Search ranking and bottom-up architecture

By | 2015/03/28

Does a bottom-up information architecture improve search ranking? This is another in a series responding to questions from my TC Dojo series on Bottom-up Information Architecture. I have several questions from the second session on writing, but I’m still working off the backlog of questions from the first session on organization. (Because we are moving and renovating is why.)

Q: How does Mr. Baker contend to navigate Google’s “filter bubble” and the highly competitive market for search result display order?

A: First, I am not an SEO expert. What I know about SEO basically amounts to this:

  • Follow Google’s guidelines.
  • SEO is basically lying to search engines. Search engines fight back. What works today may get punished tomorrow.
  • Good content is good SEO.
  • Being read is the best SEO.

Yes, that last point is a catch-22. The point of SEO is to improve your chances of being read. But if you are read, you get linked to, and Google notices that you are being read when people choose a search result.

The thing is, merely ranking highly is not really going to do a lot of good if your content does not actually get read. Sure, it is more likely to get at least glanced at if it ranks highly. But if the information scent is poor, if the reader takes one sniff and moves onto the next item in the search results, they are not going to take whatever action you hoped they would take as a result of reading your content.

The purpose of all communication is to change behavior. Measuring search ranking without measuring changes in reader behavior does not make much sense. Of course, lots of companies, mainly in the marketing space, do measure changes in behavior, and do everything they can to tie it back to their SEO efforts, and validate them in turn.

That is not my field. If Bottom-up information architecture and Every Page is Page One improve SEO, it is because they produce better content with a stronger information scent that is easier to navigate, not because they are technically superior in some arcane SEO technique. At least, not as far as I know.

What Every Page is Page One and bottom-up information architecture are really about is making a page work after the reader has arrived at it through search (or by following a link). That is, making sure it gets read after it gets found. This is very different from making a page work when the reader arrives at it by following a table of contents. (At least, it is different from what is assumed by the traditional book model. Whether that model was actually used as intended is another matter.)

Technical communication is concerned with enabling action. It is not only about getting ranked in search results, and it is not only about getting read once found. It is about being acted on once read. No one’s goals are achieved until the reader acts, and acts correctly.

For a reader to act, they need confidence and context. Context assures them they are in the right place and doing the right thing for the right reason. Confidence assures them that the information they have is trustworthy. (How much confidence you need to act depends on how much you believe a mistake is going to cost/hurt.)

In the traditional model, context and confidence were established first. First you found out who was the authority on a subject (confidence) and then you found their book and followed its structure to the right piece of information (context). In theory, then, by the time you found the content, confidence and context were fully established and the reader could immediately act on the content.

There are two big problems with this model. First, it is often very difficult to find the right information this way. You invest a lot of time in establishing authority and context before discovering if the information you need exists in a form you can use. Offline, merely getting access to authoritative contextualized content can be difficult and expensive. (Things are very different in situations where documentation is part of a larger system in which people have been trained and certified.)

Second, it assumes that the user has a clear idea of what they are looking for, which is often not the case. Often, the user has a hazy idea at best of what they are trying to achieve and what they need to know to achieve it. They are wayfinding through the subject matter as much, if not more, than through the content. Repeating the finding of authority and establishing context over and over again while wayfinding is time consuming and exhausting. It is not uncommon to get so bogged down in the process of looking that you forget what you are looking for.

When the reader does a web search, they reverse the process. They don’t establish authority or context first. They begin by searching for the subject they are interested in. When they look down a list of search results they know neither the context nor the authority of the links they are looking at. They select one based on the tiny amount of information provided in a link (basically a title). They arrive at the content without knowing the context or authority of the page they are looking at.

Thus a good Every Page is Page One page is designed to establish its context and make it navigable (for people who are not yet in the right context). It then seeks to establish its authority through a clear structure and sticking closely to a well defined purpose. (Authority on the Web is ultimately mediated socially, and you need a good reputation to be regarded as authoritative. You get that reputation by being accurate and usable.)

In a world where the principal information seeking techniques are search and following links, ranking well in search results is obviously vital. Increasingly, crude mechanical approaches to SEO have forced the improvement of ranking algorithms to the point where the best form of SEO is great content.

But it is not just about great content. It is about great content that works when you arrive at it by search or following a link. A bottom-up information architecture is all about making content navigable using search and linking, and about making it work when it is found this way.

It is not so much, then, about how to get into the search bubble as about how to prosper once you get there. But the nature of the search bubble is such that those who prosper once they get there are the ones who will stay there, and will advance to the top of the rankings.





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