Revisiting the Library Flip – Why Librarians Need to Know About SEO

What does information literacy mean in the age of web search engines? I’ve been arguing for some time (e.g. in The Library Flip) that one of the core skills going forward for those information professionals who “help people find stuff” is going to be SEO – search engine optimisation. Why? Because increasingly people are attuned to searching for “stuff” using a web search engine (you know who I’m talking about…;-); and if your “stuff” doesn’t appear near the top of the organic results listing (or in the paid for links) for a particular query, it might as well not exist…

Whereas once academics and students would have traipsed into the library to ask the one of the High Priestesses to perform some magical incantation on a Dialog database through a privileged access terminal, for many people research now starts with a G. Which means that if you want your academics and students to find the content that you’d recommend, then you have to help get that content to the top of the search engine listings.

With the rate of content production growing to seventy three tera-peta-megabits a second, or whatever it is, does it make sense to expect library staffers to know what the good content is, any more (in the sense of “here, read this – it’s just what you need”)? Does it make even make sense to expect people to know where to find it (in the sense of “try this database, it should contain what you need”)? Or is the business now more one of showing people how to go about finding good stuff, wherever it is (in the sense of “here’s a search strategy for finding what you need”) and helping the search engines see that stuff as good stuff?

Just think about this for a moment. If your service is only usable by members of your institution and only usable within the locked down confines of your local intranet, how useful is it?

When your students leave your institution, how many reusable skills are they taking away? How many people doing informal learning or working within SMEs have access to highly priced, subscription content? How useful is the content in those archives anyway? How useful are “academic information skills” to non-academics and non-students? (I’m just asking the question…;-)

And some more: do academic courses set people up for life outside? Irrespective of whether they do or not, does the library serve students on those courses well within the context of their course? Does the library provide students with skills they will be able to use when they leave the campus and go back to the real world and live with Google. (“Back to”? Hah – I wonder how much traffic on HEI networks is launched by people clicking on links from pages that sit on the domain?) Should libraries help students pass their courses, or give them skills that are useful after graduation? Are those skills the same skills? Or are they different skills (and if so, are they compatible with the course related skills?)?

Here’s where SEO comes in – help people find the good stuff by improving the likelihood that it will be surfaced on the front page of a relevant web search query. For example, “how to cite an article“. (If you click through, it will take you to a Google results page for that query. Are you happy with the results? If not, you need to do one of two things – either start to promote third party resources you do like from your website (essentially, this means you’re doing off-site SEO for those resources) OR start to do onsite and offsite SEO on resources you want people to find on your own site.

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re well on the way to admitting that you don’t understand how web search engines work. Which is a good first step… because it means you’ve realised you need to learn about it…)

As to how to go about it, I’d suggest one way is to get a better understanding of how people actually use library or course websites. (Another is Realising the Value of Library Data and finding ways of mining behavioural data to build recommendation engines that people might find useful.)

So to start off – find out what search terms are the most popular in terms of driving traffic to your Library website (ideally relating to some sort of resource on your site, such as a citation guide, or a tutorial on information skills); run that query on Google and see where you page comes in the results listing. If it’s not at the top, try to improve its ranking. That’s all…

For example, take a look at the following traffic (as collected by Google Analytics) coming in to the OU Library site over a short period some time ago.

A quick scan suggests that we maybe have some interesting content on “law cases” and “references”. For the “references” link, there’s a good proportion of new visitors to the OU site, and it looks from the bounce rate that half of those visited more than one page on the OU site. (We really should do a little more digging at this point to see what those people actually did on site, but this is just for argument’s sake, okay?!;-)

Now do a quick Google on “references” and what do we see?

On the first page, most of the links are relating to job references, although there is one citation reference near the bottom:

Leeds University library makes it in at 11 (at the time of searching, on

So here would be a challenge – try to improve the ranking of an OU page on this results listing (or try to boost the Leeds University ranking). As to which OU page we could improve, first look at what Google thinks the OU library knows about references:

Now check that Google favours the page we favour for a search on “references” and if it does, try to boost it’s ranking on the organic SERP. If Google isn’t favouring the page we want as its top hit on the OU site for a search on “references”, do some SEO to correct that (maybe we want “Manage Your References” to come out as the top hit?)

