SEO & Searcher Mental Models

I had a search engine optimization (SEO) epiphany recently that involved site architecture and the mental models of web searchers.

Website information architects try to determine how users categorize, organize and label information on a site. Information architects use a number of methods to determine the best site architecture, including but not limited to:

  • Field interviews
  • Direct, one-on-one observation of users/searchers performing their normal, daily tasks
  • Usability testing
  • Data from web analytics software, site search engines, and so forth

On a website, an information architect’s goal is to determine a formal site navigation and other forms of page interlinking, ones that best correspond to the mental models of the site’s users. An effective site architecture should enable users/searchers to accomplish their goals more easily and efficiently. With every click, a user’s information scent should be reinforced and validated without distracting, confusing or annoying the user. Additionally, a site’s information architecture should communicate the “aboutness” of page content to both search engines and site visitors.

After three iterations of usability testing on one particular business-to-business healthcare website, I noticed something interesting: pages that the in-house SEO professional created did not match the mental models of the primary and secondary target audience. Words such as “fluff,” “propaganda,” and my personal favorite, “what the [expletive],” were used to verbally describe these pages. Furthermore, these same words appeared in test participant comments and category/section labels.

Digging a little deeper, I also noticed that all of their competitors created web pages that did not match user/searcher mental models. Yet these pages were ranking well. So even this company’s competitors were not creating sites to accommodate user/searcher mental models.

Why would any website owner create an information architecture where a considerable number of SEOed pages belong in the category labeled, “What the [expletive]?” Why do SEO professionals continually build pages, and entire websites, that do not match searcher mental models?

What is a mental model?

A mental model, also known as a conceptual model, is an explanation of a person’s thought process about how something works in the real world, faithfully representing root motivations and matching behaviors. Everyone has a mental model about how a website or a search engine works, and no one person has the same mental model as another person. Nevertheless, some portions of mental models are consistent from person to person.

As an example, let’s use an elevator. Most of us have the same expectations and experiences with riding in an elevator. If we press the button labeled “2” inside the elevator, we expect the elevator to take us to the second floor. If we press the button labeled “5,” we expect the elevator to take us to the fifth floor.

How do we know we are moving toward the fifth floor? On most elevators we usually see a number that lights up when we arrive at or pass a floor. What happens when we arrive at our destination, the fifth floor?

  • The number “5” is illuminated on the elevator panel
  • The elevator stops
  • We often hear a “ding” to indicate that the elevator doors are about to open
  • The elevator doors open
  • Usually, when we exit the elevator, we can immediately see some sort of visual cue that we have arrived on the fifth floor, such as a sign showing room numbers 501-540, and/or the number “5” somewhere within our immediate visual range.

The textual and visual cues on an elevator are similar to the textual and visual cues on a website. When searchers click on a link on a search engine results page, they expect to be delivered to a page that contains their targeted keywords. But keywords are not the only item on a web page that searchers expect to see.

Searchers have mental models of websites and web pages. They expect to know which elements on a web page are clickable and those that aren’t. On ecommerce websites, searchers expect to see product photos. Headings, categorization and navigation labels on a healthcare site that targets physicians and other healthcare professionals will be quite different from headings, categorization and navigation labels on a healthcare site that targets consumers.

Mental models of SEO professionals

How do many SEO professionals address searcher mental models and site architecture? Here is a partial list:

  • PageRank (PR) sculpting (via nofollow tags and other methods)
  • Siloing
  • Using targeted microsites
  • Link farms and other forms of search engine spam

Unfortunately, many SEO professionals are not validating searcher mental models, though they honestly and sincerely believe they are. If a page ranks and a web searcher clicks on a search listing, then the assumption is that the web page matches the searcher’s mental model. Other pages ranking well? Then the SEO assumes searcher goals are obviously being met. More clicks? Even more evidence. Low bounce rate? Web searchers must love the site, even though more clicks on a website can indicate confusion, not user satisfaction.

Never mind that information architects and usability professionals continually see “what the [expletive]” as a site architecture label.

It seems as if SEO professionals and website owners are building websites and pages based on their personal mental models, not the mental models of the target audience. No professional, qualified information architect would recommend a site architecture based on data purely from keyword research tools.

Would I hire an SEO professional to architect a website? Not unless that person or company has a strong education, training and experience in library/information sciences. Many professional information architects have advanced degrees in this field. However, I would hire an SEO professional to contribute to the site architecture discussion. Querying is a search behavior that no website owner should ignore.

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).