Hiring Web Site Information Architecture – Tips for Better Decisions

Web site information architecture is an additional skill web designers may not have that you may need to outsource for.

Information architecture is tied to usability testing and how humans search, sort, classify and order things. This is not the same as site architecture that SEO’s use in their work.

Shari Thurow describes what information architecture is for web design, why its so important to design and how it relates to user centered design.  She offers logical examples and a warning about basing design decision on search engine algorithms.

IA, SEO & UX: $500 Won’t Fix This Mess

True story. I was asked to quote on an SEO job for a web site completely built in Flash with AJAX and JavaScript for an extra added thrill. They had $500 to spend.

Most of you would decline and so did I, but not before we got into a bit of a discussion when the agency insisted I was wrong about engines and Flash. For their company name, their site comes up in the number one spot. This, they say, is proof they rank well. They claim to be number one on their search term and claimed to be indexed by Google. I was challenged to prove they needed me. I didn’t have the time but it is a mistake to tell me I don’t know SEO.

Yes. Their site was number one for the company name search. This is because they are the only site with that name and domain. Yes, Google managed to get some pages. One was the Splash homepage that had no content on it. Another page was an orphaned Macromedia file. The other two pages were PDF’s. With no content or information architecture in place, there was simply nothing to add to a search engine database. Yes, they were number one for the keyword they targeted. This is because nobody was searching the term. Google data showed some interest by their local area (likely their own employees) but other than that, there was not enough data for Google to display. They had the perfect opportunity to optimize for that key phrase but had no interest in doing so. I showed them how far off the mark they were in targeting the words people use to search for their service. With some measure of satisfaction, I sent them their flat line of death – not only for their so-called keyword, but the clear line of usage in the past 4 years since they redesigned all in Flash. We’re talking a mountain down to a mole hole.

There were 4 silos: About them, Contact, Products and Services. (Very descriptive labels, not!) Every navigation cue was in an image. The URL never changed, so no matter where you clicked on the site, there was no url cue for sense of place. How in the heck they expected a search engine to figure it out, I have no idea. No link went to a separate page. Links either went to another web site they own, or a pop up window that displayed content a search engine would never see. Not to mention the content was bland. It could have been cut and pasted on any site offering products and services. There was nothing in the entire design or navigation structure, let alone the content, to help search engines understand what the site is about.

Of course they still think they can pay someone $500 to get them out of this mess. It won’t be me. However, this was a great exercise for me because it clearly illustrates how badly companies and ad agencies absolutely don’t get it.

Search Engine Strategies, Chicago 2009

Next Tuesday, at 10:30 am following Peter Morville’s keynote, Shari Thurow, Adam Audette and I gather together to explain why Information Architecture is critical to your web site both from a searcher perspective as well as the user. I am responsible for taping the walls. Shari will paint the room. Adam will make sure we don’t fall off the ladder. We cover:

What information architecture is as it relates to web site development (not software, or database development.)
IA and SEO
IA and Usability
Taxonomy, Ontology, URL structure
Page sculpting, orientation, scent of information, sense of place

and this is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve worked hard to come up with information and takeaways, tools and examples. I get to tell stories.

See you there and if not, ping me for my slides.

Related article at Search Engine Land – Information Architecture: The Backbone Of SEO & Usability

Usability and SEO – Let’s Make an Exceptional Web Site, Shall We?

In the space of a few days, two separate articles were published on the same topic, but from different perspectives. The writers discuss Usability/User Experience, Project Management and Search Engine Marketing practices, where they collide or fit like a glove.

Each article is eye opening for those of you who work in enterprise development. You know the politics and difficulties in something as basic as communication between departments and the different skills and practices brought to the table.

In order how I found them, the first article is Connecting Cultures, Changing Organizations: User Experience and Online Marketing Practitioners As Change Agents, Part I, by Paul Sherman. He begins with,

Probably, many of you have worked in organizations that weren’t very experienced in UCD or UX.

I can attest to this, both on a corporate level, all the way down to a family owned business. I’m beginning to add USP (Unique Selling Proposition) sections to my RFQ’s because account managers are having such a difficult time selling the idea of user experience, usability, accessibility and user testing to clients in need of redesign or new web site and application design.

In Paul’s piece, he explores the culture we as marketers, developers, designers, and testers work in.

I intend to make the case that online marketing professionals are also change agents, and as such are natural allies with UX professionals.

He presents what I and others have experienced when he says,

In general, how do different professional cultures within an organization interact? Often with difficulty. The various disciplines that have roles within the product development and delivery cycle—including product management, engineering, marketing, and hopefully, user experience—function within a system in which conflict is a given.

I loved his article. He demonstrates how different and unique we each are, our varied backgrounds and training and what that means in relation to how we work together. He ponders,

I assert that these predispositions, tendencies, backgrounds, and shared experiences are the underpinnings of subcultures in an organization. Given that these different subcultures have differing ways of communicating, thinking about issues, approaching problems, and resolving conflicts, how do they get anything done?


I know I’m an unusual Usability Consultant. I bring to the table three skill sets:

Web Design
Search Engine Marketing
User Experience, Usability, Accessibility

It’s known there are SEO’s who have never done any programming or even web design. There are usability practitioners who have no understanding of search engine optimization. There are SEO’s who pay no mind to accessibility or usability. Finding someone such as myself, who not only has working experience in all of the above, but has been doing it since 1995, is rare. Most companies, especially Human Resources and management level employees, don’t have any inclination of what a well rounded and trained individual can bring to their company. They, like everyone else, don’t understand how closely related usability and marketing are.

Usability Professionals – Get a Clue

One other person, whom I know, has both SEO and Usability as her two main disciplines and truly understands how they compliment each other to make a powerful web site experience. Her latest column at Search Engine Land’s “Just Behave“, released today, complimented Paul Sherman’s piece by also addressing how the two cultures can work together. Her article is Hey Usability Professionals: Get With The SEO Program by Shari Thurow. Shari always gets right to the point.

Shari writes,

I have seen many of my SEO colleagues work very hard to understand website usability. But I am not seeing many website usability professionals trying to understand search engine optimization, dismissing many of us as snake-oil salesman and some other colorful descriptions. It is time for usability professionals to get with the SEO program. Here are some of my biggest beefs with many usability professionals.

The examples she provides were a shock, even to me! Usability professionals dismissing keywords in page content? “How do you expect a site search engine to deliver accurate results when you keep taking keywords off of the web page?”, she points out. She describes how the term “information architecture” is defined differently by SEO’s and usability people. In her every day dealings with clients, she’s discovered that SEO’s and user experience designers don’t speak the same language.

We cannot expect to communicate with each other unless we establish a common vocabulary and a common frame of reference. Both SEO and usability professionals have the same goal for a website—achieving business goals through a positive user experience.

Shari Thurow is completely correct. I harp on this constantly because I came to the realization while working as a User Interface Engineer. I knew more about SEO than their SEO department and would bring this to web site development project meetings. I was the one who made sure Section 508 was considered for any ecommerce. I knew how to structure pages for both usability and search engines. When I moved into software QA as the QA Usability Engineer, it was clear even our own designs didn’t pass both functional and user experience requirements. Having the ability of seeing a wider circle put me at quite the advantage.

Selling that advantage is quite another matter, in a “Get the site up now” environment. Sooner or later, after wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars in employee time, the smart company will ask for help and I would hope, hire Usability/UX/User Testing and Search Engine Marketers who know what one another does, why they do it and are prepared to work together to make a damn good web site.