Okay, enough for now – in the next post on this topic I’ll look at the related issue of Search Engine Consequences, which is something that we’re all going to have to become increasingly aware of…

PS Ah, what the heck – here’s how to find out what the people who arrived at the Library website from a Google search on “references” were doing onsite. Create an advanced segment:

Google analytics advanced segment

(PS I first saw these and learned how to use them at a trivial level maybe 5 minutes ago;-)

Now look to see where the traffic came in (i.e. the landing pages for that segment):

Okay? The power of segmentation – isn’t it lovely:-)

We can also go back to the “All Visitors” segment, and see what other keywords people were using who ended up on the “How to cite a reference” page, because we’d possibly want to optimise for those, too.

Enough – time for the weekend to start :-)

PS if you’re not sure what techniques to use to actually “do SEO”, check on Academic Search Premier (or whatever it’s called), because Google and Google Blogsearch won’t return the right sort of information, will they?;-)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

26 thoughts on “Revisiting the Library Flip – Why Librarians Need to Know About SEO”

  1. Useful article.

    I just forwarded the link to this post to the two university libraries in town here in Vancouver. If others read it, I suggest they do the same to speed up the processes of helping libraries keep up with the technology available to them.


  2. As someone who graduated in ’05 with a BA in English, I can’t imagine using Google to start looking for sources for a paper. (Google is my home page.) More than half the battle of a research paper is removing the wheat from the shaft in terms of sources. Academic databases do that for you.

    That is not to say if I went back to school, I wouldn’t use Google as step 2 of looking for sources. I was a Medieval/Renaissance concentration and many times my university (Penn) didn’t have access to a journal with a really cool sounding article. In that case, I would use Google to see if I could find the article some place.

    Also, I can say without pause, that figuring out the correct way to cite something in the “Works Cited” page is always headache-inducing. I kept the Bedford Handbook on hand and still with each paper I would encounter at least one puzzle. I’m not sure SEOing “how to cite sources” would help with that. Unless, someone creates a bot that will read a scanned page and tell you how to cite it.

    Still, I think it’s wonderful that librarians and libraries are thinking hard about what new technology means to them and their users of the library. Thanks.

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  4. I find SEO to be interesting and I think it will make the internet a better resource since people will find relevant info on what they are searching for. So it is important for all of us to optimize our sites for the right keywords.

  5. Very nice! I am glad I found this article. I just printed 2 copies to hang in my office and to show my co-workers. Now its time to get to work! Thanks again!

  6. Hmm, interesting post – but I think one that would also cause a mixed reaction amongst many librarians.

    Personally I would have thought that many Librarians would consider that libraries are a completely different kettle of fish to search engines, and would not feel that it is their place to extend the library onto the web.

    I’m an SEO consultant so of course I agree with you about how important it is that the right content is found at the top of the search engines, I’m just not sure that librarians will feel that they need to do this – I’m assuming that they will expect students to come into the library to find the really important material they need on their subject – rather than doing themselves out of a job by making sure that they don’t have to – and becoming SEO consultants instead of Librarians ;-)

    It would be interesting to hear from any Librarians reading this post what their opinion is on this interesting subject.



  7. I totally agree that SEO should be a highly valuedskill in libraries. The sad point is that I think most librarians cant even spell SEO and would have to visit a library to see what it means.

  8. Hi,

    Good idea, though perhaps librarians should better try spending some effort in getting 3rd party collections providers to enhance and open their metadata so that library can expose it trught their site and library subscribed stuff becomes more findable.

    BTW i see how many commenters hijack the comments facility in this blog to blatantly advertise their stuff and get some prestige and power (clicks to their sites)… no many library answers.

    ok, for all of you, here you have something to make u move ur brains outside your normal “commercial gobbledegook”. ENJOY

  9. @Mariano
    “BTW i see how many commenters hijack the comments facility in this blog to blatantly advertise their stuff and get some prestige and power (clicks to their sites)… no many library answers.”

    I normally clean the comments of commentspam like some of the comments that appear on this post – from SEO people mainly – to sort of make a point… Those SEO people are out there actively trying to find ways of driving trafic to sites they look after.

    How many Library folk use even white hat (relevant) commenting to try to drive traffic to collections they look after? ;-)

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