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When Good SEO Becomes Bad Information Architecture

Ranking in search engines does not ensure that users will locate and discover your content. Learn the usability tests that can help.

Card sort test image

Have you ever heard the phrase search engine optimization (SEO) architecture?

At first glance, it might seem like a good idea because the goal of SEO and information architecture (IA) is to make the products, services and information on your website easy to find. However, information architects often have greater insights into user/searcher mental models because they utilize two specific usability tests to determine these mental models: open and closed card sort tests.

Let's examine both of these usability tests and how SEO professionals often misinterpret—or even ruin—the results of these tests.

Open Card Sort Tests

An open card sort test is a formative usability test in which users/searchers are presented with blank index cards (either the physical kind or the online version) and a list of items. Test participants are then asked to: (a) place items into groups, and (b) come up with labels for each of the groups. Here is a simple example.

Suppose the item on the 1st card is blue. Immediately, a test participant might think, "Blue is a color." The item on the 2nd card is green. The user might think, "Blue and green are both colors," and will immediately place the blue and green cards next to each other as a group. The item on the 3rd card is orange—another Color. If the test participant is thinking out loud, you might hear them say the word "color."

You can immediately see an initial mental model and grouping: Colors.

The item on the 4th card is peach, and a test participant might think, "A peach is a fruit." The test participant might create two categories: Colors and Fruit:

However, the test participant might realize after creating the Color and Fruit categories, "An orange is not only a color. It is also a fruit." And he might move the orange item into the Fruit category label.

Which way of organizing these items is correct: 2 Colors and 2 types of Fruit, or 3 Colors and one type of Fruit?

The item on the 5th card is cherry, which the test participant immediately puts into the Fruit category. After further thought, the test participant might move orange back into the Colors category.

But on second thought (or third or fourth), the test participant moves orange back into the Fruit category.

"No no no!" the test participant finally says out loud. "They are all crayon colors!" And he removes the Color and Fruit categories, and puts the word Crayons.

Please understand that this is a grossly oversimplified version of an open card sort test for organizing website content. But I hope this example illustrates that people organize and label information in multiple ways—and they often change their minds many times during the test.

Now imagine a website with a very complex architecture: multiple taxonomies, cross-referencing, and so forth. It takes a seasoned professional to analyze the complex data from this usability test and to truly construct a findable architecture based on analysis of that data. An SEO professional might not have these skills.

Where SEO professionals make open card sort mistakes:

  • Leading questions. During usability tests, it can be very difficult to not ask "leading" questions that put keywords into a test participants' head when that person might otherwise not have thought of that word.

  • Item selection. Items that are needed to categorize should be carefully selected (i.e. not necessarily from data from keyword research tools) so as not to lead users/searchers into validating the SEO professional's mental model. During these types of usability tests, we want the mental models of users/searchers, not the mental models of a keyword research tool or an SEO professional.

  • Using the same architecture for different countries. Andy Atkins-Krüger can attest to this, users/searchers from different countries will label, group and prioritize information differently.

I have found that the best information architectures and corresponding navigation systems emerge after both open and closed card sort usability tests are performed.

Now, let's look at the second type of card sort test.

Closed Card Sort Tests (Tree Tests)

A closed card sort test is a validative usability test in which users/searchers are presented with pre-labeled categories and a list of items. Test participants are then asked to place each item underneath one of the categories, the one that they feel is the most appropriate.

There should always be a blank index card in the event that test participants come up with their preferred category label, and there should also be an "I don't know" pile in the event that participants honestly do not believe that any of the pre-determined labels make sense to them.

Below is a very simplified version of a closed card sort test. Test participants are asked to move items in the far-left column into one of the two pre-determined categories.

Closed card sort test example

Where SEO professionals make closed card sort mistakes:

  • Keyword stuffing. Test results are faulty because aSEO professionals puts "leading" categories and "leading" item names to be sorted, all in the effort to validate their mental models. Labels should be distinguishable. And if they are not? Use this opportunity to determine why labels might be confusing to users.

  • Not enough test participants. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen's article, Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users, has been misinterpreted by many search professionals. In a follow-up article, he recommended 15 test participants for card sort tests, and more for larger websites (with "lavish funding").

