Search Architecture

In The Mom Test I wrote about usability and designing for users. This post will cover usability as it relates to search optimisation, and how that neatly meets the needs of your visitors.

Navigation, the science of allowing visitors to find information, is essential to any online business. The homepage needs to make it immediately clear what the business offers – and it needs to sell the core products or services. The visitor needs clear pathways through the site to find the information that they are searching for, and it has to be obvious from what they see on the homepage that they will quickly be successful.

I think of new visitors coming from SERPs as being like ninjas – they drop in, take a quick reconnaisance, and decide whether to investigate a bit more…or bounce back to their results. Rarely do they flip out and kill people. Hey, I just couldn’t resist thowing that classic in. 😀

Think about that one. There is an enormous amount of competition in search results from business selling the same thing that you are. There is an element of information overload, and customers triage sites – they do quick evaluations of all listings as they scan results pages, and do quick forays into the sites that seem most like the “right” ones based upon the keywords that they have searched for.

This is where optimisation comes in. If my search was for the classic “blue widgets”, I want to hit a homepage and be immediately assured that that company indeed sells widgets. Not only do I want to see widget marketing, I either want to see “Blue Widgets” in the main navigation, or another term that assures me that I will not waste time searching all over the site for said widgets. Time is of the essence – reassure me that I will not waste my time.

There is an article that covers the subject of information architecture as it relates to search very well: Avoiding SEO Brain Freeze Part Two – Creating a Keyword Phrase Map by Jill Whalen. Go read it – we’ll wait. 🙂

This is the system that I’ve always used when doing interaction design. Information (products or services) should naturally “lump” into broad categories – this forms your top-level navigation. Under those main categories are sub-levels that all share a kinship with the top category. On an ecommerce site, for example, Electronics might be your main category, and under that would be camcorders, TVs, MP3 players, and so on.

On your main navigation, you could break products into things like “Sound” “Vision” and so on – yes, it adds “voice” and character. It also has the potential to make finding information more difficult. Is an iPod Touch “Sound” – or “Vision”? Depends on what you want to use it for.

Those terms also aren’t keywords – I would never try to find an iPod by searching for either “sound” or “voice”. This is where our keyword map comes in, and where our ninja visitor makes a return appearance – he or she wants to hit the site, and be reassured by seeing a version of the search term.

Normally, you have some horizontal width restriction in the usual top-level menu – you’ll be restricted to one or two words. If possible, make sure those words incorporate your main key phrase for that section – at this point, we’re only looking at the strongest key phrase for that section which reads well – people may search for “widgets blue”, but that would look odd as a category heading.

This is also the time where you should be thinking about the URL structure of your site, and how that relates to search optimisation. If you have category sections, can you name the categories with search-relevant names? /products/ doesn’t work well as a search term, but /widgets/ does.

So now, you can start to see how your initial wireframes work for SEO as well as site architecture – search goes from broad categories to more targeted keywords, and product navigation goes from broad categories “Widgets” to more targeted ones, such as “Big Nose Widgets”.

A final word about SEO-friendly URLs – I’m sure everyone is aware that you should separate your keywords by either hyphens or underscores. On the Add People site, for instance, I have a page named search-optimisation.php. If I had run that together as searchoptimisation.php, a search engine would have read that as a single word, rather than a phrase.

So there we have a good start in understanding how to allow our visiting ninjas the best opportunity to slip in, see that they’re in the right place, find their target and complete their mission in the shortest amount of time – a successful conversion.