Updated August 15, 2020
Using a search engine and a library catalog are very different experiences. The Internet makes finding information easier than ever. Finding useful, accurate, and reliable information remains as difficult as ever. Something called search engine optimization both helps and hinders.
Library collections must be highly selective. On the other hand, anyone can post something on the Internet. So library catalogs and databases necessarily work differently from search engines.
What happens when you use a search engine?
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 page of results. 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.
Every day, people add an unimaginable number of pages to the Internet. Whoever wants more than close friends and family to find it wants to get on to the first page of the search results.
The search engines have certain algorithms to put what seems to be most relevant at the top of the results. They change them constantly and never really divulge the formula, but basically the web crawlers look. for certain clues. The general categories in the algorithms remain fairly constant. That’s where search engine optimization comes into play.
What is search engine optimization?
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 will probably never rank for my most important keywords. After all, I’m competing against other, larger companies with teams of experts doing nothing else but search engine optimization.
The long answer is that I can do certain things both as I write and after I have published that will influence the web crawler. I can rank for so-called long-tail keywords. That is, I can rank for longer phrases that not many people search. But the few people who do will find this post at the top. That’s where I’ll get traffic.
So what can I do to 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 keywords frequently–probably more frequently than I would think to use them naturally, but hopefully not enough to make my post hard to read.
Notice that I just 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. And it knows nothing but zeros and ones, or switches that are on or off.
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.
How to do search engine optimization apart from keywords
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 link 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? For one thing, I can mention this post on my social media accounts 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. (If you like this post, share it!)
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.
Why search engine optimization matters
Suppose of all the Internet content about search engines and libraries, 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, a high ranking in the search results has little or nothing to do with how useful or accurate the information is. It’s only an algorithm’s best guess.
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 can hire full-time staff to do search engine optimization. Well-established bloggers who have lots of dedicated readers have so many inbound links they no longer have to work on making their own. These people will inevitably outrank the person who writes only for humans or who does not already have a following.
How using a search engine differs from using a library
Librarians used to select each title. Now they probably rely on approval plans with the publishers, but publishers hire human editors to decide what to publish. Authors have to write what will please human gatekeepers. They don’t 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 inadequate 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 written to try to manipulate some search algorithm.
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.
That said, every library has a web page. And if it wants anyone to find its web content, it needs to practice good search engine optimization.
Now that you know something about search engine optimization, remember that it’s only for the Internet. It doesn’t apply to 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 at least as far as p. 9 or 10 of the results.