Calling All Information Architects! Get With The SEO Program

In my previous column, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Myths About Information Architecture, my colleagues and I pointed out some frustrations with SEO professionals’ concept of information architecture (IA).

For example, information architecture is not about PageRank sculpting. It’s about labeling and organizing content on a website to support usability and findability.

A successful site architecture addresses both information architecture and technical architecture. I often feel that search engine optimizers forget the searcher part of SEO. Hence, their understanding of information architecture is limited to querying behaviors only.

However, I also feel that information architects too quickly and too easily dismiss SEO for a number of reasons. Maybe they don’t understand SEO, being quick to succumb to the “snake-oil” stereotype. Or maybe they don’t have some of the technical knowledge that is a very much a part of successful SEO.

Many of my SEO colleagues work to understand and implement search-friendly information architectures. Personally? I believe it is long past due for information architects to get with the SEO program.

Here are some of my biggest beefs with many information architects.

Keywords Are Important — So Use Them Often & Use Them Well

When I listen to my information architect colleagues, I hear plenty of conversations about using the users’ language and understanding their mental models. I understand that during open and closed card-sort tests that one must never guide test participants with predetermined words to support ones personal mental model. I really do get that.

But I also see information architects deliberately remove important keywords from websites to support their version of findability. They believe redundancy is bad when some redundancy supports findability and the validation of information scent.

Part of the labeling process is establishing and maintaining aboutness with keywords. They belong on web pages, graphic images, video files, and so forth. Keywords should be implemented consistently and repeatedly when necessary.

Believe it or not, information architects and SEO professionals often face the same issues, as my colleague Alan Perkins, Managing Director of SilverDisc Limited, points out:

“I guess the biggest problem I come across with information architects is the same problem that SEOs come across with organisations generally – that is, they tend to have an internal perspective on the information which differs from the external perspective held by a website’s visitors. This is particularly true of in-house information architects. To give an example, they might use a label of ‘Polypropelene Drinking Vessels’ where the target market would use ‘Plastic Cups.’ It’s essential to architect using the words and phrases that your customers use if you wish to maximise SEO, conversion rates and profit. Too often, information architects will use in-house and industry jargon which cripples these three.”

Keyword research is an essential part of an SEO professional’s job. It should be a part of an information architect’s job as well. I am certainly not saying that an information architecture should be created based on keyword research data, but I am saying that I am a better information architect because keyword research tools are good source of web searcher data. Perkins continues:

“Information architects don’t think about keywords at all. They carefully work out home pages, category pages, product/information pages and so on, but when asked ‘If somebody was to search Google for x (where x is a term we’re highly relevant for and would like to rank for), which single page from this website would you like them to see in the Google search results?’, often you’ll see the jaw drop. Because there isn’t a page for x. There are hundreds of pages for x, smeared across the whole site. And not one of those pages, in and of itself, could possibly rank on Google for x.”

Which brings me to my next beef….

Treat Most Web Pages As A Point Of Entry

Search engine optimizers have to address how users/searchers arrive at a website via web search engine listings and links from external, third party resources.

Information architects? Their concern is architecting a site with the home page as the main point of reference. The problem? That single point of entry does not address searchers’ needs and goals once they arrive on a site.

The content, labels, and navigation systems provide information to search engines and third-party websites. Is that information scent and aboutness validated after a user/searcher clicks on those links?

A website's entry point can be any page.

Here’s a simple example. With an e-commerce site:

  • A niche website, such as a shopping directory, often links to the home page.
  • If a web searcher wants to view a list of items, he/she typically types in the plural form of a keyword. So the searcher expects to be delivered to a category page, which features a list of items. Commercial web search engines try to accommodate this type of informational query and feature a category page in search listings.
  • A blogger might link to a specific product he/she likes.

Search engine optimizers do not want to break a successful information architecture. But we do want information architects to realize that every URL that is in a search engine’s index is a potential point of entry.

Information architects need to recognize and validate this viewpoint and context in wireframes, prototypes, organization, and labels. If you don’t accommodate the searcher viewpoint? You are limiting access to desired content, which brings me to….

Limiting Access To Desired Content

The most important page on a website isn’t typically a home page. With a hierarchical structure, the home page is emphasized and treated as the most important page. In other words, the parent-child links are emphasized.

The category-subcategory-content relationships among the content are deemed the most important links.

All web pages should contain both parent-child and sibling-sibling links to show relationships among content.

In reality, the hierarchical (vertical) links are not the only way that users/searchers discover and locate desired content. They also look at related content that isn’t necessarily grouped as a hierarchy.

