A Confederate statue—still stuck in the middle of Washington Street, as required by state law—is not the only sight or site in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac from D.C.

You also see cobblestone streets and $1-million historic brick townhouses. And wherever you go, more than a few people are jabbering on their cell phones as they walk along. Even at a check-cashing store in a shabbier area of Alexandria, many customers are phone-crazed. No longer is the tech too expensive for most residents, and, in fact, it can be a “must” for poor people juggling family responsibilities and multiple jobs.

Countless cities are like my hometown, and more will be in the future.

Now, how many of the phone-aholics are thinking of their local libraries and maybe even planning to read books on their iPhones, Samsungs, and Nexuses?

Trey Gordner - 600x600Precious few compared to the potential number. They’re talking to their friends, playing games, listening to music, watching Netflix, you name it. Libraries are up against zillions of rival choices—phone related and beyond—in their quest for a bigger share of mind and time.

That’s where CEO Trey Gordner and his colleagues at Koios come in. Koios specializes in search engine optimization and related activities for libraries of all kinds and sizes.

An in-depth Q&A follows. But first I’ll pass on some thoughts of my own, which will help you understand the significance of what Koios is up to.

The big picture: Amazon’s book discovery leaves libraries in the dust

Even if you love books, your local public library probably isn’t your go-to-site, whether for searching for new titles or just browsing. Amazon most likely is. You’ll find millions of paper and digital titles there—and not just books but also reviews and information on writers. When it comes to popular-level metadata and other amenities online, Amazon leaves typical libraries miles behind in the dust. But can you really afford everything you want to read from Amazon? Or from Audible, its audiobook subsidiary?

And what about the books that tempt you but don’t seem worthy of a gamble at first, regardless of Amazon’s first chapter previews? In other words, rich, middle-class or poor, you can still benefit from free books from your local public library. Just the other day, I discovered Richard Cohen’s memorable recollections of the writer-director Nora Ephron by chance while browsing among the biographies from a library system near me. I’d missed the book on Amazon. Jeff Bezos’s on-site links and email bots offer many ideas on what I may want to read, but they can’t anticipate everything. As it happened, OverDrive‘s Libby app was how I found She Made Me Laugh. But the Web services of the Alexandria and Fairfax County library systems pushed me toward using Libby in the first place. And to this day I still visit the Web sites. Regardless, I’d love to see more library content pushed toward me during my wanderings online—here’s to more serendipity!

Of greater importance, consider the millions of Americans who don’t buy or borrow books often despite all the benefits to them and society at large. What if libraries enjoyed such good search engine optimization that even the phone-a-holics at the check-cashing stores couldn’t help but run across compelling, library-related links for them? And suppose, too, that we augmented such a campaign with in-context embedment of library mentions in social media and TV programs, in addition to far more face-to-face outreach and other kinds.

The links and the rest could promote not only books but also locally originated content and library-related events, including those related to community matters, not exactly the stuff you’ll find on Amazon. Imagine the possibilities, too, for using Web SEO to foster family literacy by steering those in need to the right resources. A national library endowment like the one proposed at LibraryEndowment.org could help pay for discovery-related activities and services and many others (here and here) such as the creation and operation of two national digital library systems. Especially libraries need money for content, since marketing can go only so far if the rewards for patrons aren’t there. Part of the problem here in Alexandria is that so many of the e-titles are checked out even though digital library usage is far short of what it could be.

No, the idea isn’t to displace Amazon and smaller stores—in fact, library sites could include buying links to it and competitors for people who wanted to buy now to avoid waits, or purchase personal copies of loaners. But surely libraries can at least narrow the discovery gap with Amazon and ideally also mention paper books available at local bookstores, not just titles from Jeff & friends and other megacorporations. Not to mention the related content issue!

From SEO to Amazon-style affiliates

For this to happen, however, we need not only financial and other resources but also good vendors since librarians can’t do everything, regardless of all the information out there on such topics as DIY search engine optimization for libraries.

Koios may or may not be right for every library system—I’d love to hear from possible competitors via email and the comments area of this post—but I myself am very excited about what Trey and colleagues have been up even if they’re not doing everything that LibraryEndowment.org proposes.

