How the British Library is using SEO to become a digital news publisher

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The British Library is becoming a modern news publisher. Its expertise in the field of journalism is immense. The home of one of the greatest newspaper archives in the world, amounting to more than 15m pages of news, it also houses The Newsroom, a permanent resource charting the evolution…

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The British Library is becoming a modern news publisher. Its expertise in the field of journalism is immense. The home of one of the greatest newspaper archives in the world, amounting to more than 15m pages of news, it also houses The Newsroom, a permanent resource charting the evolution of news in broadcast, print and digital media.

And it is in digital publishing that this institution is going through a transformation, producing its own articles, live streams and video clips for a worldwide audience.

It’s a symbol of how almost all of us – companies, institutions, individuals – are contributors to contemporary media, even if only via a basic home page or Facebook status update. In the case of the British Library, it’s much more than that.

Having hired Graham MacFadyen as its head of digital and marketing operations, the library has doubled its online audience to 20m over three years. MacFadyen previously worked at the Financial Times where he was a pioneer of the FT’s much-admired and profitable digital strategy.

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Google ranking for ‘Mr Darcy’

The British Library fights for the highest Google rankings on key subjects. In searches for “Mr Darcy” or “Elinor Dashwood”, for example, it will be competing with Wikipedia, the BBC and the Jane Austen Society, as it seeks to “own the domain” of English literature.

“You want to become the destination for anyone searching for English literature and really climb the rankings around things you would expect the British Library to be credible on: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde,” says MacFadyen.

Dickens, a reporter and journal editor, would surely have been sympathetic to the approach.

The British Library is succeeding in this “battle” for search engine optimisation (SEO) by creating content around named authors and exploiting its “curatorial expertise, which is world class, and the original [manuscripts and other objects in its collections],” says MacFadyen. “We are putting the digitised original items on the web and the opportunity to see that is in most cases unique.” He is also building in-site “web spaces” on the library’s most popular specialist subjects from World War One to feminist literature.

Every month, the library’s marketing team gathers with the curators to plan media strategy, identifying subjects for topical curator-authored blogs and articles – witness a recent “Great Medieval Bake Off” blog on 11th Century culinary techniques – which can be tied to collections. Although such pieces are competing with news media for attention, they are designed to have longevity and a “long tail” of reader interest.

Making more available outside the South-East

Since refocusing its digital strategy the British Library has grown its Twitter following to 1.39 million, and has 250,000 followers on Facebook. “The British Library is never going to spend its way to marketing success but we do have some of the world’s most unique and interesting content assets and we should be using those to attract audiences,” says MacFadyen, who will be speaking at the Festival of Marketing on 5 and 6 October, on increasing audience growth with a small budget.

The purpose of all this is three-fold. Firstly, the library wants to use digital media to make itself more available to those outside south-east England who cannot easily visit its red brick edifice alongside London’s St Pancras station. Secondly, it wants greater use of its collections because “we are not just collecting all this stuff because we like cataloguing it and putting it in basements”.

And finally it wants to make money from ticket sales for events, exhibitions and retail sales.

The SEO-based strategy worked most effectively around last year’s 1215 Magna Carta exhibition. Ten months before it opened, MacFadyen’s team built a Magna Carta “web space” within the library’s site and began “working our SEO” until it had 50,000 unique visitors a month who “we were then able to start advertising an exhibition to”. The exhibition duly “broke all our records”.

In autumn the library will have a “cultural relaunch”, improving its food and beverage offerings and hosting events for authors such as Ian Rankin, Margaret Atwood and other “really big cultural, literary, artistic, academic names”, says MacFadyen, who sees opportunities for an increase in video live streaming.

Given the British Library now reaches 20 million people there must be potential for selling advertising inventory, especially when exhibitions already attract corporate brands (law firm Linklaters sponsored 1215 Magna Carta). But our cultural institutions, whatever the concerns over their funding, don’t seem comfortable with advertising.

But at least the British Library is regularly meeting with its peers – such as the Tate, the Natural History Museum and the V&A – to share best practice in making the most of digital media.

“I don’t think any of us are John Lewis or Procter & Gamble in terms of our digital marketing sophistication,” says MacFadyen. “But we are all further ahead than you would think from the outside.”


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