Rethinking Information Architecture for SEO and Content Marketing – MOZCON 2016
In September of 2016 I had the honor of presenting at MOZCON 2016 in Seattle, Washington. Below is a summary of my presentation. Please be on the look out for other post that I share on twitter, for example of the strategies laid out below.
I have now been providing SEO consulting for around 9 years. And I have seen the following scenario play out time and time again. Here’s what typically happens:
Site Has Great Technical SEO
Typically in this scenario site owners have a great technical SEO foundation with well optimized content. While there may be small issues that need to be fixed, there aren’t any serious caveats to ranking. They might benefit from a better SEO strategy overall, but their technical foundation and content is strong.
Site Has Good Content Marketing
Along with a great technical foundation the site also has good content marketing. They have a great blog, they might have lots of great evergreen content, or they might do a really great job with their sales content. Strategically there maybe ways to improve on their content, but for the most part their content is better or on par with their competitors.
Traffic and Rankings Are Bad
I am sure up until this point many of you are probably thinking… isn’t this supposed to be a problem? Great technical SEO and content marketing don’t sound like a problem to me! And that is true. However, the problem is that despite all of the great work on technical SEO and content, traffic and rankings are not where they need to be. Typically site will rank very well for things like blog posts, or other non marketing content. Which is great, but often times the pages that are closest to the site’s conversion points aren’t ranking or getting traffic. Or if they are ranking, they aren’t ranking for the right terms. Essentially the problem is that all of the SEO work that has been done up until this point, isn’t resulting in the desired results.
Why Won’t The Site Rank, When Content And SEO Are On Point?
Whenever I mention bad Information Architecture as a cause for low rankings or traffic. I am always looked at with this blank stare. And I almost always feel like a weirdo conspiracy theorist. This is because Information Architecture can be done many different ways, and there’s no real “right way” to do it. Instead, you need to develop the right IA to fit your needs. In this presentation blog post, I am going to talk about the right IA for SEO and Content Marketing.
Definition of Information Architecture: The structural design of shared information environments. From: Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville
Typically when we think about IA for the web we are thinking about a chart like seen above. This chart shows a site’s information organized by page type. Products, services, a blog, and general sub pages all have their own sections. This is the way that web professionals have been designing websites for the last 20 years. This method is easy for the designer and client to understand and execute and therefore has been replicated over and over again. However, organizing a site by page type can create many problems for SEO and Content Marketing.
When a bad IA is applied to a site we can typically expect the following to occur in some way:
- Increased likelihood for duplicated content and taxonomies. Let’s say you are selling shoes, and you have a product category for “athletic shoes” and you have a blog category for “athletic shoes”. This means that you have two bodies of content competing against each other in the SERPs for the same term. That is counterproductive, and may confuse search engines.
- Poor internal linking. A proper IA creates better internal linking because content and topics are consolidated, and easier to find.
- Distributed topical authority. Back to our site about shoes – Along with shoes you also sell socks. You might have socks in each section of the site, as an accessory that customers can buy along with their new shoes. But unless you have a designated section for socks, then search engines may not be aware that your site needs to rank for socks. In fact in many cases I have seen clients themselves not be aware that they can be ranking for relevant terms that they haven’t organized their content around. When content is organized correctly the engines can apply a level of topical authority to the parts of the site that cover such topics.
- Confusing or incomplete main navigation. Often times a site’s main navigation with follow the main hubs in a site’s IA. If the site has an IA that is organized by page type than the resulting menu item labels will be irrelevent terms and ideas that are related to the objective of the site. Some examples might be “Products” or “Services”. Both of these don’t tell the user anything about what is offered before they click, and can be confusing for users that are still trying to learn the subject matter of the site.
- Overall lower user experience. When a site has the right IA, it automatically improves the UX. This is because things like URL structures, navigation, breadcrumbs, are all aligned to meet the needs of the user in a uniform way.
How do we fix bad Information Architecture?
