“Can I find it on Google?”

October 16, 2009

Let’s ask this: Just what do museum website users want?

Actually, before we do that, the biggest question is “who is our audience?”.

Wait. Before we do that, let’s assume that – what – 70-80% of museum website users want to find out some logistical stuff: “what’s on? how do I get there? how much is it?”. Let’s assume that this bit is solved with a page or two of dull but useful information. Let’s ignore the 70-80%. They’re boring. There’s only so much you can do with a map and some opening times, right?

Now let’s consider the other stuff – the content – the collections, the exhibition stories, the richness. Just who are these people, what do they want, and where do they come from?

Determining audiences for museum websites is a slippery game which generally involves phrases like “lifelong learners” (everyone) or “educators” (teachers, parents, children – oh wait, everyone) or just “everyone”.

I’m being slightly mean, and actually the definitions are a little bit better than that, but still there is an underlying tension which is something to do with deeper questions about success, publicity, depth of resources, marketing, integrity – and that horrible, horrible phrase which frequently does the rounds: dumbing down.

When a curator oversees a website, for instance, he or she often fights the dumbing down thing tooth and nail. Curators are about depth, about academic rigour and cleverness. Curators aren’t (often) about publicity, traffic, sound-bites and volume. This is fine, and museums should be about quality and richness and integrity. If it wasn’t for this, they wouldn’t be the respected institutions that they have become.

The problem is that museums online want (and increasingly need) to be mainstream, too. We see Flickr and Facebook and Google and viral marketing and Twitter and….[etc] and, frankly, we want some ‘o’ that. And the tension there becomes more intense. Can you build traffic and volume and virality online and still manage to “not be dumb”? Can these deep, rich, academically sound experiences also be mainstream? Is – getting to the crux of the question – a mainstream user shallow or deep?

One of the big, enduring discussions, for example, is about how Google provides search into museum collections. Museum people tend to twitch if you suggest they should focus on exposing their collections sites to SEO best principles and forget the in-house search (or even just stick their stuff on Wikipedia and forget the whole in-house piece altogether), because they say that Google doesn’t provide the granularity that is required. For some researchers – those who want to find out the year an object was invented or the country of origin, for example – this lack of granularity is indeed a problem. For many others – those who just want a picture of any old steam engine for their desktop or wherever – it isn’t.

Balancing this requirement / audience / success equation is in itself a game. The best solution (do both) is clearly the answer, but many institutions fail to realise this, tending to focus on arcane in-house terms and interfaces rather than trying to find ways of building SEO via common content entrance points like Google. It becomes a user interface question, yes, but it is also about much bigger-picture strategic issues about success.

What each museum needs to decide is what this success looks like. And if – as is usually the case – success is about museums becoming more used, more embedded in people’s lives, more human – then success is, frankly, about Google. There, I said it. Where else does anyone begin a search for – well, anything? Do we really think that people come to museums to begin their search? Really?

So success – in the case of Europeana, for example – seems to me to be about asking the question: “can I find Europeana stuff on Google?”, not “can I find Europeana stuff on Europeana?”. When I’m looking for information on Leopold Mozart, I’m not – ever – going to start my search on one of our individual museum sites or any of the aggregators, federators or whotsitators that have been developed, including Europeana. I’m going to Google. Firstly, because I clearly don’t know who knows stuff on Mozart’s father and I can’t go there if I don’t have that specialised bit of information yet (and Google (currently) provides the single best starting point for my query); but secondly, because Google is there as my homepage, a hook in my Chrome browser search bar and as a known entity in my consciousness. Why would I start my search looking at detail in a single book when I’ve got access to general information about the whole library?

This is grandmother / eggs for many people working in museums, but I’m not sure it is as obvious to the big projects we’ve seen emerging from the museum sector. For some of these projects, specialised audiences are their success, in which case local approaches do work better. But for the majority, success is increasingly about making enough SEO noise for more general audiences.

And is this “dumbing down”? Yes, I suspect it probably is.

