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Information Architecture – Rocket Science Simplified

Information Architecture – Rocket Science Simplified

I can’t count how many times in the past couple years I’ve heard people talk about how important information architecture (also referred to as IA) is to SEO.  Yet it’s almost always presented in a way that calls upon a lot of highly technical lingo.  Taxonomy.  UX.  Contextual browsing.  Mental model.  Ontology.  Semantic web…  Honestly speaking, I don’t even know what half the lingo means in the moment I hear some of these words.

And my eyes instantly gloss over.  Yet in truth, even though I’m not a rocket scientist (nor a library sciences major), it turns out I totally get it – not from a linguistic perspective, but instead, from a visual and marketing perspective.  So this is the first in a series of articles that will present otherwise highly complex concepts in hopefully easy to understand ways.


Before I proceed, let this be a warning to anyone reading this article who, themselves, might in fact be, speak and breathe in highly technical terms.  I’m not here to profess that I fully grasp every single thing about IA.  In fact, I may even over-simplify some of the concepts I discuss.  I ask your forgiveness in advance, simply because my goal of this and future related articles is to help non-technically advanced people in our industry.  The more I (we) can help others understand these principles and concepts, the better we as an industry will become, and the higher quality both of users and search engine results…

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Rocket Science Simplified

Okay – so what’s this thing all about?  From an SEO perspective, Information Architecture, in plain English, is:

The way and means by which content on a web site is organized and presented for users and the search engines to be able to easily digest and gain the most value from.

Some (but not necessarily all) of the most important aspects of achieving successful information architecture for SEO include:

  • Research & Investigation
  • Testing & Analysis
  • Structural Modeling
  • Establishing Relationships
  • Design
  • Implementation
  • Review

So What?  I already do all that stuff…

Unfortunately, many people who “think” they know SEO really only know just enough to be dangerous.  Or they know enough to get some pretty significant results, but then they hit a performance ceiling.

Just Enough To Be Dangerous

In the former, this can mean the site they’re working on LOOKS like it’s been optimized.  It SHOULD be found in the search results.  And maybe it does show up for important phrases.  Yet the majority of the site ends up stuck on the 2nd, 5th, or 15th page of search results.

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(No offense to people I’ve worked with who know just enough to be dangerous – I’m a specialist in SEO and I’ve dedicated hundreds upon hundreds of hours to learn things specific to SEO while you focused on other things, which means I have no clue about those things while you do…)

The Illusion of Success

In the latter, everything APPEARS to be optimized.  And in fact, visitor counts coming from search dramatically increased after their work.  The site shows up on the 1st page at Google organically for a lot of phrases.   Yet ultimately, many of those are the “low hanging fruit” we suggest newbies focus on.  Or the visits come from mostly long tail phrases.  And that, in turn, means that the site owner is actually missing out on potentially huge numbers of visits or conversions.

(No offense to people I’ve worked with who, until I came along, thought you’d achieved monumental things.  The truth is, relatively speaking, you did.  It’s just that, because of what I’ve learned over the years, I happened to discover that at one time I too lived under this illusion – and invested a lot of time and energy in learning how to break through to new levels…  And that’s why you hired me, for which I am most grateful!)

Too Many Concepts for One Article

Given how much there is that’s involved in a comprehensive approach to information architecture, this first article is going to cover just one such aspect of this topic.  I’ll break it down into it’s most basic concepts, yet it’s an area of critical importance. the topic at hand today is Link Relationships and Content Focus.

Link Relationships and Content Focus

How many of you old school SEO people remember the days back when it was common practice to flood the footer with links?  Or for you who might now be in the process of filling your individual page content areas with dozens of links directly in the text?  You heard, at some point, that either one or the other (or both) of these methods was acceptable.  Or you thought it was.  Because someone well respected in our industry said something once or six times about how important internal links are.  And that it’s all about anchor text…

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Or you learned that it’s important to have the links for each section of the site show up on each page within that section…

Or maybe you’d heard that it was a good idea to provide links to “related products”.  Or provide ways for people to sort large product result sets…

Well did you ever stop to consider that even though the underlying principle is valid, there can be, under some situations, serious flaws in all of these? Maybe you haven’t seen where it’s a problem, yet maybe you haven’t paid enough attention to consider that it IS a problem, if you thought you have been getting “good enough” visit and conversion numbers…

And maybe using nofollow isn’t enough to address those concerns!

Example Site Internal Link Structure

Again, this article isn’t going to be able to cover every specific scenario regarding internal site links.  Yet let’s take a look at an example site and hopefully you’ll get the pattern of what to look for and consider…

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A Word About This Example

Note that the mock-ups I’m using are made up but that this does, in fact, come from a real world client.  The client in question happens to have over 8,000 pages of content, in dozens of top level categories and more than 100 sub-categories.

