Google Is a Librarian: Teaching SEO to Non-Specialists

Educating non-specialists so they are able to identify the ways in which SEO intersects with their own roles is an essential part of developing any SEO program.

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

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

However, as anyone who’s tried it can tell you, training other teams on SEO can produce mixed results.

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

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

Training Non-Specialists in SEO

Even with my degree in education, years of SEO experience, and a curious and willing audience, teaching high-level SEO theory in an applicable way remained a challenge for a long time. I have a long list of “things that didn’t work.”

In-depth and detailed ground-up training seemed like a thorough approach, but when people received large amounts of information on a new topic – either all at once or bit-by-bit – it proved impossible for them to retain over the long term.

On the other hand, while keeping things simple and teaching people only the small fraction of the topic that applied to them seemed more digestible, this often came at the expense of context. That, in turn, undermined confidence in their new knowledge.

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

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

One of the best ways of achieving this when introducing new and unfamiliar concepts is to leverage the way our brains work by using a metaphor. Good metaphors can be an incredibly powerful teaching tool, as they allow us to tap into people’s existing understanding of a familiar concept, and use that as a framework to introduce a new, unfamiliar one.


Google, the Librarian

As a teen of the late 1990s, I like to picture 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 that index, as well as their experience of helping previous people, to suggest a selection of resources that might contain the content being sought.

Explaining the concept in this way performs two important functions:

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

This second point is vital. It means you’re building SEO knowledge on a foundation of “doing what’s best for the user,” and not “ticking arbitrary boxes for an algorithm” – an unhelpful perception borne of after-the-fact interference and focus on technicalities.

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

Web Page and Book Features

Let’s say that every time a person enters a library with a query, the librarian offers them around ten books they think are most likely to hold the answers they need.

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

What would the equivalents be, when it comes to Google serving webpages?

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

Book Feature Web Page Feature Category Indicates
Book title Page title, H1 Relevance Main subject/topic
Chapter titles Header tags Relevance Sub-topics, content structure
Blurb Meta description Relevance Summary of contents
Publication date Page last updated Relevance Content up-to-date
Page count Word count Expertise Thoroughness, depth
Reviews, citations Backlinks Authority Importance
Publisher reputation Domain authority Trust Reputability
Grammar Technical quality Trust General quality

Genre and Content

When Google crawls pages, it also does the equivalent of “flicking through” a book to see whether the content generally looks similar to existing, proven top results. It also looks at whether the content covers not just the main topic but the expected related topics, as well.

While a slightly more tenuous metaphor, this is an important aspect to communicate — especially when working with content teams and copywriters who might go on to do their own keyword research.

It’s important for them to learn that broadening the scope of their content slightly to touch on closely related topics can improve search performance for the main target term, and to correct the misconception held by many non-specialists that SEO means keyword stuffing.

User Feedback and Personalization

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

For example, a person might take a book that looks promising, open it, then immediately put it down. If this happens frequently, the librarian could choose not to recommend it so highly next time.

On the other hand, if users keep choosing and checking out a particular book even though it’s a bit further down the pile they’re offered, maybe it should be placed nearer the top of the pile in the future.

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

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.

I’ve adapted it at times, going into as much or little detail as the situation required. But it has consistently helped communicate what needed to be understood.

Using it effectively requires three main considerations.

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

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

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

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