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SEO and Librarians: Interview with Shari Thurow

Interview about LIS (Library and Information Sciences) and how it relates to search engine optimisation

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What are the particular skills that LIS pros can bring to SEO, IA and web usability?

Thurow: Before we begin, let's be sure that all readers know what these abbreviations mean.

SEO = Search Engine Optimization

SEO is the abbreviation for search engine optimisation (or optimization). On the Web, search engine optimisation is commonly viewed as the process of optimising a website for people who use search engines.

Notice that there are two parts to the definition: people (searchers) and search engines. Optimisation should accommodate BOTH people and technology. In my opinion, few SEO professionals understand both the technical element and the human element equally.

Polar bear book by Rosenfeld, Morville, & ArangoI believe there is a tremendous amount of misinformation and unfortunate prejudices surrounding the SEO industry. Not all SEO professionals are "snake-oil salesmen," but I would be foolish to not admit that there are plenty of unscrupulous "snake-oil" SEO practitioners out in the world. It is this "snake-oil" group that gives SEO industry a bad reputation, which is unfortunate, because some truly gifted, talented SEO professionals have a lot to contribute to the study and evolution of information sciences.

IA = Information Architecture

IA is the abbreviation for information architecture. IA is also widely misinterpreted and misunderstood, especially among SEO practitioners.

I am a big fan of the book Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond, written by Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville, and Jorge Arango. They define information architecture as:

  1. The structural design of shared information environments.
  2. The combination of organization, labeling, search, and navigation systems within Web sites and intranets.
  3. The art and science of shaping information products and experiences to support usability and findability.
  4. An emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

(Reference: Information Architecture 3.0 by Peter Morville).

I believe that some of the key components of information architecture are categorization, organization, labeling, and prioritization. Guess which group is skilled and talented at these very things? Librarians. I deeply admire and respect the skills librarians and other information scientists possess.

LIS = Library and Information Sciences

LIS is the abbreviation for Library and Information Sciences. For librarians and information scientists? The meaning of this industry is obvious. For those outside of the LIS industry? The meaning is not so obvious.

At some search engine conferences, I have been criticized for mentioning that I am getting my doctorate degree in LIS because LIS supposedly has nothing to do with the search industry.

The criticism is strange to me because some simple search-engine queries can show LIS curricula at various universities.

Believe me, LIS professionals have so much to contribute to the SEO industry. Further reading will provide details.

You've mentioned before that there are a couple of LIS courses you advise non-librarian SEOs to take – what are they, and why are they vital?

Thurow: True story. My co-author, Nick Musica, called me to tell me about this wonderful book he read, entitled The Organization of Information by Arlene Taylor.

I laughed so hard that I couldn't breathe well for a minute or so. Reason? That book was required reading for one of my courses in graduate school, Information Organization and Access.

The Organization of Information bookI honestly believe that if all SEO professionals took a course about the organization of information from an LIS department, and honestly did the work to get a passing grade, they would be much better at their jobs than they are now. I know it made me a better SEO professional.

I think the following is true to a wide variety of industries, not only the search industry. Sometimes, we become so involved and so passionate about our work that we lose perspective of the big picture.

I remember when one of my professors told me about meta tags from the Motion Picture Association of America. I remember having to do multiple metadata crosswalks.

As an SEO professional, I dismissed meta-tag information because metadata was abused in the name of top rankings. As an LIS graduate student, I learned to appreciate the value of metadata, and when it is needed and useful.

Another class that is valuable is Use and Users of Information. Do you know what SEO professionals have a difficult time doing? Understanding the user…understanding the searcher.

When you code, design, write, optimise, etc. a website, you have to remember that you are not coding, designing, writing, etc. for you. You are doing all of those things for people who are NOT you.

Users do not have the same mental models that you have. They do not use the same words that you might use. They do not act the same way you might act. In addition, users often say they will do things on a website and ultimately do something completely different.

Usability test for a library website

I remember being in a class where I was one of the test participants for a public library website.

In primary navigation, one of the navigation labels said "youths," I did not understand the label. The assigned task was about locating a specific book for teenagers.

My mental model did not match that particular book title with "youths." What is the age range for youths? Does the age range include teenagers?

