by David Snyder
One of the most overlooked concepts in the construction of a website is how the information for that website will be structured. Too often the organization of this information is constructed without any usability or search engine optimization in mind.
- The Importance of Information Environment Design
- IED SEO Foundations
- Building on the Foundation
- Evaluating an Information Environment’s Design
- IED in Conclusion
Information Architecture, or IA, should be the basis of every web development project.
It has repercussions for usability, design, as well as search engine optimization.
The definition of Information Architecture, according to the Information Architecture Institute
is the art and science of organizing and labeling websites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability.
As important as the overall concept is, I see a small flaw in the science as it pertains to the web.
For me, the web, websites, and the information contained within is a constantly growing and changing collection of data. Architecture by definition is based on the concept of physical structures. The concept we deal with on the web is often very different than simple architecture because we must design around the concept of an ever expanding information set.
For these reasons I prefer to call what we deal with in the web community as Information Environments, and their planning and construction, Information Environment Design or IED. From large to small, these are the web areas in which our data and information lives, growing and changing over time. In fact, with the growth of search and social media, the science of how web environments interact has become increasingly important. No longer does an Information Architecture stand alone, it is being shaped by its surrounding environments.
PageRank and the semantic web are just examples of how Information Environments co-exist and effect each other.
Our web is not dead, it is alive, and we must plan the use of our sites information accordingly.
A well crafted Information Environment has repercussions on both usability and the optimization of a site for search.
CreativeGood.com once found that 56% of internal search queries on e-commerce sites ended in failure. This is an obvious results of poorly constructed data sets.
Poor Information Environment design will also lead to user abandonment, due to poor or counter intuitive navigation.
For search, the difficulty of search engine spiders to effectively crawl data, and then relate the data sets within a site to each other.
Let’s look at the concept on a more granular level now.
What are the building blocks for strong IED in SEO?
Adam Audette breaks down the way we look at IED in descending terms from Domain>Sections>Categories>Pages>Media.
He classified these levels as:
|Domains||The top level domain (TLD), which can have within it multiple sub-domains.|
These represent the organizational hubs where categories (and sometimes other sections) are located.
These represent organizational reference points for pages and media (and sometimes other categories).
Web documents in the form of whatever language – xHTML, PHP, ASP, etc. and either static or dynamic (or a combination)
Images, videos, documents (such as PDFs), sound files, etc.
These levels are not to be thought of how they may appear on a site.
A section is not simply to be seen as the webpage that might be used as a navigation point from the homepage of a website. A section should be looked at as a file housing subsequent related category files, which in turn hold webpages, that in the end contain media elements for the end user.
Look at these website levels as nesting blocks, one resting perfectly within the next.
Search engines use the levels of your site to categorize the rest of our site. If you have a section of your site being seen as relevant for term x , then it will be easier for you to rank the terms of a category that is optimized for terms relating to x + y.
With this example you can begin to see how poor Information Environment Design can lead to issues with your websites rankings and even its crawl.
|IED Level||How to Optimize|
Now that we viewed the Information Environment concept at its basic components, it is time to figure out how to take these pieces and design a healthy environment.
The key to building a navigation that is going to enhance your Information Environment, is to first answer the question, “What are the goals of my site?”
By answering this simple question, whether it be lead conversion, branding, or monetary conversion, you give yourself a better understanding of what your consumer might be looking for.
A word to the wise: Always build your navigation for the user and not the spider.
That means if you think that there is information of interest to the user that you may not want the spider to see, it is more effective to use bot herding techniques rather than simply leave that content out of your navigation.
After you have answered the question of “what the purpose of your site is” you are better able to create drill downs for this answer and work those into your navigation.
For example, if your site is a shoe ecommerce site, then the purpose of your site is to sell shoes. Well what kind of shoes do you sell? Womens, mens, childrens, workboots. Each of those aswers should become a drilldown on your navigation.
You should not become to specific when creating your general website navigation, instead you should utilize your IED foundations to lead your user to the information they are looking for.
In the concept of IED, you should look at links as the beams that hold the supporting columns of the Information Environment together.
The definition of the World Wide Web is
a system of interlinked hypertext documents accessed via the Internet.
In other words, everything we search for and browse is interconnected via links on the web.
And thus they become an incredibly important part of our IED.
They will characterize how information is viewed, as well as pass equity to other pages on and off a site.
On your site all linked pages should be done so through keyword rich anchor text. This will help the engines as well as the user identify where they are going to in your Information Environment, and how it relates to the page they are on now.
Again, you should always design with your user in mind before the search engines. So if you create links to pages that are meant only for the user and not the search engine spider make sure to utilize the appropriate robots directive on those links, pages, or via your robots.txt file. To test how effectively your website is distributing link equity utilize Google or Live Webmaster tools. You will be able to see how the site is being crawled as well as how the link equity flows to different URLs.
At this point you should also begin to see how the concept of Information Environments is applicable from the website level to the full scale of the Internet. Each level of the web can be seen as a separate Information Environment effecting the environments they link to.
Your link neighborhoods are the IED levels above the domain level:
|IED Level||Importance for SEO|
This is a concept made popular by Bruce Clay and other SEOs.
This strategy happens at the section and campaign levels, and is utilized to help define a connected group of items.
It is really a myopic of Information Environment Design as a whole.
The way it works is like so:
1. You have categories or sections for various information environments.
2. Each of these categories or sections has links to web pages that contain content pertinent to that section or category. It basically creates a mini-sitemap.
3. Each section will link to the mini-sitemaps of the categories or sections parallel to it.
This concept does not work for all sites, but overall is an effective strategy for sites with a large amount of content to organize. One thing to keep in mind is that by adding in sections and categories for siloing you are making the spiders crawl deeper into your site, and this will mean a need for link equity.
The best place to begin evaluating your Information Environment is before the site is even created. You should evaluate the design of the environment throughout the design and development of your site.
Below find a comprehensive look at the life of Information Environment design evaluations through the life of a website’s design and development. It is based on a white paper form the Argus Center for Information Architecture.
|Phase||Types of Evaluations|
· Obtain base-line measurements that can be used for later comparisons (Through competitive and market analysis)
· Compare your IED to the IED of a competitor’s site
|Research||· Explore grouping/labeling behavior of users
|Early Design||· Validate IED designs with users
|Later Design||· Refine/validate an IED design|
· Compare this IED to the IED of a competitor’s site
The key tool to evaluating an existing Information Environment is your web analytics system.
Remember that a quality “web analytics system” is not simply the use of a web analytics tool. Creating quality web analytics system includes what Avinash Kaushik calls the “Trinity” of actionable insights and metrics. These include the analysis of behavior through clickstream data, exploring the nuances of your websites outcomes, and examining the user experience through research and user side testing.
It is important to approach this entire concept with the thought process that information will always be changing and growing. That is the reason looking at it from a purely architectural standpoint is not ideal. You should look to build an Information Environment that can grow and interact with other Information Environments without debilitating limitations.
By looking at the web in terms of IED levels:
we can get a better understanding of how our Information Environments are classified, and how to aid those classifications.
By looking at our websites in terms of IED levels:
we get a better understanding of how to shape content for the user as well as the spider. And by following simple optimization techniques for each level you can ensure a well optimized website in terms of search.
SEO Guide to Information Architecture