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on SEO and the ubiquity of my name

Long-time followers of this blog will know that, in a previous incarnation, I had listed myself quite simply as Ungooglable. That title was, much like the title of this webspace, suggested by my wife, who pointed out that “Benjamin Miller” was an awfully hard person to find reliable information about. It’s not that there’s no information; it’s the opposite. There’s just too much. From the first page of Google hits alone, you find that Benjamin Miller is a professor of math and logic, a comedian and actor with a background in solid-state physics, a dermatologist and organic chemist, a fairly hackneyed and omphaloskeptic WordPress blogger, a Columbia-affiliated scholar of culture and sanitation in New York City, a Twitter-ing programmer of browser plugins, and an education policy consultant with an Ivy-League undergrad degree and an interest in reforming high-stakes assessment.

None of these are the same person, and none of them are me. So the first observation here is that my Search Engine Optimization could use a lot of work. (Just one reason among several I’m not linking to the aforementioned pages.) Yet what I find most striking about this list is how close so many of them come to sounding like me: I have degrees from Harvard and Columbia; attend grad school in New York City where I study writing pedagogy, and complain about high-stakes assessment, with the goal of becoming a professor; follow interactive tech gurus on Twitter; and write a WordPress blog about subjects that coil in on themselves. When I tell my students that I came to college wanting to study physics, or when I use math analogies to explain punctuation, it must fit right in with the picture they had of me when they Googled their potential teachers before selecting my class. (Does anyone do that?)

It’s kind of a problem.

But more than the mistaken generic identity, which I suppose I must simply get used to, it’s the mistaken identity within specific genres I care about that really has me worried. For example, I am a poet. I have an MFA diploma sitting in a box in my bedroom to prove it! (See left. Sigh.) On the shelf: Art Degrees / Particularly Low Quality Toilet Paper / Man: Do you have to put those next to each other? / Caption: 'Geez, are you another guy from the toilet paper company?' More usefully, my work has been published multiple times in respectable journals; I’ve been a finalist for a book prize and a chapbook prize. (Fingers crossed for this year.) And I find it matters to me that when you search for “benjamin miller poet,” “benjamin miller poem,” or “benjamin miller poetry” – as perhaps friends and students will do when they first hear that I write poetry – the first several links they come up with are not only not poems I wrote, they’re poems I wouldn’t want to write: trite rhymes that slap with a monosyllabic flatness into quatrain boxcar regularity (this is the top hit, evidently What the People Want) and then the opposite extreme, an ambient jazz experimentalist. Let me be clear: I do not intend to disparage these people or their work on absolutist grounds, but rather to point out the distance between my aesthetic and theirs. For all I know, they may well be achieving the apotheosis of their musical and syntactical goals, or those of their community – witness, again, the high PageRank these pages achieve. But it unnerves me to think that those I would try to impress, those who I believe do share my own aesthetic, would look me up and think I’d been found.

So what to do, then, with this name, this ungooglable name? Much though it might make life simpler, I don’t think I can sign every poem as benmiller314, and run with that – although a search for that tag does turn up me, and only me, for five full pages. (Well. Five full but, um, repetitive pages. I’m working on it.) While I’ve not yet reached a full conclusion, I believe this blog will play a major role in the taking control of my online identity. You can reach me now at the convenient address of majoringinmeta.net, which I trust will be far more memorable – and pronounceable in conversation – than the full-length CUNY Commons URL. From here, I can link outward to the rest of my work as it exists online. (I guess you can consider that a coming attraction?)

And, as of today at least, a search “majoring in meta” will lead you here. Perhaps it has. And if so – and even if it’s not so – welcome.

9 Responses

  1. Perhaps obviously, this is much less of a problem for someone with a name like mine, but I still feel for you. I have a brother and a daughter who share with me my last name and the first initial of my first name, and someone else (I don’t even know who) took my first initial/last name combination for an AOL username long, long ago.

    Another brother of mine shares the same name, first and last, with a US Army Sergeant currently serving in Iraq and a Linux programmer (while my brother is a screenwriter). They are probably both distant cousins of ours, but they are definitely not him.

    So even if your name, like mine, seems more unusual than Benjamin Miller, it still sometimes seems like “ungooglable” is the way to go.

    • Thanks for the comment, Joe! I certainly don’t mean to imply that the googlability problem is unique to me – as you point out, it only takes a few other users to generate confusion. It just makes me wonder whether the sheer scale of the problem in my case helps us think about the way SEO works in general: the most direct ways of finding me are actually the most obscure – in effect, the more quirky the approach, the more accurate the result. You’ve got to aim for the tail of the Bell haystack curve…

  2. Steve Morris says:

    Benjamin, if you are concerned with people being able to find you for your name via search a big step forward would be to buy a domain with your name in it for example – BenjaminMiller.com(its already taken) or BenjaminMillerwriter.com it all depends on how your managing your “brand” or secondly create links to your site using your name as anchor text , with commenting on blogs this could be easier then you think.

    • Thanks, Steve, for commenting – and I can see you taking your own advice here with your name-anchored link, which is always a good sign. Out of curiosity, was your own interest in SEO also rooted in having a common first and last name?

      The problem with URL-direct branding, for me at least, is that I’m something of a dilettante: I wouldn’t want to be findable *only* as a poet, or *only* as a compositionist (not that many people would even recognize that latter label, but that’s another issue). But one throughline I’ve discovered is that, in just about all of my interests, I’m fascinated by process and by the feedback loops of a mind or system acting on itself. Hence the URL I have purchased, and am now trying to highlight – Majoring in Meta. Having this as a catchall catchphrase allows me to then use post categories for my different (sometimes overlapping, sometimes divergent) identities: I post as a writer, but also as a reader, as a teacher, and as a student. And if I need to add identities as I go, this forum gives me the flexibility to do that, without sacrificing whatever I’ve gained before that realization.

      Of course, I haven’t yet managed to merge my twitter ID (@benmiller314) and this new(ish) URL ID, as you’ve been able to do with @webmojo… in part because I’d then be up to 14 characters. (12 is bad enough.) But that, too, is another issue, I suppose.

  3. Andy says:

    Benjamin, you seem to be already seem to be doing enough to be found on the web! It depends exactly what your aims are but I think it all looks about right. Anyway my initials are APR and are being used for all sorts of different stuff!

  4. Dave Plant says:

    Hi Benjamin, It seems you already have most thigns covered! But one thign to bear in mind is why not set up a blog under you own name a sub-domain of you main domain? eg: benjamin-Miller.commons.gc.cuny.edu ? Hope this helps!

  5. andrey says:

    I lol’d hard after reading first para. But what dave says above is correct. Try and get your own sub-domain and rank it for “benjamin miller”. In your description make him anything and the first benjamin in search will have description you like the most. Anyways nice post.

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