“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.