This post is a distillation of a recent talk I gave at SMXEast, 2010, in New York.

…the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.” – Vannever Bush

It amazes me that Vannever Bush conceived of a hyper-connected medium as early as the 1920’s.  The technologies he wanted to connect are antique to us now, but the underlying concept was fresh.  And it points to the notion that the connection of information and people is a magnificent proposition, and that SEO’s and IA’s have important jobs – that, in fact, the job is one of greatest vocations of the day.

When I imagine the vastness of information the web has made available, I think the ocean is the most apt metaphor.  Those images of the vastness of space might be appropriate, too, but there is a chunkiness to our imagining of space – whereas the sea is a veritable foamy broth.

And we go to the beach, and we walk to the water’s edge, and we say, “ocean, give me this little nugget of information”. How do we get that little nugget, that pearl, out of that vast soup?
Imagine being able to throw a net into the water, and it doesn’t just scrape the surf before us, but magically zips around the ocean the world over, and brings us back this little pearl we’re searching for.

That’s what search engines do.

old-information-architectureOr, perhaps, the magic net brings back a ship  or a boat; and there are other things on the boat – and how we find those things, and go from deck to deck, cabin to cabin – that’s information architecture.

And that is where both SEO and IA come into play.  The IA helps at the site level – creating an organization of content so that users can fulfill their needs. The SEO helps to craft the site so that its relevance can be perceived by that person standing on a beach somewhere.  This is a high calling indeed!

In the olden days of the web, we approached information architecture something like this:
1.    We identified the stakeholders
2.    We identified the users
3.    We identified and prioritized user NEEDS

new-information-architectureStakeholders, by the way, means more than just the people who own the company – or even the employees, customers, and vendors.  R. Edward Freeman detailed “stakeholder theory” back in the 80’s – and brings in other aspects of an organization – such as the socio-political.  Much of IA is based on Organizational Development work, and endeavors to bring in the whole system.

4.    We mapped content to satisfy user needs and to encourage users to fulfill the site purpose
5.    We created site maps, wireframes, sometimes user flow diagrams, and content plans


Today, our approach has changed.
1.    The SEO is brought in at the inception of the project. It is a collaborative process with the IA.
2.    Keyword research helps us uncover a wider range of users and needs – the needs of individuals to FIND RELEVANT CONTENT.
3.    We develop content strategy

A good content plan can really help the entire process. We often create content plans that look something like this. You’ll notice, there are various guiding points for the copy people.
Another useful tool for the copy writer it to create a keyword cloud. {ILLUSTRATION}

We don’t have a tool that will create weights for the quantity of searches against the various phrases – but we find that by dumping a keyphrase list into we can get a fair approximation.
Training copy writers on the fundamentals of SEO at the start is critical.

Keyword Neighborhoods

Search engines have become increasingly sophisticated with time.  We believe that conceptuality is the future. In other words, how words and phrases are sometimes found in proximity to one another brings another dimension to heuristics.  Understanding THAT brings us to the understanding that by creating copy with the right OTHER words and phrases will make a difference.

In the first example, I might also find words like scotch, wine, darts, etc.

Not all that glitters is gold…

I want to stop and consider this difference between a TOP SERP RESULT as it compares to a site being found in more search queries, driving more traffic to a site. This is HUGE. This represents a major shift in SEO as an industry.

SEO was FOUNDED on the idea of getting pages to the top of search results for the most sought after-key words. In fact, thousands of SEO companies were created based on a piece of $300 software that helped SEO’s report on top SERP results (Web Position Gold).

But we discovered that richer content led to more site visitors with a broader portfolio of key phrases – Chris Anderson’s LONG TAIL embodied.
Quantity of Users * Quantity of key phrases (good metrics!)


I’m including this diagram to illustrate how the nature of IA is changing – and growing in depth and complexity.  Imagine a scenario where instead of the one 2-dimensional site map, you overlay other layers.  These other layers might represent different skill levels, or life stages – yet dealing with the same content concepts.

This type of thinking is going to provide both a challenge and an opportunity to SEO’s.

Another nascent site architecture is based on the concept of self-forming architectures.

Lines of Desire

Visit almost any college campus, and follow the sidewalks.  You’ll begin to notice that no matter where the designers and architects placed them, you’ll see well worn paths in the grass between points where walkways were laid. Some urban planners have espoused the concept that you shouldn’t even begin with sidewalks… let the worn grass provide the mapping, then lay down the sidewalks.  Those well-worn paths are called “Desire Lines”, from Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space.

What if instead of creating the information architecture the way we think it should be, we tag content with meta data, and let users traverse the content. The way they use the content would predicate the architecture.


How do we do that research?

First off, our approach is going to be different based on the different types of websites out there.  Large is different.  I can tell you from my own experience with the American Museum of Natural History, and some large ecommerce projects, that this is a different animal than the 30 page website.  But I believe you’ll have a feel for what is appropriate for any given site.

Keyword Research – Google’s keyword tools are still some of the best.  They’ve undergone some changes recently that many of us are still sorting out.  {Name some other tools}

Competitive research – Analyze the copy on competitive sites.

Philosophize – consider semantics, ontologies, taxonomies, and systems.  This is a rich area of thought.  Dive deep into thinking about your subjects – and you may uncover hidden needs, or unrecognized constituents.

The collaboration

The SEO and the IA, if they are different people, need to work together.  The IA pulls the information out of the stakeholders – about the users and their needs.  The SEO brings another lens – that of how the world is searching for information that is relevant.
In our shop, there are three major touch points:

Where the Canonical is At

When I was young, school teachers forever reprimanded us for using a phrase like “that’s where it’s at” or “where are we going to”, ending a sentence with a preposition.  We were coached to reconstruct the phrase to avoid the dangling preposition.   Sometimes this led to tortured constructs – but it also had the effect of encouraging us to think more logically.

Here is an example of a project we were recently working on with Steuben, makers of the finest crystal in the US, and a really great design agency, Area17.

We had a product, a “hand warmer”, under the product heading “animals”.  But then, the product also might be featured in a category “Fathers Day Gifts”.  In most ecommerce systems, this dual categorization is common.  The problem is, vis-à-vis URLs and paths, this might dynamically create duplicate content.   We all know that is something to be avoided.  One solution is to use the canonical tag, telling the world that yes, we have duplicate content, but the main, canonical piece of content is over here under my first category.
Our lead SEO is a bit like those English teachers I had in grade school, and says, no, the canonical tag is a band aid – we should avoid it if we can.  Let’s rethink this.  The SEO, the IA, the graphic designer, and the client worked through a solution so that the content resides in one place, but the bread crumbs reflect the path taken.

And don’t forget…

Social is important to SEO. We know that.  So, another new challenge is how we integrate social into both the IA process and the SEO.

From an SEO point of view, we want to encourage users to link to content.  We also want users to engage with our content.

While this is getting into a topic all of its own, it is enormous, and needs consideration.

Some older blog posts on related subjects

I’d love to hear thoughts and feedback from the community! What do you think?