So do you know what I did? I looked up the phone number for the reference desk on the website. I wanted to ask the reference librarian to help me locate this book.

The students running the usability test told me I couldn't call the reference desk, which I thought was ridiculous. I was being a genuine, authentic test participant. I wasn't trying to get a right or wrong answer. I demonstrated what I honestly would do.

I kept repeating myself to reinforce my point...usability is about task completion. I showed my way of completing this particular task.

These particular LIS graduate students didn't get it. To them, the navigation label "youths" was not confusing. No test participant was going to tell them otherwise.

It was a very eye-opening experience.

Recommended LIS classes

The following two courses are fantastic for understanding how people locate and discover desired content:

  • Information Organization and Access
  • Use and Users of Information

Of course, other universities and colleges might have different names for these classes.

IMHO, these LIS courses are valuable because they helped reinforce these concepts:

  1. People do not organize information based on data from keyword research tools, and
  2. SEO professionals need to recognize that they are optimizing for people who do not have the same mental models they have.

Search Engine Visibility

Search Engine Visibility Book Companion Website

When Search Meets Web Usability

When Search Meets Usability Book Companion Site

Are librarians themselves making the most of their skills, in this online environment?

Thurow: It pains me to answer this question. I am dumbfounded that librarians are not making the most of their skills when their skills are so badly needed.

I believe the problem is twofold: the librarian stereotype and the SEO stereotype.

Librarian stereotype

What is your mental model when you are given the word "librarian"?

  • A quiet woman with thick glasses who is rather conservative?
  • Is she a bibliophile due to her lack of social skills?
  • Does she have limited or no technical skills?

Unfortunately, this is a very pervasive stereotype. It is reinforced in the media and the entertainment industry.

I love librarians. I've loved them since I've been a small child. To me, they always knew where to get all sorts of information. All you had to do was ask politely.

I wish I were a fly on the wall the day I discovered the reference desk. And I wish I were a fly on the wall the day I discovered that there were reference desks for multiple industries (health, education, law, literature, religion, etc.)

That is my mental model of librarians and information scientists – a positive image of my brain expanding.

SEO stereotype

On the flip side, what is the SEO stereotype? Unfortunately, I'm afraid it is a negative one:

  • People who "game" the commercial Web search engines
  • Snake-oil salesmen (or salespeople)

I admit that some people in the SEO industry deserve that negative reputation. Others, like me, do not deserve the stereotype

I honestly believe that librarians would make really great SEO professionals if they could just get past this stereotype. SEO is about "aboutness" and the "scent of information." Librarians are amazing at establishing "aboutness" consistently. They just have to remember to use the users' (searchers') language.

Librarians are also amazingly skilled at categorization and cross referencing. Personally, I am still working on improving these skills. I have much to learn from librarians.

If not, what opportunities might they be missing as a result? What's the risk if they don't play a central role?

Thurow: The media has taken control over "aboutness." What I loved about the SEO industry initially is that users told us what content they desired. Now, we have de-evolved to the media and advertising firms telling us what we want…again.

Well screw the advertising firms and the media. We librarians are very talented at listening to patrons and helping them locate and discover desired content.

Why have we stopped doing that?

I took many library courses in grade school. I learned how to research. Why aren't librarians taking the bull by the proverbial horn and teaching people how to search well? Why aren't we teaching people how to critically evaluate resources in search results? Why not?

Are we intimidated by the technology? We shouldn't be intimidated.

I remember taking this wonderful class in my first graduate program in Asian Studies (Japanese). It was a required class. I had to learn how to research Asian resources in (American) English and western languages (which was class 1) and also in Japanese and other Asian languages (class 2). My term paper ended up being my first scholarly publication.

But I was angry, believe it or not, throughout the class. Why did I have to wait to be a graduate student to learn how to research like this? Why weren't freshmen required to take this type of course? What was the reason? No one had an answer for me. Such a great course…such wonderful skills to have.

Now we are in an age where kids believe that if a site gets the #1 position in Google, the content on that site must be true. Try undoing that mental model after over 10 years of grade school.