Here are services that Koios, several years old and based in Columbia, South Carolina, and Crystal City, Virginia, offers now or or will soon:

l. Libre, “a search platform specially designed for libraries. We analyze your holdings and link them to common, relevant keyword searches in your service area. As a result, your materials can appear side-by-side with Amazon and Wikipedia in local Google search results.”

2. Other SEO-and-ad-related services covering everything from book-specific links to the display of phone numbers and hours. The services include managed campaigns on Google AdWords and comprehensive search consultations.

3. Libre Lists, “helping librarians make beautiful, digital displays in five minutes that are visible in search and social media. These landing pages associated with common search terms can offer the aesthetics of a good-looking page within a bookstore.”

4. A plug-in for Chrome, Firefox and Safari that alerts you when you’re browsing Amazon or certain other sites and land on a page for a book you can check out for free at the library. Trey Gordner actually prefers other approaches, since this one requires the book-seeker to be proactive. Still, it’s nice if your local public library is included. Check out a YouTube walk-through.  The Koios Web plugin lists these systems: the Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina, the New York Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, the Washoe County Library serving Reno, Nevada, the Anderson County Library in South Carolina, the Tulsa City-County Library, and the system for Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

5. Recruitment of “bloggers and authors to link to the same book in all libraries with one URL.”

The first four services exist. The fifth, the blogger affiliate one, is on the way. The business model isn’t locked down forever. Should a book blogger or author get paid for promoting libraries, affiliate style? Or should this be a pro bono public service? For now, it appears that “free” will be the word of the day since so many book blogs—at least from librarians—are more labors of love rather than commercial endeavors.


Q&A with Trey Gordner

Now here’s the Q&A (mostly via email), restructured and slightly edited for clarity and readability even though I have not changed anything of substance. I’ve also added some explanatory links to augment Trey’s. A little background outside the Q&A: While attending the University of South Carolina, he worked in special collections at the library there. “We had millions of fascinating materials, but few weekly visitors. I studied business, so I recognized that our library had a marketing problem. But at the time I felt there was little I could do.” The more he learned about SEO and related activities, the more Trey realized he could indeed help.

Origins of company name? Wait. A YouTube answered that question. Cool choice!

Koios—Greek titan of intellect and search! Good on you for finding it.

Are you stand-alone or do you have corporate parents?

We are a stand-alone company, and plan to stay that way. I founded Koios two years ago after winning Startup Weekend (similar to a hackathon) with my concept for “a browser extension that checks the library for you.” Full story here.

Case histories with stats?

We’re working on a couple of case studies right now. One is a study of how people actually search for books in Google. To date, there hasn’t been much analysis on the relative frequency of certain patterns: using a book title alone, using part of the title with an author’s last name, using format-specific words like “pdf” or “ebook.” There’s a lot we don’t know, but we’re using the data we’ve gathered from library promotion to find out.

I really like your “free PDF of” SEO strategy.

Thanks. We found that, in most people’s vocabularies, “PDF” is not a specific file format—it’s shorthand for “free, easily downloaded, online copy.” This is an interesting case in search engine marketing where the searcher’s word choice is very different from his intent.

I’m curious about people you’re doing business with—libraries or systems. Stats? Just who?

Two of our earliest adopters were the Washoe County Library System in Nevada and the Chattanooga Public Library.

Over the course of last month, CPL appeared in over 10,000 local searches for book titles and authors in their collection. We also did some competitive placements, so anyone who searched “audible” saw an ad for free audiobooks through the library.

WCLS, on the other hand, has been more focused on their databases. When anyone in Washoe County searches for terms related to language learning, they see language learning resources at the library appear at the top. We’re especially proud of this campaign, because we have a 7.83% click-through rate. For perspective, some of the top brands in the country boast just a 1% click-through. It’s really a testament to people’s trust in libraries, and the continued appeal of free, authoritative, and local resources.

Tell us about the conflict between the local library model and the search engine algorithms? How do you address it, in a “mindshare” context?

