SEO & Searcher Mental Models

I had a search engine optimization (SEO) epiphany recently that involved site architecture and the mental models of web searchers.

Website information architects try to determine how users categorize, organize and label information on a site. Information architects use a number of methods to determine the best site architecture, including but not limited to:

  • Field interviews
  • Direct, one-on-one observation of users/searchers performing their normal, daily tasks
  • Usability testing
  • Data from web analytics software, site search engines, and so forth

On a website, an information architect’s goal is to determine a formal site navigation and other forms of page interlinking, ones that best correspond to the mental models of the site’s users. An effective site architecture should enable users/searchers to accomplish their goals more easily and efficiently. With every click, a user’s information scent should be reinforced and validated without distracting, confusing or annoying the user. Additionally, a site’s information architecture should communicate the “aboutness” of page content to both search engines and site visitors.

After three iterations of usability testing on one particular business-to-business healthcare website, I noticed something interesting: pages that the in-house SEO professional created did not match the mental models of the primary and secondary target audience. Words such as “fluff,” “propaganda,” and my personal favorite, “what the [expletive],” were used to verbally describe these pages. Furthermore, these same words appeared in test participant comments and category/section labels.

Digging a little deeper, I also noticed that all of their competitors created web pages that did not match user/searcher mental models. Yet these pages were ranking well. So even this company’s competitors were not creating sites to accommodate user/searcher mental models.

Why would any website owner create an information architecture where a considerable number of SEOed pages belong in the category labeled, “What the [expletive]?” Why do SEO professionals continually build pages, and entire websites, that do not match searcher mental models?

What is a mental model?

A mental model, also known as a conceptual model, is an explanation of a person’s thought process about how something works in the real world, faithfully representing root motivations and matching behaviors. Everyone has a mental model about how a website or a search engine works, and no one person has the same mental model as another person. Nevertheless, some portions of mental models are consistent from person to person.

As an example, let’s use an elevator. Most of us have the same expectations and experiences with riding in an elevator. If we press the button labeled “2″ inside the elevator, we expect the elevator to take us to the second floor. If we press the button labeled “5,” we expect the elevator to take us to the fifth floor.

How do we know we are moving toward the fifth floor? On most elevators we usually see a number that lights up when we arrive at or pass a floor. What happens when we arrive at our destination, the fifth floor?

  • The number “5″ is illuminated on the elevator panel
  • The elevator stops
  • We often hear a “ding” to indicate that the elevator doors are about to open
  • The elevator doors open
  • Usually, when we exit the elevator, we can immediately see some sort of visual cue that we have arrived on the fifth floor, such as a sign showing room numbers 501-540, and/or the number “5″ somewhere within our immediate visual range.

The textual and visual cues on an elevator are similar to the textual and visual cues on a website. When searchers click on a link on a search engine results page, they expect to be delivered to a page that contains their targeted keywords. But keywords are not the only item on a web page that searchers expect to see.

Searchers have mental models of websites and web pages. They expect to know which elements on a web page are clickable and those that aren’t. On ecommerce websites, searchers expect to see product photos. Headings, categorization and navigation labels on a healthcare site that targets physicians and other healthcare professionals will be quite different from headings, categorization and navigation labels on a healthcare site that targets consumers.

Mental models of SEO professionals

How do many SEO professionals address searcher mental models and site architecture? Here is a partial list:

  • PageRank (PR) sculpting (via nofollow tags and other methods)
  • Siloing
  • Using targeted microsites
  • Link farms and other forms of search engine spam

Unfortunately, many SEO professionals are not validating searcher mental models, though they honestly and sincerely believe they are. If a page ranks and a web searcher clicks on a search listing, then the assumption is that the web page matches the searcher’s mental model. Other pages ranking well? Then the SEO assumes searcher goals are obviously being met. More clicks? Even more evidence. Low bounce rate? Web searchers must love the site, even though more clicks on a website can indicate confusion, not user satisfaction.

Never mind that information architects and usability professionals continually see “what the [expletive]” as a site architecture label.

It seems as if SEO professionals and website owners are building websites and pages based on their personal mental models, not the mental models of the target audience. No professional, qualified information architect would recommend a site architecture based on data purely from keyword research tools.

Would I hire an SEO professional to architect a website? Not unless that person or company has a strong education, training and experience in library/information sciences. Many professional information architects have advanced degrees in this field. However, I would hire an SEO professional to contribute to the site architecture discussion. Querying is a search behavior that no website owner should ignore.

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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  • billmarshall

    Interesting article which raises a number of questions in my mind.

    “Would I hire an SEO professional to architect a website?” At the level that I work, yes, because there’s no-one else better qualified and because my vision of what SEO is means taking a sufficiently wide view that you have an understanding of all the aspects of website design and construction, user interaction, internet marketing and conversion (and anything else I’ve left out).