Librarians need to step up to the plate and teach people critical finding skills as well as critical thinking skills. I understand that what I am saying is no small feat, as I am talking about curricula changes from grade school through university. But I have a motto, "Step 1 is better than Step 0." We can do it.

Do LIS pros need to re-invent themselves? What is their future role?

Thurow: Do you know what I find very fascinating about both LIS and SEO pros? They both have the same problem. They must get past their own stereotypes, prejudices, mental models, etc. to see the big picture.

Peter Morville wrote this wonderful book called Ambient Findability. "Ambient" means "completely surrounding; encompassing."

Ambient Findability book by Peter MorvilleFindability is more than Google. It's more than a search engine. Findability is all around us. It is a critical component of the user experience on a website, in a car, on an elevator (or lift).

Findability affects all of us in so many ways. We just choose not to see it.

Once LIS pros can get past their initial fear of technology (if they have that fear) and their prejudices, they can make the Web so much more usable and useful. They can create great resource sites, authoritative sites.

They should listen to truly gifted SEO professionals to help them with online findability. Together, librarians and SEO professionals can make great sites.

Librarians have so much to contribute to the SEO industry. They have so much to contribute to the education of children, teens, and adults.

Librarians shouldn't horde their search knowledge. They should teach. They should share. They should speak up when a search engine rep is full of hooha. Take the librarian stereotype and "stick it where the sun don't shine."

The relative importance of different SEO techniques changes depending on how the search engine companies change their algorithms. Which SEO techniques are becoming more important at the moment, and which are proving less important?

Thurow: I am so different from other SEO professionals because I do not consider myself an "algoholic." (Step 1: Admit you have a problem.) I believe in principles, and there are 4 SEO principles that a site should follow.

Keywords are important for establishing and maintaining aboutness. There are places where keyword usage is extremely important (titles). What is each file on your website about? Have you labeled it well? Do those labels make sense to your users? Are your labels distinguishable?

I like to think of link development as validation – validation that other objective parties say the same or similar things about your content that you do. This combination of internal and external aboutness really helps findability overall, not only in Google.

Site architecture (information architecture + technical architecture) and page layout provide access to content. But it also can provide context, a sense of place, aboutness, and information scent if it is done well. Plenty of SEO professionals understand the accessibility part.

Most SEO professionals, in my opinion, do not understand information architecture and emotional design. Wouldn't it be great if they did?

I have said for many, many years that SEO is optimising for people who use search engines.

The fourth principle is about users. I have said for many, many years that SEO is optimising for people who use search engines. People find desired content through querying, browsing, and asking. They do not query only. They do not browse only. They do not ask only. They do all 3 of these things. If we continually study and understand how and why people locate and discover desired content? Wow. What a great interface. What a great search tool.

These are the 4 principles that I focus on. I try not to waste my time on flavor-of-the-month SEO.

Do you notice any trends in where the strengths and weaknesses are in LIS – and other – websites at the moment (eg the architecture, the design, writing, usability, optimisation, content?)

Thurow: The weakness I find in LIS sites is not using the users' language consistently, especially in the U.S.

I understand that, as graduate students, we must learn LIS jargon to succeed in our academic and professional programs. But we don't know this jargon as new students. We don't know this jargon as children.

How about putting the academic ego aside and start using the users' language a little more? Step 1 is better than Step 0.

As library scientists, we are taught effective taxonomies. Great! Now what about the rest of the world? They don't understand the architecture, the taxonomy. In fact, the word "taxonomy" results in eyes glazing over.

Instead of thinking, "Do it my way because my way is better/more efficient/etc." Think, "How can I help you understand a more efficient way, a better way, of doing XYZ? What do you need?"

Think about it. We all hate it when techies make us feel stupid. We blame ourselves when we can't understand something on a computer.

Instead of letting techies convince us that we are stupid and ignorant, we should be telling them that they are the ones who are failing us. They designed and programmed an interface that makes sense to them.

Of course it makes sense to them! They created it!

Put that interface (website) in a real environment and observe how people use it. Watch them succeed. Watch them fail. Watch the roadblocks. Watch the innovation and resourcefulness.

Evolve your interface. Make content findable. Make labels clear and distinguishable. Everybody wins.