A search engine is trying give you a good result quickly, with a minimal amount of processing power. In some cases there are answers that are globally good—meaning that the same answer is equally good for any searcher anywhere. An example of this would be “why is the sky blue?” Google excels at this kind of ready reference, and you can see that the algorithm is so confident with this answer that it actually presents it in the search results—no click needed.

By contrast, some answers are only locally good. My results for “plumbers near me” or “city hall” will be different from yours, because having just one consistent set of results for the whole country would be a bad answer. However, even Google’s resources aren’t infinite. It has to limit the circumstances in which it generates a locally good result over a globally good one. The most sweeping example is ecommerce: Google has long considered a result from an online store to be globally good. Amazon ships anywhere–it’s just as relevant in New York as New Bern. So Google hasn’t put much effort into providing locally good results for products, including books. The challenge for libraries is that they are always, by definition locally good answers. If they’re going to compete against globally good results, there needs to be a central website of record for library resources with a built-in method to route you to your local library’s holdings. That’s the purpose of Libre.

In this age, mindshare and search rankings trend very closely. Amazon dominates search results for products, and is now seen as “the everything store.” Wikipedia dominates factual research. Yelp dominates local ratings. Zillow dominates house listings. They have competitors, but do you know their names? Probably not, because these companies are the top result. It’s one of their greatest assets. Amazon has proven that a top search result has as much real value as a physical location.

Interactivity? Reader forums and reviews on the way?

Right now, we’re primarily connecting readers to great content at their libraries, and to their librarians for recommendations and advice. We’re not as focused on connecting them to each other, as we think Goodreads and LibraryThing already do that well. We are interested in user contributions, but we want them to be original, high-quality, and unique to Libre. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve started with Libre Lists, which allows librarians to make expert contributions.

On the point of what makes us unique, we’re also developing a tool called “Free My Wishlist” that would let a user quickly crossreference their Amazon wishlist or Goodreads shelf with their local library collection. People can sign up to be alerted when we release Free My Wishlist.

One thing I can say is that any interactivity or personalization we offer to end users will be optional, require a clear opt-in, and can be deleted at any time. That’s our middle way between users demanding personalized service and librarians demanding patron privacy.

Prices of various services? Can even small, underfunded libraries afford you? Any grants sources you’re pointing them to, beyond IMLS, which, let’s hope, will survive? Update: You said in a YouTube that charges are between 5K and 25K depending on the size of the system. What about the largest systems? Is there a $25 K cap?

There’s an incredible and little-known opportunity called Google Ad Grants: Google provides $10,000 a month in in-kind pay-per-click advertising to qualifying 501(c)(3)s, including Friends of the Library organizations. Koios will manage that $120,000 grant on the library’s behalf, ensuring that they get maximum exposure every month, for as little as $3,300/year.

There are other options as well. A smaller library (especially academic) may want to start with the browser add-on. A large public library may be ready to invest in Libre. We also offer standalone components like Libre Lists or SEO audits. There are many different ways to work with us, so I would tell any library wondering about exact pricing to contact us. We’ll help identify a package that suits you.

How much of a book is exposed to search? Just metadata or, in some cases, entire texts, just like Google? Ask publishers for permission, if fair use doesn’t apply here?

Currently, we expose the basic metadata common between libraries. We’ve considered hosting full-text for items in the public domain, as I personally have been very dissatisfied with the quality of existing options. Our primary interest, though, is in enhancing library resources with unique and valuable content. We’ve found Reimagining the monograph project from JSTOR Lab to be very inspiring. There are definite opportunities to analyze a text for major themes, characters, settings, and events.

In a related vein, are you hoping to pick up a lot of people who are not looking at the start for books but who are very interested in specific topics? How many of your purchased search terms are directly book related and how many are simply subject related?

The clear first step for us was to help the library show up for local title and author searches in Google. We’ve since diversified into more general skill-building terms: for example, a phrase like “learn to speak swahili” or “small business accounting” will trigger an ad for Mango Languages or Gale Courses, if the library subscribes to those.

