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Information Architecture Best Practices for Advanced SEO & UX

Published on: 
April 7, 2022
Updated on: 
April 7, 2022
by
Sam Torres
Sam Torres

A major topic in the world of SEO, the concept of information architecture involves organizing, arranging, and labeling content for a website or application. It's an umbrella term used to describe the processes involved in establishing navigation, categorization, hierarchies, and sitemaps. Fundamental to SEO, information architecture influences many different practices, including UX, UI, and IxD (Interaction Design).

As described by Usability.gov, the goal of information architecture is to help users efficiently find information and complete tasks. Sounds pretty simple, right? For smaller websites, it’s often quite simple. 

But for larger sites, information architecture (IA) requires a high level of critical thinking, strategic planning, and intuitive foresight. 

IA is the intersection between your brand, and your site's content/how users engage with it. Subsequently, it plays a vital role in both SEO and UX design. You want to make sure you create a site's IA right the first time, as it lays the foundation for your site’s content/pages. Sure, there may be moments of pivoting, adapting, and making changes. But establishing a solid IA from the start sets the groundwork for fruitful SEO and meaningful UX.

For big brands, online stores, and massive websites that are often most challenged by IA, this post distills a handful of information architecture best practices and pointers as it pertains to advancing SEO and UX. 

Information Architecture is Everywhere

Information architecture is not limited to one particular discipline. Content strategists employ IA best practices when reviewing data, segmenting content, and organizing it into categories. Likewise, UX designers utilize IA when conceptualizing menus and site features to help users understand where they're at on a site and how to find what they're looking for.

Our favorite analogy is to think of IA as a bookstore. Most bookstores are intuitively organized with clearly defined sections, genres, and formats. They also emphasize fresh ideas and showcase cool new stuff that makes them unique. 

Some visitors know what they want while others are just browsing. Great bookstores make it easy to accommodate both ends of the spectrum. 

Cute and quaint bookstore illustrating good organization, much like good website information architecture.
Great Information Architecture works like your favorite bookstore.

Like noteworthy websites, successful bookstores offer a sense of personality, novelty, and perspective, all while being easy to browse and explore. For the more obscure and esoteric information, bookstores use the same creative, flexible IA-minded thinking to adapt and provide meaningful experiences.

They balance all of the things that visitors want AND emphasize the things they're great at.  

Just like any good bookstore - there is no inherent "right" or "wrong" way to go about it - just the right way to organize things for your brand, and your buyers.

The beauty behind information architecture is that it takes many different shapes. It can be eCommerce-related, like how products, categories, facets, and filters are used. Or it can be content-related, like how resources are tagged, categorized, and accessed on the site. For websites and applications that involve a lot of content, creating good IA is easier said than done. 

Common Challenges Involving IA and SEO

At any stage of the journey, IA and SEO challenges can arise. The classic example is when information architects and dev teams define taxonomies/hierarchical structures without the input of SEOs. Those involved in the initial stages of IA determine navigation labels for certain departments, categories, or sub-categories, mostly by way of prioritizing how to best serve users. In many cases, keyword research, search data, and valuable SEO input gets neglected.

There are many other SEO challenges that can arise from "bad" IA, including:

  • Handling polyhierarchy scenarios where one product/page fits into multiple categories, specifically when the category path is in the product URL — resulting in duplicate content and diluted SEO.
  • Creating vertical taxonomies where important content is buried 4-5+ clicks deep — contributing to poor PageRank flow; increased/inefficient use of crawl budget.
  • Overwhelming users with option overload via mega menus and complicated navigation systems.
  • Neglecting search user intent and not leveraging keywords or SEO based on different levels of user intent — making for lower engagement and higher bounce rates.
  • Using industry or niche lingo and not the language your customer uses. There's a fine line to being accurate and informative but not alienating, "high and mighty," or simply off the mark.
  • Failing to account for informational queries, which are 80% of all searches by nature — missing big opportunities by not investing in a content strategy.
  • Having too many parent categories, which spills over into many of these problems — especially muddied PageRank flow, polyhierarchy problems, and diluted crawl budget.

These are just some of the most common challenges involving IA and SEO. Below we delve deeper into the scenarios and best practices to deliver exceptional user experiences and SEO outcomes.

Information Architecture Best Practices for SEO & UX

Cleaning up poor IA can often involve many different solutions. Even one specific problem can have more than one fix. Much depends on the nature of the website, its content, its users, and the specific scenario at hand. That said, there are a number of common fixes that offer effective tools for certain situations.

Prioritize Based on Information Relationships

Amid the sheer volume and vastness surrounding deep websites, prioritization is a crucial perspective that takes many forms. In the context of IA, here are a few guidelines that can help course-correct for SEO:

  • In the primary navigation, keep the number of parent categories to a minimum. Too many options impede decision-making for users and also contribute to polyhierarchy problems and poorly distributed PageRank.
  • Try to keep the hierarchy depth to product pages is no more than four levels (e.g. Home > Department > Category > Subcategory > Product). Less depth (like three levels), or flat architecture, is often better for UX and SEO.
    • If a hierarchy is deeper than four levels, consider using faceted navigation to enable filtering and sorting by product attributes.
  • Create a dedicated category for "new arrivals” or “now trending” to resonate with repeat visitors. Creating one-off, special purpose categories can help bridge the gap in getting ideas in front of users, while also supporting technical decisions, like how to handle promotions, seasonality, or unique initiatives.
    • Caveat: Be sure you stay on top of these one-off categories and retire as needed. Think about how these one-offs could be evergreen. For example, creating a category of “The New Hotness” instead of “Spring 2022 Hits”.
    • KEEP IN MIND that you can refer to a category name as “Spring 2022 Hits” while not including the year in the URL. This way you can use the same page next year for your “Spring 2023 Hits.”
  • When organizing and ordering categories, subcategories, and pages (or blog posts or products), consider using logic and good UX over conventional numeric and lexical sorting, like alphabetical order. Get creative with what’s popular, trending, or in-season. (Remember that order matters in conveying priority to users AND search engines.)

