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Exploring SEO – Part 3: Making information findable

One of the nice things about legitimate SEO approaches is that “best practices” for websites are also best practices for search engines. Making information findable for your visitors, also makes it more accessible, and more useful, for search engines.

Over the jump I’ll expand on a few techniques that can help increase your site’s visibility to search engines.

Information architecture

By my rough definition, information architecture (for websites) is the process of working out the best way to structure your site – in terms of sections, URLs, page layout etc. (There may be a better, “formal” definition, but hopefully this captures the essence for the purposes of this series.)

This can be a big task, and would be best informed using user interviews, site usage statistics analysis (as outlined in the last article), a content audit and more… The results of such analysis may result in significant changes to your site if it is not already well structured.

The benefit of strong information architecture is that by creating intuitive navigation, with well organised and labels links, headings and the like, will naturally benefit search engines.

Some examples:

  • Clearly labeled links in your site, based on trigger words from your audience research (more below), help search engines to categorise and rank your pages based on the most likely search terms.
  • Well structured headings can be mapped to the semantically appropriate HTML code which search engines use to determine information priority (more on semantic markup later in the series)
  • Page titles and URLs (web page address), which also factor into search engine rankings, can also contain the keywords that people will be using to find information in search engines

As an aside, take care to keep your site structure to as few levels deep as possible – definitely less than 4. Not only is it typically easier (there are possible exceptions) for your users to find information in a well structured, more shallow site, some search engines will ignore or rank lower content more than 4 levels deep.

Trigger words

A good information architecture will utilise key words that users are looking for, known as “trigger words”, to help give people a “scent” of where to go in your site. As such, it’s important to get an understanding of the sort of words your participants’ will be looking for.

Analysing the terms people use to find your site, or to find content within your site, using Google Analytics or other site statistics tools, can help you to work out what people are looking for. So can user interviews and usability testing (more on that in a minute).

You can also use tools like Google Trends to evaluate which search terms are more popular. By choosing the right words, and using them appropriately in your site, can dramatically improve your search engine visibility (and the resultant traffic).

One small example: when I was at WWF-Australia I did a trends analysis on the terms “global warming” and “climate change” and found “global warming” was the most popular term. By making a conscious effort to use the more popular term (where technically accurate) increased traffic from this search term dramatically, becoming the #1 search traffic driver (at the time) over the space of a few months.

Using the words and language familiar to your users in menu and other navigation, as links in the body copy of your site, and even in your URLs, will not only help your users find the information they’re looking for, but will guide search engines as well.

Usability testing

Another way to improve information scent and “findability” is to carry out usability testing. There are many types of testing – formal and informal.

Usability is a big area requiring specialised expertise, so I would recommend engaging a usability specialist to advise on the best plan for your requirements/organisation. Although this may appear like an extra cost, usability testing has the potential to save money (or make money, depending on your perspective) because it can fix errors early in your site’s development, before the costs of design and development have been incurred.

That said, Silverback provides a cost-effective way to carry out informal testing if your on a tight budget, or have the skills internally to run your own usability testing.

Again, this comes back to the “ask your users” approach (mentioned in the last post in the series), rather than guessing based on your own (biased) experience or expectations. By engaging your users in testing the site, you can learn a lot about what works and doesn’t work – informing your information architecture, design and choice of trigger words. This in turn will help when a search engine crawls your site.

Pathways from where your visitors land

Thanks to the effect of search and the “long tail“, many (if not most) of your site visitors may never see your home page.

With that in mind, consider pathways from a content page – say an article, or individual blog post – to other parts of your site that are relevant, based on where they’ve landed. This can impact the design of your site considerably; in fact, some designers start designing the content pages first because of their relative importance.)

The benefit of taking this approach is simply that there are more internal links within your site to relevant content. These internal links may be used by search engines in a similar way to incoming links to your site to rank your page with relation to the words contained in the links.

This is simply another example of helping your participants, and in turn improving your site’s visibility to search engines.

And more…

There are probably lots of other ways to improve findability, and similarly to my last article I run the risk of trying to summarise a bunch of different techniques without doing any of them justice. The core principle, however, is by investing in making your site easy to use to your participants, you are investing in search visibility. It’s a win-win situation.

Related links

These are a few relevant resources that you might find handy. If you know of others, feel free to leave a comment with a pointer…

In the next installment, I’ll look at how to write search-friendly copy.