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Developing an SEO-Friendly Website : Creating an Optimal Information Architecture (part 1)

12/7/2010 5:14:21 PM
Making your site friendly to search engine crawlers also requires that you put some thought into your site information architecture. A well-designed architecture can bring many benefits for both users and search engines.

1. The Importance of a Logical, Category-Based Flow

The search engines face myriad technical challenges in understanding your site. Crawlers are not able to perceive web pages in the way that humans do, and thus significant limitations for both accessibility and indexing exist. A logical and properly constructed website architecture can help overcome these issues and bring great benefits in search traffic and usability.

At the core of website organization are two critical principles: usability, or making a site easy to use; and information architecture, or crafting a logical, hierarchical structure for content.

One of the very early proponents of information architecture, Richard Saul Wurman, developed the following definition for information architect:

information architect. 1) the individual who organizes the patterns inherent in data, making the complex clear. 2) a person who creates the structure or map of information which allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge. 3) the emerging 21st century professional occupation addressing the needs of the age focused upon clarity, human understanding, and the science of the organization of information.

1.1. Usability and search friendliness

Search engines are trying to reproduce the human process of sorting relevant web pages by quality. If a real human were to do this job, usability and user experience would surely play a large role in determining the rankings. Given that search engines are machines and they don’t have the ability to segregate by this metric quite so easily, they are forced to employ a variety of alternative, secondary metrics to assist in the process. The most well known and well publicized among these is link measurement (see Figure 1), and a well-organized site is more likely to receive links.

Figure 1. Making your site attractive to link to


Since Google launched in the late 1990s, search engines have strived to analyze every facet of the link structure on the Web and have extraordinary abilities to infer trust, quality, reliability, and authority via links. If you push back the curtain and examine why links between websites exist and how they come into place, you can see that a human being (or several humans, if the organization suffers from bureaucracy) is almost always responsible for the creation of links.

The engines hypothesize that high-quality links will point to high-quality content, and that great content and positive user experiences will be rewarded with more links than poor user experiences. In practice, the theory holds up well. Modern search engines have done a very good job of placing good-quality, usable sites in top positions for queries.

1.2. An analogy

Look at how a standard filing cabinet is organized. You have the individual cabinet, drawers in the cabinet, folders within the drawers, files within the folders, and documents within the files (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Similarities between filing cabinets and web pages


There is only one copy of any individual document, and it is located in a particular spot. There is a very clear navigation path to get to it.

If you want to find the January 2008 invoice for a client (Amalgamated Glove & Spat), you would go to the cabinet, open the drawer marked Client Accounts, find the Amalgamated Glove & Spat folder, look for the Invoices file, and then flip through the documents until you come to the January 2008 invoice (again, there is only one copy of this; you won’t find it anywhere else).

Figure 3 shows what it looks like when you apply this logic to the popular website, Craigslist.org.

Figure 3. Filing cabinet analogy applied to Craigslist.org


If you’re seeking an apartment on Capitol Hill in Seattle, you’d navigate to Seattle.Craigslist.org, choose Housing and then Apartments, narrow that down to two bedrooms, and pick the two-bedroom loft from the list of available postings. Craigslist’s simple, logical information architecture has made it easy to reach the desired post in four clicks, without having to think too hard at any step about where to go. This principle applies perfectly to the process of SEO, where good information architecture dictates:

  • As few clicks as possible to any given page

  • One hundred or fewer links per page (so as not to overwhelm either crawlers or visitors)

  • A logical, semantic flow of links from home page to categories to detail pages

Here is a brief look at how this basic filing cabinet approach can work for some more complex information architecture issues.

1.2.1. Subdomains

You should think of subdomains as completely separate filing cabinets within one big room. They may share similar architecture, but they shouldn’t share the same content; and more importantly, if someone points you to one cabinet to find something, he is indicating that that cabinet is the authority, not the other cabinets in the room. Why is this important? It will help you remember that links (i.e., votes or references) to subdomains may not pass all, or any, of their authority to other subdomains within the room (e.g., “*.craigslist.com,” wherein “*” is a variable subdomain name).

Those cabinets, their contents, and their authority are isolated from each other and may not be considered to be in concert with each other. This is why, in most cases, it is best to have one large, well-organized filing cabinet instead of several that may prevent users and bots from finding what they want.

1.2.2. Redirects

If you have an organized administrative assistant, he probably uses 301 redirects inside his literal, metal filing cabinet. If he finds himself looking for something in the wrong place, he might place a sticky note in there reminding him of the correct location the next time he needs to look for that item. Anytime you looked for something in those cabinets, you could always find it because if you navigated improperly, you would inevitably find a note pointing you in the right direction. One copy. One. Only. Ever.

Redirect irrelevant, outdated, or misplaced content to the proper spot in your filing cabinet and both your users and the engines will know what qualities and keywords you think it should be associated with.

1.2.3. URLs

It would be tremendously difficult to find something in a filing cabinet if every time you went to look for it, it had a different name, or if that name resembled “jklhj25br3g452ikbr52k”. Static, keyword-targeted URLs are best for users and best for bots. They can always be found in the same place, and they give semantic clues as to the nature of the content.

These specifics aside, thinking of your site information architecture in terms of a filing cabinet is a good way to make sense of best practices. It’ll help keep you focused on a simple, easily navigated, easily crawled, well-organized structure. It is also a great way to explain an often complicated set of concepts to clients and co-workers.

Since search engines rely on links to crawl the Web and organize its content, the architecture of your site is critical to optimization. Many websites grow organically and, like poorly planned filing systems, become complex, illogical structures that force people (and spiders) looking for something to struggle to find what they want.

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