16 comments
Vincent Roman
Vincent Roman

It's one thing to have ideas, it's another to know how to best market them :) But yes, clients/stakeholders usually know what they want, and are dogged about making sure it is implemented the way they want, rather than making sure it provides the best path for the end results desired. Museum and cultural sites would all benefit from this heightened esteem effect from Google. It's one thing to benefit from vast amounts of unique content that fits into a niche or two, but at the same time, to appeal to a wider audience, the mainstream content that competes heavily with other sites and retail sites should be well optimized for sure. I like your point about getting outsiders in for a fresh perspective. I suppose this is why the IT and marketing dept are sent to respective conferences, but as you say its one thing to pay lip service, it is another thing to do. To my mind, collections need to be inviting and portrayed in a mouth watering way and many sites I have seen just don't do that =( Best, Vincent =

Mike
Mike

Vincent - cheers very much for commenting. Yes, the general point about where the expertise lies is one which I've come across as an issue on many, many occasions. Curatorial staff are often wonderful people but they often badly need help when it comes to imagining and realising a web presence which is going to be strong from an SEO and visitor perspective while also delivering what they want to deliver. Often, also, curators are ideas people - and ideas people (I know, I'm one..) are quite often the most pig-headed about letting their ideas out into the wild. Interesting point about .edu sites - wasn't aware that that was the case: have you got any sources for this, would be interested to follow up.

Vincent Roman
Vincent Roman

Mike - An interesting post and one that has many strands to it, and too many for me to reply to now having read both the post and subsequent replies. It's an very valid point you make. The problem is that as you suggest curators are just that and the process of building a web site really requires many minds and real experts. From a purely SEO perspective, as you suggest the search doesn't start with a users arrival at the web site, it begins with Google etc. This reflects my and others' opinion that every page is your home page. In addition, museums sit in a very enviable position. They are respected by sources such as Google, by virtue of their being a seat of learning. The most highly ranked sites in the Google index are .edu sites. Moreover, they will because of wider interest in their activities produce a tone of backlinks, which again improves their ranking. This doesn't mean life is easy for them, but if they take full advantage of the fact, the benefits can be hugely successful. That being said, as you suggest there are any facets to the sites, from people looking for basic info to those looking for content within the collection, but at the same time within the site you also need to sell the content in to the casual visitors and cross-sell. Strong pre-planning and understanding how your site, aspects of the site and external sources sit within your overall internet strategy is important and will help define what you do and how you execute the design and delivery of your museum's web site and wider WWW presence. This is an interesting discussion in light of my and others' reviews of the new Whitney.org web site. A real lost opportunity in my view.

Mike
Mike

"Why was your link of his name not to a museum resource?" - er, that was kind of the point of the post... :-)

Phil Wilson
Phil Wilson

Well OK maybe it depends on *exactly* what someone is looking for, but "information" is what you asked for, and that's what you'll get a pretty broad swathe of at wikipedia. Why was your link of his name not to a museum resource?

Mike
Mike

@Phil. I won't get a range of images on Wikipedia. I won't get sound clips. I won't get the option to buy other media. I won't get videos. No. I think I'll Google it.

Phil Wilson
Phil Wilson

"When I’m looking for information on Leopold Mozart ... I’m going to Google." Really? Like your link, I'd just go to wikipedia. Why bother searching when you know you can almost certainly get what you want there?

Paul Rowe
Paul Rowe

I found this post from David Eaves to be a great encapsulation of what we need to be doing with museum data online: Three Laws of Open Data 1. Optimised for search engines. 2. APIs to engage with it. 3. Legal frameworks that allow sharing.

Mike
Mike

@Martin - thanks. Individual records usually benefit from the usual SEO tricks - field, big text with description high up the page, etc. From what I remember, the new beta V&A collections online do this quite well. The point about stakeholder desires is always a painful (but horribly true) one. It is indeed often true that what is best for exposing access to a collection (say spending budget on widespread population of Wikipedia) isn't always the same as the "perception" of success (a spangly, beautiful new website with a sponsor logo on it). In fact, I've got another post in the wings all about what and how museums measure project success. But that is for another day..

Martin Greaney
Martin Greaney

A very interesting post. I'm constantly trying to think of ways to SEO individual records on our sites, whereas there's also the issue of SEOing the site as a whole to catch very general searches such as 'local history oxford' and similar. That also has to play nicely with stakeholders' desires which may not extend beyond the site itself.

