation for simplicity and elegance has become central to the Web/Tech world of Google, Twitter, Apple. I continue the story of how people from the WIDE WORLD community, with connections outside the US, have made significant contributions emphasizing simplicity and elegance.

Related articles:

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

Hardin MD Gallery pages’ simple design makes them intrinsically mobile-friendly. They work especially well on an iPhone because they fit well on the screen, as described below. To go to Hardin MD Mobile click logo:

In the rest of this article, I’ll discuss and illustrate why Hardin MD Galleries are especially usable on an iPhone. I’ll also discuss the process of mobilizing Hardin MD, describe which galleries are most usable on a mobile device now, and talk some about future development.

We’ve been pleased to realize that Hardin MD galleries work especially well on an iPhone because most images  have a similar aspect-ratio to the iPhone — 1:1.5 — which is relatively unusual for a computer screen, though very common in photography (4″x6″ snapshots).

We didn’t plan it that way, but it happens that most of the images in Hardin MD are about 720 x 480 pixels (the same 1:1.5 aspect ratio as the iPhone), in landscape orientation. So, as shown in the screenshots at left, Hardin MD images fit nicely on the iPhone screen in landscape view.

Most of the individual disease/condition galleries in HMD are fairly usable on a mobile device as they are, although the navigational thumbnail images for some are rather poor. The weakest aspect of mobile-usability is the broad-grouping super-gallery thumbnail directories — Thumbnails work well for individual galleries of pictures on a particular disease condition, but they don’t work so well for super-galleries, which have several different diseases. So we’ll be making scrolling-list menus, which work well on an iPhone, for the broad topic groups, as we work on improving the mobile navigation of the individual galleries within each group. For now, the first broad-group menu is public-domain, free-to-copy galleries.

Other super-galleries, for which we’ll make mobile menus in the future are:

Besides working to improve the mobile-accessibility of super-galleries, we’ll also be trying out a second type of mobile access for individual galleries, by putting pictures in a WordPress blog — WordPress (with a wide array of smart plugins) does a wonderful job in displaying pictures on blog pages, especially because it’s so smart in handling portrait and landscape orientation. The nice fit of Hardin MD images on an iPhone screen, described above for existing galleries, also works well in a WordPress blog. Our first one is here >> Measles pictures from CDC

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

Here’s a quick on-the-fly way to optimize Safari web browser pages that are not created with mobile optimization in mind — A quick “tap-tap” with a finger on a column of text (often the middle of three columns) will zoom the text in that column to fit the iPhone screen. This is especially useful on news and blog sites, as in the first example below. In the library realm, it works nicely on LibGuides pages, in the second example. It works in landscape as well as portrait view, and with pictures, as shown in the third example (Hardin MD) below.

The first example is from the Chicago Sun-Times:

The Dermatology LibGuide page from Hardin Library, University of Iowa:

A page from the Hardin MD Gallery, showing the utility of double-tapping for pictures. Note that the size of the picture decreases to fit on the screen, instead of expanding, as in the text columns in the previous examples.

A good 1-min video demo of double-tapping at Todd Ogasawara’s MobileViews blog is here.

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

[This article accompanies previous article: Tagging in Hardin MD]

Soon after the launching of Hardin MD, in 1996, we began adding keywords in the hidden META keyword field (The first pages for HMD in Internet Archive [Dec, 1998] show them on all pages checked.) We began checking to see if HMD pages were appearing in search engine results in about 2000, and found that meta keywords didn’t seem to have much effect.

So, in late 2000, we began experimenting with putting keywords (aka tags*) at the bottom of the page, where most users wouldn’t notice them. At first we didn’t see much effect in search engine results, when using the tags mostly for variant spellings or terminology (e.g. on the Hematology page: blood diseases, haematology).

In 2001, as Google rose to prominence, and Search improved, we began using tools that gave the ability to see the popularity of specific words (HitBox, ExtremeTrackingWordTracker). We learned that using mis-spelled word variants as tags worked very well in drawing SE traffic. It was also during this time that links to pictures were being added to HMD, and we discovered the power of the word “pictures” in drawing SE traffic.

