SEO: Successful Information Architecture — SES San Francisco

Okay so this morning I live-tweeted the hilarity and the awesomeness by @jeffreyhayzlett while Susan covered the liveblogging of Jeffrey’s keynote. I’ll only be liveblogging a few sessions here and this is one of them.

Of course, the 1st session I chose to liveblog is on Information Architecture. Because I’m an I.A. nut. :-) And this one should be killer!


Bill Hunt, Founder/President Backazimuth


Here we go!

Adam Audette was scheduled to moderate, however he couldn’t get here on time. It was tragic seeing his “stuck at PDX” tweet, then the eventual “gonna be late” tweet from SFO… He’s an awesome guy. Good thing I got to catch his IA session at BlueglassLA! [ED: Also covered here.] Bill Hunt is pinch-hitting.

Shari’s up first…

Watch out people -Shari’s on her game today…

We’re going to talk about the myths and misconceptions around the concept of SEO and Information Architecture.

Why should we care about IA? Customers – if they can’t find information, they leave. Brand Value – people remember the web sites that didn’t deliver them the content they wanted. Design, Development costs – bad IA – the million dollar mistake. How much time does it take to create a web site? To plan it, build it out?

IA can save a site money if it’s done right. With poor IA, duplicate content problems, management becomes more complex…

Site maintenance – good IA saves money – people know where to put content.

Good IA will communicate aboutness to search engines and users. The engines will get people to the right place on your site.


SEO is very much a part of that. SEO addresses the query portion. But they also find it by browsing, and asking their community.


Can’t access the site, can’t get found.

Rankings and how listings appear are also affected.

Sitelinks can appear in the results, headings appear. They can click and end up in the middle of a page if it’s done right.

What is Information Architecture?

SEO sees crawlability, indexation, sculpting (which doesn’t work Shari says), siloing (not very effective), server performance (not IA but SEOs think it is), interface – which Shari also says is not part of IA.

IA Is:

Structural design of info, combination of organization, labeling, search (retrieval)< and navigation systems within websites…

Categorization – taxonomy – hierarchical structure. A site can have more than one. Based on a controlled vocabulary – SEOs can work on that. Provides guidelines, but is not navigation design. Nav design emerges FROM this.

Headings are navigation labels – Link labels are navigation labels.

How should information be organized? NOT by keywords! User task or process, or what stage someone is in a process, topical focus, target audience, alphabetical…

The vocabulary is very different for a patient than it is for a medical professional. Two very different user goals.

Taxonomy by Type: Mayo Clinic is a great example. National Cancer Institute is another. File type is one way the Mayo Clinic organizes content.

When a site is very big alphabetical can be helpful taxonomy.

Navigation labels should be unique, distinguishable, scannable. If links aren’t distinguishable, it leads to pogo-sticking – jumping back and forth between pages and they won’t convert.

WTF – when considering usability, like seeing a footer filled with keyword stuffed links, if you say or hear WTF? it’s not scannable.

Not all navigational elements need keywords.

Embedded text links – if purely keyword stuffed, it causes pogo-sticking.

If a page is not scannable, credibility goes down.

Not everything can be a priority. If you have too many links, content is less findable, yet it’s also less findable if not enough links exist.

Navigation label order is important. If Home is first, then About Us is next, that’s not helping the user who typically wants to know “can you help me”.

SEOs confuse architecture and construction as the same thing. You end up with the mental model of an SEO or a tech team, not the mental model of the user. Users will abandon your site.

Mental Models

An explanation of a person’s thought process. You see on, you press the button, the light goes on. You see off, you press the button, the light goes off.

The tech team’s notion of a how a site works makes sense to them. It’s based on THEIR mental model.

The closer you can get these to match, the better your site will be. The more conversions, the better ROI, the better searcher experience. SEOs go bonkers with keywords. If you confuse users, it’s not good for them or the search engines.

Determine mental models by talking to people. Watch them in their natural environment. Show people a web page, watch their performance. Ask them – what do you expect if you go to this page? They’ll tell you THEIR keywords that would describe the content.

Testing is critical to successful Information Architecture.

Closed card sort tests help you to learn the users’ mental model.

Common IA Mistakes

Not watching people actually watching your site. What’s happening? Why are they doing what they’re doing?

If you don’t do usability testing, you’re forcing your mental model on users.

During tests you have to be VERY careful about not asking leading questions- you can’t put YOUR keywords into the questions.

Imitating other site architecture is one of the biggest mistakes. Just because it’s out there, doesn’t mean it’s the right IA to base your site’s IA on.

Critical Tasks:


Do your research…

Remember SEO is not optimizing for search engines, it’s optimizing for PEOPLE.

Eleanor is up next.

I’m here to talk about the challenges of media sites.

When you’re dealing with large organizations, you’re dealing with everyone who’s got some investment in the site. That’s not necessarily good for Information Architecture. In-house, we recognize users want to get to some piece of content – they need to find relevance through navigation or IA.

Taxonomy and site maps are important. Media organizations need to refresh and evaluate as time goes by. What worked in 1998 may not apply today.