Many SEOs attempt to fix these types of IA problems, by developing an internal linking strategy. I will admit that I do the same thing when big IA changes can’t be made. However, internal linking only fixes one aspect of the problem, and rarely does it help with other issues such as UX or topical authority. Also, if internal linking is done to much, it may be internalized by the engines as a manipulative tactic. Internal linking can help, but for many reasons its just a bandaid to a bigger issue.
Reorganizing the site by moving content can also help, but comes with some inherent risk. Each piece of content that is moved also needs to have it’s original URL 301 redirected. Otherwise links, traffic, and rankings will be lost. This isn’t a major undertaking for a handful of URLs, but can be a huge project for hundreds and sometimes thousands of URLs. Also, new sections maybe needed to house the moved content. Even if the content migration is a complete success, in the end moving content is still just a bandaid to a larger problem.
Many times a site will receive a an unbalanced backlink profile. Typically this happens when one or more blog post receives the majority of the site’s links. Or a popular product is linked to a lot. This is great but it also means that any inbound link equity is focused primarily in only one section of the site. To balance a backlink profile, some SEOs may acquire unnatural and spammy links. This is a horrible idea that should never be applied. Unnatural links are never a bandaid. Instead a proper IA will allow for link equity to flow more evenly across the site, which eliminates the need for more backlinks.
Designing Kick Ass Information Architectures
I am only an expert at 2 things. SEO, and wheelchairs, and the only reason I know anything about wheelchairs is because I have used one my whole life. During the first part of my life, I used a manual wheelchair, but sometime around 10th grade I upgraded to a power wheelchair. At first I was very awkward driving my new power chair, I focused all of my attention on what I was doing. I would go very slow, and stop to take 90 degree turns. My friends hated going places with me because it was so awkward. Then one Saturday a few weeks after I got my new chair, my dad took me to where every teenager in the 90s hung out: the mall. My favorite store in the mall was Radio Shack, but my dad parked over by K-mart. Which meant I was going to have to go across the entire mall to get there.
I was so excited to get to radio shack that instead of focusing on what I was doing, I looked forward and started focusing on where I was going. My movements became more fluid, and now 20 years later, using my chair is as natural to me, as walking is to many others.
I share the above story to illustrate the difference between “Where you are going” and “What you are doing”. Many times when we go to build a new site or plan a new information architecture we focus too much on what we are doing and oftentimes ignore the direction that we’re going in. This failure to understand where the company’s marketing objectives are at the beginning of the development process can cause many problems not only for SEO but also integrated and content marketing. However, when we begin the process by focusing on where we are going, we are forced to develop information architecture that work from the beginning.
If you can successfully understand how these two concepts overlap then you will understand the perfect place for SEO. Successful SEO leverages the skills and knowledge of web developers, along with the vision and design of marketers. Both are vitol and need to be incorporated in the process at the very beginning.
To begin creating a successful information architecture we need to define the main ideas of the organization. These might be a core group of products or services or it could be general terms or ideas found within the industry or community. Ultimately we are trying to define the organization’s scope and mission with a handful of words and ideas.
We can use these main ideas as the central nodes in our information architecture. These nodes will be important for developing things like category page structures and targeted landing pages.
After we developed our main ideas we can now consider strategizing for supporting content. Supporting content can be found in the form of blog posts, articles, or even product pages. In essence, we are talking about any content on the site that supports the main ideas.
Supporting content is organized and housed within a typical category structure relevant to the main ideas. While many in the SEO industry simply call this type of IA “silos”, I like to think of it more broadly in the form of “concepts” and “ideas”. This will make better sense in the next section when we talk about taxonomy development.
A conversion point is any location on a site that captures the intended goal of the site. This can be a product page a lead generation form or a contact form. It’s important to identify these aspects of your information architecture early on in order to place them in the right structure within your main ideas.
These conversion points should be aligned alongside related content. Which is why we need to place them underneath the relevant main ideas. Aligning conversion points closely to blog posts and articles it’s somewhat of a radical idea with in information architecture development, but doing so will help with things like internal linking, user experience, and conversion rate optimization.
When developing your taxonomies, you will want to start with a main taxonomy. Your main taxonomy may define things like main navigation URL structures category and tag pages and other aspects of the site such as user experience and content development.
