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Architecting Search-Engine Friendly Websites

How do you architect a search-engine friendly website? Most SEO professionals rely on inadequate data. Here is how to architect a website that makes content easy to find.

How to Architect Search-Engine Friendly Websites - image

Information Architects vs. Search Engine Optimizers

The goal of effective information architecture (IA) is to make the products, services, and information on your website easy to find. Does this sound familiar? This is same goal that a search engine optimization (SEO) professional has.

However, many of the skills that an information architect possesses are quite different from the skills of an SEO professional. For example, information architects focus on making website content easy to find via browsing, searching, and asking without compromising a positive user experience. Information architects also have a background in usability, as usability testing is used to verify and justify their deliverables.

SEO professionals, on the other hand, tend to focus only on the search/retrieval part of findability. They tend to minimize or dismiss the importance of browsing and creating a usable, useful site navigation. In fact, their interpretation of site navigation has little to do with user mental models.

SEO professionals tend to focus only on the search and retrieval part of findability.

Additionally, many SEO professionals possess technical skills. All too often, a website’s information architecture is based on a technical team’s mental model. Let’s be completely realistic: does your target audience have the same mental model as your technical team…or your SEO team? Of course not, and that is one reason that so many websites are difficult to use and difficult to understand.  Technical architects end up making information architecture decisions…and that is a critical mistake.

In reality, browsing and searching are equally important finding behaviors on the Web. They are intricately connected. If one is sacrificed for the other, overall findability is compromised.

How many times have you done a Google search, clicked on a ranked result, landed on a web page in the middle of a site, and then had no clue where you were inside of the site’s hierarchy? Or how many times have you found a really great website with outstanding content via your social network, yet that website is difficult to find via the commercial web search engines?

It almost seems as if browsing and searching are conflicting goals. What kind of website should you build: one that is easy to navigate, or one that is easily found on Google or another web search engine? Should you build two separate websites: one for Google, and one for users?

The tie that binds these two finding behaviors together is information architecture. The Information Architecture Institute defines information architecture as organizing and labeling website content so that it is easier to use and easier to find.

There are some very important words in this definition: organizing and labeling. In fact, four fundamental skills that information architects have is:

Let’s review these skills individually, and how each of these relate to the field of search engine optimization.

Organization (of Content)

Information architects are skilled in categorizing, classifying, and organizing content according to user/searcher mental models. Organization is grouping related content into categories and providing user-friendly access to that content via global, local, and supplemental site navigation.

There are many ways to organize website content including, but not limited to:

  • Alphabetical
  • Attributes/facets
  • Date/time
  • Format
  • Geography/location
  • Numeric/series
  • Task/process
  • Topic
  • Target audience
  • Combinations of the above

(For a details about how content can be organized, please see Donna Spencer's Classification Schemes [and When to Use Them] article.)

Almost all websites need a primary hierarchal structure, or a primary taxonomy, which ultimately gets interpreted into a primary navigation scheme on the website. A taxonomy provides guidelines for site navigation, even though the taxonomy itself is not website navigation.

Without a primary hierarchical structure, users/searchers will often have a difficult time with orientation, which is establishing a “sense of place” on a website.  Users/searchers orient every time they view a new Web page, and successful orientation makes them feel that a website is more dependable and trustworthy.

Most taxonomies are based on a controlled vocabulary, which is a carefully selected list of words and phrases. Both information architects and SEO professionals know that a website’s primary taxonomy (and corresponding site navigation) should contain keywords whenever it is appropriate. The controlled vocabulary contained in navigation labels helps communicate aboutness to both searchers and search engines.

Organization of content does not only include a vertical interlinks (hierarchical), which is something we see with parent-child and grandparent-child types of page interlinks (Figures 1 and 2).  If a website only has vertical interlinks, it communicates to search engines that the home page is the most important page on a website. According to most users/searchers, the home page is not the most important page on a website. The final destination page is often a product page, an article page, or even a category page.

