Spreading SEO Awareness & Knowledge

Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at the inaugural World Information Architecture Day (WIAD) in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the topic of information architecture and search engine optimization (SEO).

Normally, I teach SEO professionals about information architecture: what it is and is not, how to determine the best IA for websites, and so forth. At this event, it was the other way around. I was educating, or perhaps re-educating, information architects about SEO.

SEO is not magical pixie dust - image

Search engine optimization has never been sprinkling magical pixie dust on a website.

Teaching SEO can be frustrating because one must deal with negative stereotypes (“snake-oil charlatans”) and erroneous, preconceived notions about SEO.

How many times are we faced with a prospect who thinks SEO is about sprinkling magic fairy dust on a website so that it ranks #1 in Google all of the time for every targeted keyword phrase?

Oh, apparently we have the magical ability to make this happen…last week.

To be perfectly honest, I often prefer to work with people who are completely ignorant about SEO so I don’t have to deal with the stereotypes, preconceived notions, and Google gullibility.

Nevertheless, I have to acknowledge that the stereotypes, SEO myths, and gullibility exist. Acknowledging and challenging the negative stereotype is par for the course.

SEO Awareness

I have said it before. And I will say keep repeating until the world grasps this fundamental SEO concept: SEO is optimizing a website for people who use search engines.

Like the term “website usability,” the term “search engine optimization” is easily misunderstood. People honestly make statements such as, “I am the user,” and “Optimize for the average searcher,” and “People use my website all of the time; therefore, it is user friendly.”

Usability is about task completion and involves the following items:

  • Efficiency
  • Effectiveness
  • Learnability
  • Memorability
  • Error prevention
  • User satisfaction

It is easy for people to believe that search engine optimization is optimizing a website for search engines only. Too easy, I think.

In reality, SEO has always been about searchers and search engines. Ignoring one at the expense of the other is a mistake…a big mistake.

So how do we make people aware of what the SEO process really is? I posed this question to one of my clients. Here is his 2 cents:

“Even though staff learned about SEO responsibilities that were not directly a part of their jobs, at least they have an awareness about how their contributions can positively or negatively affect SEO. That awareness is invaluable.”

I believe his comments show great insight. Don’t expect everyone to know how to do SEO after a short presentation. Don’t expect everyone to instantly become an SEO expert after a few hours in a certification course. Expertise comes from knowledge and experience.

Nevertheless, I think it is reasonable to expect a fundamental awareness of SEO, knowing that SEO involves meeting the needs of both searchers and search engines. And also knowing that SEO is not the process of sprinkling magical pixie dust on a website.

I expect that fundamental awareness from anyone working on a website: designers, developers, usability professionals, user experience designers, writers, advertisers, information architects, and so forth.

That awareness is invaluable.

SEO Knowledge & Aptitude

Here is a proverbial tough pill to swallow: not everyone has the aptitude for SEO or different aspects of SEO.

Missing piece of puzzle - why people search (image)

SEO professionals should understand how people search as well as why people search.

Search engine optimization has a human element as well as a technical element. Some SEO professionals are gifted technical SEOs. This is the group to turn to for assistance in managing duplicate content.

Some SEO professionals are expert copywriters. Some SEO experts are skilled at usability testing and might be the group to turn to if a site has search engine traffic and low conversions. Some SEOs are knowledgeable about how people search. And some SEOs are knowledgeable about why people search.

I wouldn’t ask an search engine optimizer who specializes in copywriting to program redirects. Nor would I expect a developer/programmer to be skilled at information architecture and usability testing.

I expect SEO professionals to have more than awareness. I expect them to have aptitude and knowledge.

If an SEO professional does not have a specific SEO skill needed for a project, I expect that person to reach out to an SEO who does…without feeling threatened. SEO should be a group effort. Everyone is on the same team.

I know. I know…easier said than done. Stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions can be difficult to debunk. So what did I share with the audience of information architects?

