Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is the process of improving the visibility of resources in search engine results. Discoverability is related to search engine optimisation as those resources that are most visible in search engine result pages are more easily discovered. Discoverability also relates to the ability to find resources in appropriate places, for example, in curated collections, institutional repositories and through web services.
In common with other types of web resources, most people will use a search engine to find open educational resources, therefore it is important to ensure that OERs feature prominently in search engine results. In addition to ensuring that resources can be found by general search engines, it is also important that OERs are easily discoverable in content or type specific sites such as iTunes, YouTube, Flickr, etc.
Although search engine optimisation can be complex, particularly given that search engines may change their algorithms with little or no prior warning or documentation, there is growing awareness that if institutions, projects or individuals wish to have a visible web presence and to disseminate their resources efficiently and effectively search engine optimisation and ranking can not be ignored1.
The statistics are compelling:
Given the current dominance of Google as the preferred search engine, it is important to understand how to optimise open educational resources to be discovered via Google Search. However SEO techniques are not specific to Google and can be used to optimise resource discovery by other search engines.
In a summary of search and discovery conducted by OLnet5, an international research hub for open educational resources, the following observations were made:
- Google and Wikipedia are the two most used search sites for learning resources;
- Most users prefer a simple search strategy (i.e. entering one or two keywords), they don’t care about using metadata until they can’t find what they are searching for;
- Good search tools allow users to continue solving their problem, providing them with some useful content / links that will further their search.
Projects were specifically asked to explore SEO and discoverability during Phase 2 of the UK OER Programme, and as part of the Phase 3 Rapid Innovation (OER RI) Call. Phase 2 included a dedicated strand for "The Discovery of OER"5, which funded six projects to create thematic collections with the aim of investigating how disciple and subject area collections of open educational resources could increase their discoverability for those working in subject domains.
The Phase 3 OER RI Call highlighted two previous projects worthy of further investigation; the Phase 1 Multimedia Training Videos Project, which explored SEO by purchasing Google AdWords4 and the Phase 2 Sickle Cell Open Online Topics and Educational Resources (SCOOTER)6, which examined SEO guidance for open educational resources.
The creation of thematic collections is good practice on a number of levels. Collections generally create internal or backlinks to the resources within the collection, these links are then used as a positive indicator for search engine ranking algorithms. Actions to improve SEO and discovery of collections and individual resources can be seen as taking place at two levels: at the level of the individual resource or collection, and at the repository or resource management system level.
For content creators who wish to make individual resources more discoverable, Peter Robinson of the University of Oxford provides the following advice on the OpenSpires blog7:
- Reflect on what people would actually type into Google to find your material – make sure these search terms are on the page that delivers your material and ideally in the title of the web page.
- Get your delivery web pages to use human readable URLs – Google still values search terms in web page titles. [See the title of Peter's WordPress page to see how clever this system is at generating human readable web page titles].
- Use Web 2 social networks to generate a buzz – Create a conversation around your content on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks.
- Promote your material in a blog, perhaps relating it to what’s happening in the news – timely material will be spotted by Google Instant8.
- Join the wider Open Learning landscape by adding your content to OER directories such as Jorum, Xpert and the global US OER directories.
The SCOOTER project also produced a "Guide to Search Engine Optimisation"6, the first steps of which focus on keyword generation by brainstorming, analysing the effectiveness of the keywords and including them in a resource description11. However it is important to note that changes to search algorithms now mean that keywords included in the head of webpage are ignored by Google and may be misinterpreted by Bing as an indication of spam content and removed from search listings9.
In addition to including suitable descriptive information embedded within resources, it is also important to ensure that resources can be indexed by search engines. In order to do this two files should be maintained on a webserver, one identifying what parts of the site should be indexed (the robots.txt file), and another listing the resources on the site, formatted as an xml sitemap.
System level optimisation of this kind is already integrated into various resource management platforms. As part of the UKOER Phase 3 Triton project, the blogging platform WordPress was used to host resource collections. The project final report highlighted the following benefits of using this platform10:
- URL structure – WordPress supports multiple URL formats. By default, each link is based on the ID of the post so the URL (canonically) would appear as http://wordpress_site/?p=1 – where 1 would be the post ID on the database. This offers next to no information to the search engine on the page content. However using a different WordPress URL structure, we can change the URL to http://wordpress_site/a_blog_on_politics/ and so offer extra information to anyone indexing the site.
- Sitemaps – Google, Bing and Yahoo can have their indexing system guided by providing a sitemap. A sitemap is a block of XML which demonstrates the structure of the site to the indexer. WordPress has many plugins supporting sitemaps.
- Simplified tagging and categories – Contributors are not SEO experts, but WordPress makes adding categories and tags to content simple. It also creates pages for these tags and categories increasing the likelihood of content being found.
- Associated Google tools – Using Google analytics, and Google +1 increases the knowledge Google can hold about your site, and so increases the likelihood of site content being found.
A more detailed discussion of metadata and microdata is included in the Resource Description chapter. However, in terms of search engine optimisation, when creating metadata, it is important to consider how information will be read and processed by search engines, as metadata included in the head of a resource webpage may be ignored or, as previously mentioned, interpreted as spam and negatively impact search ranking.
The UK OER Phase 3 Rapid Innovation Call explicitly encouraged project to explore SEO for open educational resources11, however no proposals were received covering this topic. Furthermore, most of projects funded made little attempt to directly address SEO and resource discoverability.
Search engine optimisation can seem like something of a black art, particularly given that search engines can and do change their algorithms with little or no prior warning or documentation. However there is growing awareness that search engine optimisation cannot be ignored if institutions, projects or individuals wish to have a visible web presence and to disseminate their resources efficiently and effective. SEO needs to be an iterative process; search engine referrals must be monitored in order to identify and deal with any new and unforeseen issues. In 2011, following a change to Google's search ranking algorithm, Julie Walling provided useful guidance on "Troubleshooting a Drop in Search Engine Rankings"12, which included:
The use of recommendation systems is commonplace in a number of web services such as YouTube and slideshare. When users view content on these sites, they are given recommendations of other similar resources that might be of interest based on their viewing history. Recommendation systems of this kind are still uncommon within institutional repositories, though plugins such as CORE13 provide a framework for integrating "similar documents" to search results. Within the education sector the growing use of non-traditional repository systems such as WordPress, which allow the use of existing "similar document" plugins, may lead to more widespread integration of recommendation systems in the future. Initiatives such as the Learning Registry, which is explored in the Paradata chapter, also have the potential to make a significant contribution to search engine optimisation and discoverability of open educational resources.
Interest in SEO and discoverability of open educational resources seems to be growing and questions are increasingly being asked about how repositories can better surface content on the web. More significantly for OER, the development of services that mesh together social web functions with discoverability will impact on the way that content is shared and found: for example, Google+ and other emergent models use a sort of paradata to weight the presentation of results. The challenge for service managers is to keep abreast of developments in search services so that they can continue to optimise their content and open educational resources for discoverability.
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