Parent-Child Links
Diagram of parent-child links
Figure 1: Parent-child links. An example of a parent-child link is a category page (parent) that leads to multiple product pages (child).

Grandparent-Grandchild Links
Diagram of parent-child links
Figure 2: Grandparent-grandchild links. An example of a grandparent-grandchild link is a Featured Product (grandchild) link that you might see on a home page (grandparent) or a top-level category page.

In order to make product, service, article, and category pages appear more important to both search engines and searchers, a website must also includes a horizontal types of interlinks (Figures 3 and 4). One type of horizontal interlink is an alternative product link on an ecommerce website. In the event a product is not available (out of stock) or is not quite what the searcher wanted, what are the closest alternatives? Having 2-3 alternatives per product page connects closely related content semantically.

Sibling-Sibling Links
Diagram of sibling links
Figure 3: Sibling-sibling links. An example of a sibling-sibling link is an alternative product link, when a product isn’t exactly what a searcher wanted.

Another type of horizontal interlink is a cousin-cousin link (Figure 4). An example of a cousin-cousin link is an upsell link on an ecommerce website. People who bought a specific product often buy a closely related product, like purchasing the right size batteries to go with a wireless mouse.

For a great article on alternatives and upsells on ecommerce websites, please see Product Page Usability: Recommend Both Alternative & Supplementary Products (Only 42% Get it Right).

Cousin-Cousin Links
Diagram of cousin links
Figure 3: Cousin-cousin links. An example of a cousin-cousin link could be an alternative product link in a different category, or an upsell link.

Of course, there are other types of page interlinks, but these are the most common ones.

An information architect knows how to organize content into taxonomies, and then link related content to each other via other means. Sounds difficult? It is, because users genuinely do not organize and label content in the way that we personally believe they do.  

Information architects conduct usability tests to determine the ways that your target audience organizes and labels content. They do not determine content organization based on crawlability or the flowage of “link juice” as many SEO professionals do.

When architecting a search-engine friendly website, the information architecture and corresponding navigation schemes should be established long before the site is built.  It is not uncommon for an information architect to create a set of wireframes (blueprints for a Web page) and corresponding notes/specifications to be presented to the design and technical teams. A website’s technical architecture should closely reflect a website’s information architecture.

Labeling Content

Most people assume that a navigation label is simply the text that is placed on a navigation button (formatted either in CSS or as a graphic image). While navigation-button text certainly is one type of navigation label, other web-page elements are also navigation labels, such as:

  • Content labels (headings, subheadings, etc.)
  • Navigation labels (text on a navigation button, text link, or menu)
  • Document labels (page titles, URLs or web addresses, file name)

Content, navigation, and document labels are all important in the search engine optimization process. In fact, some labels also appear in search listings on search engine results pages (SERPs), particularly title-tag text and URLs.

Labels should be understandable to users/searchers and unique. All too often, search engine optimizers try to create keyword-specific web pages without considering how those pages should connect to each other. There is nothing wrong with having keyword-specific pages on a website.

But if these pages are not a natural part of a website’s information architecture and do not connect to each other in a logical way? Then to a search engine and a searcher, they are undesirable pages. In other words, they are search engine spam, which are pages created deliberately to trick the search engine into offering inappropriate, redundant, or poor-quality search results.

When architecting a search-engine friendly website, the labeling system should also be established long before the site is built. So whenever you add new content, you will have a general idea about where to place keywords within content and documents.  Your technical team will have URL-structure guidelines.

Consistency and reinforcement in a labeling system helps make site search results more accurate and helps a page rank better in the commercial web search engines.

Prioritization

Perhaps one of the more difficult tasks an information architect has is to determine the number and order in which labels will be placed on a web page.

If you put too many links on a page, content becomes less findable because the sheer number of links is overwhelming. Mega-menus are an example of an overwhelming number of liks. Mega-menus can be too wordy and difficult to scan. Try to find a single link on a website navigation scheme with 10 mega-menus...difficult to do, isn't it?

