SEO, Information Architecture and Interface Design

  |  April 24, 2006   |  Comments

It’s not just the keywords. The most important building block of SEO is information architecture.

Keywords. Keywords. Keywords. I swear, that’s all I hear from my colleagues, that and the assumption that keywords are the most important part of SEO. Well, I disagree. I don’t believe keywords are the most important building block of SEO. Keyword phrases mean nothing unless they’re used in a specific, contextual environment.

Think about it. Many search engine spammers use software spiders to "borrow" content from competitor sites to generate doorway-page content. Do spam doorway pages generate high-quality search engine traffic and conversions? Not likely, especially if you’ve ever viewed some of these poorly designed and unusable pages. The contextual environment is substandard; therefore, the keyword phrases have little meaning.

The most important building block of SEO is the information architecture. If you want your HTML/XHTML, audio, video, and image files to generate qualified search engine traffic, the key ingredient to making these files appear relevant are the information architecture and the interface that communicates this architecture.

Information Architecture versus Interface

Many SEOs utilize the terms "information architecture" and "site architecture" without truly understanding their meaning. Information architecture refers to the organization of site content into groups. Navigation is part of the user interface. Unfortunately, too many SEOs confuse a site’s actual information architecture with the interface.

How is your site’s information grouped? Are all video files (if used) placed in a directory labeled "videos" (or some other relevant label), and do you give search engines easy access to those files? When you use videos on Web pages, are they used as eye candy or to highlight relevant concepts on key pages?

How you arrange information on a Web page communicates to search engines and site visitors alike the content you believe is important. Keywords are a part of that interface.

The Meaning of Search

Interestingly, as the search industry has evolved, it seems the word "search" has come to mean only the querying process. In other words, type in two to three keywords into Google and get results -- that’s search.

Search behavior doesn’t only encompass the querying process. Scanning is also a search process. When people view search results, they scan the page for information. When people click a search result to get to a Web page, they scan the Web page to determine whether or not the page’s content matches their search query.

People navigate Web sites. They look for visual cues that lead them in the right direction. Some of the visual cues are textual: titles, headings, etc. Some of the visual cues are graphical: navigation buttons, image maps, photos, etc. Browsing, reading, and scanning are also types of search behaviors.

Many SEOs and their clients need to take their blinders off. There’s a plethora of search behavior outside of rankings. I find the obsession with ranking to be rather narrow-minded and annoying, especially from people who should know better.

Why do I bring up search behavior? In order for a Web site to be search-engine and user friendly, the site’s information architecture and interface must accommodate a wide variety of directed and semi-directed search behavior, not just querying behavior.

Search Usability Analysis

One of my SEO responsibilities is to conduct heuristic analyses of completed Web sites or advanced prototypes. I not only evaluate the user friendliness of the site, I also evaluate the search friendliness of the site.

Sometimes, the analysis turns out in the client’s favor. All the client site might need are some copywriting adjustments, some high-quality link development, and a site map. But most of the time, the core problem lies with the site’s information architecture and poor interface.

Granted, not all copywriting changes are easy. Some ClickZ readers have written to me about content management systems (CMS) that generate the same HTML title tag for every page on a site. Imagine having to write over 100,000 unique title tags from scratch when moving to a better CMS.

I find the most expensive change to make to a site involves restructuring a site’s information architecture after the site has launched. If I can catch a site in the planning or early prototype stages, I can help the site be 100 percent search-engine friendly. If I catch the site after it’s been built, it’s more challenging because, all too often, upper management has fallen in love with the pretty interface and doesn’t want to change it.


If I had one piece of advice for everyone about SEO and information architecture, it’s this: bring in a search usability specialist early in the design, redesign, or early prototype stages. Likewise, if you want to purchase a new CMS for your site, bring in an SEO professional to evaluate them. A search usability analysis can save your organization thousands, or even millions, of dollars in advertising expenses.

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Shari Thurow

Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.

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