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.