If a digital journal article is published with a title composed of words and phrases no one in the journal’s field is searching for, does anybody see it? Certainly some people will, but if you publish articles with unclear names, there’s a good chance that a lot of potential readers will miss out on those papers during their online research. The same holds true for articles published with insufficient descriptive data such as DOIs and keywords, better known as metadata, which internet search engines require in order to “crawl” new content and determine where it should show up in an online search. (We’ll get into the details of crawling later!)
So, what steps can journals take to ensure that their content is discoverable and appealing to both search engines and human readers?
One of the panels at the 2014 Association of American University Presses annual meeting titled “Meta Data and Discoverability,” offered some great insights for journals on how to apply search engine optimization (SEO) to their content. I wanted to take the opportunity to round up some of those insights. Below are some top tips editors shared on how to improve your journal’s SEO.
One reality of internet research, which all of the AAUP panelists pointed out, is that unlike researchers in a physical library, online researchers are not taking a direct path to the content they are looking for. Rather than walking up to a particular section of the library and manually scanning the shelves, researchers are sitting down at their computers and looking for content via internet search engines that all harbor different stocks of digital information, which are arranged in different orders by each engine based on its unique algorithm. Search engine starting points for researchers include library websites, bibliographic databases, indexing databases, and web browsers like Google and Google Scholar.
“When you are using a search engine you are not searching the web, you are searching the search engine’s index of the web, ” said Antonia Pop, Production Coordinator at University of Toronto Press, who began the AAUP presentation. Pop explained that search engines use “crawlers” (told you we’d get to those!), which are sort of like mini searching machines that follow their search engine’s algorithm to index new information.
Since each search engine only returns content to searchers that its specific crawlers have indexed, one of the most basic steps journals can take in their metadata and discoverability initiatives is to ensure that their articles are being indexed by many search engines. To do this, Pop said journals should research the top search engines and databases in their field and any necessary steps they need to take to be “crawled” by all of them. The more widespread a journal’s content is, showing up in different search engines, the better chance of that content being seen by many researchers.
It’s imperative that editors and authors keep in mind that before reaching their target readers they must be “found” by the search engine intermediaries their readers are using. Search engines have a massive amount of information to parse and, as anyone who’s typed in a Google query knows, even with the help of a browser narrowing down search results, searchers still have tons of information to look through too! Neither search engines nor scholars have the time to read all of the information out there, or to scan every journal article with an unclear title to determine what it is actually about. For this reason it’s vital for journals to ensure that the components of their articles that both search engines and readers will see first, including article titles, abstracts, and keywords, clearly reflect the questions, concepts, and phrases for which researchers are searching.
Anne Marie Corrigan, Vice President of Journals at University of Toronto Press, offered a great example of the role article titles play in online search. “We don’t want to be serving up an article on the benefits of rose colored glasses in reading development to someone who is looking for the best rose in their garden in Zone 5,” she said. To avoid such a scenario of being found by the wrong audience, journals must make sure that article topics are made obvious in their titles. In Corrigan’s example, reading development is a necessary phrase.
Antonia Pop added that it’s important for journals to keep in mind that different search engines scan documents differently. “Depending on the search engine and the way the content is presented, some search engines will index the full text of a document, while others will only index metadata,” she said. “When the full text is not indexed, the metadata alone is what helps readers discover content.”
Given the differences in how search engines assess content, journals should strive to have a rounded discoverability strategy, including ensuring that new articles have descriptive titles, making webpage URLs reflect the content they lead to, and having either editors or authors assign relevant keywords to articles. When it comes to keywords, Pop said journals should also make clear to authors and editors that keywords must be about key article concepts, not words that frequently appear in a text. She offered the example of a drama article that used “banks” as a keyword because it referenced a play with a banker in it. “[When you hear the word banks] how many of you are thinking about drama or theater?” she asked. You can imagine how many hands went up.
Once you know how to improve your journal’s metadata and discoverability, the question is - where should you start? Terri Fizer, assistant production manager at Duke University Press shared her experience helping to launch a metadata standardization initiative across Duke University Press journals, which focused on giving all manuscripts relevant keywords to improve article web searches and categorization on the press’ website.
“The most important question is - what need do you want to fulfill?” she said. Fizer said journals should avoid trying to do too much at once, such as seeking to monitor article titles, update URLs, and add new keyword metadata to all articles at the same time. “It can be stressful for editors and authors,” she said. Rather, according to Fizer, it’s best to start with a particular initiative in mind such as adding keywords to all articles, and to compile best practice standards for your first metadata or discoverability initiative that authors and editors can work from. Fizer said focusing on standardization from the start helped to make Duke University Press’ metadata project run a lot smoother.