In most cases your main taxonomy will define your main navigation however you may find that some main ideas deserve a completely special section of your architecture that doesn’t apply to main navigation. In that case restructuring your site’s objectives may be needed. But often times your main ideas should fit within your main taxonomy and create the main navigation.
In this example we can see product category pages ranking for a highly competitive term. All of these pages are a part of their site’s main taxonomy. This shows the inherent power that this type of organization and information architecture can have on organic rankings.
Supporting taxonomies defines relationships between content in separate sections. These types of taxonomies can grow internal linking organically, can act as secondary navigation, and can grow and change over time.
Supporting taxonomies do not typically have a defined place within the site structure. They simply play a larger role on the back end of content management systems. A good way to understand how these taxonomies work is to think about tags found on blogs or the various genres found on sites like Netflix. Both of these provide structural navigation and topical understanding without changing the main navigation or other aspects of the user interface.
Websites with large volumes of content such as product catalogs or large publishers can use natural language processing services to quickly generate supporting taxonomies. These types of services can quickly identify the topic and ideas of every piece of content. Using these services can allow a large site to quickly scale it’s supporting taxonomies.
In this example we can see supporting taxonomies ranking for top contents of a commercial term. These pages are generated from supporting taxonomies for things like tag pages and other aspects of product variables and content relationships.
This is one of my favorite tweets from Rand. Rand elegantly points out that the most important aspect of selling is awareness, respect, and trust. If you are not focused on information architecture from the very beginning it will be very difficult to reach those three objectives. A well thought-out and planned information architecture helps businesses with awareness, develops trust, and builds respect with their target audience.
isn’t this amazing i feel like i’m an oscar for nerds um okay my name is joe hall and today i’m talking about rethinking information architecture for seo and content marketing and really what i’m talking about mostly for this talk is a problem that i’ve seen over the last couple years and i’m sure if you’re an seo you probably come across this issue as well and that is that i come in contact with a lot of clients that have really great seo okay they have chuck norris seo they’ve got great technical structures they’ve got phenomenal markup their server does great they have a decent backlink profile and not only that but they also do a really good job with content marketing as well but for some strange reason um they aren’t getting traffic or rankings okay and they might be getting traffic and rankings in some areas okay like maybe parts of their blog are doing really well or maybe they’re getting rankings in areas that they don’t really need to get rankings in okay but their primary product pages or their service pages or the pages that talk about their company aren’t ranking like they want them to and so when a client comes to me with this issue a lot of times i’m like this guy right here i think well that’s bad informational architecture and i feel like that guy too because a lot of people are like what are you talking about you know that makes no sense to me at all um so today i’m going to talk about how we can one identify bad information architecture and then two how we can redefine it to start building sites that rank better so what exactly is information architecture it’s basically just the structural design of shared information environments and so what does that mean for us on a web setting this is typically what we see we see a uh loose structure of different page types and this is how we’ve been building websites for the last 20 years or so the problem with this is that as you can see these are not really anything to do with marketing okay these are page types and this is how a developer will lay out the structure of a site this is problematic for us as content marketers because this doesn’t help us at all uh promote the entire site or the entire domain for example we see we have a completely separate section uh for the blog and if you’re doing content marketing that means that all of your traffic and links are going to an isolated section of your website that is problematic for us i’ll show you why um so bad ia simply means that you have an increased likelihood for duplicated content and taxonomies right so if you have a product category for tennis shoes and you have a blog category for tennis shoes that doesn’t make any sense okay we need to try to figure out a way to bring those taxonomies together it also because of that creates poor internal linking uh you might have a ton of links pointing to a piece of content but if those links are not being transferred onto the pages that matter like your product pages or pages that you want to rank that link equity is pretty much wasted uh distributed talk authority this is really important right now okay google is implying uh employing lots of machine learning algorithms and lots of uh natural language processing and they can understand the main topics of your site and if they’re all distributed across the domain it makes it very difficult for them to understand of you know what your site is about confusing or incomplete navigation and an overall lower