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How to Explain SEO to the Illiterate – the Library Analogy

by / Thursday, 27 December 2007 / Published in Featured, Fun, Insights / Research, Natural Search / SEO
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Having spent the past few days with family and friends for the Holiday, I repeatedly found myself in the situation of trying to explain search engine optimization and how websites are not simply ‘found’ through Google. Peppered with questions about how SEO is Marketing or why Google doesn’t just do a better job, I can now claim (though likely still untrue) that I have more practice explaining search engines, websites, and why SEO matters, to the uninitiated than anyone on earth!

It occurred to me that while my previous diatribe, SEOs are more important than CFOs, was good fodder for those with a clue, many of us still have to merely explain SEO to peers and coworkers who have no idea what’s going on. To those noble SEOs braving an uphill battle each and every day, I offer a trip to your public library.

The answer lies not in a book at the library but the library itself. Think of websites as books and GoogahooMSNAsk as a librarian. Bear with me a second, this is a well practiced metaphor that will hit you in a second. Librarians serve to point you in the right direction at the library. You ask for a book and they query their index: what was a card catalogue (think, Yahoo Directory) is now a magic box called a computer that sits on their desk and into which you have no visibility (Sound like Google?). That librarian and their index have a few limitations or requirements:

  1. The book must be a book held by in the library
  2. That book must be in the library
  3. The book must be its proper place in the shelves
  4. The book must be cataloged properly

Those requirements enable the librarian (Google) to point you to your book (website). Not a book in the library? Google hasn’t found it yet. Your book isn’t in the library? Your servers are down. Not in its proper place in the shelves? Did you move your website and change its address? Not cataloged properly? Do you use 301 redirects or dynamic URLs? An SEO’s job is to ensure the book is in the library, that it is available, and in the proper place.

But what of optimization? We’ve used the library analogy to put in recognizable terms how a website has to be indexed by a search engine, just as a book is indexed by a library, but we do so much more. And so too does a library serve to help explain SEO:

  1. The title of your book determines where it sits on the shelves
  2. The content of your book weighs on its popularity
  3. Where do you fall on the spectrum of authors? Are you of the worst offense? Or Danielle Steel, Dan Brown or Nietzsche?
  4. Is your book in good shape or missing its cover or pages?
  5. Is there a book club or featured book section into which you can get your book moved?

The job of an SEO is to deliver as many readers as possible to a book as well as simply indexing it in the library.

What have you titled your book? Is it a copy of another book or something staid and unattractive? Listen to these best sellers, “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” “The World is Flat” “I Am America (And So Can You!)” Now, I’m not making the claim that the title of a book makes it fly off the shelves but it helps!

What is the book about? Have you added value to society? “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz, “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman and even “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” will be in high demand at the library because they are enjoyable to read.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra which famously declares that “God is dead” is often said to be the most original literary work. Ask yourself if your online work is original. The degree of originality plays an important role the the consideration of the library in featuring and promoting your book. Perhaps you aren’t Nietzsche but Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling who’s written words are innovative, original takes on mythology and legend that have been retold for centuries. The popularity of this lesser degree of originality does just as well online as off. Even the budding ‘Danielle Steel’ of web design can achieve prominence simply rehashing the same concept over and over again. But each has its place and its life cycle in the library. The original classics will remain a part of the index forever while “Toxic Bachelors,” no matter how popular, may struggle to simply make the cut.

So what of the quality of your book? Consider that without its cover the library will be hard pressed to return it to its shelfs. Sure, they may one day get around to sticking a piece of card board in place of the cover and putting it back on the shelf but failing to maintain the quality of your book can’t be good for business.

And finally consider popularity and placement. It should come as no surprise to the enraptured audience to whom you are explaining SEO, that featured books do well and best sellers exponentially benefit from their prominent placement and availability. How you market, position, and achieve placement for your book in the library determine the size of the audience of the book just as the marketing, PR, and availability of your business and website must be aligned with search marketing efforts in both paid search and natural if you are to truly benefit from the librarians.

So what does that have to do with Illiteracy? Well… nothing. The play on words between libraries,
books, literacy, people who don’t get SEO, etc… well… you get the idea. Your website is a book. The SEO is the author, publisher, marketer, and celebrity on the book tour. Make sure everyone understands how to use the card catalog.

