In 2017, I received an email asking me to add a link to one of my library’s LibGuides. It was not the first email to ask, but it was the strangest I had received. I am reproducing the email here in full:
Hello there, How are you? I hope I’m not being a bother, but my daughter, Dakota, wanted to reach out to you about your web page, Grand Valley State University Libraries Style Guide. Your page has great information that we were able to explore and use for her HTML website compilation. :)
During the school year, Dakota and I, like to do fun mother/daughter projects. This is a great way to help Dakota brush up on her HTML as well. (Which, in my opinion is great to have knowledge of!) Anywho! While googling for some more resources, Dakota found this informational HTML guide - https://www.marcaria.com/ws/en/articles/learn-about-domains-and-html. She was thinking that it’d be a valuable resource for your page. Do you mind adding it? I know she’d be delighted to make a valuable contribution and maybe help educate others as well.
Looking forward to hearing back, Mrs. Lowe (Lowe, personal communication, April 3, 2017).
The story in the email seemed implausible. I suspected “Mrs. Lowe” was connected to the content hosted on marcaria.com and did not dare come out and ask for a link. I chased down registrar information for both the site she suggested and from the URL her email came from. The website at her custom domain had been designed to look like a teacher’s website, and I learned that it had been a website for a teacher a few years before but had lapsed and been purchased by another owner. I never was able to identify exactly what was going on, but it led to another question for me: why would someone go through all the trouble of creating a fake website and identity, and lying about their motives, just to get a link on my LibGuides site? I had received many requests in the past that were straightforward link requests.
For the next 5 years, I collected all the email solicitations that were sent to me and asked the liaison librarians at my institution to send me any links they received for their LibGuides. I also worked with our User Experience team, who manage our service desks and public spaces, to assign any solicitations that come through our library email into our LibAnswers ticketing queue to me. In all, I collected over 200 solicitations asking us to add links to our LibGuides. In addition to analyzing these emails, I began responding to each with a simple statement: “We do not accept unsolicited links on our website.” I also began looking into the reasons we were receiving these requests, which turned out to be Search Engine Optimization (SEO). This article will walk through what I learned about SEO, link solicitations, and LibGuides in particular. It also offers suggestions on how to handle these requests.
The Importance of SERPs: Search Engine Result Page Rankings
Most websites’ primary goal is getting users to visit the site. Perhaps the site needs visitors to show advertisements and bring in ad revenue. Other sites sell products and want as many visitors as possible to increase the “conversion rate” between visitors and customers. One of the most lucrative ways to drive traffic to your website is through being in the top few results on a Search Engine Result Page (SERP). Unlike ads, ranking high on a SERP is not (directly) a function of your marketing budget. You can’t simply pay Google to rank number one for a particular keyword search. Google and other search engines differentiate clicks on paid ads from clicks on “organic” results—that is, results from the keyword search that are unpaid. Google and others use the metaphor of “organic” results to imply that they are “natural” and therefore unmanipulated1. According to Ziakis et al (2019), “a website nowadays has to be indexed into the first page of SERPs in order to receive a sufficient amount of organic visitors” (p. 2). That is, if you are not on the first SERP, you’re not going to get many visitors coming from search. In fact, analysis by Dean showed that the top result on a Google results page generated over a quarter of the clicks (27.6%) for a search. The top three results account together for over half of all clicks. Less than 1% of all searchers visited the second page of results (2022).
Since the early days of Google, one of the features that set it aside from other search engines is how it ranks results. PageRank, the core of Google’s search algorithm, was designed to mimic academic citations. As Brin and Page (2012) spell out in their paper announcing Google, in their search engine “Academic citation literature has been applied to the web, largely by counting citations or backlinks to a given page” (p. 3827). Zhang and Cabage (2017) explain that Google “looks for links from other quality sites … to determine the significance of a website” (p. 149). The more quality sites that link to your site, the higher you will rank in Google’s SERPs. Paddy Moogan simplifies it even further by explaining linking to another website as “…effectively saying it is a good resource. Otherwise, they wouldn’t link to it, much in the same way that you wouldn’t send a friend to a bad restaurant.” In SEO terms, these reference links are called “Inbound links,” or more commonly “backlinks.” Although the actual workings of PageRank are not publicly known, SEO experts have determined that “the quality and quantity of backlinks is one of the most important factors for optimal ranking” (Ziakis et al, 2019, p.7).
