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Information Architecture Smackdown: Website Architecture vs. SEO Architecture

Does your target audience organize and label information based on search engine optimization data? Learn different interpretations of information architecture from search engine optimization pros and information architects.

Information architecture vs. technical architecture image

if you ask web professionals what their interpretation of the phrase information architecture is, you will get a wide variety of responses.

In This Article

Different interpretations of information architecture - industry jargon

A search engine optimization (SEO) professional might launch into some grand scheme about indexation, structured data, and PageRank sculpting.

A web developer usually views information architecture in terms of structure, such as:

  • Field placement in a database
  • How each field (information) will be used on different web-page templates

However, if you presented these intepretations of information architecture to information architects, you will probably see some raised eyebrows and confused facial expressions. Many information architects have no idea what the words "indexation" or "PageRank" mean.

Though some information architects use many of the keyword research tools that SEO professionals use on a daily basis, most information architects have other tricks up their sleeves. Card sorting tests and tree tests with direct, face-to-face user interaction are some ways that information architects determine how end users typically categorize and label web content.

SEOs & information architects should provide a better user experience (UX) by understanding each other and using a common vocabulary.

So why the disconnect? In my opinion, many SEO professionals use industry jargon and tend to forget that people outide the industry do not understand our interpretations of words like "indexation" and "PageRank" 

Likewise, information architects use their industry jargon. For both groups to provide a better user experience (UX), they should try to understand each other and possibly come up with a common vocabulary.

Let’s continue with the people who deal with information architecture on a daily basis.

Information architects' perspective

In my opinion, I believe that the best definition of "information architecture" comes from experts Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, authors of Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond, also known as the polar bear book.

Morville neatly sums up the definition of information architecture on his website. Morville's definition of information architecture is:

  1. The structural design of shared information environments.
  2. The combination of organization, labeling, search, and navigation systems within web sites and intranets.
  3. The art and science of shaping information products and experiences to support usability and findability.
  4. An emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

When I read those definitions, I do not see any references to "crawlability," "indexation," "link juice," or "PageRank."

What I DO see are references to usability and findability.

Website usability is task-oriented. Through usability testing, both usability professionals and information architects measure how well users can accomplish specific tasks on a website with efficiency and a high level of satisfaction. 

Findability refers to both querying and browsing behaviors.

Do SEO professionals address both usability and findability during the optimization process? I honestly do not know.

It might help if web developers, SEOs, usability experts, and information architects stepped out of the proverbial box and listen to others’ interpretations of website usability and findability instead of using these words as part of a carefully crafted sales pitch.

Now let’s see how SEO professionals interpret information architecture.

Search Engine Optimizers' Perspective

Two concepts that inevitably come up when SEO professionals talk about site architecture are crawlability and indexation. Even though the two concepts are intricately related, they are not the same.

Crawling refers to the search engines’ fetching process, when search engine spiders follow links from web page to web page. During the crawling process, pages are not available to rank.

Before pages (URLs and associated content) are added to a web search-engineindex, they must pass through a number of filters before they are available to rank.

This second process is called indexation. Crawling precedes indexation. The index (database) is a subset of the crawl.

As an SEO professional, I understand the importance of accessibility. You can write all of the keyword-focused text you want, but the pages won’t rank unless search engines have access to that content.

Therefore, crawling and indexation are critical components of the SEO process.

However, indexation and crawlability are NOT components of information architecture.

Another concept that is often associated with information architecture is PageRank scupting, where SEOs utilize a number of techniques (the nofollow attribute, robots exclusion protocol, cloaking, etc.) to communicate to search engines that web pages are focused on specific keyword phrases.

PageRank sculpting is NOT information architecture. In my opinion, most of the techniques used to sculp PageRank are a poor substitute for a solid, user-friendly information architecture.

Nevertheless, I understand why SEO professionals use other techniques than card sorting and tree testing.