In other words, the sibling-sibling (horizontal) relationships also accommodate findability. Information architects need to use both types of links on web pages to establish aboutness, validate information scent, and increase findability via both browsing and searching.

However, there is a flip side to limiting access to content. Sometimes, there is too much access to content. Too much access? How can a website deliver too much access?

Faceted Classification & Duplicate Content Delivery

According to Wikipedia, a faceted classification system allows the assignment of multiple classifications to an object, enabling the classifications to be ordered in multiple ways, rather than in a single, pre-determined, taxonomic (hierarchical) order. A single, top-down taxonomy can make content more difficult to find via both browsing and searching.

A single, top-down taxonomy can make content more difficult to find via both browsing and searching because users (and search engine spiders) must travel a specific path in order to access content. A faceted classification system, in theory, can make desired more findable because multiple paths to content are available.

Furthermore, faceted classification systems are favored among many web developers because they are scalable and do not require much face-to-face interaction with users.

Sounds like a great, simple solution to online information architecture, huh?

Not so simple. Instead of limiting access to desired content, faceted classification creates too much access to desired content. The main reason that web developers and information architects cannot visualize this is that they do not understand duplicate content delivery according to the commercial web search engines.

With a faceted navigation system, boilerplate elements are the same. The host name resolution is the same. The linkage properties are the same. The shingles are the same. And if information architects, SEO professionals, and web developers don’t know what these terms (host name resolution, linkage properties, shingles) mean? Guess what? You do not understand duplicate content delivery from a web searcher and a search engine perspective.

I have worked with faceted classification systems for many years and have seen searcher reactions to this type of navigation system. Faceted navigation is fine once users/searchers arrive at your site. They are not “fine” when web searchers see the same product listing over and over and over again in search engine results pages (SERPS).

Web searchers don’t only become annoyed with the website that appears to be getting an endless amount of search listings — they also become annoyed with the search engine delivering the repetitive search results.

Part of an information architect’s job is to prioritize. Well, information architects should prioritize the content that is to be delivered to the commercial web search engines.

How many information architects know how to do that? How many information architects care to do that? Without knowledge of web SEO, information architects (and web developers) do not realize how their decisions lead to a negative searcher experience.

Information architects — it’s long past due that you know and understand SEO. Kim Krause-Berg, founder of Cre8pc and Search Marketing/UX Manager for LiBeck Integrated Marketing, agrees with me.

“IAs are aware that SEO is a practice that includes information architecture, but I’m not seeing an understanding, or acceptance perhaps, about how IA can be applied by expert SEOs. True search engine optimization is intimately tied to search query types. The ‘old’ SEO technique of finding keywords to rank for is outdated because searchers have become more experienced and precise in what they’re searching for. Research on search engines, searcher behavior, and taxonomies show fascinating results where searchers aren’t satisfied with just findability. They respond to wantability. This means creating an entire information architecture that creates an experience, or an ‘this is an exactly perfect result’ reaction.”

Search Engine Land readers, do you have any beefs with information architects? Let us know in the comments below.

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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  • Adele Tiblier

    Shari, have you been reading my site optimization and user experience review docs?

    But seriously, it is sad that so many businesses don’t know enough about all of this to know that when they paid for a web site, that the designer did them an injustice by not providing guidance through the process, or delivering a properly corded or structured site with visitors and some sort of goal in mind.

    It is often a shock to the business after I have gone though my battery of tests going through what appears to be a “nice” site, that technically it is doing them a disservice. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to impress upon companies going through redesign that having an SEO pro involved in the pre-design process can make it a lot less painful lesson to learn.


  • Paul Swain

    I’m not sure there’s a difference here and disagree with a lot of what that article states, it makes IAs sound like morons. From my POV, an IA should always design with the user in mind and the users dictate the search terms put into the search engines. So shouldn’t they be one and the same? One of the quotes used to illustrate a point is:

    “…This is particularly true of in-house information architects. To give an example, they might use a label of ‘Polypropelene Drinking Vessels’ where the target market would use ‘Plastic Cups.’ It’s essential to architect using the words and phrases that your customers use if you wish to maximise SEO, conversion rates and profit. Too often, information architects will use in-house and industry jargon which cripples these three.”

    This is very basic knowledge to an IA, I’m and IA/UX designer and if I ever used the label ‘Polypropelene Drinking Vessels’ instead of ‘plastic cups’… shoot me!

  • Brent Chaters

    Great article, having dealt with both IA considerations and SEO considerations, I find it interesting that some times both jobs are attempting to do the same thing, which is classify information in certain buckets. One is an (IA) introverted examination while the other (SEO) is extroverted examination of how others may see your content/data.

