3 SEO Myths About Information Architecture

PageRank sculpting, siloing, link-juice flowage, SEO architecture — these are keyword phrases that often make my skin crawl. The reason? I commonly hear these words come from search engine optimization (SEO) professionals in reference to a website’s information architecture (IA). Yet, when I am among my information architecture colleagues? I rarely hear these words, if at all.

What happens when I explain to my information architecture colleagues how PageRank sculpting is supposed to work? They look at me as if I have lost my mind, because no professional information architect, that I know of, determines a website’s information architecture and corresponding navigation schemes based on a math equation from Google.

Where is the disconnect? 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? Should there be bridges?

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.

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.”

I 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. I often feel that many SEO professionals ignore or discount the “searcher” part of search engine optimization. Likewise, I 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 I hear the phrase “SEO architecture,” I immediately associate it with an information architecture that is primarily:

  • Created for search engines only
  • Based on data 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 World Wide Web. “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 both searching and browsing. Searcher goals and business goals are not 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 and a director 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,” Klyn continues. “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 me 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 World Wide Web and author of Search Analytics for your Site: Conversations with your Customers (available in May 2011 from Rosenfeld Media).

“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 a combination navigational:informational and navigational:transactional advanced queries to verify that they are communicating aboutness to both site visitors and search engines. Here are some examples (using the National Cancer Institute site):

  • lung cancer site:www.cancer.gov
  • allintitle: lung cancer site:www.cancer.gov
  • contact NCI site:www.cancer.gov

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

  • It might be difficult for technical teams to take direction and guidance from non-technical information architects. Don’t let anyone from your tech team intimidate you into believing something cannot be changed.
  • Site Architecture = Technical Architecture + Information Architecture. Both TA and IA are critical for a long-term success.
  • 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. Don’t put a band-aid on it and expect miracles.
  • Web searchers are site users.
  • Site search analytics can save SEO/SEM professionals time and money.


Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).

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  • http://briantercero.com Brian Tercero

    Great article. I believe we still need to strive to find that happy medium. If you write 100% for Google, you lose your human readers. If you write 100% for your readers, Google may not find you.

    Focusing on Information Architecture that Google will love and that people will find easy to understand and use is important. Once the information architecture is set in place, the graphical user interface can be built so people will find it intuitive to move around the site and find what they are looking for.

    I think you you have to do your best to please both. I guess the tricky part is doing both sides well since there is such a wide gap between the two approaches.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    If we only had industry standards ….

  • Jon DeLaurie

    I am guilty!! I use the words PR Sculpting and Siloing. I am a huge believer in using both thought processes of what’s good for search and what’s good for end user. I don’t really understand the disliking of PR sculpting and silo. I think you can use PR as a way to see if there is a drastic problem with the original architecture of the site. Wouldn’t you have to look into a PR drop of lets say a 5 to a 0 and you only went down one root directory (i.e. wouldn’t that tell you there may be something wrong?). I also don’t see how flattening your content and putting it in silos would be a bad thing for end-user experience. Depending on the branding and conversion strategy wouldn’t it provide a better user experience if the content they are looking for stays consistent throughout the site and layered in silos? If you properly set up these silos and match them against site analytic s and rankings you can see the correlation between themes and how to adjust for better end user experience and rankings. Your article definitely got me thinking, am I doing something wrong?

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    Hi Jon-

    If I can be so bold…yes, you are doing something wrong, IMHO. It appears that you are architecting websites based on your mental model, not user mental models, and claiming that you are doing it in the name of “user experience.” (See http://searchengineland.com/findability-seo-and-the-searcher-experience-61038).

    Information architect Peter Morville wrote in his most recent book, Search Patterns, “When content is scattered into silos, users don’t know where to search.”

    PR sculpting is poor information architecture because with PR sculpting, again, the SEO is not considering the user/searcher perspective. Searchers/users don’t find website content based an arbitrary number between 1 and 10. I’ve done plenty of card sorting usability tests. No user/searcher has grouped content based on this Google Toolbar number.

    (PR sculpting doesn’t work, anyway. Please see: http://searchengineland.com/youd-be-wise-to-nofollow-this-dubious-seo-advice-13524).

    I highly recommend taking some information architecture classes. I can’t possibly go deeply into a response in a blog comment.

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    Hi Mr. Martinez-

    I would LOVE industry standards as well, but the SEO industry has no barrier to entry. And my standards have always been high and somewhat controversial at times.


  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow
  • Jon DeLaurie

    Shari, wow thanks for sharing, I see you are quite passionate on the subject. I hope I didn’t offend you. I read your other articles, thanks. I suppose I didn’t frame my question properly although you did provide me with great information. I wasn’t implying that endusers would qualify the quality of a page by PR, I was simply using PR score to evaluate problematic areas of a site (I suppose its not the practice of sculpting I was reffering to, but merely the flow of links from one page to the next) I can see your point as well as what I have studied about site IA and siloing and I don’t disagree with what you are saying, especially if it is presupposed that “content is scattered” and not organized into silos (and it would also need to be discussed what type of siloing it is directory or virtual and where graphically the content appears and the actual relevance and quality of that said content). I don’t believe in absolutes especially when technology changes so quickly and there are so many changing variables. My question would be why do most digital marketers not incorporate brand or brand messaging into the architecture and instead market pr
    imarily to search results for generic keywords. I suppose that would be a different discussion for a different day.

  • http://www.faceHOOK.com Sai-en

    This article is absolutely fascinating. I’m a newborn in my SEO journey. I must admit that while I am excited about all of the new information I am soaking up, I am a bit overwhelmed.

    My greatest concern is not getting started with SEO, it’s how do I strategically approach learning the about the ins and outs of SEO. With so many variables to consider before even applying the many SEO methods, it can be a bit confusing.

    Shari, if a newbie like myself was to ask, “Where in the heck do I begin to learn, and how do I map out some sort of curriculum for myself?” What advice would you offer?

    Thanks in advance


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