PageRank sculpting is NOT information architecture. PR sculpting is NOT based on users' perspective.

After a client company spends thousands of hours man hours creating a website, the client does not want to hear that the site’s information architecture needs to be modified—a costly and time-consuming undertaking. So one quick-fix workaround is PageRank sculpting.

What I believe is missing from the SEO perspective’s intepretation of information architecture is the user/searcher perspective.

Keyword research tools are one way of getting information about potential site visitors. Web analytics data also provides valuable feedback.

However, information architects create website information architectures BEFORE in the design and development processes. They create website architectures before wireframes and prototypes are even created.

Information architects test their labels, categorization, and groupings on actual users...sometimes with direct face-to-face contact. They do not create a website’s information architecture based on the mental models of web developers, search engine optimizers, or IT professionals.

An effective, sustainable information architecture is based on users’ mental models.

Those are the differences between an SEO's and an information architect's interpretation of information architecture (IA).

Which do you think is better: an IA based on users mental models...or an IA based on the mental model of an SEO professional (an SEO architecture)?

I know my answer.

References

  • Cardello, Jen (2014). The Difference Between Information Architecture (IA) and Navigation. Retrieved at: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ia-vs-navigation/.
  • Covert, A. (2014). How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody. SI: CreateSpace Independent Publishing.
  • Ding, W., Lin, X., & Zarro, M. (2017). Information Architecture: The Design and Integration of Information Spaces. Synthesis Lectures on Information Concepts, Retrieval, and Services9(2), i-152.
  • Hinton, A. (2014). Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. O'Reilly Media, Inc.
  • Kalbach, J. (2007). Designing Web Navigation: Optimizing the User Experience." O'Reilly Media, Inc.
  • Lee, Y. J. (2015). A Study on Information Architecture & User Experience of the Smartphone. Journal of Digital Convergence, 13(11), 383-390.
  • Mackenzie, I. S. (1992) "Fitts' law as a research and design tool in human-computer interaction". Human-Computer Interaction, 7, 91-139.
  • Morville, P. (2005). Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become. O'Reilly Media, Inc.
  • Nielsen, J. (2009). Top 10 Information Architecture (IA) Mistakes. Retrieved at: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/top-10-ia-mistakes/.
  • OBrien, D. (2009). Tree Testing. Retrieved at: http://boxesandarrows.com/tree-testing/
  • Pessoa, C. R. M., Erichsen, M. N., Baracho, R. M. A., & Jamil, G. L. (2018). Information Architecture: case study. In Information Retrieval and Management: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp. 1825-1840). IGI Global.
  • Resmini, A., & Rosati, L. (2011). Pervasive information architecture: designing cross-channel user experiences. Elsevier.
  • Rosenfeld, L., Morville, P., & Arango, J. (2015). Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond. O'Reilly Media, Inc.
  • Spencer, D. (2009). Card sorting: Designing Usable Categories. Rosenfeld Media.
  • Spencer, D. (2010). A Practical Guide to Information Architecture. Penarth: Five Simple Steps.
  • Stock, W. & Stock, M. (2013). Handbook of Information Science. De Gruyter Saur.
  • Taylor, A. G., & Joudrey, D. N. (2017). The Organization of Information. ABC-CLIO.
  • Thurow, S. (2015, March 13). 6 Information Architecture Facts Every Business Should Know. Retrieved from: https://marketingland.com/6-information-architecture-facts-every-business-know-120921.
  • Thurow, S. (2015, May 8). Website Taxonomy Guidelines And Tips: How Best To Organize Your Site. Retrieved from: https://marketingland.com/website-taxonomy-guidelines-tips-127706.
  • Thurow, S. and Musica, N. (2009). When Search Meets Web Usability. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.
  • Wentzel, J., Müller, F., Beerlage-de Jong, N., & van Gemert-Pijnen, J. (2016). Card sorting to evaluate the robustness of the information architecture of a protocol website. International journal of medical informatics86, 71-81.

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