Time-line of tagging in Hardin MD

Based on invaluable help from Internet Archive — Starting from here: Internet Archive for Hardin MD, 1999+

The first HMD pages in Internet Archive in Dec, 1998 have meta keywords, but not tags on the page. Example of meta keywords (Hardin MD: Cardiology): health, medicine, medical, nursing, nurses, nurse, disease, diseases, best, list, lists, consumer, cardiology, cardiac, heart, stroke, cardiovascular, cardiothoracic, pacemaker, defibrillator, attack, arrest

Tagging for misspellings – Ophthalmology, I’m sure, would have been one of the first pages on which misspellings would have been used. Internet Archive pages show clearly that the first implementation was in early November, 2000. …

Ophthalmology, Nov 7, 2000 – No misspellings in meta keywords. There are no tags on page.
Ophthalmology, Nov 15, 2000 – Has misspellings in meta keywords and on page: [ophthamology]

This fits my memory of events — I was especially motivated to look for ways to draw Web traffic, because Google was just becoming prominent, rationalizing the search process, and making it easier to predict the effects of changes on page traffic.

Other examples of pages with tags on the page, with variant spellings, from about the same time: Orthopedics Nov 16, 2000 [orthopaedics] and Hematology Nov 29, 2000 [blood diseases, haematology]

Use of the word “pictures,” in tagging and in page titles

First use: Genital Warts Jun 10, 2002

First widespread use – Several pages linked on Hardin MD Index page Sept 30, 2002

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

Google Flu trends is an elegant application of search data to medicine. Working on Hardin MD, I’ve long noticed seasonal variations in certain diseases — Colds, flu, & respiratory illnesses peak in winter, and insect bites & sun exposure conditions peak in summer. I pay a lot of attention to the search terms that people use to get to Hardin MD pages, so Google’s mining of this data to serve the health of the community is especially interesting.

The idea of Google Flu Trends is shown nicely in the snapshot above from the animation at the Google Flu Trends site — Google finds that there is an excellent correlation between flu-related terms that people search and the occurrence of flu, as measured by CDC data. And, as shown in the animation, the Google search data in near real-time precedes CDC data, which takes 1-2 weeks to be reported and compiled.

Complications

The idea of using search data to track the progression of disease outbreaks certainly is elegant, and Google deserves congratulations for it. In choosing flu as the first example, however, Google has chosen a disease with complicating factors.

The nature of these potentially complicating factors is suggested in the graphic above from the Google Flu Trends site — A big question here is — What caused the spike in flu occurrence and flu search activity in Dec 2003 – Jan 2004?

Because Google has chosen not to reveal the exact search terms that they are using to determine the volume of searching for flu-related searching (see supplementary material accompanying Google’s paper in Nature), it’s difficult to know the cause of the 03-04 spike with certainty. But looking back at the chronology of that time period sheds light — There was a major shortage of the flu vaccine in late 2004, which is certainly related to the spike shown in the graphic — The CDC spike (yellow) shows that many people had flu, presumably because they were unable to get the vaccine. The Google spike (blue) is even higher, which may indicate that there were a significant number of people searching for flu information not because they were infected, but because they were looking for information on how to get the vaccine. The accompanying article (Flu Symptoms vs Flu Shot) shows that there is in fact a clear indication of heightened search activity for flu vaccine-related terms during the autumn pre-flu season.

The other complicating factor in looking at flu-related search activity is bird flu, and this seems to have been addressed well by Google — The large bird flu outbreak in Asia, and corresponding bird flu scare throughout the world, occurred in late 2004 and early 2005. Since there is no major spike shown in the graphs for this time, Google apparently has excluded bird flu/avian flu search terms from the aggregate group of terms it’s using.

** This is one of a group of three articles on Google Flu Trends:

Together, these articles suggest that, although it’s difficult to know with assurance because Google has not revealed the search terms that they use for GFT, it seems likely that they’ve done a good job in working around the complications of flu-related search patterns.

In the last year, we’ve begun to include the copyright status of pictures on Hardin MD pages. We have especially done this to show which pictures are not under copyright and are therefore free to copy.

Recently Peter Brantley suggested that libraries should make it easy for users to find public domain content on their sites. So, with thanks to Brantley for this idea, we’ve made a page that shows public domain galleries for specific diseases (see snip below).

Brantley also suggests that libraries with public domain content make the content available from a specific directory called /public. This seems like a good idea, and we will be considering it.