Friday, December 19, 2008

Information Architecture, Content & SEO

I was reminded during a discussion this morning of the interplay between information architecture, content and SEO in the success of a Web site. I thought back to a thread on the IA Institute's mail list from July that touched on one element of this issue, and I figured I might as well extract that conversation and make it available here.

The initial question in the thread came from Jenny Wallace, a candidate for the masters in Interaction Design and Information Architecture at the Univ. of Baltimore. Jenny asked:
"How Search Engine Optimization and Information Architecture can build a reciprocal trust relationship between information providers and information consumers. Any thoughts?"
My response was this:
"The notion of trust in this relationship is primarily one - to my mind - of meeting expectations for the information consumers. The consumer will, frequently, land on a page deep into the site content hierarchy and will immediately begin assessing the page for relevancy based on the high-level content labels presented to them. This is clearly where a partnership is most strongly required between IA and SEO practitioners, so that the visually-dominant labels (headings, titles, sub-headings, bold terms etc) are closely aligned to the original search terms that brought the consumer to the site in the first place.

Trust online is a highly fragile thing, and visitors to a site - particularly when originating within a search engine - will be twitchy to begin, so it is imperative that relevance is established quickly, clearly and unambiguously. It should be the case that the higher-level content labels are the ones most closely tied to the search terms - and it's here that the semantic structure of the HTML comes to the fore.

It is also important to recognise the conflict inherent in the relationship between SEO and IA. Although the goal of SEO should be to attract pre-qualified potential consumers to site, quite often this is interpreted to mean "attract as many people as possible". For the IA, this represents a real conflict of interest: they're being tasked with structuring site content to suit the needs of an audience who - by rights - should never be considered in the information architecture.

And it is here that trust can be destroyed very, very quickly: SEO tactics that are designed to draw in visitors with only a very tenuous interest in the actual product or service on offer; and those visitors being presented with content that has little or no relevance to their needs.

One last point: the information architecture strategy for a site must explicitly accommodate visitor behaviour that does not initiate on the home page. Each and every page must provide the sort of context and relevancy triggers for the visitor so that they can not only decide to continue their journey on the site, but also can see clearly how to commence that journey."
Regular readers of this blog may have come across another post of mine from July that listed out a bunch a questions that UX practitioners can use as a way to frame the development of a UX strategy for their (web-centric) project. Two of those questions were:
  1. If people arrive at your site somewhere other than the home page, how will you provide them context and communicate both intent and possibilities?
  2. How will people find your site? And how do the activities you undertake to encourage them tie in with your other design consideration?
[Note: they actually appear as questions 13 & 14 in the original post.]

The issue of establishing trust and credibility in the minds of visitors arriving via search engines can be seen to be a sub-component of the overall set of responses one might make to these two questions. Trust and credibility should be two of the considerations when formulating your overall content and SEO strategies, and these should tie in to the information architecture you design for the site.

These three areas: information architecture, content, and SEO, need to be considered together in order to meaningfully address the two questions above; and one is not really complete unless it is being complemented by the other two.


Michael Carvin said...

Steve, excellent post. Quick response before a meeting...

This has been a topic I've been dwelling on sporadically over the last several months. Your quoted response hits the nail on the head; in short, the trust SEO and marketing folks are trying to achieve is often approached with shotgun tactics. While these may be founded in search analytics garnered from a variety of sources, the resulting "trust" is ultimately compromised - SEO keywords in the content often override content crafted to address the visitor directly.

Dr. Elizabeth Churchill has a highly relevant piece in the Nov/Dec issue of Interactions.

Regarding your 2nd question at the end of your sense is that monitoring social media conversations comes into play here, providing value from a number of perspectives.

However, your notion of IAs "being tasked with structuring site content to suit the needs of an audience who - by rights - should never be considered in the information architecture" seems to put the IA lead in a subordinate role to SEO and Marketing. For a tactical IA, this is likely the case. However, IAs can bring a lot of value to the SEO and Marketing table - unfortunately, not all three sing Kumbaya all night long.

Steve 'Doc' Baty said...


Thanks for the comments. I'll be sure to take a look at Interactions for the Churchill article.

Regarding your second point: I wouldn't characterise the IA as being subordinate to the SEO/marketing folks in that case. I see this arising from a lack of cooperation and integration of their activities. That sentence comes across as describing a temporal flow of activity, but I see IA, SEO & Content as the three corners of a triangle: you can't move one without immediately affecting the other two.