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Three SEO Myths About Information Architecture (IA)

PageRank sculpting, siloing, link-juice flowage, SEO architecture — keyword phrases that make our skin crawl. What do search engine optimizers need to know about information architecture?

Information architecture myths debunked image

Information architecture and a supporting navigation system have a direct effect on both web search engine optimization (SEO) and site search engine optimization.

To help SEOs understand an information architect's point of view, here are some of the common myths and misconceptions that search engine optimizers have about information architecture.

In This Article

SEO jargon

Phrases such as PageRank sculpting, siloing, link-juice flowage, SEO architecture are words come from search engine optimization (SEO) professionals in reference to a website's information architecture (IA).

Yet, when we are among our information architecture colleagues? We rarely hear these words, if at all.

When we explain to our information architecture colleagues how PageRank sculpting is supposed to work, they look at us as if we have lost our minds. No qualified information architect, that we know of, determines a website's information architecture based an alleged number between 1 and 10.

Information architects use both quantitative AND qualitative data to inform information architecture decisions.

Nor do qualified information architects base a website's information architecture mainly from keyword research data. Information architects use both quantitative AND qualitative data to inform information architecture decisions.

Is the problem that information architects do not understand search engine optimization…or is the problem that SEO professionals do not understand information architecture? Or are both parties equally ignorant?

We believe that both teams should work well together. After all, they should be on the same team. Building bridges between these teams should be a critical part of all site optimization efforts.

Now, onto some myths....

Myth #1: SEO is SEO & IA is IA

"I would say that the biggest myth is 'SEO is SEO and IA is IA and never the twain shall meet' – that information architecture is a high-brow, librarian-like activity carried out by serious, academic-type practitioners and high-end site builders, whereas SEO is a down and dirty marketing tactic carried out by hip guerrilla marketers," said Alan Perkins, Managing Director of SilverDisc Limited. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

"Information is content; architecture is links; therefore information architecture is about content and links," Perkins continues. "And what's a large part of SEO? Yep, content and links. Information architecture is a very large component of SEO and, like building a house, getting your architecture wrong at the start can cost you a lot further down the line."

We have been saying for years that SEO is optimizing a website for people who use search engines. There are two parts to that equation: searchers and search engines. We often feel that many SEO professionals ignore or discount the "searcher" part of search engine optimization. Likewise, we often feel that SEOs and web developers alike forget the "searcher" part of site architecture.

"A site architecture (SA) for SEO is a combination of just two things: information architecture (IA) and technical architecture (TA)," said Perkins. "I like to express this as a formula: SA = IA + TA."

Amen to that, Alan.

Myth #2: The SEO Architecture…

Whenever we hear the phrase "SEO architecture," we immediately associate it with an information architecture that is primarily:

  • Created for search engines only
  • Based on data primaril from keyword research tools, and
  • Based on the mental models of SEOs, not users/searchers

This type of architecture commonly results in a website that ranks well—temporarily (if at all) but has a high abandonment rate and poor conversions.

"Organizations that design for SEO at the expense of IA are sacrificing their future for a few quick wins," said Peter Morville, president and founder of Semantic Studios and co-author of Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond, 4th edition. "Marketing is about the whole user experience, not just findability."

Two goals of an effective information architecture are to make desired content: (1) easy to use and (2) easy to find via:

  • Searching
  • Browsing
  • Asking

Searcher goals and business goals are not always mutually exclusive.

When you boil it all down, information architects' work is concerned with optimizing the alignment of business goals and user needs," said Dan Klyn, information architect at The Understanding Group, Co-founder of World IA Day, and a former board member of the Information Architecture Institute.

Sometimes, the changes that information architects recommend are subtle; other times, the changes are unmistakable, requiring wholesale changes to directory structures, URL paths and over-arching navigation structures.

In cases where information architects find a wide mis-alignment between ideal and existing structures, consider the real-world architectural metaphor that information architecture derives from. In the same way that owners, contractors and designers must wisely decide between adapting an existing structure or tearing everything down and starting from scratch, so too with matters of information architecture.

Many website owners are afraid to modify ranked pages, even though the sites' existing information architectures are confusing to searchers.

Website owners are afraid to lose qualified search engine traffic. But consider this—you are already losing users/searchers by not having a website that makes sense to your target audience. Adapting an existing structure to be crawler friendly isn't always the best solution.

Which leads us to the next myth….

Myth #3: Web Searchers Are Not Site Users

"SEO professionals may not realize that users' information needs change—sometimes dramatically so—once they reach a site," said Louis Rosenfeld, co-author of Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond and author of Search Analytics for your Site: Conversations with your Customers.

"They may move from seeking to validate that an answer to their query exists—and on which website—to a mode of localized finding and more intensive learning about the topic of interest. Or web searchers may be seeking information about an organization, while site searchers may seek information about that organization's services and offerings."

In the table below, former Michigan State University technologist Rich Wiggins compared the top keywords that brought users to the MSU site with what they searched once they reached the site (on the site's search engine):

MSU search comparision

"The differences quickly emerge," Rosenfeld explains. "Names of the institution are obviously quite common in web search, but not for site search. Both types of searches include navigational information (e.g., 'campus map'), but site search queries often deal with activities local to the campus (e.g., 'football'), systems that students and staff use (e.g., 'spartantrak'), and particular departments like chemistry."

I think that it is really important for SEO professionals to perform the following type of advanced web-search queries to verify that they are communicating aboutness to both site visitors and search engines.

  • informational/navigational
  • transactional/navigational

Here are some specific examples (using the National Cancer Institute site):

  • lung cancer
  • allintitle: lung cancer
  • contact NCI

This web SEO will also help site SEO.

"While organic web search and site search demonstrate different searcher behaviors and information needs, there is an interesting relationship between them that may provide search engine advertisers with some great opportunities," Rosenfeld said.

"Because site search produces more specific queries than organic web search, these queries may suggest more narrowly focused keywords that will in turn see fewer bids. So site search analytics, an information architect's tool, might save SEO and search engine advertisers a lot of money."

Key takeaways

  • Technical teams and information architects should work together. It might be difficult for technical teams to take direction and guidance from non-technical information architects or anyone that does not share their frame of reference.

    Don't let anyone from your tech team intimidate you into believing something cannot be changed. Remember, your technical team is not your target audience and are not likely to have the same mental models that your target audience has.
  • Both information architecture and technical architecture are critical for a long-term success. Remember that: Site Architecture = Technical Architecture + Information Architecture.
  • Adapting an existing information architecture to be crawler friendly isn't always the best solution. If the site's information architecture is the problem? Then fix the problem. If the site's navigation system does not support discovery and location, then address that problem.

    Don't put a band-aid on anything and expect miracles.
  • Web searchers are site users. We should understand that there is a continuous flow from search engine to website. SEO professionals, information architects, and usability professionals should work together to make information scent and aboutness a continuous process.
  • Site search analytics can save SEO/SEM professionals time and money. If your site search engine is not accurate, then don't expect search results in Google, Yahoo, and Bing to be accurate either.



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