When your revenue is dependent on visits to your site, then where you rank in particular keyword searches becomes vitally important. But how to change your result ranking for those keyword searches? As Barlow (2011) notes, top sites already enjoy the majority of visits from SERPs, which only solidifies their position at the top. But Killoran (2013) notes that results pages are not only a result of the interaction between search engines and searchers. Rather, “rankings are directly and indirectly shaped by the three classes of interdependent participants … search engine companies and programmers, …webmasters and SEO practitioners, … [and] search engine users.” (p. 53). SEO experts, then, are also involved in shaping what SERPs show us.
Search Engine Optimization
I have been a Web Librarian for a decade and a half and haven’t thought about Search Engine Optimization that whole time. Because academic libraries, where I work, hold research materials for the university or college community, we are not necessarily looking to grow our audience. In order to use our services, you might have to be an enrolled student, or a current staff or faculty member. Most of our licensed materials are accessible only with a current username and password, so we’re not worried about attracting other, non-affiliated users2. This explains why it took me so long to realize why we were being inundated with requests to put links on our website. SEO wasn’t on my radar. What’s more, there is not a robust body of academic literature on SEO that I might have encountered in my research.
But for websites that rely on traffic to generate revenue, SEO is a core part of everyday business. Zhang and Cabage note that “good SEO practice can increase a website’s natural search engine ranking, and drive more traffic to a website—more traffic means more potential revenue from advertisement and/or affiliate for content-rich websites” (p. 159). An entire industry of consultants who track the changes and behaviors of search engines exists to help websites of all sizes. In 2021, SEO industry revenue topped 52 billion dollars, according to SEO.co (2022). This is not a small sector of the internet, but a core part of digital marketing. When Google launched in 1998, the founders believed that good content would rank on its own, by generating interest and backlinks as others recognized its quality (Sergey and Brin, 2012, p. 3827). But with the incredible growth of the web into every aspect of our lives over the past two and a half decades, this idea seems preposterous. Nevertheless, Google continues to lead with this idea, stating in its SEO Starter Guide “Creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any of the other factors discussed here. Users know good content when they see it and will likely want to direct other users to it.” (Optimize your content section, n.d.). But Zhang and Cabage (2017) note that “websites that rank well in search results depend upon … a little push in the right direction, helping the website to build some momentum” (p. 149). That push is SEO.
Since Google does not share how PageRank and its associated search algorithms work, there is a lot of gray area in improving search result positioning. SEO experts generally divide techniques into two categories: white hat and black hat. White hat strategies “pose the least amount of risk and are very unlikely to lead to you being hit with a penalty from Google” (Moogan, Types of links). Conversely, black hat techniques are those that violate search engine guidelines. Killoran (2013) succinctly describes these as “deceptive SEO tactics that seek to game the ranking system” (p. 52). Of course, white hat techniques are not without risk—the strategies are those that are either explicitly permitted by the search engines or those that “pose the least amount of risk.” This hints at a third category of SEO practice, “Gray hat,” or those techniques that skirt the lines between explicitly white hat techniques and black hat. And as we will see, even those techniques that are considered “white hat,” like asking for links, can venture quickly into suspect territory. Mrs. Lowe, who I quoted at the beginning of this article, is an example of a white hat technique (asking for a link) that may be considered black hat and penalized by search engines if it came to light that the website was lying to get links.
There are effectively three main white hat SEO strategies: writing quality content that uses search keywords; social sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social sites; and link building (Zhang and Cabage, 2017, p. 148). Link building is the process of obtaining backlinks, of getting other sites to link to your site. Swanson (2019) notes that “link building is an essential component of any [SEO] program. In order to rank well … it’s important to have a high number of links from other websites.” The importance of link building is backed up according to a study by Zhang and Cabage (2017): “link building has the best ROI [return on investment] of any SEO strategy” (p. 159). Finding the most relevant sites to get backlinks from is considered a reflection on your own site, and not just a way to generate revenue. The SEO firm AZ Big Media claims, “link building is branding” (How to get edu backlinks, 2021).
The most common form of link building is manual outreach. This is where SEO consultants email bloggers, webmasters, (and librarians) asking to have links added to a particular website. (According to Google’s SEO guidelines, sites that directly buy links will be penalized (Spam policies, n.d.), so you must pay an SEO consultant to ask for the link, rather than pay for the link directly.) This is labor intensive, but an entire software industry has risen to help SEO experts keep track of their link building efforts, which explains why there are always follow-up emails from these folks asking if we’ve had a chance to look over the link they sent! SEO expert Brian Dean runs regular reviews of the “top link building tools”—at the end of 2021 he reviewed 14 different software suites that would help in your link building campaigns (2021). I point this out to emphasize how big and organized this field of work is, and how essential to the daily business of most web-based sites. These are not random people emailing you to tell you about their favorite link (or one their daughter found useful while doing homework). These emails are coming from professionals who get paid to track down authoritative, quality websites across the web that are relevant to their clients’ content or products and get backlinks.