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How to Explain SEO to the Illiterate - the Library Analogy
What exactly is search engine optimization? Done properly, SEO is simply marketing. Here's the way to really think about it.

25 Responses to “How to Explain SEO to the Illiterate – the Library Analogy”

  1. canada seo says :

    Thats hilarious, I’ve just never bothered trying to explain it to my family 🙂

  2. What a clever way to explain this! Nice job.

    As much as I love what I do, I dread explaining how SEO works to those with absolutely no idea or concept at all. Long conversations, blank faces and a sore throat usually ensues.

  3. Great analogy. Now I am beginning to be NOT that illiterate. Thanks for this..

  4. Paul O'Brien says :

    Something kept me up last night… You are not the “author of the book”. As an SEO, you are the publisher, marketer, celebrity on the book tour, AND EDITOR of the book, but you aren’t likely creating, designing, or programming the website.

  5. Troy says :

    Thanks for sharing your opinion…

    It is a time consuming process to explain SEO to someone who does not have any idea about the importance of internet marketing.
    In most cases, I feel like, I have to convince them that I am doing something really valuable.

    I prefer to make explanations to my prospect clients to make some $ out of my SEO lecturings.. 🙂


  6. […] So often we as a company have to answer to CEOs, Presidents and executives who do not have a clear understanding of search marketing and more importantly a clear understanding of what they are paying us to do.   One of my biggest weaknesses (and thankfully Andy’s biggest strengths) is explaining search marketing in a way that everyone can understand it.  With improved analytics and tracking it is certainly much easier to show ROI but it isn’t always easy to explain the SEO processes themselves. […]

  7. someshwar says :

    Good job dudes.
    My site isn’t open yet. I wanna use your information in my site man. Can I?

  8. Sajid Baig says :

    Seriously – great article MG. Well written so it was worth writing too…

  9. […] Years Eve, and one of my favorite favorite ideas: The Library Analogy. The premise is simple, the easiest way to explain SEO to someone unfamiliar with search engines, websites, or optimization, is to compare the practice to managing a […]

  10. Ana says :

    Lovely analogy in explaining SEO, but really, when was the last time you visited your library? You used quite an antiquated example of the abilities of librarians and libraries.

  11. Paul O'Brien says :

    Great point Ana but I’d really be depressed with the state of U.S. education if people aren’t familiar with a library! 😉

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  13. LinkDirectory says :

    So everyone who wants to be SEO writer or marketer must learn from the librarians 🙂

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  15. Raniologi says :

    SEO takes so much time, that is why we need to give it to the experts. Sometimes people don’t think should do a SEO. If a beginner like me wants to try it, the simple way to understand SEO is through this analogy.

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  17. seo london says :

    Its bad enough explaining to someone normal

  18. Andre Colt says :

    Two thumbs up for these.SEO is not just a job it can be also a habit.Like reading a books in the library we also needs to read and understand the latest trends about SEO.It is not an easy job we need to learn everyday same as staying at the library.

  19. Andre Colt says :

    This is an interesting analogy but nowadays most of us are addicted to the games and did not even know the use of the library same as SEO if you don’t read you will not learn.

  20. Andre Colt says :

    Superb Analogy.I really appreciate this article. SEO is not a one day process,it took so long to understand well. Just like a book reading one material is not enough to gain knowledge.

  21. […] So, I thought anyone who reads this article would be better served reading Paul’s, so here it is… […]

  22. Melodie Licht says :

    I’m just getting started in websites with WordPress, but have heard about SEO over the years. This is an excellent article on SEO and loved the analogy! Will be looking for more of your posts 🙂

  23. SEO'Brien says :

    Thanks Melodie! This is an older idea but one that still works really well. A couple more are coming… I’ve been thinking about SEO in the context of a building.

    Glad to have you here, my blog has been offline for some time and I’m only now getting the pieces back in place.

  24. The blog looks great Paul! Glad I finally found it! I miss harassing you over at Outright. lol.

    I’m glad you’re doing well. Enjoy your holidays.

    John Lizotte

  25. SEO'Brien says :

    Thanks John! Great to hear from you
    I’ve had my head down getting settled and rebuilding life in Austin. Excited to be here and anxious to get up some new ideas and get back to work. Let’s catch up soon!

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How to Explain SEO to the Illiterate – the Library Analogy

by SEO'Brien time to read: 4 min