user experience so information architecture has a lot to do with the entire marketing aspect of your site so we’re back to this slide right how do seos traditionally fix a problem like this well many seos will recommend doing something like an internal linking structure or strategy right and that’s good but that helps in some cases but in the end it’s just a band-aid because you have to constantly work on that you have to constantly build internal links you have to constantly think about where your link equity is and that kind of thing um and some seos will recommend moving content okay and sometimes that works as well but the difficult part about that is one putting together a successful plan on how that’s going to be executed without losing rankings like doing things like redirections and that kind of thing um and also it’s hard to find out where exactly you should put the content and then some are even tempted to get involved in unnatural links or or unnatural link profiles which can get you in a lot of trouble and the reason that happens is because a lot of seos will look at uh or a lot of business owners will look at their content marketing budget and they’ll see gosh we’ve spent so much money on content marketing we’re not getting the rankings we want so i’ll just buy 5 000 links for 10 bucks and point them at our product pages that’s horrible do not do that that’s going to really get you in a lot of trouble so all of these are just band-aids that really solve a problem that shouldn’t exist to begin with and so what i want to talk about today is how we can design kick-ass information architectures in order to do that i must tell you a story and i’m an expert only at two things and that’s seo and wheelchairs and the only reason i’m an expert at wheelchairs it’s because i’ve used one my whole life okay so i’m gonna tell you a quick story uh when i first when i was a kid my first chair was a manual wheelchair and there’s two different types of wheelchairs you understand uh there’s there’s basically manual wheelchairs and electric wheelchairs like i have now but when i was a kid i used the manual wheelchair mostly and uh i did that up until i was about 13 i think in eighth grade and i got my first power chair that was in eighth grade it was amazing right but guess what happened i was so awkward at 13 i was already awkward right but having a power chair i became even more awkward because this is what would happen i went i would go like this i would go very slow like that right like if i wanted to turn i’d have a complete stop and i would do a 90 degree angle like this it took me forever to get anywhere it was horrible my friends hated it they were like god you’re so awkward i hate this um it was like for a week they hate it you know so a week went by after i got my first power chair and my dad took me to the mall um and when you’re 13 in the early 90s the mall is where you have to hang out right uh but for me because i was such a nerd the place i really enjoyed going was radio shack you know but my dad parked over my kmart okay and so to get to radio shack i had to go all the way across the mall right but i was so excited to get there but i did something different instead of focusing on what i was doing i looked forward and i focused on where i was going i focused on my direction and my destination and the reason i tell you the story today is because in order to design successful information architectures we need to focus on where we are going and less about where what we’re doing and what that means basically is that what you where you’re going it’s called marketing and what we are doing effectively is web development um i’m not saying throw web development out that’s how i got started uh but what you need to do is look for that sweet spot right in between the middle between marketing and web development and flying seo um so let’s uh start off with some main ideas okay when you’re building a information architecture you need to start thinking about uh main concepts uh that define an organization i mean it could be popular ideas within industry or broad user intent uh these main ideas will be the foundation of how the site is structured so we’ll put them right there uh the second thing you want to do and this is something that’s going to happen over the lifetime of the site they start to develop supporting content and when i say supporting content you know we often think about blog post you know but it can be really anything any page on the site can be supporting content this includes product pages this includes anything really complete blog posts articles evergreen content and you should really focus on targeted user intent and focus on your sales funnel so when you think about a traditional sales funnel you’re thinking about you know uh you’re thinking about awareness building awareness you’re thinking about um comparison or education of your product and you’re thinking about a conversion point those are the three main sections of most search uh sales funnels that should be included within uh your supporting content and that would go oh press the wrong button here that would go uh right below that so after you’ve developed your supporting content you’re going to want to think about your conversion points and these can be product pages lead generation forms user signups and those need to fit inside that same main category section okay and after that is completed we can put them down here and then we want to start thinking about our main taxonomy now the main taxonomy is actually one of the easiest things because you can leverage those main ideas to get started they can define main navigation they can influence url structures they can develop a category hierarchy and they can influence content