There are a few reasons that Universities get so many emails asking for backlinks—first, Google factors in the age of a domain (URL) in assigning authority, and most colleges and universities have had their domains longer than almost any other website. (The Web was created by academics, after all.) Another factor is that there is a perception that Google values educational (.edu) and government (.gov) links above other types of domains. According to one SEO website, “Edu backlinks have more trust signals than other types of websites from the eyes of search engines” (How to get edu backlinks, 2021). Because of PageRank the authority of sites that link to yours is important. According to Google’s SEO Starter Guide: “You can confer some of your site’s reputation to another site when your site links to it” (Use links wisely section). According to SEO thinking, getting an .edu site to link to you will help to confer those “trust signals.” Stephen Hockman (2022) argues that “if you can build a link on an EDU web page that also has high page authority with incoming links, then it can pass some of that PageRank to your website to help increase its rankings in search engines.”
Despite the common thought that .edu links are valuable, Google has hinted at times that this is not true. Google “evangelist” John Mu tweeted back in 2018, “Because of the misconception that .edu links are more valuable, these sites get link-spammed quite a bit, and because of that, we [Google] ignore a ton of the links on those sites.” (2018a). SEO specialist Nathan Veenstra asked to clarify: “you are actually saying that .edu (as well as .gov) links are equally valuable as links from other domains?” (2018). To which Mu replied, “are you suggesting they should be valued less given how many spammy links people place there?” (2018b). Because Google does not provide specific clarity on how its ranking algorithms work, the assumptions of SEO consultants continue to hold sway. Five years later, SEO guides continue to promote the importance of getting .edu links for SEO link builders.
Many of these guides are in the form of “listicles,” or lists of techniques for getting these coveted backlinks. These articles all suggest similar techniques that they assure you are white hat, although some seem questionable. For instance, one recommendation is to ask local Universities to add your website to a local business page (if they have one), which will confer the perceived .edu magic onto your site (Portent, 2012). Another suggestion is to “reach out to [faculty] and ask if they’ll be willing to collaborate with your brand to produce an interesting piece on a subject” (How to get edu backlinks, 2021), which the University will want to publicize. Almost immediately, however, the line between “paying for links” and white hat SEO techniques becomes blurred. Hiring University graduates and asking the career center to post about the hire (Portent), as well as creating scholarships (Portent, 2012; How to get edu backlinks, 2021) are common suggestions. While you are not paying the university directly to add a link to their site, offering the same money to the to a student in the form of a scholarship or job for the express purpose of getting a link on the site appears to be paying for links. Thankfully, all these articles point out that by far the easiest way to get a link is to create a resource for our favorite group of university employees: library staff.
Library Back Links and LibGuides
Shortly after hearing from “Mrs. Lowe,” I began reaching out to colleagues at other institutions to see how widespread this issue was. Shelley Gullikson of Carleton University asked her colleagues about the spam requests they get for their guides. Most received a very modest amount, 1-4 a semester (personal correspondence, February 18, 2018). She mentioned that most seemed to just delete the requests without acting on them. In 2019, former University of Minnesota Librarian Franklin Sayre started a Twitter thread asking about these link solicitations. The discussion focused on numbers of requests for different disciplines and different institutions. While everyone admitted to receiving them, some got a lot while others got few or had stopped getting them at all. Sayre seemed baffled that anyone would consider adding a link, noting that he “searched site:libguides.com and it looks like others do [add links from link builders]?!?!?!?” (Sayre, 2019a). He also guessed (correctly) that while he “[didn’t] know exactly what they’re doing it’s probably an SEO thing” (Sayre, 2019b) We have seen that SEO link builders see .edu links as having a special kind of “trust signal,” and they give out specific techniques for adding links. But they also target libraries specifically, because getting links on library websites is considered easier than other areas of a university website.
In its SEO training guides, Portent (2012) recommends “chat[ting] up a librarian”, while Hockman (2022) thinks you should “befriend a librarian.” AZ Big Media’s guide says you should “publish academic work for library guides” (How to get edu backlinks, 2021). All SEO guides agree, though, that while “librarians couldn’t care less about SEO, … they all want to ensure they’re offering valuable, correct information” (Portent, 2012). Hockman (2022) says more than he writes when he points out that “Academic libraries typically have their own sections on a .edu website or have an entirely separate sub-domain of their own. This means that the content is often managed by the library staff and not the college or university’s IT department. This also means it’s much easier to get a high quality dollow [sic] .edu backlink for your website”. Reading between the lines here, we can see that SEO folks think librarians will post any link if we think it might help people!
