Information Architecture: The Backbone Of SEO & Usability
I recently did site reviews for several content and information-oriented web sites. My role was to offer optimization recommendations for search engines and better rankings. The problem was that there was no actual information architecture other than categories for the content on the websites. The content, in the form of blog posts, articles, news stories, videos or photo galleries was jam packed with all manner of banners, blinking ads in assorted sizes and colors, video with no user controls to stop sound or movement and slider ads that covered up content until it was clicked away.
It was clear to me that dragging readers on a merry-go-round of content, with on and off page links and moving images might not be a great user experience. And without good user experience no amount of optimization is going to help a site’s rankings.
Optimizing for both head and long tail keywords
Understanding how people search online helps in developing your site’s information architecture. We like things offered in small chunks first. We want our online content delivered fast and simply. We like to stay on task. A search engine such as Google knows this about us. If you want to rank well in search engines, you’ll need to create sites that engines know people respond well to. Along with pinpointing one or two prime tasks for your site visitors, such as guiding them to a sales lead form, subscribing to your newsletter or filling out a free insurance quote form, you want to be ready with on topic information that relates to your topic when your reader is ready.
Top level navigation is an easy place to place popular “head” keywords such as news, sports, new cars, used cars and product classifications like laptops or notebooks. However, it’s difficult to optimize for head words like these. But most popular head keywords have many associated opportunities for working in long tail key phrases. So for example, a sports section might break out into local sports, college, high school or type of sports coverage. Content might consist of teams, towns or schools. To help choose how to label opportunities for long tail keyword navigation and embedded text links, check Google Insights for Search or your favorite keyword tool to see how your particular target user might typically run searches for your topics. This research should be done while creating the information architecture to help you stay on course while the whole site expands.
Findability, content and links
The issue with putting so much scattered or loosely related information on one page is that the core message is lost. Users want instant gratification. You lured someone to a page. What if they arrive and are met with a crowded noisy room of strangers rather than a calm host who knows why they came and what they want to do next? The reason the host approach works is because the entire navigation level is based on a clear plan. Information architects know why we are on a page and what we will do next because they will have mapped it all out in advance. When someone says to add links to a page, remember that each link is an organizational tool. If you link to something off-topic or off-site, the flow is lost. Your user must shift gears. In fact, the practice of too many links within pages that go to different or related topics helped create the need for tabbed browsing. We keep looking for ways to stay on topic and much of web design takes us on an adventure.
Understanding user behavior
One of the clearest mistakes we make in web site development is not understanding the people who use them. Despite the help of personas, user testing, scenarios and marketing data in advance, even the big brand sites struggle to be user friendly. Why is this? One reason is the context in which pages and links are delivered. For findability to work properly, we need to know the words people use to communicate with their surroundings. This may be different online, especially in situations where we can “be anyone” and change who we are.
A site I tested that was designed for young males who may or may not have a credit card used jargon that was all “dude,” “rock on” and a variety of swear words. The colors dripped of blood red and black. Navigation labels were brand names that were either unknown or known to one demographic of user. What would happen if a mother came to the site to order something for her son because he had no credit card? Would she understand their language? Could the colors and content turn her off? Since she had buying power, she was the one who needed to complete the most important task, which was to purchase a product online. She would most likely be more comfortable searching for the same product using the manner in which she felt safest and where she could make educated choices.
Ties to search and user experience
The goal of web page content is to accommodate our users. This means taking a hard look at site requirements and where they might conflict with users and search engines. Banner ads on pages serve a small portion of site users and yet they get the most page real estate. They can be the most frustrating and irritating elements on a page.
If Google does incorporate page load times as part of the search algorithm in 2010, this sends a clear message to site owners. If the site on “Peace Sign Painted VW Buses” with Flash, funky cool images and video takes too long to load, another content based site on the same topic may rank higher. Perhaps some of the slower loading visuals will need to be moved deeper inside the site. Maybe a content based mobile version will be factored in your favor. How many of us will breathe a huge sigh of relief if the numbers of slow loading ads on a page are reduced because search engines have figured out we hate them?
As social creatures, we want choices on what we see and where we go on in any web site. We look for signals such as ratings, votes, blog comments, tags and hash tags to determine what’s popular, and so do search engines. And yes, there are ways to create revenue generating sites with things like scent of information, persuasive design and excellent site performance.