But it means letting go of your ego and your prejudices, and listening to people who do not think and act the same way you do. I know it is difficult to let go of prejudices. It is amazing to see the growth and innovation when you do.

Are libraries getting their strategies right with Web 2.0?

Thurow: No. Libraries don't even get the principles of SEO right. Let's begin with that, and then apply those fundamentals to Web 2.0, Web 5.0, Web 5 million point 0.

What impact do you see mobile computing having, and how should LIS professionals respond?

Thurow: I was amazed to discover that currently, the #1 type of mobile information query is trivia. (See Mobile Searcher Behavior Should Drive Design & SEO for references.)

This is a tough question for me to answer, because mobile searcher needs are very different from desktop searcher needs. Too many "techie" people want to lump everything into one website, but I just cannot imagine that right now as information needs change with the environment.

This is my opinion: make the reference desk's phone number prominent on the mobile version of the site. But that's all I can say about this topic right now. Mobile needs are just so different.

Are LIS pros making the most of free tools like Google Analytics and Google Website Optimizer? Are there any others that LIS should be using?

Thurow: There are so many keyword research tools available on the Web. Libraries should also review site search engine data to see where they might improve or develop content.

Here is a list of available tools. I do not endorse all of these tools, but it is a good starting point. The Ultimate SEO Tools List – 50+ Tools to do it all…

The 'soft' qualitative discipline of user research and the 'hard' quantitative science of web analytics have often been kept separate. Have you got any advice on how best to successfully bring them together?

Thurow: Ooooh….why did you say that user research is "soft"? User research is very scientific, far more than you might believe. Have you ever heard of Jeff Sauro? If you go to [the blog section of] his site, you might sing a different tune about the "softness" of usability data.

Web analytics does not tell you why a person does something.

Let's use bounce rate as an example. People assume that a high bounce rate is bad, and more page views per visitor are good.

Suppose a person is searching for a quick fact. And he finds that quick fact on your website. So he leaves your website. Does that person have a good search experience? Yes, he does.

Now let's assume the same searcher cannot find his desired content. He jumps back and forth between category and product pages to find his desired content, a behavior called pogo-sticking. Guess what? Pogo-sticking is a negative findability behavior.

Jared Spool at User Interface Engineering found that the number of products evaluated by pogo-sticking is only 11% (see Are the Product Lists on Your Site Reducing Sales?). Shoppers who pogo-stick make fewer purchases.

But that's more page views per visitor, which is supposed to be good, right? Wrong. In this case, which is more common than many of us care to admit, the search experience is a negative one.

Website owners need to understand how people search as well as why people search – the big picture. To me, discovering the hows and the whys is fun, like solving a big jigsaw puzzle.

Any advice on getting internal search right? (What at the major ways that organisations get it wrong?)

Thurow: Guess what? If you optimize your site well for Google, establishing and maintaining aboutness and information scent, you will improve your site's internal search.

I think that it is difficult to make content distinguishable and consistent in a way that both humans and computers understand. One word might not be enough to make content distinguishable for humans, but it might work well enough for computers.

Do web apps, etc. presage the end of the open web, and the rise of closed and proprietary domains?

Thurow: No. Aboutness, information scent, distinguishability, usability, etc. are applicable to Web applications as well as Web pages.

And could this 'Splinternet' replace the internet and end SEO as we know it today?

Thurow: Aboutness, information scent, distinguishability, etc. are applicable to the "Splinternet" as well.

Do you have any advice on monitoring social media? Is sentiment analysis ever going to work well enough?

Thurow: Social media existed long before the term was invented and popularized. Back in the 1990s, newsgroups, forums, moderated discussion lists were the social media of the time. You could measure ROI (return on investment) from these resources then. You can measure ROI from social media resources now.

There is a big problem with social media, and I have mentioned it before. We are confusing popularity with authority. (See Peter Morville's comments at: Authority).

Sentiment analysis…interesting term. Of course, I do not wish to completely discount popular opinion as a source of information. But we should see it as it is, popularity, and not misconstrue it as authority.

Read almost any SEO article about information architecture and SEO. Then ask a professional information architect what he or she thinks about an SEO professional's interpretation of "information architecture." You will find a significant divergence of opinions.