For subject-related searches, our strategy is to give librarians the tools to build their own search-optimized lists of resources. Librarians can use Libre Lists to create a list like “Library Resources for Entrepreneurs” that could appear for a local search like “starting a business.” This gives the library a lot of flexibility over the specific resources they want to promote and populations they want to reach through search results. We’re just facilitating that process.

Are you worried about Amazon or OverDrive or others preempting you with similar services, at least in the SEO area? And meanwhile have they created any obstacles, especially Amazon, given its interest in book sales?

OverDrive certainly has very solid SEO, but I don’t think they’ll create a competing service that promotes all library resources equally. It would be a conflict of interest: OverDrive wants to promote its own content. It doesn’t care about 3M or Hoopla, or library services. By contrast, Libre is vendor-neutral. We’re completely focused on discovery. Ultimately, that benefits everyone involved: libraries see more use, vendors grow awareness of their products, and users benefit from the full range of library resources.

As for Amazon, I don’t think they mind. Many libraries promote Amazon Smile as a way to benefit the library. I’ve even seen libraries include Amazon affiliate links in their catalog, when wait times are too long. Moreover, even if we were consistently appearing side-by-side with Amazon for book searches, their priorities are in drones and AI right now. Very little of their focus is on books—perhaps just enough to instigate publishers every now and then.

What would you say to publishers who’d object to your slogan of, “Don’t buy—borrow?” Will “Try, then buy” still help the publishers? But then again, won’t library patrons be buyers in the end in many cases? Research from OverDrive suggests that regular library patrons buy more books than other people do.

I have seen data to suggest that library users also buy more books. We haven’t tried to confirm it, but that conclusion wouldn’t surprise me. “Don’t buy—borrow” is a bit tongue-in-cheek. It’s our way of remind the average reader of an irrational habit: they buy what they could have for free. That said, reading is not a zero-sum game. If I read a book I like from the library, I buy it for my brother. My dad knows I’m a voracious reader, so he buys me books at Christmas. So my library habit leads to sales in other ways. More generally, though, I would argue that borrowing vs. buying is the “small game.” The “big game” is ensuring that the book remains a viable format in an age of social media, virtual reality, and clickbait. Even if our service causes publishers some grief in the small game, our help in the big game is undeniable.

If you can get more people to request library books, do you think libraries ultimately will get the money for more copies even at a time when many localities are cash strapped? Is there a risk that a lot of patron-taxpayers will feel rather frustrated with libraries, since so many items, even non-bestsellers, may have to be on hold? Needless to say, I’d like to see America’s public libraries have a lot more money for content than the current four dollars per capita they’re able to spend each year. Hence my interest in a national library endowment to help pay for content and plenty else—including marketing.

It’s certainly possible. Our ultimate goal is to build strong community support for libraries. That starts by informing people about what libraries offer. I always tell libraries: marketing is information too. We pride ourselves on connecting people to the right resource within the library, but we become bashful about advocacy beyond the walls. The library offers resources that will improve your life. Period. And many people in the community are taking advantage of them. These are hard facts, just like “History can be found in the 900 section.” We have a duty to share these facts, too.

There’s an opportunity for frustration. There’s also an opportunity for education. If a book has many holds on Libre, we can say, “Did you know that your library spends only $4 per capita on materials every year? Help us make it more.” We can then direct them to a contact page for a county official, or a donate page for the Friends of the Library. Our friends at EveryLibrary are the experts on library advocacy, so we’ve been talking to them about doing this well. We may even partner with them during bond referenda to broadcast information about library budget and value through Libre.

There are some challenges with the underlying economics of certain library resources. We’re already having to make difficult decisions about what to promote and how much. Hoopla, for instance, has a pay-per-use model. Too many holds in one month, and we stop promoting Hoopla, because the library’s budget simply can’t take it. It’s a tragedy that any model would penalize libraries for being “too successful.” On the other hand, there’s an incredible opportunity to grow some of the databases that are licensed for unlimited users. I don’t know how much Libre will alter other vendors’ business models, but I would love to see us become a force that pushes some of the digital content agreements to unlimited, simultaneous use.

URL of the government-funded project doing SEO for Libraries? What do you offer that it  can’t?