development it’s very important that you think about how your main ideas your main taxonomy will work in with the rest of the objectives of the site because it will be how the rest of the site is structured going forward after you’ve done that uh you know this would be our main taxonomy up here up at the top um and this can influence your main navigation as well it doesn’t have to but but it probably should um the second thing we’re going to want to think about is oh this is the main taxonomies in action this is kind of interesting um we’ll see here this is a the query is furniture and we’ll see that positions one two and three in organic are all main taxonomy sections now of course everything above those organic listings are ads in the local seven pack and i can’t do a presentation without complaining about google so this is this is kind of [ __ ] to be honest with you like really is this cool for us no it’s not um so if you really need to stay competitive i recommend sticking with a good understanding of your information architecture otherwise you know if you’re not the top three nobody’s gonna go any further down um and this is that actually was below uh way before my computer um so next we need to talk about uh supporting taxonomies um and these are things that can define the relationship between content in separate sections and so if you understand how a blog works or you ever used a blog you might identify things like tags and other aspects of your content that can show a connection between other pieces and because of that it helps grow internal linking organically it can act as a secondary navigation so some folks will use these actually as a sub navigation or they might use them as a navigation within your sidebar these definitely can grow and change over time so this is the kind of thing where you want to utilize your supporting taxonomy if you’re introducing new content that’s not so much related specifically to a main idea but you still want to tag it or you still want to keep that content organized in some way um and then we go down here and as you can see it’s kind of randomized how they’re connected because these are the sections of the site that connect all the other parts together
and what’s cool about this it’s becoming much much easier to create supporting taxonomies we have all these new tools now and these are natural language processing companies and what these do you can tie into their apis and they will automatically go through your content library and tag uh the main concepts or ideas uh for each piece of content and that’s very effective when we’re building a supporting taxonomy because it can really easily show you the relationships between all the various pages on your site um and i’ll draw special attention to the one below called cloud national language api that is the api from google and that api actually is open to the public and what’s great about that is that it runs on the same uh natural language processing engine that google uses they talked about it recently they call it uh parsnip parspace i think um but anyways that’s the exact same api that they use um so i’m really excited about that one the other the other three have been around for a while and they’re phenomenal all of them are really great um so let’s take a look at that in action so check this out the query here is dog leashes and we can see that positions one and two are responsible for uh from the supporting taxonomies um and so it’s important to understand that you know a dog leash may not be a main idea of a site right but it’s definitely a supporting uh piece of content or sporting a taxonomy along with it so the final thought this is a final thought here is this tweet from rand this is a very popular tweet for them the best way to sell something is don’t sell anything at all earn the awareness respect and trust of those who might buy and it seems kind of abstracted but for me uh building the right information architecture should aid in that pursuit because it increases your user experience it increases uh a amount of respect because all your content is in the right position it definitely increases awareness because your sites will start to rank better and trust as well thank you very much my name is joe hall thank you
joe thank you very much
i’m being sent questions yeah okay cool as we speak thank you for submitting your questions we have a lot of time work so yeah uh someone asked um our company uses a lot of one-off landing pages with a short life span uh where should you uh where should you out these types of pages in the infrastructure okay so that’s a good question um one off landing pages there was a i think about a year ago uh google mentioned that they were going to be more aggressive around something called uh doorway pages uh or you know doorway kind of aspects of a site and for those that don’t understand a doorway page is a page that is created specifically just for seo right and it may be found outside of the main navigation it may not be part of the site right so my recommendation is to if you’re doing these one-off landing pages uh to figure out a way to integrate those pages as much as possible into your existing architecture and that might mean like creating a special section within your main navigation it might mean developing a specific tag category but whatever it may be make sure that you’re including uh these landing pages and your overall like internal linking structure you know um and it may seem like maybe it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to put those in your main navigation that might make that might be true but if you’re trying to avoid uh some type of google filter or penalty it would make sense then yeah okay someone wants a bit more detail