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Search Engine Visibility and the Future of Libraries

Steve Rubel, over at the Micro Persuasion blog, evocatively writes that Google is every brand's homepage. For the purposes of today's post, let's substitute "library" for "brand." Google is every library's homepage. Let's face that fact. We know that information-seeking students, business people, and citizens go to Google first, and may turn to a library if they can't find what they're looking for there. So how can we capitalize on that?

Rubel highlights several ways that brands [libraries] can become more visible to Google searchers in his company's "Search Engine Visibility" position paper. A lot of this is focused on public relations professionals, and trots out baleful expressions like "search engine marketing" (as important as, okay, I'll grudgingly admit that is), but the broad concept of this position paper is highly relevant to the future of libraries. The content that libraries make available has to be visible to search engines, because that is where people look for information. Articles, books, programming... all of it has to be findable via Google.

In some ways, libraries have relied on our vendors to move content into the search sphere - and rightfully so. It is, after all, our vendor's content we're talking about. A relatively long-standing service like Access My Library from Gale/Cengage, which gives article abstracts to search engines and directs searchers to their local library websites, is a good example. A newer effort like WorldCat Local, which connects searchers to books owned at their nearest library, is an example of a vendor helping to make libraries' content more findable.

But libraries have also gotten a head-start on a different search engine visibility strategy by embracing social media in inspiringly high numbers. One of Rubel's two "search engine visibility disciplines" is Social Search. As Rubel notes, "With Google and competitors increasingly prioritizing social content from Flickr, blogs, Twitter and others in result pages, it is imperative that brands build out 'embassies' in all relevant networks." Libraries have done this admirably well so far. Many institutions have created blogs, Flickr accounts, Twitter profiles, and more to tell their stories. As search engines continue to prioritize this content, our stories will be better found online.

Here's an important point: I don't think this move is entirely about sheepishly following the crowds to Google. In a larger way, I think it can be helpful to think about making all of our content more broadly findable as preparing to deal with the rising tide of information overload. Right now, the best available piece of technology useful in dealing with a huge amount of information is search. Search allows you to find instances of keywords regardless of metadata completeness, variations in taxonomy, incompatible standard language, and all of the other issues that arise from content generated from multiple sources without a unified plan (uh, Internet, we're looking at you). It may not be pretty, but it works. And I'd guess that the next online innovations are going to be built around search - be those Google's innovations or someone else's.

Making our content visible to search is practical now and will help us drive traffic to our libraries in the years to come.

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