SEO Smackdown: Information Architecture vs. Technical Architecture

Since 1995, the costliest search engine optimization mistake I’ve encountered is poor information architecture. And when I tell a client that the core issue with findability is the website’s information architecture, my findings are immediately passed to the technical team.

Inevitably, someone on the technical team kindly points out that the content is crawlable, and the architecture is fine. And since I don’t know Google’s algorithm, I must be wrong.

Result? A whirlwind series of conversations that yielded bruised egos, a poorly architected website with little or no search engine visibility, and frustrated clients.

How did that happen? Where were the disconnections and miscommunication?

Believe it or not, many SEO professionals, developers and other IT professionals do not understand the role of information architecture (IA) in the SEO process. In fact, this group often does not understand the role of IA in the Web development process.

These misunderstandings and misconceptions lead to bruised egos and frustrated clients. To get all web professionals on the proverbial same page, let’s review some of the differences and sources of confusion.

Understanding Information Architecture

I believe the simplest and clearest definition of information architecture comes from the Information Architecture Institute website. Information architecture is the organization and labeling of website content to support usability and findability.

There are four words you want to hear when you work on an information architecture project:

  • Organization
  • Labeling
  • Usability
  • Findability

The determination of a website’s information architecture should occur long before a site is coded and programmed.

In fact, if I read or hear the following geek-speak, I am reasonably sure that I am not talking to a qualified information architect:

  • Crawlability
  • Indexation
  • 301 redirects (.htaccess, etc.)
  • Canonicalization
  • Robots exclusion
  • URL workarounds
  • NOFOLLOW attribute

All of these aforementioned terms are parts of technical architecture, not information architecture.

Web professionals constantly confuse information architecture with technical architecture. Because of that, technical architects end up making information architecture decisions…and that is a critical mistake. I believe user-centered design (UCD) and architecture is far more cost- and time-effective than technology-centered design.

“In the long run, technology-centered design is generally counterproductive to project and business goals”

~ James Kalbach, author of Designing Web Navigation (2007, Wiley)

So let’s go back to understanding what information architects do. Organization is grouping related content into categories and providing user-friendly access to that content via global, local, and contextual navigation.

There are many ways to organize content including, but not limited to:

  • Date/time
  • Alphabetical
  • Geography/location
  • Topic
  • Target audience
  • Task/process
  • Attributes/facets
  • Combinations

Why did an information architect choose to organize and label content on a website via facets or by target audience? Did the information architect iteratively test the organization and content labels with participants who fit the primary personas? That’s what information architects do. They do not determine content organization based on crawlability or the flowage of “link juice.”

Adapted from Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld. Used with permission.

Here are some items I wish to know during a website’s information architecture project:

  • Primary navigation. What are the labels to be presented in primary navigation? How many navigation labels will be in primary navigation? What is the order that primary navigation labels will be presented? Where will primary navigation be placed?
  • Secondary navigation. Is there secondary (local) navigation for each primary navigation label? What will those labels be, and what order will these labels be presented? Where will secondary navigation be placed? If a page doesn’t contain secondary navigation, what will the layout of the page be?
  • Third- and fourth-level navigation (as needed). Continue with naming conventions, order in which labels are presented, and the number of labels.
  • Contextual navigation. What types of contextual navigation will be on different page templates (category, product, help, service, form, etc.)? Contextual links such as alternatives, upsells, most popular, and other related links are just as critical for findability as a primary taxonomy and associated local links. Is there an effective balance of parent-child links as well as sibling-sibling links?
  • Number of links per page. How many links per page is too many for users/searchers? For example, I would expect a category page, (wayfinder) site map, and a site index to contain more links than a product or a help page. On the flip side, how many links are too few? Orphaned–page content appears less important to search engines (because there is only one link to them). And orphaned-page content seems less important to users because that content is difficult to locate and discover.

