Tips to create search-optimized information architecture

Thinking 'keywords' can help both users and search engines

This article is excerpted from the book Audience, Relevance, and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content, reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Developing clear site architecture is part of the basic blocking and tackling of Web development. But we think clear site architecture is not enough. It's all well and good to have clear paths to the content on your site. This enables visitors to find relevant content even if they came from Google and landed on a page that was not directly relevant to what they were trying to find. But it's even better if you can design your site architecture to make it more likely that they will land directly on pages containing the content they're looking for. This is what we mean by search-optimized site architecture.

Just like ordinary clear site architecture, search-optimized site architecture starts with a content plan. But a search-optimized content plan starts with keyword research. From a keyword cloud that is highly relevant to your topic and target audience, you can develop a content plan that covers the cloud completely, without overlap.

Think of a Web site as being like a grocery store. It's ideal if you carry everything your customers want, and nothing more. They don't have to go to other stores to find what they're looking for. And you don't get left with inventory they won't buy. In grocery stores, organizing the aisles into logical product families (and facing the products for easy visual retrieval) will ensure that the customers can quickly find what they need. If they don't, they will leave in frustration to look in another store for the products you carry.

In Web development, content modules are like the products in a grocery store. And pages are like the aisles, in which you organize and face similar content modules, by category, to users. You want to try to develop exactly the content your target audience needs. If you have too much "content inventory" on your shelves, it can actually make it harder for your audience to find what it needs on a topic (not to mention the cost of developing the excess content). If your shelves are bare or lack key content your visitors need, they will go to a competitor to find it. And if your content is not organized in a logical way, they might leave your site in frustration before they find the content you have so painstakingly developed.

We suggest that the most logical, semantic way to organize your content is by keyword relationships. Keyword relationships can help you understand to what extent pages of content are relevant to each other. (To be clear, content is only relevant to visitors, not to other content. But we say that content is relevant to other content as a short cut for saying that a visitor finds both pieces of content relevant and judges that they are related.)

Given enough time and attention, visitors could find any piece of content relevant to any other. But their time and attention span are short. To feel that two pieces of content are sufficiently relevant to each other to be worth their time and attention, visitors must see this quickly. But how can you predict how well visitors will correlate different pages of content on the same site? The easiest and best way is to look at how they use keywords and see what relationships they grasp between pages with keywords in the same cloud or family.

Not coincidentally, starting your content plan with keyword research is also the most effective way to attract a highly targeted audience from search engines. Your site visitors are individuals, with different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, experiences, geographical origins and family origins. Two visitors will not use the exact same keywords to describe what they are looking for in Google, even if they are looking for the same thing. And two visitors who are looking for entirely different things might use the same keywords. You will never engage perfectly with your diverse Web audience. But if you cover the range of possibilities as completely as you can, you will do a better job of targeting the diverse set of individuals who share an interest in your content.

Another consideration in any content plan is the linking plan. Links are not merely flat pathways from one page to another. Links themselves convey relevance. A key aspect of gaining link equity (or link juice) from internal links is to have clickable text displayed to users that takes them on the next leg of their journey through your site. If the text of a link to a page matches the keywords on the target page, Google will give you the maximum value for that link. So if you design your pages with keywords in mind, you can write your link text to match the keywords of your destination pages.

For these reasons, it's best to start your content plan with a description of your target audience. Then, perform keyword research into what words and phrases your target audience uses to find similar content. When you do this, you will start to see semantic relationships between the high-demand keywords in the same cloud, so that within your site architecture, you can connect pages based on those keywords. It can also make you more aware of how your target audience uses keywords to find related relevant content.

You can also start to see how to fill gaps in your content plan. As a first pass, you could add high-demand keywords. A second pass might include the keywords in the same clouds as the high-demand keywords. The third pass might include long-tail keywords. You need not get to this level of granularity initially, but the process of developing a content plan from a set of high-demand keywords can go all the way down to the long-tail. The important thing is that keywords can guide you at just about every level of site architecture.

Besides developing the most logical site architecture you can, developing search-optimized site architectures has four main benefits:

  1. It enables you to cover the range of possible keyword combinations that your target audience uses, thus capturing a higher proportion of targeted visitors.
  2. It enables you to fill gaps in content that you did not appreciate prior to doing keyword research.
  3. It enables you to gain market intelligence on your target audience, which helps you better address the needs of the audience that you attract from Google.
  4. It enhances internal link equity. Search engines use the same algorithm to assess whether two pages are relevant to each other as they do to judge if a page is relevant to a keyword phrase. If the pages that link to one another on your experience have related keywords, Google will judge them as relevant to each other, and that will tend to increase their PageRank from your internal links.

When you build sites based on your target audience's keyword usage, you ensure that visitors will find the items they need from your grocery store of content. Your pages, or shelves, will be well stocked with all the items that your diverse, but focused, audience needs. And you can minimize empty shelves and reduce redundant page inventory in the process.

This article is excerpted from the book Audience, Relevance, and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content, authored by James Mathewson, Frank Donatone and Cynthia Fishel, published by Pearson/IBM Press, May 2010, ISBN 0137004206. Copyright 2010 by International Business Machines Corp.

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