Bibframe is a new metadata standard for libraries. It’s sponsored in part by the Library of Congress and championed by Zepheira and OCLC. Zepheira also created the Library Link Network, the main provider of linked data conversion. While linked data is a great first step, it shouldn’t be confused with SEO. Linked data is not a ranking factor—just because you have linked data on your site does not mean you will rank higher in Google results. It simply gives you greater control over how your search results look (for instance, whether they also show an average rating or a price).

By contrast, we approach library search visibility from the perspective of digital marketing. A few things we offer that linked data can’t:

  • We manage the technical aspects of SEO and Pay Per Click, so libraries can focus on meeting needs
  • We recruit bloggers and authors to link to the same book in all libraries with one URL
  • We give librarians the tools to create fresh and original content on top of a shared set of resources
  • We help libraries interpret their search performance and improve over time

Any plans to get into the highly targeted embedding of library mentions and links in social media? Especially promos of specific titles found at libraries?

In general, we have to force library promotion outside the walls and online especially. If a patron has a project, and she wants to know the best resources at the library to help her with it, right now she still has to go to the reference desk. Many longtime library patrons couldn’t name two databases their library offers. It’s arcane knowledge. To increase awareness, you have to change that “pull” model (come and ask us what we have) to a “push” model (here’s something we have that relates to your search). So while Google is the clear first frontier for library visibility, social media is another great “push” channel. If you go to a Libre page now, you’ll see a Share & Embed tab. That’s our first step toward boosting library visibility on social media. In the future you’ll see more from us—possibly even advertising options there too.

Tell us about the library affiliates program for bloggers. Will they be doing this as a public service, or will they receive compensation? Is the program already in existence, and if so, how many bloggers have been signed up so far?

We’re creating a “library affiliate program” so that bloggers can link to the same book in all libraries across the country with one URL, or embed it with a widget similar to this:BossyPantsLib.png

The library affiliate program isn’t public yet. We’ve been quietly reaching out to some well-known blogs and media outlets. While some writers do earn income from Amazon affiliates, others would much rather link to the library if they could. So it’s public service at the moment. Consider that some of the most prolific book bloggers out there are readers’ advisory librarians. There’s a similar program we’re working on for authors, but I’ll keep that one under wraps for now.

How can someone contact you for more information?

Thanks for the interview, David. The best way to reach me or the Koios team is through our contact page. You can also tweet us at @koioslib. And if you plan to be at ALA Annual next month, be sure to drop by our booth in the Mobile App Pavilion of the exhibit hall.

From David: One more endowment-related thought—on the costs of library SEO and related services on a national scale

There are around 9,000 public libraries (administrative units), some 3,800 academic libraries, 98,400 school libraries, 7,000 special libraries, 250 armed forces libraries, and 900 government libraries in the U.S. or on overseas bases. The total is very roughly 120,000. The real action, however, will be among public and academic libraries (even though we must not neglect K-12!). Settling arbitrarily on $10,000 annually per library, the cost of SEO and related services for those two categories would be $128 million.

Such an estimate could be too low—but then again, maybe not if we take advantage of economies of scale. What’s more, the endowment could extensively use matching grants, another way to keep its own costs down. Training of librarians in sophisticated SEO could also help lower expenses in many cases. But not all. Libraries are stretched as it is, and some tasks just might be better performed by specialists. Just keep in mind that my calculations are merely a starting point for discussion.

Although $128 million sounds like a lot, keep in mind that public library spending alone totals around $12 billion annually, and wouldn’t it make sense for just a tiny fraction extra to be spent to encourage more and better use of libraries?

Consider, too, the possible size of the proposed National Library Endowment within five years, $20 billion, with more than a billion spent. Achievable? Yes. This is the era of the Gates Giving Pledge, and just the top ten billionaires in the U.S. are together worth more than half a trillion dollars. The 400 richest Americans are worth North of $2.3 billion. In other words, we are talking about a speck of a speck. Even with contributions from only a tiny fraction of the billionaires, an endowment would be doable.

Last updated: June 1, 2017.

Image credit: Here.