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August 27, 2010

The Rewards of Quality Information Architecture

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With the extensive range of online marketing tools available today, it’s easy enough to target a market, write some content and throw up a site on any CMS. Many newbies to search engine optimisation, and sometimes even professionals, often overlook one of the most important aspects of operating a website that does what they want it to. Excluding not for profit sites, your aim in online business should be to compete with your competition and ultimately generate more income at the end of it all.

You need to build a site that rewards you.

So Where Do You Start?

You need to do the right thing by your users and the search engines. The combination of building a website that will provide value to your visitors and is easy for Google to browse and understand is essential. You need to plan the structure of your site with quality information architecture.

A web definition explains:

Information architecture (IA) is the art of expressing a model or concept of information used in activities that require explicit details of complex systems.

Information architecture, commonly referred to as an IA, gives your site a starting point to refer to when building out the scope of your project. It can be anything as simple as a hand drawn diagram to a tidy looking excel document of all your pages, URL’s, silos and more.

There is no set way to put one together so customise it in a way that you can easily understand the structure of your website and in a way that works for you and your business partners. Even if you have an existing site, putting together an IA of what goes where is important if you have plans to rearrange things or you’re finding it hard to keep a record of all your pages and categories. Once you get going you’ll soon find yourself referring to your IA as a starting point for many other SEO practices.

This is Just the Tip of the Iceberg.

It’s one thing to map out your site, but it doesn’t mean you’re doing it the right way. Webmasters often overlook the importance of building a site that is friendly for both users and search engines.

In example I’ll compare a website to an average bookstore. People go to a bookstore to seek information, and expect to buy the right book that best suit their needs. The architecture of a bookstore is often built in a way that will allow customers to pass through as they please, and absorb the information at their own pace. The books at the bookstore are like pages to a site, and are often linked to other relevant books using an organised indexing and referencing system, which is much like information architecture. Each book is indexed within the bookstore’s database under different sections, and most books reference others to both recognise external authorities and generate trust and credibility for the book’s content itself.

If the organisation of the bookstore and books are poor, and if no real indexing or referencing exist, the customers will find themselves stuck in somewhat of a maze and will struggle to find the right information. You could then expect them to exit the building, much like an exit point on a website.

However, if the bookstore is well organised so that customers can easily find the right books that will fulfil their needs, and if each book is doing its job providing engaging and organised content that the customer can absorb, they are more likely to either pick it up and have a read or purchase the book. The other win for the bookstore is that the customers are more likely to come back for their next purchase, because in the customer’s mind, the bookstore is well organised, has the right offer, which saved the customer time.

By providing valuable content organised in an orderly fashion, the bookstore increased its sales and became an authority in town.

A website information architecture, is based on having the right navigation design and internal linking structure. Navigation design refers to the manner in which your content is laid out, which can bear a major influence on your visitor’s behaviour. Although this is a whole separate ball game, a detailed IA will lay the foundation to solid navigation design and will ensure an optimal internal linking structure.

Having poor site structure can really damage the value of your brand too. People tend to remember sites that didn’t give them a favourable experience, and they won’t hesitate to turn a blind eye to your site in the SERP’s.

An IA can save you a great deal of energy and money when you weigh up the time taken to plan a website, against the design and development costs of rearranging pages, quelling duplicate content and trying to manage a poorly structured site. Getting this right from the get-go is an essential component that you need to do to please your visitors and yourself as a site owner.

So You’ve Built a Well Structured Site with Valuable Content, Now What?

You’ve now got a hub of valuable information and well structured content that visitors will love and can put to use. You suspect that Google and the other engines will reward you because you’ve done everything right by the user, but your job’s not quite done yet.

Even though an IA is a reference point to constructing a user friendly site, you need to ask yourself if it’s search engine friendly too. Building authority online takes more than just a few pages, it takes multiple pages on every sub-topic of every category of your market. Building such a complex site can result in the following:

  • Broken pages
  • Broken links
  • Crawling errors
  • Site speed issues

Make sure you are regularly checking these aspects of your site so you can rectify a problem before a user or Googlebot stumbles across it.

Website theming plays a huge role in simplifying the architecture of your site. Search engines will better understand the ‘aboutness’ of your site if you have done the job of defining broad themes of your subject, and drilling down to more granular topics and subject matter.

