Information Architecture and SEO: Shari Thurow Speaks….

Shari ThurowThere are very few people who can claim that they were doing SEO in 1995. One of the first speakers at the first ever SEO conference held by Danny Sullivan and a real pioneer in the Search Industry. Not to mention a globe trotting speaker and author of three books on SEO, today we have with us none other than Shari Thurow.

Personal story: My first ever speaking gig at a conference was with Shari (i was scheduled to speak after her) and after i saw her speak i thought how on earth i could match her. You guessed it…i couldn’t. Well, fast forward to last week at Search Engine Strategies San Francisco, she literally got mobbed after her presentation by session attendees wanting to ask her a question. This is a testament to the fact that even after so many years we are still learning to balance Information Architecture, Usability, and SEO together and create a cohesive web site for users. Well, before i go into a deeper tangent please join me in welcoming Shari Thurow.

(Watch the full video interview or read the full text transcript below)

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Bob Tripathi: Shari, you focus on some thing very unique which is still, after 15 years in SEO, being overlooked and that is Information Architecture(IA). Does it hurt you to see SEO’s overlooking IA?
Shari Thurow: It pains me. It pains me greatly to see people overlook IA and that’s because when they build websites they want yesterday. They skip architecture and go straight to design and especially the home page design. The home page should be the last because the home page is based on the web site’s architecture and what places you want people to visit first. So architecture think of it planning and think of the construction of the web site as implementation. and think of design as interior design like you do it in a house.
Bob Tripathi: Which is the bells and whistles…
Shari Thurow: Exactly, exactly.
Bob Tripathi: so flash comes last…

Bob Tripathi: So why is it that people are still thinking of design first and not architecture and what are the three steps you recommend people could do?
Shari Thurow: So, the first thing we do is take the content inventory like what content do you have, what content you plan to have, and also looking at your web analytics. where are the pages that people are abandoning and why and also looking at keyword research. Like what words are people using to find items and what they are not seeing. And you can also see that in your site analytics like when you have a site search you can use that. But here is the catch. You never base your navigation scheme, you never base your information architecture on keyword research tools. The reason being what you are trying to figure out are mental models. Mental models are what your user thinks and what your user interprets. not what your IT department determines and not what your SEO determines. So let’s say you are my target audience – so am i going to build my web site for me or am i going to build my website for you?
So a professional information architect is always going to think about that. I am always going to build a design for you and accomplish business goals.

Bob Tripathi: Right, but the counterargument to that is i have keywords which gives me intent of my audience Vs. going with the gut thinking my user is going to be like this. So what is the answer to that. Like when you see keywords you know people are searching for those keywords or topics which gives you the user intent. So is that not the right way to build your site architecture?

Shari Thurow: It’s absolutely not the right way to build your information architecture. Because you are basing your navigation on querying behavior and when people navigate a web site do they navigate by filling out a query in the search box? No they don’t. They click on navigation buttons, they click on text links, they click on footer they click on different things. They may go to google to find a web site initially but people do not navigate web sites from a search engine. So building an information architecture and navigation systems based on keyword research is crazy. It’s the craziest, stupidest, SEO mistake you can make.

Bob Tripathi: I agree with you. Now, let’s say there are sites that are build 3 years, 6 years back and suddenly you find out that the information architecture is not build right, the directory structure is not. In cases like those how do you go about rectifying it?
Shari Thurow: First, i like to find out what people are doing right. So the information architect knows not to change that. And learn from it. And then identify what you are doing incorrectly.
Maybe you are using the wrong words, maybe you are using the wrong graphic images. Maybe people are expecting to see a video and they are seeing a video. And this is coming up with user mental models. There is so much data, data, data and no one is talking to the people you are building the web sites for.  And not only you must talk to the people you are building the site for but you must also observe them how they are interacting with your web site in their environment. Because what people say and what people do are two completely different things. And people can save so much money if they just do wireframes. Wireframe is just the schematic of a web site that does not have the bells and whistles on it and all it has is navigation labels, where your graphic images can go and it is so much less expensive to change a wireframe then do change a fully programmed web site. So save a lot money and learn to love wireframes.

Bob Tripathi: You are right about wireframes they can save you so much money. It is like planning  where you get a blueprint ready before you start constructing.
Shari Thurow: And that is what an Architect will give you. But you have to hire an architect. Architect sometimes ignore querying or searching. so you have to have an architect that don’t understand searching then make sure the SEO and the architect work together and that’s when you are going to get a web site that is so easy to maintain in five years from now.

Bob Tripathi: One of the questions i often hear from folks not familiar with SEO is should i design for SEO or should i design for users. I mean i am of the opinion that what is good for users is also good for engines. But wanted to ask what is your take on it? How should people approach that topic?
Shari Thurow: Well, i look at the definition of search engine optimization and to me the definition of search engine optimization is to optimize for people who use search engines. If you optimize for search engines only is Google going to buy thousands or millions of dollars worth of products from you? No. People will. So you design for people first but yes you have to accomodate search engines as people use search engines to find sites. People First, Search Engines second. Always.
Bob Tripathi: Now you have been doing this for so long Since 1995. You have seen the whole evolution. Where do you see SEO going and what trends do you predict in the next two years?
Shari Thurow: I listened to Mike Grehan’s wonderful session at SES NY on Information retrieval and he’s talked a lot about apps. Because a lot of people don’t even see the browser screen because they are looking at it on their smartphone. But believe it or not search engine optimization has not changed a lot in terms of strategy since 1995. It’s putting text on your pages that people respond to, it’s about links to content that are related and if people link to your site they are going to do it in a way that search engine friendly because you are describing your content and labeling your content well. So that has not changed. So how is it going to change in an application? It’s Not. So i think the smart seo’s are going to go back to the basics and do it well.

Bob Tripathi: That’s a great insight. Are you writing any new books?
Shari Thurow: Yes, i am working on two books i am working on the next edition of search engine visibility and then of course i am in the middle of an architecture book because people need guidance and who better than an information architect and seo to write a book like that.

Bob Tripathi: So any last suggestions to our audience who want to read more on the topic of information architecture?
Shari Thurow: Peter Morville. Peter Morville wrote a book called information architecture for the world wide web and it is in it’s third edition and if you want to speak in the information architect’s vocalubory then that’s the book to read. And if you find that what you doing does not align up with what Peter Morville is suggesting then you may want to rethink your search strategy.

Bob Tripathi: So folks there you have it. If you want to read a book then go to Peter Morville and if you want to know how to do it then go to Shari Thurow. Shari, thank you so much for doing this. Great to have you.

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