Jeremy Ottevanger
Jeremy Ottevanger

Those words are open source, matey. Go play! @Jon. Great to see you expound your POV whilst not limited to 140 characters! Happy, too, to see that it aligns well with mine and to a great extent with what Europeana is aiming for. You, Mike, and I, plus lots of key people in the Europeana project, see the portal as something of a distraction. There's a compromise to be made, though, with the wishes of lots of different stakeholders, some of whom wish to see a very visible and pretty product. Let's not get distracted from what the core is all about though: feeding content to the very media organisations you're talking about (and elsewhere). "White label" is exactly it, and the MLA sector in this country still has an opportunity to help this to happen the right way. Which is a good idea, coz our content looks likely to end up there one way or another. Some might not like that idea, but at least (unlike what Google chooses to do with your content) it's to a degree open to us to influence what Europeana is and does. There he goes again ;-)

Mike
Mike

@Jon - wonderful comment, thank you - really like the notion that this stuff needs remixing in order to have a life at all (ie, remix is everything not just an added extra). I think you have a very good point there. I also do agree 100% with looking to other successful media outlets and asking how we can employ what they do in our institutions. This is one of the reasons I'm forever requesting "museum" conferences and meetups should be not just populated by museum people congratulating each other on the wonderful projects they've done, but should encourage speakers from elsewhere, whether it's Flickr, Google, "commercial" (eek!) or otherwise. To separate out museum concerns from the concerns of all these other rich outlets of content is to do our users a tremendous disservice.

Mike
Mike

@Jeremy - cheers, and a great point (and words - I'll probably steal them sometime..) about "explicit, intentional search". I think you're right - the opportunities here are huge, and the benefits rich.

jon pratty
jon pratty

Mike's made a mega point here - but I'd like to go further... Regarding your proposition number one - what cultural/museum/gallery experience is it that audiences want? Well, it's all kinds of things, actually. But it's generally not 'we' want them to have, based on what 'we've' got. Let's look at what *other media* serve to the public; because that's a good guide. If a million people per week read the culture sections of the Telegraph and the Guardian, then I think that's a useful indicator of what's genuinely popular and bringing in readers and click through to ads. So what is it? It's a rich mix of reviews, news, personal blogs, walk-through image galleries, forums of exasperated opinionated people, some 'expert' views and tours, some panel discussions, some grown-up art critical essays, some short 1, 3 and 5 minute films of shows, some direct links to museum online exibitions, some films by personalities and experts guiding us through difficult stuff, or recommending things to see and do. There's some great user participation going on - Saatchi's Your Gallery and Deviant Art are exemplars. That's a quick survey of what the major [very popular] media serve up to the public. And for them, it pays. So where are the online c0llections? Where is the direct pathway through to federated data? Where is un-mediated, un-editorialised content? Nowhere. In unmediated, uneditorialised form, it's inedible. So for me, that's the Europeana conundrum - it's on the way to being a good data product - to offer to others to be re-used and mashed into more complex media. But as standalone cultural product, it offers content that mainstream media outlets don't want [in my opinion, but based on my experience] unless it can be re-mixed. What data product does the digital media publisher really want? Multi-platform outfits and their data input needs are kind of complex, but they basically want a regularly updated, consistently formed, quality stream of copyright free content that they can link to, mix other content with, and use as *white label* style source material. Beyond that, there needs to be a rock solid SLA guaranteeing the content is legally and technically safe; and it needs to be offered in API forms that are ubiquitous, like the other data strands they use such as the Google API. If they're going to rely on our data to base other content on, then they need us to keep our stuff working 24 hours per day. Can Europeana do that? Maybe. But let's look also outwards at how other media use cultural data and content and be more realistic about what we're making and publishing for this federated, cultural promised land.

Jeremy Ottevanger
Jeremy Ottevanger

“can I find Europeana stuff on Google?”, not “can I find Europeana stuff on Europeana?” is a start. “can I find Europeana stuff everywhere?” is more what I would ask, though, because explicit, intentional search is not the only way to discover stuff, and indeed as the web improves it should become less important: we can expect to see more contextually relevant content appearing wherever we go, so that our behaviour other than conscious searching brings about the discovery of our stuff. Because this requires that someone, somewhere brings related content into one "water mains" that VREs, Chrome, WordPress, niche websites, CMSs (of content AND collections variteites) etc can hook into, Europeana, like Google for different purposes, has the opportunity to disseminate by first aggregating. Good post, Mike.