In example, if I have a website about golf I would consider my main silos as:

  • Beginners
  • Intermediate
  • Professional
  • Rules
  • Lessons
  • Courses
  • Products
  • Technique

Then I might drill down further in say the ‘Beginner’ silo with:

  • Driving
  • Chipping
  • Putting
  • Physics of Golf

And so forth.

This of course should be based on keyword research and considering your demographic, but it’s also important to remember to not exclude any pages just because of low search volume. Sometimes it’s best to include pages solely for logical navigation that will improve movement throughout the site. Besides, having a page for the sole purpose of covering a keyword is not useful to your users. Only create pages where you can provide real value for your users.

Link influence flows from the top of your site and should guide search engines through to your supporting pages. This will increase the amount of pages Googlebot will index and the amount of links it will spider which will give you a bigger site in the eyes of Google, and in turn, increased authority too.

And Finally, Test.

A webmaster would really be shooting themself in the foot if they did all of the hard work mentioned above and decided to ignore testing. Google Analytics is a free and easy to use tool that will give you vital information on visitor behaviour and what people are doing on a site.

Be sure to look at the following key web metrics:

  • Pageviews
  • Pages/Visit
  • Bounce Rate
  • Avg. Time on Site

For an even more in depth analysis of your visitors experience check out the supporting sections of the GA Content tab. Here you’ll find the top landing pages and top exit pages of your site.

If you want to drill down even further on visitor behaviour, have a look at the Navigation Analysis which will show you how visitors:

  • found your content
  • the paths visitors used to get to your content
  • the top entrance sources to pages
  • click patterns

Consistent analysis of these key visitor metrics can provide you with a better understanding of what pages, headings, categories and links are working for your site and what elements require some attention.

Although this stuff heavily relates to navigation design again, it is your understanding of the search market demand and what your website offers that will form the structure of your IA. When you make changes on your site, be sure to not only observe the response by visitors but also update your IA to keep things in order and manageable.

Remember that planning takes time to save time so by getting things right with an IA from the outset of any project, you will find that you’re optimising for your visitors and you’ll duly be rewarded for it.

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6 responses to “The Rewards of Quality Information Architecture”

  1. seo sydney writes:

    It is the true thing that effective steps and contents always attracts visitor. We should always try to get our site with most effective parts.

  2. Ioana writes:

    Good points, but it leaves the impression that the SEO specialist is responsible for the IA. Unless there is an information architect hired as such, shouldn’t the person in charge of the IA be the manager of the project, since he or she is responsible for the website? Or am I wrong?
    I guess the distinctions are not easy to make… I tried but couldn’t find clear information about what SEO specialists are supposed to do versus what they’re NOT supposed to do and particularly where IA stands in all this.

  3. Andy @ FirstFound writes:

    It amazes me how many people ignore this, and put a confused site that client’s can’t navigate live. If I see one more broken link today, I’ll scream.

  4. Aaron Egan writes:

    Ioana,

    The SEO specialist in any website project SHOULD be responsible for the IA, but not necessarily be manager of the entire project (as other parties would work on a site such as web developers and such).

    Outsourcing an information architect may not be effective if they didn’t have any SEO background, as they may not understand the importance of silo structures and link positioning.

    To shed light on the last part of your comment, SEO practitioners should be planning the structure of a site based on their markets needs and KW research from the beginning of a project with an IA.

    Remember, optimise your landing pages for broader topics, then drill down further into each of these with sub-topics. This will build out your site and allow you to have a solid, and well organised structure. Webmasters that build out the pages of a site without an IA and this approach, will lose track of pages and degrade the users and search engines experience at your site.

    By formulating an IA you will produce a site with easy navigation between pages that flow (great for usability), and formulating a site structure that engines can crawl with ease and understand. In turn, you’ll be rewarded for this with better rankings.

    That’s what a good SEO practitioner should be doing. What they shouldn’t be doing – is ignoring this.

  5. seo services jaipur writes:

    A website information architecture, is based on having the right navigation design and internal linking structure.

  6. Search Engine Optimisation Australia writes:

    This is a really good post. Must agree that you are one of the coolest blogger I ever saw. Thanks for posting this useful information. This was just what I was on looking for. I’ll come back to this blog for sure! I bookmarked this blog a while ago because of the useful content and I am never being disappointed. Keep up the good work. :)



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