    However I’m aware that I’m working with generally smaller sites than may be the case in the US, which makes me wonder if the various development jobs are more segmented over there. The thought of an SEO suggesting website architecture and navigation based primarily on keyword research rather than user requirements or a logical analysis of what the site is about is quite unthinkable.

    I’ve worked with a number of fellow SEOs and while we all have different strengths and weaknesses I can’t imagine any of them doing this either. I don’t have qualifications in library/information sciences but maybe my experience in the book trade, where classification and organisation is second nature, gives me something similar. That and the fact that I was a web designer first before becoming a SEO.

    So I’d be interested in hearing your views on whether the balance of SEO skills as practiced in the US is more biased towards keywords and links (the latter often seems to dominate blog discussions) as opposed to design and user related subjects. Or is there maybe something different about the pressures on in-house SEOs compared to independent consultants?


  • Shari Thurow

    Hi Bill-

    Thank you for your feedback. Now, I am going to say something that you should not take personally, because I am trying to make a point.

    You said, “At the level that I work, yes, because there’s no-one else better qualified and because my vision of what SEO is means taking a sufficiently wide view…” Information architects usually usability test to determine and validate mental models. Have you ever hired a firm to do that?

    That is you thinking and writing about you only. That is not you thinking about the SEO industry as a whole and an SEO professional’s qualifications to truly architect a user-friendly website that accommodates search engines and meets business goals.

    I think the answer is a resounding “no.” Are web developers (usually techie people) good information architects? I don’t believe they are, as a whole. But they honestly believe they are. I’ve met some web developers who are truly talented. But for the most part? I think techie people think like techie people. They have their mental models and the planet should adapt to their mental models because they are just more logical and intelligent than everyone else.

    (That last sentence was sarcasm.)

    It is the classic tug-of-war we see in the UX and usability industries, playing itself out in the search industry.

    I have been in this industry longer than most people. I am an SEO professional. I am a web designer/developer. These 2 skills began developing concurrently back in 1995. I am also a usability professional but have enough sense to not usability test the interfaces I develop — because I know I cannot be objective about my own interfaces. I’ve been an information architect since the late 80s.

    Personally? I have more hope for information architects and usability professionals coming around to really good SEO than I do for SEO professionals and web developers coming around to really good IA and usability.

    The folks in the usability and information architecture industries (they are related but quite different) need to get the bug out of their butts about SEO professionals being “evil.”

    As for SEO professionals and web developers? Well, as Danny has mentioned every few years or so in articles defending the SEO industry, web developers have bugs up their butts, too. (My words, not his.) Really big bugs up their butts. I wish they’d just get over their giant egos and remember that they are part of the same team and admit they have things to learn. And others’ contributions are just as important as their contribution to a website.

    As for SEO professionals? Well, there will always be SEO professionals that game the system. There will always be people who are going to believe what they have to sell because they just want to believe that SEO is sprinkling magical fairy dust on a perfect website. Will SEO professionals come around? We will have to wait and see, won’t we?

  • Damian Doman

    I think that website information architecture is like an expansion of SEO which naturally develops and new methods of inbound marketing are created. I believe it’s a good sign and while we still need SEO professionals, we shouldn’t stop looking for new ideas.

  • TroyW

    Like the doctor complained, “The problem with my job is that it’s one sick person after another coming into my office.”
    I hear you about WTF pages and bizarre SEO tricks. But I’d hesitate to paint the entire discipline that way…it sounds like you got called in for testing, which is to say, you were consulting on a capacity they didn’t have or didn’t feel was worthy of long-term investment, which means there was almost certainly something wrong. And sure enough…
    A good site should be like Uma Thurman (or any celebrity of substance). Uma has a skilled team of health professionals who work collaboratively to keep her in top shape. Her health is a fundamental business asset. She generally would only need to see the doctor if she got bitten by a shark or something–in other words, if some bizarre, unforeseeable accident occurred. (The Web equivalent? Katrina hits your server farm, or your dev team goes down in a plane crash.) In all seriousness–why do you think Keith Richards is still alive? People who don’t have teams like these tend to get sick a lot, and to die quicker, and in any event to interact a lot more with doctors who don’t know them well or at all. Or doctors who don’t know each other, which is occasionally fatal to the patient.
    Did the SEO person have any meaningful contact with the site team, assuming there was one, or was he or she essentially given a list of keywords and told to write a catalogue in the dark? Did the SEO person have meaningful interactions with you? Was the person truly skilled, or a kid who’d read a few SEO sites and just wanted/needed to Get It Done? Why had nobody at the company noticed that their site wasn’t working? If you have your business in order, WTF pages should stick out like a sore thumb because they’re failing your metrics (whether you’re selling T-shirts or educating health care cost managers about alternatives to stent treatments). It’s also the job of any decent SEO to take ownership of followthrough: anyone can rank pages, but professionals are continually trying to improve the results those pages generate.
    I like the article–very good points about the importance of mental models, which are routinely underrepresented in site strategy discussions. But I also think it’s a question of breaking down silos across *all* disciplines.


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