    Further when SEO’s talk about being classified with certain neighborhoods and being associated with like content, the lines become even more blurry. I have seen poor IA and internal linking strategies harm good websites, while I’ve also seen off site linking strategies that are just as damaging. Will an IA ever do what and SEO does or vice versa? probably not, but should the two sit together and talk, I certainly think so.

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi everyone-

    I believe information architects, as a whole, deserve this criticism.

    Paul, you might think that the example wasn’t the right one, and that’s fine. But do you know what search engines consider duplicate content? Do you know what to do about it? Do information architects know what to do about it? I haven’t met an information architect who does, and part of the reason for that is the lack of technical knowledge about coding/programming web pages, and also how search engines work.

    And, whether any IA likes it or not, I and many of my colleagues have seen too many wireframes and prototypes that are unoptimized or unprepared for SEO. And we have to do them over again because some IA (and the company) was ignorant about SEO or, even worse, deliberately didn’t think it was part of his/her job.

    Last time I checked, if you note my definition of IA, findability is a critical part of IA. Peter Morville agrees with me:

    Adele, I agree with you. Too many people skip the information architecture portion of web design and development. And then don’t want to be told, as Brent pointed out, that the poor IA and internal linking harms otherwise great websites.

    I’m not letting information architects weasel their way out of this article’s criticism. I’m an information architect. I am on the Board of Directors for the Information Architecture Institute.

    I get other information architects’ work. I hear the myths about SEO from them all of the time. I hear the phrase “user experience” used as justification for EVERYTHING. Personally, I am completely turned off by the phrase “user experience.” Good for the user experience? Prove it. I don’t want the information architect’s opinion, the web developer’s opinion, or the SEO’s opinion. I want proof: the usability test results, the diary findings, the analytics, the correct cause-and-effect conclusions.

    Oooh, I’m on a rant. Information architects need to get with the SEO program. My colleagues and I shouldn’t have to do so much work with keywords and duplicate content issues from a group of people who should honestly know better.

    And if you are good with keywords? Fine. We applaud that in any industry. If you’re good with managing duplicate content? Fine, we applaud that as well.

    My 2 (ahem) 4 cents. :-)

  • Alan Perkins

    @Paul Swain, you’re right, “plastic cups” was an extreme example to make the point. But the general principle holds. If you’re an IA who uses keyword research data to inform your navigation and labelling, then all power to you. You wouldn’t be a moron if you didn’t do that … but you would be a more typical IA.

    With regard to my second point, that’s actually the bigger issue that I come across. Many IAs tend to think of “site search” when they think of “search”, i.e. making sure that all relevant pages come back in a site search for a keyword. What they don’t think about so much, if at all, is that when it comes to Web search for a keyword then only one page from the site will be put forward as a candidate to be listed. You can then find that none of the pages are very good candidates in themselves for a particular keyword which is highly germane to the site as a whole – so none of them rank, and hence the site doesn’t.

  • stevengrech

    Hi Shari, from your post I gather that you haven’t really worked with integrated Web teams and that you’ve worked with either 1. Specialist UX agencies that do not have any in-house SEO knowledge or that aren’t working closely / transparently with an SEO agency or 2. “full service” agencies who work in silos with teams not talking to one another – what I’d call a “pass the buck and fill in the blanks” process.

    I wouldn’t expect a UX architect or IA to have in depth knowledge of how to implement canonical URLs or stand up and talk about canonicalization and crafting a internal linking strategy (I’d expect this to be done by a technical SEO and the UX architect – team work), however I would expect them to think beyond standard landing pages and think of campaign landing page templates for PPC and also SEO focused landing pages e.g. resource pages for products, how to guides etc. I would expect a technical developer to know how to implement canonical tags and all the other technical SEO features following a technical SEO plan delivered by a competent SEO who not only thinks about SEO but looks at the bigger picture.