At the time I was brought onto this particular project in February, millions of dollars in sales had been garnered through the site.  Yet no more than a few thousand pages had been indexed at any given time, and most of those sat on the 3rd, 4th or 10th page of organic results at Google.

While there are a host of reasons for these shortcomings, one of the more complex issues (yet simple to understand once you see the bigger picture), was due to an over-saturation of internal navigation links.

Simple Navigation

Here’s an example of a  typical site with simple navigation.

Information Architecture – Rocket Science Simplified

While the above navigation would work on a small site, there has to be a way to have more links as you deal with hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of pages.   The next screen shows one of the ways they decided to “help site visitors find everything”.

Complex site with bottom navigation links

Now the reason this was done by the site owner was, from there perspective, it means that a visitor can quickly get to every main category and sub-category page on the site without having to scroll up.  So this was done primarily as a usability choice.  Usability is a major consideration in the process of information architecture, and is most often referred to as UX (user experience).  So technically, by having all those links in the footer area, it’s a “convenience” factor.

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From an SEO perspective, it also means that every page that’s linked from the footer area is given more weight.  (Nowadays the word going around is that Google has been discounting the importance of footer links because it’s an area that became abused by people in our industry (and SEO hacks).  Nevertheless, this is how the site was architected, and exactly how much value these footer links have or don’t have is open to debate.

But Wait – There’s More!

As is common in today’s web, rather than keeping the top navigation simple, many designers have come up with a method of displaying the links to an individual section of a site only when someone rolls their mouse over that section’s main navigation link.  For this site, the result then becomes:

Information Architecture – Rocket Science Simplified

Again, from the site owner’s perspective, this is a usability issue.  They don’t want a visitor to have to click through to that section of the site before being presented with all the various sub-category options.  And from an SEO perspective, it also ensures every sub-category is given that much more importance since now, every sub-category is linked to from the main navigation across the site.

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Site Navigation Gets Complex

Here’s where things start to get quite complex.  Once you click on any link related to the first category, you’re presented with that particular page within the category, and lo and behold, you see…

Information Architecture – Rocket Science Simplified

And now we can look at how truly complex this site is.  – I present to you, my readers, the full visual of what this site looks like from a navigation perspective…

Information Architecture – Rocket Science Simplified

NOTE – even with all of the links you see above, let’s not forget that there’s also links placed within the content on various pages as well…

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Site Navigation Organization

One might argue that the above example actually presents site navigation in a very clean, user friendly, and logical way.

I’d argue that you’re high.

Oh, sure, it’s light-years better than having all of the navigation visible all the time.  And it’s convenient to have all those links in the footer.

And by having each section’s navigation sub-set only appear on mouse-over, it’s visually not really overwhelming at all.

Information Architecture For SEO Principle #1- Don’t Confuse The Search Engines

When you look at the above full page view, with all the navigation links revealed, consider, for a moment, that while these are all links, and the gray area is where the actual individual page’s content resides, the fact remains that every link is made up of text.  Anchor text.  And every link not only has anchor text, but it also has a URL associated with it.  So here we have a situation where there’s something like 240 words on that page NOT including the primary content for that specific page.

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So even if we don’t even consider what Matt Cutts said a while back about how many links is okay, purely from a numbers game, it means you’ve got thousands of pages on the site that share 80% or more of those same anchor text words and URLs.  And given that most pages on the site are product details pages, with no more than a handful of words describing an individual product, and one or a few images and order processing buttons, that means that the vast majority of pages on the site are, for all intents and purposes, not truly unique enough to get the maximum value they need from an SEO perspective.

Be Clear About A Section or Page’s Focus

Now, if all other aspects of the site’s optimization were implemented using industry best practices, the fact happens to be that this issue in and of itself is not an SEO killer.  The site has thousands of inbound links.  And the sections are grouped in a way that they’re seen as individual sections with each page in the section having a similar focus.

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Because of this, there is enough uniqueness assigned to many top level categories based on shared (related) keyword phrases that the site is already coming up high in the organic results for some very competitive phrases.  In fact, for some categories, they’re on the 1st page of Google.

Overall though, this IS a problem.  There is not ENOUGH depth of unique content on the site in general.  So a lot of the content lingers on the 2nd, 3rd or 4th page of results.

Sectional Navigation – A Closer Examination

Information Architecture – Rocket Science SimplifiedOkay so here’s a view of the left navigation within one section of the site.  The majority of links are for this specific section.  That’s a good thing, because it helps users jump to any page within the section effortlessly.  But then there’s a link to a page within a completely different category.  And links to filter the content based on common ways people like to narrow their results.  And then below that, there’s the “you might also like” links.

While this is all good and fine if you’re only thinking about a user’s experience, the fact is that this puts additional emphasis on pages on the site NOT belonging to this specific group of pages.  Now if all the other navigation links didn’t exist in the top navigation or the footer, this might be acceptable.

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But given how every page on the site has all those top and footer links, the dilution that exists on the left navigation just complicates the ability the search engines have when it comes to deciding the focus of this section.