Notice that in this list, I did not once mention canonicalization, 301 redirects, NOFOLLOW attributes, and so forth. I am certainly not saying that these technical considerations are not important for SEO and the searcher experience.

Even though it might seem as if I am dismissing technical architecture, I am not. I understand the importance of providing access to content via both browsing and searching. As Peter Morville stated in his book, Ambient Findability (2007, Wiley), “You can’t use what you can’t find.”

Technical Architecture & Findability

I agree with Morville. Many technical architects agree with Morville…but with blinders on. A perfectly architected and usable website might not be accessible to search engine spiders. And technical SEO decisions should be considered and implemented.

As a Web developer, I have to make many technology decisions for clients such as:

  • Server types
  • Content management systems (CMS)
  • Navigation types (text links, graphic images, menus)
  • Coding and scripting
  • Troubleshooting individual pages

Even if I don’t make final technology decisions, I am often asked to consult about those decisions from the perspective of searchers and search engines. I do not make a technology decision purely based on how a search engine interprets navigation systems and content.

First, I want to know what the IA, marketing, and usability teams have determined. Then I make technology decisions. In other words, I believe that information architecture should guide technical architecture.

Duplicate content delivery, for example, can limit direct access to desired content via the commercial Web search engines. And duplicate content delivery typically annoys and frustrates users. I know that user-generated tagging and faceted classification typically lead to duplicate content delivery.

So if I or another qualified information architect determine that a website’s content is best organized using faceted classification or user-generated tagging, I know that I will need to get a technical architect involved early in the development process to minimize the negative SEO impact.

Here is another example: menus. I hear the pros and cons of using menus for a navigation system all of the time. As an SEO, I understand why the technical team wants to implement menus: it preserves screen real estate, some search engines can crawl them (it depends on how they are coded/programmed), and “people love them.”Troll Bridge Ahead - Must Solve Google's Algorithm to Pass (image)

As an information architect and usability professional, I have to consider the failure rate of different menus (fly-out menus are more error prone than drop-down menus), the paradox of choice, and the technology used to access content.

Usability guru Jared Spool recently wrote about the 6 Epic Forces Battling Your Mega Menus, both from a human and a technical perspective.

Information architects don’t need to know Google’s algorithm or the latest URL workaround to provide SEO guidance and effective labeling advice to a technical team. They don’t need a degree in computer science. I have seen too many technology teams dismiss information architecture and usability guidance because it might harm rankings.

In reality, the organization and labeling of information will increase sales, conversions, and (yes) even search engine visibility. “It’s high time to put the ‘I’ back in IT,” said Louis Rosenfeld.

Smackdown: Which Is More Important?

I believe that a successful website architecture is a combination of an effective information architecture and corresponding technical architecture. I do not believe that technical architecture trumps information architecture. I do not believe that information architecture trumps technical architecture. I believe that technical architects and information architects must listen to and support each other.

“Information architecture is concerned with the structure and arrangement of the content and a great deal of it can be done without knowing anything about the implementation,” said Dorian Taylor, researcher, consultant and current board member of the Information Architecture Institute. “Technical architecture is concerned with the implementation of the system and a great deal of it can be done without knowing anything about the content.”

“In some ways we can say that SEO is about creating structures that are meaningful to machines—in this case, search engines—so that those machines can in turn generate structures that are meaningful to people,” Taylor continued.

We need to listen to each other instead of dismissing information architects with, “I think you are more of a UX person than an SEO,” as if their contributions to findability is less important than technical implementation. I know plenty of information architects with superb technical skills. They might know more about findability and SEO than you realize.

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

    A great article, Shari, that should be required reading for SEOs, IA/UX pros and – especially – any individuals responsible for website planning or production.

    I couldn’t agree more that technical architecture is secondary to information architecture, both for a visitor’s experience and for the site’s search visibility. A robust IA more-or-less ensures that technical SEO issues like crawlability and canonicalization will be addressed in the development phase. The opposite, alas, is not the case, where technical decisions made too early can impede the ability of information architects to construct a sensibly-organized, search-friendly site – bringing to mind the old adage of the shape of the bricks determining the shape of the house.