    To reverse your beef, I generally have beef with SEOs who only think about SEO and cannot think beyond SEO, failing to see the bigger picture in terms of client’s needs (when these needs are global they’re more complex in terms of satisfying stakeholders + we’re getting in to the realm of multilingual SEO etc…), market forces (what are the competition doing and what can we learn from them?), brand and design needs (helping designers understand the importance of SEO without offending their designs), technical needs – functionality, content strategy (going beyond keywords and content optimisation)…

    The simple fact is that in the lovely world of digital you will always have a challenge balancing these various balls – the solution to this is awesome team work and good communication between tribes (without the spears!). When communication breaks down between the various tribes we end up dropping some balls…

    PS. hats off to Paul for his comment – it’s good to see IAs reading SE Land! :)

  • Paul Swain

    @Shari Your points are really well thought out and clearly communicated and I thank you for responding. In my previous company and in my current position, our SEO folks are next to me. I use their keyword analysis to plan the sitemaps before I even begin wireframing. I see the problem being perhaps the content supplied by the client. Unfortunately I often find that copywriting is not given a thought and can often ruin a user centered architecture… As you all know, I’m not a SEO bod, but I try and learn all I can from my colleagues to make me a better IA/UX person. I think it’s really bad practice of any IA to do any of the things mentioned in your article, I just felt it was a bit unfair to lump all IAs in with them.

    @Alan Really interesting point regarding search. I’ll admit that I’ve not as much experience designing searches as I feel I need to give a great response to this. I do think that a keyword should only be part of the search results, I think date should also be really important. For example, a specific event has taken place so the site needs to know that the user is most likely after content relating to that event. However, it also needs to present a way for the users not interested in that to locate the information they desire. I guess it’s all about returning relevant results. I admit that I don’t know how something like this sits with Google, but then no one does except the top brass at Google.

  • Paul Swain

    @Shari I’d also like to mention that you have admitted that you’re not into the term ‘user experience’ but perhaps this term has everything that you feel IAs are missing. For me the user experience isn’t just about the website, it’s the whole journey the user undertakes to get to their desired outcome. So it includes things like how easy it was to find the site (did they come from a search engine or direct link), how easy it was to use, did they have any problems and if so was there help available and it finishes either when the user leaves the site, or if it’s an ecomm, when their product arrives in the post. It’s all connected. I hope that kind of makes sense?

  • Alexandra Gaiger

    Surely the point of using experts is that they are completely well versed and obsessed with what they do, either IA or SEO? What is required is a digital marketing project manager who understands IA, UX and SEO and can bring together and properly brief each party. A well managed project, in this case, would involve the SEO doing the keyword research and the project manager then briefing the IA, providing them with the keyword research and clear expectations.

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi all-

    Let me answer your questions and respond to comments individually.

    To Brent, who wrote, “Will an IA ever do what and SEO does or vice versa?” I think that SEOs are currently “pretending” to be information architects (they’re not), and I find it just as annoying as SEOs “pretending” to be usability professionals. Both IAs and usability professionals have a degree of education, training, and experience that many SEOs lack and/or acknowledge.

    I don’t expect IAs to possess certain technical knowledge; however, I also think that’s a convenient excuse (“I’m not a developer”) to not understand certain technical aspects on a different level. For example, I DO think IAs should know what the canonical tag is and why it is used. I do think IAs should know what duplicate content means from the perspective of a search engine and web searchers. “Search” is a part of information architecture. You don’t have to know how to create a search engine to understand various, important aspects of search.

    Information architects could be great SEOs if they would quit wallowing in ignorance about the subject, IMHO.


    Paul and Steven, I don’t think information architects are “morons” but I do see, as a whole, that information architects need to quit thinking of SEO as a “snake-oil’ practice and see the value of it. I wrote in the previous month about what SEOs should know about information architecture, and I flipped the proverbial coin and counterpointed for this article. Maybe you should read the previous article for a more thorough context.

    Regarding Steven’s statements that I do not have experience with large companies, perhaps you should go to my company website and look at my partial client list. You are making blanket conclusions without trying to determine the context in which I write. I am an information architect. I have been since the late 80s. I am also an SEO. I started optimizing back in 1995. I see bridges that the average information architect or the average SEO might not see.

    And finally, Paul, I wrote very clearly about what I consider the user/searcher experience to be in January of this year:

    I understand that responses to blog posts are usually knee-jerk reactions, but I don’t write my Search Engine Land articles as knee-jerk reactions. Many of my articles have been drafted for months or years, and I do plenty of research. In fact, I wrote my draft about “aboutness” back in 2005 but didn’t publish until last year because I just didn’t think it was a subject that SEOs were ready for.

    Don’t knee-jerk, if you can. Try to understand context. That’s what I do as a courtesy to others.

  • Paul Swain

    My comments and thoughts aren’t knee jerk in the slightest. And you mentioned blanket conclusions… your blanket conclusions about IAs are what started this whole thing.

    To help you understand user experience, perhaps you should have a consultant do an audit of your own site? I think there are many areas that could be improved upon and your ROI would definitely increase. I’m sure your site rates highly on Google but if users are left wondering what you do and how you can help them, they’ll be gone pretty quickly.


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