One way to address this is to use nofollow instructions on each link not specifically pointing to a page within this section.  I’ll leave the issue of “how effective” that technique is to another article.  Or better yet, you can spend hours reading countless articles on both sides of that argument.  🙂

What I will say is this – by all means, be sure to use the canonical tag on each page within each section of the site that has filter type links.  And consider going even further by placing noindex Disallow references in your robots.txt file for some of these pages as well.  Because the more you can do to help the search engines clarify the true focus of a section or page, the better.

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(Update – thanks to @SebastianX for reminding me that the proper usage in Robots.txt files is “Disallow:”, not “noindex” – #DUH)

Deep Down The Rabbit Hole

Another serious consideration – one that I’m pushing for on this client site, is the elimination of either the entire set of category links from page footers, or at the very least, the elimination of all sub-category links from the footer.  If your argument is that these links both help users AND tell Google the pages linked to are that much more important, I’d argue that the perceived benefits are far outweighed by the dilution of focus.

This is especially true when we get down to the sub-sub category and individual product levels.  Now this particular client DID, previously, remove those bottom links entirely.  And they saw a dip in their site’s visits.  And panicked, then proceeded to put those links back.  Which was a mistake.  Because it was a short term phenomena.  And by also simultaneously working on other factors related to SEO, I had them remove those bottom links from the product detail pages and the net gain was significant.

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Refine Your Focus

We need to do all we can to refine the focus here, and to more carefully place strategic links directly within content.  Because links within content that are surrounded by supporting text are much more valuable from an SEO perspective and thus give much more weight to the pages they point to.  But even then, remember that “too many links” is an important concept when it comes to saturating paragraph rich content.

It Doesn’t Take A Rocket Scientist

The above example is pretty extreme.  Yet it points out an issue that needs to be considered whenever you are building or maintaining or optimizing a web site.  Every section on a site needs to have enough uniqueness of focus to tell the search engines that “this set of pages within the site are related to this set of phrases.”  And “This page within this section is truly unique compared to every other page in this section, yet at the same time, there’s enough similarities that it’s obvious all of the pages in this section are, in fact, related.”

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When you can look at SEO from this perspective, and you can sit and “feel” whether these statements are true, given navigation as a factor, you’re well on your way to ensuring each page has a high enough value, and the sum total value of all pages in a section, in turn, has enough value to show up higher in the organic results.

Not So Fast, Slick Willy!

Of course, sadly, I need to emphasize here that even when you THINK you’ve got your internal site’s navigation figured out for maximum value, it still may not be enough.  Is there really enough depth of unique primary content on each page compared to every other page on the site?   Is there enough unique content on those individual pages compared to your competitors?  And the same question comes up for the entire section – as compared to other sections on your site and also similar sections on other sites…

And how many high quality links have you obtained from 3rd party sites pointing to your section level pages?  Because that, too, will be a factor.  Not to mention the quality of your keyword research and subsequent on page and under-the-hood seeding – both as it relates to individual pages and as each page within a section relates to each other page…

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But Why Bother?

Some of you may have already said to yourselves – why bother?  I’ve got so many inbound links pointing to my category level pages that it doesn’t matter…

Well, it may not matter to you.  But to me, it’s about finding every way possible to squeeze out as much SEO value as possible while not completely sacrificing the user experience.   And for sites like this client example, where I’m paid in an ongoing contract to continually come up with additional ways to improve the bottom line financially for my client, I can achieve more long lasting results in less time by addressing this topic than I can by obtaining links that may or may not one day be useless, or even harmful.   Because at the end of the day, the site’s internal information architecture factors will always be factors.  And while they may be less of a factor some day, the only way to compare apples to apples is not just with inbound link or external mention authority, but down and dirty on-site considerations.

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For more information on Information Architecture

If you’d like to explore the topic of information architecture there are many great resources.  An IA overview article came out over at SearchEngineLand just this past week.   And Louis Rosenfeld, a leading expert currently providing Information Architecture consulting services to PayPal, has a great and very simple visual that shows three of the primary areas of discipline that encompass IA from a professional development perspective.  If you are curious to learn more, I also suggest checking out the IA glossary provided by the Victoria, Australia State government.

People in our industry who are truly rocket scientists (at least when it comes to IA) you may want to speak with or follow include Dave Harry, Terry Van Horne, and Adam Audette (author of a pretty lengthy SEO Guide to Information Architecture).   And if you’re really feeling frisky, my final recommendation is to join the SEO Dojo – a community site chock full of IA content, as well as a host of resources and threaded discussions on all things Search marketing.  (And where the Weekly Chat is a place to get completely overwhelmed (or get some serious minds working on some of your most challenging questions!)…


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Alan Bleiweiss

Forensic SEO Consultant at Alan Bleiweiss Consulting

Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites from medium scale to world class enterprise. He ... [Read full bio]

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