Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the exact opposite of what librarians are about. I don’t mean to draw a good vs. evil dichotomy here, but more of a yin & yang difference. People in SEO see the searcher as the object which exists to serve the subject, the websites of their paying clients. We see websites as the object, which exist to satisfy the information needs of the searcher, who is the subject.
Imagine if libraries were organized by SEO principles, so that we were paid by publishers to ensure that more people used particular books or databases. Instead of titles being arranged by Library of Congress or Dewey, it would be more like a supermarket, with the most valuable shelf real estate going to the most potentially lucrative products. Reference librarians would have to adapt as well. We would dump that tedious reference interview where we tried to ascertain what information a user was really wanting or needing. Instead we would work out which product in our paid-referral section was the most suitable for this person, and then steer them in that direction. If nothing in their question led them to any of these products, we would re-interpret their question, or even correct their question so that it did lead to the outcome that was beneficial to both the library and its publisher-client.
I’m tempted to think that SEO is just a sub-section of advertising, which itself is one area of marketing. Advertising and marketing are also double-edged swords. There are ethical issues associated with marketing harmful products such as tobacco or weapons. There are also ethical issues associated with particular advertising techniques, such as subliminal advertising and advertising to children. Sometimes you get the worst of both worlds, when improper techniques are used to promote harmful products, such as advertising cigarettes to children.
When I speak of double-edged swords and ethical pitfalls, I don’t mean to signal out SEO, advertising and marketing for special treatment. Other people, like librarians, lawyers, journalists, even your regular blogger have some problematic areas of their own, where special care needs to be taken. Also, some good can come from marketing. Marketers have taken some psychological findings and applied and extended them, so that now psychologists have an even better idea of how people think and act. As for advertising, in addition to funding free-to-air TV, radio and many internet services, some ads are so creative and amusing that they are works of art in themselves. Even your regular odious email spam has been recognized for some of its amusing characteristics [thanks Cat for showing that to me]. I’m yet to discover any positive things about comment spam on blogs, although maybe the flattery spam could put a smile on some people’s faces – for just a moment, until they realize what’s happening.
Ideally, there should be room for both the library model (connecting people with information) and the advertising/marketing/SEO model (connecting information with people). There seems to be demand for both approaches. We could do our thing and they could their thing and we could just agree to disagree about which approach was better.
Unfortunately, we tread on each other's toes in the arena of blogs. Blogs of libraries and librarians, and of course every other blog with any noticeable readership, are targeted by comment spammers. Not only is the comment spam annoying, time-consuming to deal with, and would smother all legitimate comments if left unchecked, but it is an unwelcome philosophical affront. When the comment spam leads to the worst extreme porn sites, it feels like a cruel violation.
Comment spam is just one area of SEO, and not all of SEO should be tarred with the abuses perpetrated by comment spammers. On the other hand, if people engaged in SEO want their field to have more respect and credibility, they should be more proactive about reigning in (or at least condemning) some of the unethical comment spam practices which happen under their umbrella. Some bloggers would be surprised to know that many comment spammers resent the very blogs and bloggers whom they target. Why would this be? Because of the interlinked nature of blogs, it is easy for a blogger without any effort – or even intention – to end up at the top of search engines results, undoing a lot of SEO work. Some comment spammers think, if these amateurs are going to muck up our work, we’re not going to feel bad about feeding off their work.
Besides, people in SEO argue, don’t blame us, blame the search engines and the blogging software producers who created the conditions for comment spam to flourish. I hope that the no follow tag will help undercut it, but as I mentioned in my previous post, let's not declare that comment spam is dead yet.
The position of the search engines is rather ambiguous. Although they each try to provide the best search experience for their users, they are all funded by advertising dollars, in some form or other. That is a potential conflict of interest, but it is so widepread that it is no longer remarkable. Maybe they would say that theirs is the middle path between the SEO model and library model, and that they have found the correct balance between the interests of users and advertisers. If that is so, the search engines should remember that the nature of a balance is that is very delicate and can very easily get out of kilter.