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Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Myths About Information Architecture

PageRank sculpting, siloing, link-juice flowage, SEO architecture — these are keyword phrases that often make my skin crawl. The reason? I commonly hear these words come from search engine optimization (SEO) professionals in reference to a website’s information architecture (IA). Yet, when I am among my information architecture colleagues? I rarely hear these words, if at all.

What happens when I explain to my information architecture colleagues how PageRank sculpting is supposed to work? They look at me as if I have lost my mind, because no professional information architect, that I know of, determines a website’s information architecture and corresponding navigation schemes based on a math equation from Google.

Where is the disconnect? Is the problem that information architects do not understand search engine optimization…or is the problem that SEO professionals do not understand information architecture? Or are both parties equally ignorant? Should there be bridges?

To help SEOs understand an information architect’s point of view, here are some of the common myths and misconceptions that search engine optimizers have about information architecture.

Myth #1: SEO is SEO & IA is IA

“I would say that the biggest myth is ‘SEO is SEO and IA is IA and never the twain shall meet’ – that information architecture is a high-brow, librarian-like activity carried out by serious, academic-type practitioners and high-end site builders, whereas SEO is a down and dirty marketing tactic carried out by hip guerrilla marketers,” said Alan Perkins,  Managing Director of SilverDisc Limited. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“Information is content; architecture is links; therefore information architecture is about content and links,” Perkins continues. “And what’s a large part of SEO? Yep, content and links. Information architecture is a very large component of SEO and, like building a house, getting your architecture wrong at the start can cost you a lot further down the line.”

I have been saying for years that SEO is optimizing a website for people who use search engines. There are two parts to that equation: searchers and search engines. I often feel that many SEO professionals ignore or discount the “searcher” part of search engine optimization. Likewise, I often feel that SEOs and web developers alike forget the “searcher” part of site architecture.

A Site Architecture (SA) for SEO is a combination of just two things: Information Architecture (IA) and Technical Architecture (TA),” said Perkins. “I like to express this as a formula: SA = IA + TA.”

Amen to that, Alan.

Myth #2: The SEO Architecture…

Whenever I hear the phrase “SEO architecture,” I immediately associate it with an information architecture that is primarily:

  • Created for search engines only
  • Based on data from keyword research tools, and
  • Based on the mental models of SEOs, not users/searchers

This type of architecture commonly results in a website that ranks well—temporarily (if at all) but has a high abandonment rate and poor conversions.

“Organizations that design for SEO at the expense of IA are sacrificing their future for a few quick wins,” said Peter Morville, president and founder of Semantic Studios and co-author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. “Marketing is about the whole user experience, not just findability.”

Two goals of an effective information architecture are to make desired content: (1) easy to use and (2) easy to find via both searching and browsing. Searcher goals and business goals are not mutually exclusive.

“When you boil it all down, information architects’ work is concerned with optimizing the alignment of business goals and user needs,” said Dan Klyn, information architect at The Understanding Group and a director of the Information Architecture Institute. “Sometimes, the changes that information architects recommend are subtle; other times, the changes are unmistakable, requiring wholesale changes to directory structures, URL paths and over-arching navigation structures.

In cases where information architects find a wide mis-alignment between ideal and existing structures, consider the real-world architectural metaphor that information architecture derives from,” Klyn continues. “In the same way that owners, contractors and designers must wisely decide between adapting an existing structure or tearing everything down and starting from scratch, so too with matters of information architecture.”

Many website owners are afraid to modify ranked pages, even though the sites’ existing information architectures are confusing to searchers.

Website owners are afraid to lose qualified search engine traffic. But consider this—you are already losing users/searchers by not having a website that makes sense to your target audience. Adapting an existing structure to be crawler friendly isn’t always the best solution.

Which leads me to the next myth….

Myth #3: Web Searchers Are Not Site Users

“SEO professionals may not realize that users’ information needs change—sometimes dramatically so—once they reach a site,” said Louis Rosenfeld, co-author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web and author of Search Analytics for your Site: Conversations with your Customers (available in May 2011 from Rosenfeld Media).

“They may move from seeking to validate that an answer to their query exists—and on which website—to a mode of localized finding and more intensive learning about the topic of interest. Or web searchers may be seeking information about an organization, while site searchers may seek information about that organization’s services and offerings.”

In the table below, former Michigan State University technologist Rich Wiggins compared the top keywords that brought users to the MSU site with what they searched once they reached the site (on the site’s search engine):

MSU search comparision

“The differences quickly emerge,” Rosenfeld explains. “Names of the institution are obviously quite common in web search, but not for site search. Both types of searches include navigational information (e.g., ‘campus map’), but site search queries often deal with activities local to the campus (e.g., ‘football’), systems that students and staff use (e.g., ‘spartantrak’), and particular departments like chemistry.”

I think that it is really important for SEO professionals to perform a combination navigational:informational and navigational:transactional advanced queries to verify that they are communicating aboutness to both site visitors and search engines. Here are some examples (using the National Cancer Institute site):

  • lung cancer site:www.cancer.gov
  • allintitle: lung cancer site:www.cancer.gov
  • contact NCI site:www.cancer.gov

This web SEO will also help site SEO.

“While organic web search and site search demonstrate different searcher behaviors and information needs, there is an interesting relationship between them that may provide search engine advertisers with some great opportunities,” Rosenfeld said.

“Because site search produces more specific queries than organic web search, these queries may suggest more narrowly focused keywords that will in turn see fewer bids. So site search analytics, an information architect’s tool, might save SEO and search engine advertisers a lot of money.”

Key Takeaways

  • It might be difficult for technical teams to take direction and guidance from non-technical information architects. Don’t let anyone from your tech team intimidate you into believing something cannot be changed.
  • Site Architecture = Technical Architecture + Information Architecture. Both TA and IA are critical for a long-term success.
  • Adapting an existing information architecture to be crawler friendly isn’t always the best solution. If the site’s information architecture is the problem? Then fix the problem. Don’t put a band-aid on it and expect miracles.
  • Web searchers are site users.
  • Site search analytics can save SEO/SEM professionals time and money.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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