Do the same thing with SEO and usability. But the SEOed articles are popular. And that is what I would call them: popular. Authoritative? No. Popular? Yes.

My advice about social media? Don't jump in the deep end of the pool. Claim your brand and your trademarks. Do pilot tests first. If you get ROI, then build upon that.

If you don't? Use your time and resources elsewhere. Plenty of sites don't need blogs. Plenty of sites don't need Facebook or Twitter.

For businesses and organizations that use blogs? A blog is a website like any other website. It needs to be categorized. Labels need to be distinguishable and scannable. Content should be findable. Findability, aboutness, information scent, and usability are applicable to social media, too.

What's the role of the LIS pro in managing information overload (given that software houses are working on personalised solutions and findability, rather than the searchability of the past)?

Thurow: Findability and searchability are not mutually exclusive concepts. Query-friendliness (searchability) is a key component of findability.

The LIS pro needs to see his or her value in the software industry. If software engineers want to build products that sell, they would be very wise to hire LIS pros to help establish aboutness and information scent in everything. Hire an information architect. Hire usability professionals. Perform ongoing usability tests. And LISTEN TO THEM.

Seriously, listen to them. I have seen too many LIS professionals' opinions and test results pushed aside because following their guidelines is "too hard" or will "take too long."

I understand that we are in an industry of, "I want it yesterday." I have seen how much it costs to re-architect a website, a content management system, a Web application, etc. because people do not understand the downstream dependence of findability.

They learn the hard way, and sometimes they don't learn at all. The cat-and-mouse game is a perfectly acceptable business model for many organizations.

I have also seen the results of a usable, findable website, content management system, and Web application. Less maintenance costs, scalability, less help desk calls, better brand perception…I prefer this method.

Plenty of organizations will make the mistake of "I want it yesterday." Plenty of organizations will not. Find the ones who are not willing to make that mistake. It will be a better environment for an LIS pro.

And if you can't find that environment? Hey, we all learn from mistakes. So learn. Adapt. Evolve.

Do you have any advice for updating lists of tags/keywords/classification terms in relation to outdated or obsolete ones. Is it better to replace outdated terms (for example, replacing the term STDs with STIs), so the list doesn't become unwieldy, or to add new terms but keep the old ones too, so that people who still use those terms can find what they're looking for?

Thurow: Aha! A usability question! And a good one.

One of the issues that usability addresses is error prevention. A cross-reference link is a perfectly acceptable type of link to help users achieve their information goal. If you go to the Mayo Clinic website:

Click [or tap] the letter "S" to see STD. It links to a web page that is the overview page for Sexually Transmitted Diseases. You can always add a link that leads to this page for STI, or vice versa.

If you have a reference page (dictionary or glossary), you can also include obsolete terms.

In literature, I have often encountered the word "consumption," which was used instead of "tuberculosis." I had to look it up on a reference site to see what it means.

Did I think highly of the site that gave me the quick fact? Of course I did. So will students and other users. Guess whose site they will click on (in search results) when they need another quick fact?

Part of the information architecture process is prioritization. Which terms are commonly misspelled? Which abbreviations are commonly misunderstood?

Mine your site search engine data. Use the Web keyword research tools. Monitor your Web analytics. Honestly evaluate which terms you should cross reference and which terms you can perhaps archive.

Guess what? These obsolete terms make a great list, too. Or a quiz. There are creative and fun ways to teach online. And people remember the site that was easy to use and fun.

In conclusion, LIS professionals have so much to contribute to the SEO industry. We have the skills. We have the knowledge. But we all must let go of our prejudices, and we also must not be afraid to debunk the stereotypes about us.

I realize I might sound like the stereotypical U.S. American with my forthrightness and passion. But I've taken many LIS courses. I have applied them directly to my job as an SEO and usability professional.

I'm a better SEO and usability professional because of those classes because I swallowed my stereotypical American pride and decided to learn from people who are so much more skilled and knowledgeable than I am.

I think reference librarians are amazing. Let's bring your knowledge and expertise to the rest of the world. I believe you all can do it. I hope you believe it, too.


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