    No matter how many users/searchers participate in a closed card sort test, you might not see any trends in how users/searchers organize the content. This often occurs with websites that have poorly labeled—and poorly prioritized—primary navigation. If the closed card sort isn't yielding meaningful results, chances are you will need to reexamine your information architecture and not allow the SEO professional's input at this particular time.

  • Lack of objectivity. Test facilitators and creators need to be objective. We often recommend hiring an information architecture or usability firm for card sort and tree tests. Reason? Web professionals are too close to their sites. They might unwittingly lead test participants to giving feedback that is outside user mental models.

  • Lack of education, training, and experience. Though we certainly laud any company that has in-house professionals, we have learned much through our experiences across multiple industries. Pilot testing is critical for uncovering potential issues with tasks and software. We often over-recruit for pilot tests and outliers.

    Usability testing and user testing are not the same thing. Please read User Experience Smackdown: Usability Testing Vs. User Testing for more details. You might think your company is working with a usability firm...but is not.

The goal of usability testing is not to validate the SEO professional's mental model or the web designer/developer's mental model. The goal is not to prove that SEO professionals or web designers/developers are right (or wrong). The goal is to observe, listen, and learn user/searcher mental models. create a website that: (a) validates user mental models, and (b) accommodates searcher goals and behaviors.

IA Testing Tips for SEO Professionals

Here is our short list of tips when determining effective website information architectures:

1. Avoid leading questions and comments.

With both the open and closed card sort tests, it is imperative that SEO professionals resist the urge to put words in users' mouths. The point of usability tests for information architecture is to listen to users, and to objectively observe their behaviors and actions. You want to determine the best labels based on user/searcher mental models, not your own.

2. Be objective...or hire someone who is less invested (personally) in the tests' outcome.

The content that you put on the index cards (whether it's physical index cards or the online version) is critical to the success of both usability tests. If you find that you cannot be objective in using keywords, then hire an information architect to come up with the item names.

3. Avoid keyword stuffing.

Sometimes, a navigation label is clear without a keyword. Resist the urge to add one for ranking reasons when the label is clear. Do not listen to the SEO Borg and think, "Resistance is futile." There are other important places on a web page that you can implement keywords… and the page can still get search engine visibility and conversions.

4. Don't imitate other websites' architectures.

Don't imitate competitor architectures and site navigation because it makes sense to you and the competitor site ranks well. Kim Krause-Berg warned against this in her excellent article, It's A Fatal Mistake To Copy Successful Websites. Sure site navigation makes sense to you. And it appears to make sense to a commercial web search engine because a site ranks. But the architecture and navigation might not make sense to users. They are the ones who will ultimately purchase your products and services.

5. Recruit appropriate participants.

We know how tempting it is to conduct usability tests with random test participants...especially when the powers-that-be want a fast turnaround time. Or when you read one of Steve Krug's awesome books (Don't Make Me Think and Rocket Surgery Made Easy).

Usability test results are most accurate when conducted with participants who fit a persona or profile. In other words, don't test an interface or architecture with teenagers when your target audience is age 55+. And if your target audience is physicians? Then conduct the test with physicians.

6. Remember: Browse. Search. Ask.

People who work in a "search" environment often see the "search" part of searcher behavior recognize that findability includes browsing, searching and asking.

Web searchers browse. They do not:

  • Type a keyword into Google.
  • Click on a search listing.
  • Go to a page on your website.
  • Go back to Google.
  • Type in a different keyword.
  • Click on a search listing.
  • Go to a different page on your website.
  • Go back to Google.
  • Type in a different keyword.
  • Click on a search listing.
  • Go to a different page on your website.
  • Etc.

If a searcher's information scent is validated on the landing page, searchers will continue to browse a site to complete their tasks. As I said in Information Architects Are From Venus, SEOs Are From Mars, browsing, searching, and asking are equally important finding behaviors.

Information architects use other types of usability tests to determine architecture and navigation. Information architects use dendrograms and personas. Get training from a qualified IA firm or hire one to assist you in your website design or redesign. You won't regret it.

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