  • Shay

    Great article, I totally agree that many SEO people don’t understand the importance of the content and deal with many and the difference between the way site should be build and the point of that sites was built for human use and not SE engines only.

    I really enjoy your writing thank you very much.

    Shay Garini

  • Shari Thurow

    Thanks, guys.

    I am very saddened that search-engine friendly design has been interpreted as technology-centered design…and search engine optimizers continually propagate this misinterpretation.

    Likewise, I am continually stunned by the confusion between technical architecture and information architecture…and search engine optimizers continue to propagate this misinformation as well. All of these SEO guides to information architecture are really technical architecture guides. Not a single information architect has authored these types of articles.

    As a Web developer, I understand the role technology should play in websites and in SEO. It’s a shame other Web developers and technical SEOs are threatened by the knowledge and expertise of non-technical specialists. They shouldn’t feel threatened. They should embrace that knowledge. It will make them better developers…and better SEOs.

    My 2 cents.

  • m_j_taylor

    I have to say, it surprises me to see so few comments on such an important article. I grow a little weary of link builders calling themselves SEOs, never mind professionals who do have a genuine, general grasp of this field, but don’t understand that IA and usability is the basis of a well optimized site. Yes, great incoming links can overcome almost any paucity of content or organization, but it doesn’t teach website owners how to present information in a way that meets the users’ needs – and leads to the most conversions.

  • Tim Aldiss

    I agreed with the argument that the structure of content (and therefore the architecture that it sat within) was so much more important than SEO that I did a spell as a knowledge manager to get to grips with better information organisation.

    However I am disappointed with the lack of speed at which the digital community has focused on the organisation of knowledge through innovation, tools & platforms and moved back into SEO as it’s a more exciting and cutting edge industry.

    That’s not to put down the various tools that have appeared in the field, but innovations like Richard Wurman’s LATCH theory (Location, Alphabet, Time, Category, Hierarchy) need to be realised and created (by information architects) to enhance platforms like Delicious, and eventually end up improving faceted navigation.

    I just wanted to finish by saying that I believe that faceted navigation is actually a great SEO tool, but it’s impact is misunderstood and under-implemented by SEO’s which is probably doing the industry no favours.

  • Barry Adams

    Great article Shari. While technical site design is important to ensure proper indexation, when it comes to semantic relevance good IA is absolutely essential. The best SEOs find the right balance between the two.

  • Maurice Walshe

    Hmm if I had a pound for every duplicate pages cased by faceted navigation I found on just a single one the sites I have looked at in the last year I could buy a house!

    Just because the IA has been done doesn’t I am afraid in most cases mean that a SEO will be called in (and development time made available) to make sure that the site is not going to shoot its self in the foot.

    Don’t forget from a business perspective (and a search engine and seo ) ideally they want to land the end user directly on the most appropriate page – ideally the end user should not have to use the on site navigation at all.

    Obviously you have to have the ability to browse if the end user isn’t sure what they are looking for say browsing Jobs in an area.

  • B.D.

    Great Post Shari, i cannot tell you the amount of companies and consultants that I have spoken with that constantly work towards the technical aspect of a site. I admit that having the architecture / functionality of the site adhering to guidelines is a must and very important in SEO. More and more companies are missing the fundamental part, making sure that the sites contextual and keyword relevance is implemented and worked with first.

  • Terry Van Horne

    Shari, excellent article… but quite frankly it comes down to too many people calling themselves SEO’s don’t know HTML or even the the basics of web development. Findability on the website is crucial to conversion so finability just for SE’s is a job half done. SEO’s have forgot people buy things and do things that benefit a site financially a SE doesn’t buy or do anything that actually puts money in the pockets of owners … it just gets the user to the site… again a job half done if the site doesn’t faciliateate finding stuff when you get there


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