As we discussed in Algorithms, Natural Language, and the Future of UX and SEO, the introductory piece in our series on SEO and UX, Google and other search engines are becoming increasingly adept at identifying and interpreting user intent to determine what content to return, and how to rank and display that content for its users.
We know that Google has sophisticated artificial intelligence systems and machine learning capabilities that enable them to process searchers’ language and identify the goals that they inherently express through their searches. However, understanding user intent is just one piece of the search experience puzzle, and one small part of Google’s algorithm. Google must then be able to evaluate sites and content in order to determine whether they are a good fit for a user’s query. A site’s structure, or information architecture, is one of the most universally influential and significant aspects search engines use to determine that site’s purpose, credibility, and value.
What is Information Architecture?
Information architecture (IA) defines your site’s organization, hierarchy, and the terminology used to describe your site’s content and categories. An effective information architecture helps your users find what they’re looking for by orienting them to their current location within your system, guiding them to other areas or content within your site, and supporting them as they explore or search for information. It also should also give both your human and robot users a clear idea of the nature of your business’ products and services.
Different Websites Need Different Information Architectures
Your IA should be tailored specifically to your audience, context, content, goals, business, scale, and other areas that relate to your industry. An ecommerce domain is going to focus on presenting its most important or popular category landing pages and product landing pages, while a lead-gen domain will be aimed at getting users to convert through a sign-up or contact form. Both websites need a great IA to be successful but careful planning and consideration are needed to make everything work.
Search engines want sites to be logical and easily navigated, both for users and crawlers. Crawlers generally read pages left to right and top to bottom, just like most people in the world. This is why nearly every domain places a logo or homepage link in the upper-left-side of the page, followed by orderly navigation across the top of the site. Both users and Google expect to be able to navigate a site through some form of global navigation element, and that format had better be present across the entire domain.
This doesn’t mean your site has to follow a rigid, predetermined layout that applies to all sites in your specific industry. However, it does mean that the site’s page, category, and/or product structures should make sense and be accessible to users.
Let’s look at some high-level examples of IAs and examine how they may vary based on site type & goal.
Blog Information Architecture Example
A blog site might have an information architecture similar to this:
This is a topic-forward structure with some background about the blog and its team, answers to questions readers frequently ask, and a way to get in touch. Users and Google will identify this site as heavily content-based, with specific areas of expertise or interest, and will infer that the site’s primary goal is to get users to read and engage with the articles that they publish.
Ecommerce Information Architecture Example
For an ecommerce site, you might construct something more like this:
Instead of topic categories, this information architecture is product category-driven and has very little secondary content. Google (and users) will see this site and identify that their primary goal is to get users to their products and to provide support or answers for questions about their products. Unlike the blog, an ecommerce site may be less interested in telling their story or providing additional content to its users, and that departure is reflected in their IA.
Information Architecture for Mixed Domains
Here’s a domain information architecture that is perhaps a little bit less clean-cut:
Looking at this information architecture, we might infer that while this company has fewer products, they are likely experts on those products and value their reputation. There are testimonials that serve to enhance their credibility and blog content that they use to convey their expertise and point of view. The addition of something like a “Mission” page indicates that they have a specific value proposition or cause, which further enhances their credibility.
While these examples are simple, we can start to see how nuanced and impactful your Information Architecture is in terms of how users and Google will perceive your site. Even small things, like the placement of a FAQs page, can say a lot.
While a strong IA is highly influential in conveying your intent, focus areas, and expertise, it is important to note that it’s not enough to establish an intuitive architecture that reflects who you are and that helps guide your users where they need to go. Google (and your users) will still evaluate the specific content on your site to determine whether it meets their needs. There are also significant tactical considerations that affect how users and search engines experience your site, which will affect how you rank.
The Value Behind Click Depth in Information Architecture
One important and sometimes-overlooked aspect of creating a great IA is click depth. Click depth focuses on establishing how far pages, categories, and products “live” from the homepage, or how many clicks it takes for a user to reach their target page.
For example, you don’t want to bury products deep within a site’s category structure. This will create a fairly long URL path and could lead to some confusion with breadcrumbs, not to mention users.
- Homepage > Category 1 > Subcategory 1 > Tertiary category 1 > Product
- This structure shows four clicks are needed to move a user from the Homepage through the category structure and, finally, to the product
- The Category and Subcategory might have more potential value than the Tertiary Category or the product itself
Instead, focus on keeping categories, subcategories, and products fairly close to “home”. This makes it easier for search engines to find the page, attach relevant value, and present it in search results.
- Homepage > Category 1 > Product
- This structure helps reduce the path to the final product
- The Product page is within two clicks, so there is little concern about click depth
The best practice for click depth is to try to keep your most-important or most-valuable pages within two to three clicks from the homepage. Any pages that are four, five, or more clicks away from the homepage will be seen as less important and could end up with lower overall organic value. It will also help to keep your URLs shorter and more orderly, which is another good signal for any search engine.
Many web development groups have been paying attention to the idea of click depth in recent years. Today, it’s fairly common to see newer or improved content management systems attach a product directly to the Homepage instead of attaching them to the domain’s category structure. This allows products to be placed within any category structure without requiring multiple versions of products, each with a different canonical tag.
Using Your Information Architecture to Save Orphans
Creating a comprehensive IA is important not just because it helps to organize the site’s structure – it also helps to ensure you don’t accidentally forget, or “orphan” any pages. To search engines, any URL that can be indexed and presented in search results, but can’t be accessed through navigation, in-text links, or an XML/HTML sitemap, is an orphaned URL. And Google, much like the bad guys in plenty of classic musicals and books, doesn’t like orphans.
Don’t worry that you’re accidentally creating some sort of digital orphanage in your site. Current content management systems and web development best practices have helped to significantly reduce the chance that webmasters will accidentally create orphaned URLs. You can easily avoid leaving pages out in the cold with a solid IA (and a comprehensive XML sitemap). Just take the time to be sure you’ve included everything you need and that nothing has been left behind.
Getting it Done with Expert UX & SEO Professionals
Getting your site’s Information Architecture right is critical: it not only has a large impact on how well users can find what they are looking for (and provides Google with metrics to influence how you rank accordingly), but needs to clearly and logically represent who you are and what you do. Without a strong IA, you are less likely to be understood by Google (and your users), and are more likely to have an experience that doesn’t flow well.
A user experience professional can help you craft a clear information architecture that will meet your users’ needs, flow well when translated to your site structure, and adhere to usability best practices. To bring your information architecture to the next level, an SEO expert can help you get a better picture of how Google will perceive and evaluate your domain based on your architecture, and then make recommendations on how to optimize your structure for crawlers. The fusion of these two disciplines will ensure that your information architecture not only works well for your users but is also helping you perform better on search engines.
Contact CQL for SEO & Information Architecture Services
Contact the SEO and UX experts at CQL today if you’d like to know more about developing and implementing the best-possible information architecture and SEO strategy for your domain.