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Google is a Librarian: Teaches SEO to non-specialists

Google is a Librarian: Teaches SEO to non-specialists

Training non-specialists so that they are able to identify the ways in which SEO crosses their own roles is an essential part of the development of any SEO program.

After all, everyone whose work touches a site has the potential to influence the site’s organic search – for better or worse. Having SEO-read allies in other teams is an important ingredient in scaling SEO strategies.

A basic understanding of how search engines work and what factors influence ranking can enable them to consider the opportunities and risks that their work poses.

As anyone who has tried it can tell you, training other teams in SEO can produce mixed results.

SEO is a complicated and constantly changing discipline with very few black and white answers. It makes it an exciting topic to immerse ourselves in, but difficult to make it easily digestible for those who are more tangentially involved.

In this column, we will explore an analogy and way of framing your SEO educational efforts that can help your non-SEO colleagues better maintain search-related knowledge, understand the context of your SEO efforts, and be better allied to your program as whole.


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Training of non-specialists in SEO

Even with my education, many years of SEO experience and a curious and willing audience, teaching high-level SEO theory in a usable way was a challenge for a long time. I have a long list of “things that did not work.”

In-depth and detailed basic training seemed like a thorough approach, but when people received large amounts of information on a new topic – either at once or bit-by-bit – it proved impossible for them to maintain in the long run.

On the other hand, it seemed to be more digestible while things were simple and only teaching people the small fraction of the topic that concerned them, but it often came at the expense of coherence. It again undermined confidence in their new knowledge.

The results of both of these approaches were the same: minimal knowledge retention and little or no meaningful adoption.

In order for people to be able to absorb training, evaluate their own understanding, and apply what they have learned in their own work, they need to understand concepts quickly and then fill in the gaps gradually.


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One of the best ways to achieve this when we introduce new and unknown concepts is to take advantage of the way our brains work, using a metaphor. Good metaphors can be an incredibly powerful teaching tool as they allow us to leverage people’s existing understanding of a familiar concept and use it as a framework to introduce a new, unknown.


Google, the librarian

As a teenager in the late 1990s, I like to imagine Rupert Giles, the school librarian from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, here. But any librarian of your choice will work.

Functionally, the role that Google performs is incredibly similar to that of a librarian.

They both curate an index of information and resources. And when people come to them with questions or topics, they use their knowledge of this index as well as their experience in helping past people suggest a range of resources that may contain the content sought.

Explaining the concept in this way performs two important functions:

It uses the framework for libraries to form the basis of the rest of the SEO training. It centers the person with the query, not the search engine.

This second point is crucial. This means that you build SEO knowledge on a foundation of “doing what’s best for the user” and not “ticking arbitrary fields for an algorithm” – an inappropriate perception of actual interference and focus on technical matters.

With this context set, we can now further develop the metaphor and start talking about the factors that influence which resources are chosen for the user.

Websites and book features

Let’s say that every time a person walks into a library with a query, the librarian offers them about ten books that they think most likely have the answers they need.

We know that books have specific functions that a) help ensure that they are indexed in the right place, and b) increase the librarian’s confidence in their suitability and relevance.


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What would be the equivalents when it comes to Google hosting web pages?

You can use the comparisons that work best for the point you are communicating, but here are some I’ve used in the past:

Book functionWeb page functionCategoryIndicatesBook titlePage title, H1RelevanceMain topic / topicChapter titlesHeaderTagsRelevanceSubject topics, content structureBlurbMeta descriptionRelevanceSummary of contentPublication datePage last updatedRelevance -Indent

Genre and content

When Google crawls pages, it also equates to “flipping through” a book to see if the content generally resembles existing, proven top results. It also looks at whether the content covers not only the main topic but also the expected related topics.

While a slightly more exciting metaphor, this is an important aspect to communicate – especially when working with content teams and copywriters who may continue to do their own keyword research.

It is important for them to learn how to expand the scope of their content a bit so that touching on related topics can improve the search efficiency of the main target phrase and correct the misconception that many non-specialists hold that SEO means keyword stuffing.


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User feedback and personalization

Over time, similar individuals with similar queries will visit the library. Each time the librarian offers them resources, the way they respond will provide important information about how well their needs were met.

For example, a person might take a book that looks promising, open it, and then put it down right away. If this happens often, the librarian may choose not to recommend it so highly next time.

On the other hand, if users continue to pick and check a particular book, even if it is a little further down the pile they are offered, it may need to be placed closer to the top of the pile in the future.

Understanding that Google does the same thing humanizes metrics like bounce rate and clickthrough rate, which can be alienating to anyone who lacks confidence in data analytics.

Using the analogy effectively

Across all the SEO 101 training sessions and introductions I have given, the librarian analogy has been the most effective tool I have ever used.


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I have at times adapted it and go into as much or as little detail as the situation required. But it has consistently helped communicate what was to be understood.

Using it effectively requires three main considerations.

First, make sure that the comparisons you make serve the message you are teaching. If not, try customizing it to better suit your needs. The examples given worked well for my purposes, but it is important to make it work for you.

Second, recognize the limitations of the analogy. Know when you need to go outside of it to talk directly about SEO and search engines. If you stretch the metaphor too far, it will dilute its power and confuse your audience.

Finally have fun with it. Teaching using an analogy makes the subject more accessible, which encourages engagement, making the training easier to understand and more memorable.

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