SEO Vs. Web Site Architecture

If you ask web professionals what their interpretation of the phrase information architecture is, you will get a wide variety of responses. A search engine optimization (SEO) professional might launch into some grand scheme about indexation and PageRank sculpting. A web developer usually views information architecture in terms of fields in a database—how each field (information) will be used on different web pages.

However, if you presented these intepretations of information architecture to people who are actually information architects, you will probably see some raised eyebrows and confused facial expressions. Many information architects have no idea what the words indexation or PageRank mean. Though some information architects use many of the keyword research tools that SEO professionals use on a daily basis, most information architects have other tricks up their sleeves. Card sorting and reverse card sorting tests with direct, face-to-face user interaction are some ways that information architects determine how end users typically categorize and label web content.

So why the disconnect? In my opinion, we SEO professionals have our industry jargon and tend to forget that people outide our industry do not understand our interpretations of words like indexation and PageRank. Likewise, information architects have their own industry jargon as well. For both groups to provide a better user experience, we should try to understand each other and possibly come up with a common vocabulary. This post is about the different interpretations of the phrase information architecture. Let’s begin with the people who deal with information architecture on a daily basis.

Information architects’ perspective

In my opinion, I believe that the best definition of information architecture comes from experts Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, authors of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, also known as the polar bear book. Morville neatly sums up the definition of information architecture on his website. The definition of information architecture is:

  1. The structural design of shared information environments.
  2. The combination of organization, labeling, search, and navigation systems within web sites and intranets.
  3. The art and science of shaping information products and experiences to support usability and findability.
  4. An emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

When I read those definitions, I do not see any references to crawlability, indexation or PageRank. What I do see are references to usability and findability. Website usability is task-oriented. Through usability testing, usability professionals measure how well users can accomplish specific tasks on a website with efficiency and a high level of satisfaction. Findability refers to both querying and browsing behaviors. (Please check out Moreville’s site, for his definition and interpretations of findability).

Do SEO professionals address both usability and findability during the optimization process? I honestly do not know. It might help if web developers, SEOs, usability experts, and information architects stepped out of the proverbial box and listen to others’ interpretations of website usability and findability instead of using these words as part of a carefully crafted sales pitch.

Now let’s see how SEO professionals interpret information architecture.

SEO perspective

Two concepts that inevitably come up when SEO professionals talk about site architecture are crawlability and indexation. Even though the two concepts are intricately related, they are not the same.

Crawling refers to the search engines’ fetching process, when search engine spiders follow links from web page to web page. During the crawling process, pages are not available to rank. Before pages (URLs and associated content) are added to an index, they must pass through a number of filters before they are available to rank. This second process is called indexation. Crawling precedes indexation. The index (database) is a subset of the crawl.

As an SEO professional, I understand the importance of access. You can write all of the keyword-focused text you want, but the pages won’t rank unless search engines have access to that content. Therefore, crawling and indexation are critical components of the optimization process. But, indexation and crawlability are not components of information architecture. Perhaps maybe we should use a different term—crawler architecture. What do you think? Please comment below if you have a suggestion for the best term.

Another concept that is often associated with information architecture is PageRank scupting, where SEOs utilize a number of techniques (the nofollow attribute, robots exclusion protocol, cloaking, etc.) to communicate to search engines that web pages are focused on specific keyword phrases. I am not convinced that PageRank sculpting is information architecture. In my opinion, most of the techniques used to sculp PageRank is a poor substitute for a solid, user-friendly information architecture.

Nevertheless, I understand why SEO professionals use these techniques. After a client company spends thousands of hours man hours creating a website, the client does not want to hear that his site’s information architecture needs to be modified—a costly and time-consuming undertaking. So the quick-fix workaround is PageRank sculpting.

What I believe is missing from the SEO perspective’s intepretation of information architecture is the user perspective. Keyword research tools are one way of getting information about potential site visitors. Web analytics data also provides valuable feedback. However, information architects create website information architectures early in the design process. They create website architectures before wireframes and prototypes are even created. Information architects test their labels, categorization, and groupings on actual users, getting direct face-to-face contact. They do not create a website’s information architecture based on the mental models of web developers, search engine optimizers, or IT professionals. The information architecture is based on users’ mental models.

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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  • scobb

    Shari — Thanks for this much needed in-depth look at how web site architectures evolve. You are right to point out that [good] information architects “do not create a website’s information architecture based on the mental models of web developers, search engine optimizers, or IT professionals. The information architecture is based on users’ mental models.”

    That’s why we took the path we did when developing our personalization engine, building it as an external service, a form of SaaS, because we felt we could achieve greater synergy with e-commerce architectures that way, molding to their shape and not trying to force them into an architecture that suited us. One reason our approach seems to be working so well is that we also designed our architecture from a pair of user perspectives: 1. What would make shopping more efficient for me as a consumer and 2. What would help me the most, as an online retailer, looking to market to my customers as efficiently as possible.

  • radicke

    In my opinion, it is a bigger challenge to combine CI-policies and design patterns with a SEO-friendly site…

    The information architects (or product managers) are normally more open to SEO rules and ideas than designers…

  • kizmetech

    Fantastic article. As someone who has been in SEO for almost as long as SEO’s been around, I am grateful that issues of usability, SEO and information architecture are really coming into line. This article is great, because it addresses the real remaining issue, which is the language we use to discuss it with our clients and colleagues.



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