about why having your blog in a separate section is bad yeah they want some justification very good question okay so like i get it i understand people love blogs right people love content marketing they want to you know produce their infographics or whatever i don’t know um but here’s the thing is that if you have one section let’s say that you have wordpress for example in a subdirectory right that’s how it usually happens okay what happens then is that wordpress has its own uh taxonomy structure it has its own um kind of system content management system inside of its own directory and so oftentimes what happens is you will do a stellar content marketing campaign okay and you’ll attract tons of links and tons of visitors and the value of those links and visitors stays on the blog it doesn’t transfer over to new to the other sections of the site and like i mentioned earlier uh let me oh i can’t pull it up anymore but anyways as i mentioned earlier doing things like internal linking and and moving content that can help fix that problem but it’s just a band-aid and so we need to start growing sites that are not kind of partitioned off based on page type we need to start putting content right alongside our product pages or put content right alongside uh our lead generation forms there’s no reason we can’t do all that together in the same sections it’s difficult because it might mean you know looking at a different technology infrastructure outside of wordpress um but it’s gonna help in the long run uh is there a technology answer that you’ve recommended to people no way because when it comes to wordpress no so so let’s okay let’s say if you’re if you’re hardcore wordpress and i am i love wordpress and if you have a reasonably manageable uh product inventory if you’re selling products you might want to look into something like uh woocommerce uh which is a uh kind of ecommerce platform for wordpress there’s other ones out there that might be good um if you want to get outside of that you might want to look at something like drupal um and think about you know drupal is great but it’s all about how the site is built you know and so if you’re going to build a site drupal really think about uh having it laid out like i had before and not having a separate section uh just for the blog or just for content yeah uh you and lauren vacarello can argue over drupal versus wordpress because you and lauren vacarello can argue about drupal and wordpress there’s a few a few differences with opinion um uh someone had also followed up with a question about local topic authority which you touched on local mobile capital uh yeah uh topical authority for yeah yeah so so what is that the question uh specifically the question was also what is local topical authority there you go uh so that’s a great question actually uh so topic authority is simply uh having everything that’s topical that you want to rank for in the same sections right so when google was looking at your site if you want to rank for like you know uh tennis shoes okay and like that’s the only thing you want to rank for but to build supporting content you’ve built a bunch of other stuff you’ve built stuff about athletes you’ve built a ton of other things and you’ve got your authority about tennis you spread out across the entire site it’s hard for google to make sense of what the site’s actually about so if you can integrate uh your content in a way uh that that’s segmented um and some people like to use the term uh uh silos i’m not a fan of that term but you know if you want to look at silos um that that’s that’s kind of the direction that i’m talking in you know um you’re going to want to try to organize your topics in ways that makes it very easy for google to understand what you’re trying to achieve with with the website uh perhaps a quite traditional seo question okay but uh someone had asked about um just making sure you’ve got pages that are well optimized that are well optimized yeah what can we do to give google the best best indication of what we’re talking about and everything else uh beyond maybe some of the the classic answers anything uh new or any developments in making sure that uh um google’s been understanding your your search terms and the terms you’re targeting with a particular page yeah can you repeat the last part so uh the question was i i wish i could know who this is and ask them exactly what they were trying to get at but they’d asked um they’d asked about creating a bunch of organic content that they want to
pass this six different ways um they want to know about optimizing it as best as possible yeah and uh and whether you had any recommendations for business optimizing content yeah i mean i guess seo best practices uh is is ideal um from like from an ia standpoint um you know you’re going to want to make sure that that content is in the right sections that it’s tagged correctly but it has the right internal linking structure uh to to you know drive to that content and then also from an ia standpoint if you know think about simple things like breadcrumbs uh and how breadcrumbs influence uh topical authority uh by giving the site giving google a clear structure for what the what that page is about um if you’re using things like breadcrumbs you can use a structured markup like schema to help google understand exactly what that page is about and that includes also some of your main navigation too uh you know you can have uh certain aspects of your main navigation where you’re on a specific page and that page within the navigation has like an active uh css class uh so google will know oh this is an active you know you this is a page so it’s active on this topic you know yeah fantastic uh joe thanks so much for being here thanks very much