When we create SEO- and UX-friendly websites, we seek to use information architecture that prioritizes the user's journey. The intuitive structure of your navigation and pages should align with the mental model of those who visit your website, and prioritization fundamentals can be a guiding beacon in creating such harmony.

Simplify Navigation, Menus, and Categories

One of the most perplexing aspects of information architecture is sorting navigation hierarchies and menus. This is especially the case with large websites with many layers of categorization and potential overlap between certain categories.

It's easy to employ navigation strategies that utilize mega menus and drop-downs that present users with many options. But oftentimes, too many options can do more harm than good, ultimately overwhelming users with decision overload. In turn, this can exacerbate bounce rates and weaken engagement, which can translate to diminished SEO over time.

A general best practice when arranging IA for navigation systems is to keep things as simple as possible. You want users to make their way around a site without feeling frustrated or lost. Simplified navigation and menu options add value to IA as they maintain a coherent and logical flow of information. This helps steer users to the right places without interrupting or dictating their experience.

Additionally, ensuring navigations are accessible to users with disabilities is imperative, especially for those who rely on keyboards and screen readers. Navigation links should be easily tab-able (for desktop users) and menu icons should be obvious and predictable for those browsing on mobile devices or tablets. 

There are also tech-specific measures developers can take, like coding navigations using proper link tags and semantic nav tags around unordered lists. The technical capabilities for improved navigation accessibility offer much to explore, from using headings, skip links, and ARIA landmark roles.

Lastly, an exceptional navigation system enables users to recover from their mistakes and regain their bearings while browsing a website. In other words, your navigation should allow users a way out if they happen to get lost on their journey.

Canonicalize Polyhierarchies

One of the most common scenarios is finding that multiple hierarchies may be suitable for a given topic. When the same page, product, or theme is found in multiple categories, content can become duplicated and pages often compete with each other. 

A simple solution is canonicalizing polyhierarchies, thereby prioritizing just one URL among other similar options or potential duplicates. The canonical-chosen option can be pinpointed by reviewing the most common path to the given product/page as well as identifying the most common use cases according to search volume and keyword data. In essence, SEO can help guide the way by determining the best choice for the canonical hierarchy, including which disruptive duplicates might be worth deindexing.

For example, a nutrition supplements store might have a range of protein powders that fall into various categories like gluten-free, grain-free, vegan, keto-friendly, paleo-friendly, etc. From an SEO standpoint, some of those categories have more value than others (e.g. "grain-free" being far more popular than "paleo-friendly," despite these categories having similar meaning.) In this case, the store might want to canonicalize "grain-free" as the priority for SEO, while keeping both categories available for users.

In addition to canonicalization, internal linking is an important consideration here. All related links on the site should point to one canonical hierarchy. Additionally, you should link only to the one canonical hierarchy page from the primary or secondary navigation to further avoid confusion/dilution. 

In summary, polyhierarchies may be helpful to users in some circumstances, but to avoid confusing search engines or creating duplicate content at scale, be sure to link to only the canonicalized hierarchy.

Address Thin, Low-Value Pages

Pages with thin content, no content, or inaccessible content can contribute to index bloat and wasted crawl budget. While these pages sometimes serve a purpose for users, they are oftentimes congestive for search engines and problematic for SEO. These are typically category pages with very little content/items, redundant product pages found in multiple categories, or pages receiving little-to-no links, such as orphan pages.

Running a crawl report and conducting an SEO content audit can help you pinpoint where these low-value pages are found. Once you’ve determined which URLs are in fact adding bloat and consuming crawl budget, use tools like the Meta Robots Noindex tag and Robots.txt Disallow to deter search engines from crawling and indexing them.

Capture Informational Queries

A lot of sites that are challenged by IA (think online retail) are transactional by nature. But that doesn't mean everyone landing on the site is ready to buy. In fact, a study by Episerver showed that only 1 in 6 online shoppers (or 17 percent) are actively prepared to make a purchase the first time they visit a site. A majority of first-time visitors are searching, gathering information, and comparing prices. 

To account for these SEO opportunities, consider adding a new layer of support across various pages and categories on the site. New layers can take the shape of blogs, buying guides, expert Q&As, how-to guides, white papers, workshops, forums, etc. and they're particularly useful in supporting product and sub-category pages that may be a few clicks deep. 

Not only does this strategy help generate additional organic traffic from informational and long-tail queries, but new layers provide support for internal linking. Additionally, they can help cultivate a stronger community around the brand, which is never a bad play for competitive brand environments.

Get IA Right and Things Will Fall Into Place 

A carefully-planned information architecture not only adds value to the user experience but also to the business as a whole. It goes without saying that for SEOs, content strategists, UI, and UX designers, IA holds tremendous importance for a number of reasons. 

There’s obviously a lot that goes into IA, and this is just skimming the surface. If you have specific questions, concerns, or challenges that you're facing with IA (or technical SEO in general), please feel free to reach out to us. We’re glad to help.

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