Part of an SEO’s job is:

  • Labeling website content so that it is easy to find (unique aboutness)
  • Organizing website content so that it is easy to find
  • Ensuring search engines have access to desired content
  • Ensuring search engines don’t have access to undesirable content (or at least limiting access)
  • Accommodating searchers’ navigational, informational, and transactional goals

Information architecture decisions can positively and negatively impact SEO on web search engines as well as site search engines. Information architects have a role in SEO. Have the awareness.

Even better? Have the knowledge to hire an SEO professional when one is needed. Have the knowledge and humility to recognize that you might not have the aptitude and talent for optimizing. Understand that SEO knowledge does not necessarily mean SEO aptitude. Understand your role in the optimization process. Be knowledgeable enough to recognize a “snake-oil charlatan.”

Information architecture guru Peter Morville wrote the following in the foreword of When Search Meets Web Usability:

“Shari Thurow is among the few specialists brave enough to jump the gap between search engine optimization and web usability. As a result, she has learned how and where to place stepping stones and build bridges. She can speak the language of link analysis and relevance ranking algorithms, while also understanding user psychology and information seeking behavior.”

Yep, I build bridges. But I cannot make anyone cross a bridge. Awareness is the first step. Take that first step, information architects. You won’t regret it.

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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  • kajehart

    It’s a shame so many web designers don’t believe in learning SEO and incorporating it into their design strategies. Their work deflates the industry for those of us who do. Most clients think, “If I build it, they will come!” No, they won’t, if they can’t find it organically. Great bridge analogy, Shari!

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com Nick Stamoulis

    SEO is evolving and is more about marketing than technical implementations today. If you don’t understand the behavior and needs of your target audience, you won’t have much luck with SEO.

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    Hey guys-

    @kajehart Yeah, that’s why I wrote my first book, Search Engine Visibility…for web designers and developers. I actually got a category page prototype from a client this morning. And I automatically circled the 5+ places on it where I saw potential duplicate content issues. I wonder if the design team would have come up with their ideas if they KNEW about duplicate content and search engines.

    @Nick Do you know what’s funny? If you talk to technical people, they honestly and truly believe that SEO is more about technical implementations than the user/searcher. Well why are you doing the technical implementations, I ask. For Google, who isn’t going to Add to Cart. Or for the people who use Google, your target audience? Deaf ears.

    And do you know what is really the proverbial tough pill to swallow? Many technical SEOs don’t have the aptitude for SEO in general. They have the technical skills to implement redirects and workarounds. They don’t get the “why” part, which is a shame.

    Thanks for your feedback!

  • http://www.tktlc.com Kyle

    Thanks Shari! The use of social media has also became a very important factor for SEO. Google’s search plus your world algorithm update now uses social signals to further make search results more relevant. Understanding social media and using it correctly is dire to a businesses online success and their online reputation. We must work on building relationships with others that have expertise in our field and on sending the RIGHT message to the CORRECT “target” audience. SEO professionals today, not only have to make websites “visible” to search engines but also play an important role in establishing a businesses brand. ~Kyle

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    Hi Kyle-

    Oh my…I am going to assume you have never heard me speak or read some of my writings. Social media, IMHO, has not become a “very important factor” in SEO.

    I disagree with the statement that social media is, “is dire to a businesses online success and their online reputation.” Social media is overhyped. Social media is not a necessity in many industries. And social media participation is not necessary for long-term, successful search engine visibility…it depends on the industry.

    I wrote about this topic a couple of years ago:


    Social media as a signal? It’s a signal, not a directive. I have so many clients who don’t need social media at all, and their qualified search engine traffic and conversions are, shall we say, out of the proverbial ballpark.

    It depends on the industry. Some social media placement in search results is having a negative impact on the perception of “relevant” search results. I did not like defending the engines’ decisions to include those listings (inappropriately) at the World IA Day conference.

    So we must respectfully disagree.


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