There are many ways SEO guides suggest going about asking libraries for backlinks. One common method, that you may have encountered, is to search for broken links on a LibGuide and then email the guide author pointing out the link is broken and, of course, asking that your link be added instead. Of course, the guides are careful to make it seem like this is a boon to libraries—”if you find a broken link on the page, help them out!” (Portent, 2012). This is a useful method for library websites, particularly LibGuides, which are often collections of loosely organized links to external websites. We use a website quality control tool called Silktide to help scan our website and LibGuides for broken links. In 2022 alone, our roughly 400 guides (over 1,900 pages) had more than 2,400 broken links over the course of the year. That seems ample opportunity for SEO link builders to find broken links and have an opportunity to “help you” with their own. Moz’s own Beginner Guide to Link Building touts the benefits of “Broken link building,” and even uses a university resource guide as their example!
A university in your area happens to have an older page on dairy resources, but many of the links are broken. You kindly reach out to the webmaster to point out the broken links, and helpfully suggest your newer and up-to-date resource as an alternative. The university webmaster then links to your dairy resource page (Moogan, Link Building Tactics, n.d.)
Anderson recommends looking for “resource” pages, because “you don’t need to twist anyone’s arm—just reach out and politely request that they add the link” (2021). Back in 2012, Portent was already recommending that link builders use Google to hunt down LibGuides, which were referred to by name and described as “research guides on every topic imaginable.” To find a LibGuide, they recommend “an ‘inurl’ search for ‘libguides’ or ‘libraryguides’ with a keyword.” Anderson recommends searching the university with ‘site:University.edu’ and adding ‘inurl:lib’ to find the library and LibGuides all at once (2021). AZ Big Media’s helps with search syntax, saying “look for available library guides from universties [sic] by using the search phrase, ‘site:.edu ‘libguide’ ‘topic’ (How to get edu backlinks, 2021).
While these SEO training guides present themselves as do-gooders helping the library provide useful content to their users, the real reason for approaching libraries is two-fold: first, we are seen as an easy way to get a high-quality backlink from a .edu site. And second, an SEO link builder’s goal is to make their clients money by increasing traffic to the client’s site through higher SERP placement. While you may be tempted to add a resource because it does contain some valuable information, remember that the content was created with the express purpose of making money off library users. In one training guide, link builders are instructed to look for the library website and guides first, to see what kind of content the library links to. “Once you’ve found some libguides pages from university sites, you’ll figure out what content ideas they link out to. From here, you start your outlining of content to match it to topics this libguides [sic] reference the most” (How to get edu backlinks, 2021). Beginner guide to link building points out that “sometimes you use your existing content as a suggestion … other times you create content specifically for this purpose” (Moogan, Link Building Tactics, n.d.). The pages that SEO link builders want us to link to our tailored to the content we already have! Moz’s This is the clearest indication that quality content is not the main goal of SEO, backlinks, SERP placement, and revenue are.
Your library has probably received at least one email this week asking you to place a link on your LibGuides. These emails come fast and furious, sometimes to the general library email, sometimes to the Web Librarian, and sometimes to the guide owner. While they portray themselves as helpful researchers aiming to make life easier for you and your users, they are marketing professionals whose only goal is to make money for their clients by redirecting library guide traffic to their websites. Even if your users never click on their link in your LibGuide, Google (and other search engines) are perceived to give additional weight to .edu URLs that link to a particular site. Since libraries are short-staffed with ever-shrinking budgets, it may seem like an easy way to help your users by adding these links. It is not. It’s a handout to the clients of SEO firms, another way for corporations to profit off the hidden labor of academic workers.
- See, for instance, Google’s claims that their results are “never manipulated” and are ranked “objectively” in their famous “Ten Things we Know to be True” document (n.d.). Unfortunately, the idea that search results are objective in any way has been picked apart sufficiently in recent years (c.f. Noble, 2018; Reidsma, 2019). In addition, Jobin and Ziewitz (2018) call into question the metaphorical distinction between “organic” and “non-organic” results by noting that “Any search results page is a carefully constructed product of design and use. There is nothing inherently ‘organic’ about a list of computationally generated links. … As a metaphor, ‘organic search’ provides a focal point for ordering an entire field of social, economic, and political practice.”↩
- This is an oversimplification of the situation—plenty of academic libraries do want to reach users outside their institutional user base, particularly Special Collections and Archives. And Public Libraries are always looking for ways to better reach their users, who may not be aware of the range of services offered. But in both cases, there is still little traction with SEO because of the difficulties libraries face everywhere: lack of budget, staff, and training. ↩
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