Information Architects Are From Venus, SEOs Are From Mars

In the search engine optimization (SEO) industry, hot topics constantly emerge and re-emerge with a different spin. For example, link development has always been a crucial building block of SEO, long before Google came into existence. User-generated content (UGC) has been around since the mid 90s, but it has re-emerged as a key SEO strategy for the past few years and continues to evolve. Long-tail keyword optimization? Many SEO professionals have optimized—and succeeded—for long-tail keyword phrases for well over 10 years. Kudos to the spin doctors that have made these phrases common in the search marketing industry.

Nowadays, we hear both SEO professionals and search engine representatives talk about how much they care about the user experience. For example, usability is now a service that some SEO firms offer, regardless of staff qualifications. Consider the credibility of a usability firm that does not conduct and analyze usability tests. Or the benefits and limitations of website heuristic evaluations, popularized by usability guru Jakob Nielsen.

Another website development service that is re-emerging in the SEO industry is information architecture (IA). Like link development, user-generated content, and long-tail keyword optimization, information architecture—as an SEO strategy—has existed for many years. However, an SEO professional’s spin on information architecture can lead website owners down the wrong path. Here are some common mistakes that SEO professionals make that can negatively affect a website’s search engine visibility and ROI:

Mistake #1: Not considering different types of searcher behaviors

Querying is not the only finding behavior that searchers use to discover and locate desired content. It seems as if usability professionals, information architects and SEO professionals focus on different aspects of findability. Usability professionals and information architects tend to focus on browsing behaviors, whereas SEO professionals tend to focus only on querying behaviors.

Findability increases when website owners accommodate both browsing and querying behaviors.
Content is more findable when website owners accommodate searchers’ browsing and querying behaviors.
Findability decreases when website owners ignore or discount querying behaviors.
Many information architects and usability professionals focus on finding behaviors without considering how their categorization, organization, labeling, and prioritization affects both web and site search engine results.
Findability decreases when website owners ignore or discount browsing behaviors.
On the other hand, SEO professionals often create information architectures without considering how users/searchers organize content.

In reality, querying and browsing are both critical components of findability. Websites should accommodate both types of searcher behaviors, not one at the expense of the other. Therefore, for the best user experience, SEO professionals, information architects, web developers and usability professionals should all understand the various aspects of findability.

Mistake #2: Creating a website information architecture exclusively from keyword research data

Unfortunately, this mistake is rampant in the search marketing industry because, to some degree, some information architectures are more effective with keywords. However, many SEO professionals let keywords in site navigation get out of hand. There are multiple relationships among web pages, and many of these relationships are not purely topic-based.

For example, when is it appropriate to categorize or prioritize content alphabetically? Should content be organized by date and time? By industry? By user type? Information architects take all of these items into consideration when creating site navigation scheme(s) and supplemental page interlinking.

I believe that keyword research data and analysis should be a part of the discovery process for both information architects and usability professionals in addition to the tools and techniques they already use, such as formative and summative usability testing. That being said, if an SEO professional wishes to become a more effective information architect, he/she should learn how to do the key skills of an information architect, including but not limited to:

  • Categorization and classification
  • Organization of content/information
  • Creating and maintaining effective taxonomies and ontologies
  • How to effectively prioritize
  • Usability testing

Information architecture is not for dummies. For now, I believe that the hybrid of information architect and SEO professional is rare. Hopefully, we will see more evolution in this area. Until the time comes when these industries merge, I think it is best for website owners to hire an information architect and an SEO professional to work together to create a website’s information architecture.

Mistake #3: Not understanding user/searcher mental models

If you ask a web developer to create a website’s information architecture, the result is often a website that matches the mental model of the web developer, not the target audience. Likewise, if you ask an SEO professional to create a website’s information architecture, the result is often a website that matches the mental model of an SEO professional, not the target audience.

Another excuse I hear is to imitate the site architecture of websites whose pages rank well, regardless of usability. Plenty of poorly architected websites rank well. That does not mean that they convert well or get long-term, cumulative link development. A well-architected website often receives higher quality link development, can more easily address duplicate content delivery, and archives content easily.

On the flip side, I believe that information architects should understand searcher goals and behaviors not only within websites (site search), but also on the commercial web search engines.

As much as I appreciate the evolution and legitimization of SEO, I know our industry has a long way to go. I once remember a reader comment that said information architecture is an extension or subset of SEO. I respectfully disagree. I believe SEO is an extension or subset of information architecture. And if our industry is going to successfully evolve, then we need to learn skills and accumulate knowledge from other industries. Because, ultimately, we are all on the same team.

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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  • Aaron Bradley

    Great post. However, I disagree with that “information architects tend to focus on browsing behaviors, whereas SEO professionals tend to focus only on querying behaviors” and the related issues of categorization, taxonomy and ontology.

    Google, especially, loves hierarchically organized semantic data. In my numerous forays into IA for SEO I, in fact, content organization is perhaps my most important task. A well-organized site with class items properly categorized provides the absolute best internal linking structure for the search engines. Such a site will not only perform well for both short and long tail queries, but will appear with indented results in the SERPs.

    And, depending on the site – as you say – the dual user needs of surfing and searching need to equal attention. But for organic SEO focusing on browsing behavior is actually the key to ranking success, as internal search is usually not indexed (and, in fact, can cause numerous SEO headaches if indexing of preset search queries is not throttled or strictly controlled, because those queries compete with hopefully better-structured category pages).

    Or perhaps I’m an one of those exceptions as “information architect and SEO professional.” I certainly seem more interested in usability and, increasingly, the semantic web than some of my counterparts – but I do believe that many SEOs, particularly those working at the enterprise level, are increasingly figuring out how a holistic approach to IA benefits their search efforts.

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi all-

    Information architects, at least the most knowledgeable ones, understand the main finding behaviors and user mental models. SEOs are still far too focused on their mental models. Information architects are far, far more objective.

    Parameter handling? Understand it is important from an SEO perspective. But the determination of information architecture occurs long before the conversation of parameter handling. And duplicate content. And construction.

    I would still advise almost everyone looking to re-architect their sites to NOT hire an SEO firm, even if the sales “spin doctoring” sounds impressive.

    I have seen what the SEO industry’s interpretation of website usability is (pretty abysmal). Now I am observing the SEO industry’s interpretation of information architecture…and, unfortunately, I see it going down the same path. It’s a great sales pitch, knowing SEO and IA.

    But honestly? Most SEOs do not have the skills, training, education, experience, etc. to call themselves information architects. But they will never admit this characteristic in themselves. And they will bash anyone who challenges their skills. And a #1 Google position does not “prove” that your site is architected well.


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