All writing is rapidly becoming web writing, making search engine optimization (SEO) a core web-writing skill—and not just for marketers.
One of the things many of us who write for higher ed websites have to unlearn is the academic style of writing. If you went to college, I’m sure you are familiar with paragraphs like this one:
A new way to advance public relations research in Web–based communication is to conceptualize research using a technology acceptance model (TAM) to investigate online audiences’ push–pull media behaviors. Analyzing how users accept and use online communication technologies is important to best understand how to reach online audiences. This is especially true for targeting the ever–changing landscape of Web–based communication where demographics such as age have been shown to exhibit different communication behaviors and consumption patterns online.
—Heather Martyn and Linda M. Gallant,
“Over 50 and Wired: Web-based Stakeholder Communication,” First Monday, Vol. 17, No. 6
Interesting content for many of us higher-ed web types, but not so easy to understand. There are many even harder to understand examples out there, of course. But you get the idea.1
But it isn’t the style that interests me here. Instead, I’m interested to know how a reader would find this article in the first place when the First Monday website doesn’t use even basic search engine optimization (SEO).
A few of the issues:
<title> of the article above is—“Martyn.” And that’s what shows up in search results.
The actual title of the article is burned into a graphic, so a Google search for “over 50 and wired” doesn’t bring up the actual article, only a different page with an abstract of the article (and that comes up in seventh place).
(A listing on adademia.edu does show up in fourth place.)
The URL for the article doesn’t include the title or any keywords. It doesn’t even include the name of the journal:
http: //www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/ index.php/fm/article/view/3449/3262
Because of a
robots.txt problem, the
<meta> description doesn’t show up in search results.
Which turns out not to matter so much, since the
<meta> description is actually blank.
This isn’t an SEO issue, but it’s worth mentioning: because First Monday uses frames, if you bring this article into Instapaper, it doesn’t work at all.
So unless you already know about First Monday, you aren’t likely to find this article—which is a shame. Research on how to manage online PR for older users could be interesting to a lot of people, including those in the higher ed web community.
It should be surprising that one of the oldest peer-reviewed journals on the internet, a journal that is about the internet, and one that is dedicated to the idea of open access, should have such terrible SEO issues. I don’t mean to imply that First Monday is completely inaccessible. Once you are there, you can search the site by author, title, issue, etc. The journal is indexed in all sorts of academic indexes. However, without good SEO, First Monday’s authors are not accessible to the search techniques used by most people on the internet (also known as most people). Which means these authors are not a part of the conversation that I assume they want to be a part of.
It should be surprising. But it’s not unusual for academic journals. First Monday is far from alone among online academic journals in having poor SEO. If “one of the first openly accessible, peer–reviewed journals on the Internet,” online since 1996, can’t get this right, we shouldn’t be surprised that many others are doing even worse.2
Are many editors of academic journals worried about SEO? I don’t know. But they should be. Academic journals obviously appeal to a specialist audience, but they shouldn’t be completely divorced from the rest of the world. What happens when those who have been thinking most systematically and deeply about a subject never get to participate in the larger online conversation about their subject because of poor SEO?
For an answer, take a look at ReptileEvolution.com. Or, better yet, read Darren Naish’s post on the Scientific American blog site, Why the world has to ignore ReptileEvolution.com. As Naish sums up at the top of his post:
ReptileEvolution.com does not represent a trustworthy source that people should consult or rely on. Students, amateur researchers and the lay public should be strongly advised to avoid or ignore it.
Why is Scientific American posting this advice? Because David Peters, the proprietor of ReptileEvolution.com knows his SEO. Naish points out:
If you google the name of just about any fossil reptile, synapsid or amphibian…you get numerous hits for ReptileEvolution.com, typically high up or even top in the search results. This goes for image searches as well as for normal ones.
As it turns out, aside from being an amateur paleontologist and a gifted illustrator3, Peters is also a marketer and web designer. Which is great for ReptileEvolution.com but not so good for science, because the information provided at ReptileEvolution.com turns out to be, according to scientists who work in the field of reptile evolution, “unreliable and inaccurate.” But the average student, searching for information on pterosaurs, will find Reptile Evolution.com first. She’ll have no idea that this site is unreliable, in part because
those who publish the sort of big-scale, taxon-heavy analyses that contradict [the view of of evolution at ReptileEvolution.com]—either have no internet presence at all, or are not interested in putting images, diagrams and other representations of specimens online.
It’s not just that our academic writers don’t know how to write for the web, it seems that neither they (or their editors) know how to get what they publish found and make it appealing. As a result, their voices are missing from the online conversation—which, for better or worse, is becoming the only conversation that matters.
At a time when the entire academic enterprise is being seriously questioned—when a lack of respect for the work done by academics might be cutting your funding right now—this is a big problem.
Web Geeks to the Rescue
And this is where we, the higher-ed web pros, come in.
While we’ve been busy applying our SEO skills to market our schools, it turns out those skills are needed on the other side of the quad, too. Optimizing for search engines isn’t just a skill needed for marketing. Increasingly it’s a skill needed just to get heard on the web, which is why I say it’s becoming a core web writing skill.4
And who probably has the maddest SEO skills on your campus? You do, because you do it every day.
Time to take a walk across the quad.
But what to do when you get there? Relations between us marketing folks and the academic world aren’t always smooth. And you’re not going to get very far if you just walk over to let them know they’re doing it wrong. Here’s what might work:
Offer yourself as a classroom speaker on web-related topics. It’s fun, you’ll get to demonstrate your expertise in front of a faculty member, and it’s a great way to recruit talented work-study students. (Just listen to the questions they ask afterward. You’ll know which ones you want to hire.)
Get on some campus-wide committees. I know you’ve still got a lot of work to do on the website, but you do know it will never be done, right? Aside from a chance to get out of the office, campus-wide committees give you a chance to build up relationships with faculty and staff that might not happen otherwise. Plus, you increase your chances of being there when important web-related decisions are being made.
Keep working to educate your campus about web issues. This is difficult. It’s my experience that those of us working on a university website spent a lot of time training support staff, and we don’t always get to talk to faculty or other decision makers. But keep reaching out. We’ve had success with sending out updates about the web issues to everyone who is a registered editor in our CMS. On our campus, that includes a good number of faculty.
Since the early 90s, we have all been living through a revolution in how we communicate, a revolution as big as the transition to movable type. Those of us who spend our days working at the forefront of that revolution need to help our campuses learn to thrive in this brave new world.