Key Information Architecture Concepts Every SEO Should Know

The goal of effective information architecture (IA) is to make the products, services and information on your website easy to find. Sound familiar? This is same goal that an SEO professional has. But the skills of an information architect are quite different from the skills of an SEO.

Four fundamental skills that information architects have are:

  • Categorization
  • Organization
  • Prioritization
  • Labeling

Let’s look at these skills individually, and how each of these relate to the field of search engine optimization.

Categorization

All sites need a primary hierarchal structure, or a primary taxonomy, which ultimately becomes primary navigation on the website. A taxonomy provides guidelines for site navigation, even though the taxonomy itself is not website navigation.

Without a primary hierarchical structure, orientation is difficult (remember, searchers orient every time they view a new web page). And users/searchers will not have a sense of beginning or ending when they try to find, and ultimately view, their desired content.

I like to call this primary hierarchical structure a canonical taxonomy, or the primary taxonomy. This transformed hierarchy usually appears as the breadcrumb links that lead to the desired destination page, such as a detailed product or article page.

Most taxonomies are based on a controlled vocabulary, which is a carefully selected list of words and phrases. As an SEO professional, I believe that a website’s canonical taxonomy should contain keywords. However, unlike some SEO professionals, I do not believe a canonical taxonomy should be based primarily on data from the search engines’ keyword research tools.

What is the difference? When users/searchers organize information according to their mental models, they do not always group information by topic. There are many ways to group information on a website, including but not limited to:

  • Task
  • Format (content-type)
  • Industry
  • Alphabetical
  • Series or phase
  • Time
  • Geography

On larger sites, it is not uncommon to see multiple taxonomies, because a hierarchical structure by itself is not the most effective means for users/searchers to locate and discover desired content. In fact, a singular taxonomy communicates to the commercial web search engines that the home page is the most important page on the site. Therefore, information architects, navigation designers and SEO professionals should connect related content via other means.

Organization

One way to organize content on a very large site is a site index (which organizes navigation labels or topics alphabetically) because a wayfinder site map is too complex to be easily scanned. A site index might or might not be a part of primary navigation but does provide users—and search engines—an additional way of accessing content.

In website usability, a site map or a site index is a form of error prevention. As we all know, no website is perfect, especially when website owners allow IT or marketing staff to determine navigation design and labels. Why? This usually results in navigation that matches the mental models of IT or marketing staff, not necessarily the mental models of users/searchers.

Information architects are skilled in categorizing, classifying and organizing content according to user mental models. In fact, many information architects have strong backgrounds in library and information sciences.

Prioritization

Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks an information architect performs is prioritization. For example:

  • How many links in primary navigation is too many?
  • How many links in primary navigation is too few?
  • What is the order that navigation labels will be presented?

If the navigation system contains too many links and is too wordy, then navigation is difficult to scan, making desired content less findable. Likewise, if page content has too many embedded text links, then content becomes difficult to read, and the very information piece that a searcher desires becomes more difficult to find.

And the desired call to action? No website owner wants their business objectives compromised because an overzealous SEO professional became keyword happy.

Unfortunately, I have personally observed and had to fix horrible “SEO architectures” on many sites. In fact, whenever I hear the phrase “SEO architecture,” I shudder. Whenever anyone architects a website, it should be based on the mental models of your target audience, not the mental model of an SEO professional.

Labeling

Many people mistakenly believe that a navigation label is the text that is placed on a navigation button (graphic image) or the CSS-formatted text made to look like a navigation button. Take a look at the examples below.

The National Cancer Institute's current primary navigation labels are formatted as graphic images.

Search Engine Land's current primary navigation labels are formatted in CSS (Cascading Style Sheets).

Text in primary navigation, whether it is formatted as a graphic image or in CSS, are certainly navigation labels. But other items on a web page are navigation labels. Headings are navigation labels. Embedded text links are navigation labels. SEO professionals might not realize it, but these can have a positive or negative influence on navigation design and website usability.

Ultimately, the goal of an effective information architecture is to make products, services and information easier to find via browsing and retrieval (searching). As I mentioned in one of my previous articles, Information Architects Are From Venus, SEOs Are From Mars, information architects tend to focus on browsing and findability, dismissing search engine optimization as a metadata issue. And SEO professionals tend to focus on querying and findability, dismissing the importance of usable site navigation.

In reality, browsing and retrieval (searching) are equally important finding behaviors. They are intricately connected. An effective information architecture makes both of these complex finding behaviors possible—and successful.


About The Author

Shari Thurow
Shari Thurow 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).