Each department will push their own agenda in a large organization. each department has their own focus groups. This can cause problems when they clash across multiple departments.

You need to get to the skeleton of the site and fix that before you move resources across the site. I find myself becoming the referee or go-between.

Company owners can know that SEO offers value but they don’t know what that means. As an in-house SEO you need to address communicating value and why a site needs to look a certain way from an Information Architecture perspective.

Challenges I face – “Home” is actually five different landing pages. Multiple “sites” exist within the main ABC News site. A lot of network sites have this problem.

So navigation is the start but it does not entirely define Information Architecture. There’s a strong hand in Corporate that says “people want Good Morning America” – others might say “Good Morning America is part of the bigger site”. Conflicting views come up.

Content Types

I tell people in-house and editorial – does the user know where they’re at? Do they know where to go? Pogo-sticking is a concern. It also affects search rankings.

In 1 example, an exclusive on American hikers detained in Iran becoming engaged, that story ended up in Good Morning America’s section, and the Parenting sub-section within that. Which makes no sense. But marketing had a hand in determining that. The story had nothing to do with parenting, and when I tested and moved the story out of that sub-section, it ranked higher in the search engines.

We have to prioritize in-house what’s important and what isn’t. Another example is Blogs, which can be hard to find if they’re buried within the main media site.


Most SEO consultants will help you index for evergreen terms. Daily (trending) terms are not going to succeed if your site’s taxonomy hasn’t been worked out. It’s harder to rank for shorter term trending terms without the structure in place to support it or the Information Architecture well thought out.


Organize the content and label it in a way users can find.

Align site’s business, marketing and content goals. Design and SEO can support taxonomy and prioritization.

Sub-domains aren’t the solution! Marketing goals and other goals within the organization can cause these problems to arise.

Q & A

Q- People know how to search to find information. People are finding information more through social channels. They’re finding it, then going back to their social channel for the next information to discover. Have you found a way with Information Architecture to address stickiness?

Shari – No. That’s “Quick fact” type findability. Where is something? How do I get there? This is “information scent”. If information scent is strong, that can help because people want to read more than one page if they’re looking for information. Health related content is a good example. In Social Media, I don’t see people just looking at one page unless it’s a quick fact.

Q- Have you ever worked with faceted classification navigation?

Shari – no – that leads to duplicate content. It’s not based on prioritization. There’s a time and place for it so you need to know where and when to use it.

Reserve it for advanced search, learn how to prioritize, and learn how to eliminate duplicate content issues.

Q – In Germany we see a lot of mega-dropdown menus what do you think of them?

Shari – people don’t like them. Especially in Germany. If you put too many links on a page, that’s a problem. Dropdown menus are too many links. If you’re a good programmer you can eliminate them and if needed, put them back quickly.

Prioritizing what’s on the menu is better. (YES! HOMERUN Answer).

Q – Home pages – when you have multiple home pages within the site, what is the approach to that top level home page?

Shari – Clear Labeling. If it’s the Good Morning America home page, call it the GMA home Page. Let people know what the page’s focus is. When you provide clear navigation labels, you’re helping orientation and helping people complete tasks.

Something as a clearly labeled breadcrumb links will make a tremendous difference.

Well people I have to run to my next session so I’m out of here. Great information!

Alan Bleiweiss is an Internet marketer and blogger at Search Marketing Wisdom. He specializes in providing SEO site audits and action plans, including follow-up consulting to aid developers, designers and copywriters implement SEO action plans. Follow him on Twitter, @alanbleiweiss.

See Alan's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (6)
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6 Replies to “SEO: Successful Information Architecture — SES San Francisco”

Glad you liked the coverage Ash. This was one of many sessions I attended at SESSF that I found truly high quality presentations and knowledge sharing at.

Alan, thanks for a great write-up. The speakers’ content was also excellent. Hope to see you at Pubcon.

I have seen Shari Thurow’s name for some years but this is the first time I have had some insight into her very logical thinking.

I am seeing Eleanor Hong’s name for the first time and her examples from ABCnews will be valuable to other large-scale SEOs who deal with such sites-within-sites. The quote “Each department will push their own agenda in a large organization” is so true – often, they aren’t aware of the user’s mental models.


I can’t speak for any of the others, but the sessions I attended were all great, and from what others have told me, they all feel the same.

Thanks for sharing, Alan! I’m happy that they talked about how information should not be organized by keywords, I still see so many people organizing their website by keywords they want to rank for and completely ignore the functionality of the site. Sounds like the conference was fantastic, jealous I couldn’t be there!

I don’t know about any of that Dana. I took on only three sessions today, and none the rest of the conference. So maybe it was a matter of going as fast as I could knowing that I could chill out after today. Either way, it was a fast-paced experience as always. And I thrive in it. For the limited liveblogging I do, anyhow…

Alan, are you now a Live Power Blogger, or would that be a Powered Liveblogger? How in the world did you capture all this and still have time to pee, smoke and get water and make it to the next session???

Excellent takeaways!


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