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Tips to create search-optimized information architecture

Thinking 'keywords' can help both users and search engines

By James Mathewson, Frank Donatone and Cynthia Fishel
May 31, 2010 06:35 AM ET

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.)

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