Additionally, if page content contains too many embedded text links, then content becomes difficult to read, and the very information that a searcher desires becomes even more difficult to locate.

On the other hand, if you put too few links on a page, content also becomes less findable, because users basically only have one chance and place to find that desired link.  

Orphaned–page content appears less important to search engines because there is only one link to an orphaned page. Orphaned pages are an example of content that is difficult to locate. Orphaned–page content appears less important to search engines because there is only one link to an orphaned page. Furthermore, orphaned-page content seems less important to users because that content is difficult to locate and discover.

Therefore, determining the balance between too many and too few links is critical for overall findability and, believe it or not, search engine visibility.

Once the number and types of links per page is determined, information architects need to determine the order in which links appear. To a search engine and a searcher, if you put a link first in primary navigation, you must believe that link is more important than the link you put last in primary navigation. If you put two embedded text links within an article, you probably think the first one is more important because you put linked to it before you linked to the other one.

One common mistake people make is to believe that all links on a page are equally important, and they try to link to everything from almost every page on a site. Not only is this ineffective for searchers, it is ineffective for SEO.

Each page type on a website should vary in the number of links it contains. For example, a category page and a site index should contain considerably more links than a product or an article page. Software engineers who work at the commercial web search engines try to understand the characteristics of various page types and what web searchers desire when they type a specific keyword or keyword phrase.

So when you architect a search-engine friendly website, know that the one-size-fits-all approach to web-page design and navigation ultimately leads to less findability. Different web pages will have a different number of links and different types of links.

Search/Retrieval (Systems)

(NOTE: A search system is a part of a website's supplemental navigation system. The technical architecture of a site search engine results, however, is extremely important to SEO.)

Search engine optimization is a term that many people misunderstand. To most people, it means optimizing a website primarily for search engines. In my opinion, SEO is optimizing a website for people who use search engines. There are 2 parts to that definition: searchers and search engines.

Believe it or not, the “searcher” part of optimization is actually a known part of search engine algorithms. Search engines have been accommodating searcher goals and behaviors for since the mid to late 1990s.

For example, if you want to go to a specific website and communicate that in your keyword phrase, that website’s listing will probably appear within the top 3 results on desktop, tablet, and mobile search results. Reason? Software engineers and researchers know that searchers rarely look past positions 1 through 3 when they show navigational intent. So they actively try to make specific websites appear consistently when navigational intent is clear.

Here is something else that few people realize about SEO. Search engine optimization is not only trying to make desirable content easily found via the commercial web search engines. It is also about making undesirable content invisible or less visible to the commercial web search engines.

Examples of undesirable content include but are not limited to:

  • Duplicate content
  • Search engine spam
  • Personalized content
  • Password-protected content
  • Orphaned content
  • Forms

An example of duplicate content to a web search engine is site search engine results. Whenever we work on a website that uses a site search engine, we know that we must limit access to the site’s search engine results pages (SERPs) to Google and other commercial web search engines. We can do this via a number of technical means, such as robots exclusion.

Personalization, tagging, and faceted classification all lead to duplicate content delivery. An information architect might not be aware that some of their findability solutions seriously affect search engine visibility. Personalization, tagging, and faceted classification all lead to duplicate content delivery. And if a website delivers duplicate content to the commercial Web search engines, it lessens the number of pages available to rank. And the most appropriate pages on a website might not be available to rank. So the quality and quantity of web pages that are available to rank are often compromised.

So when architecting a search-engine friendly website, you must consider how to limit or prevent access to undesirable content as well as provide easy, user-friendly access to desirable content. Too few SEO professionals understand these building blocks of information architecture. How much does your SEO professional know?

This article originally appeared in Visibility Magazine, the magazine for online marketing strategies, and has been updated by the author.

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If you have any questions about Omni Marketing Interactive's search engine optimization (SEO), website usability, information architecture (IA), or web design services, please call us at 847-426-4256.

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