Card sorting is a technique from usability, whereby usability pros ask others to arrange a set of cards in the most coherent groups possible. Usability experts use card sorting to organize the information architecture of a website, but it’s also valuable for SEO.
Today I had two consultations over the phone that dealt with the navigation of a website, so I thought I’d touch on how you can use card sorting for SEO. I’m currently writing what I hope will be a small book on advanced SEO, and one of my themes is that SEO and usability fit closely together – improving one often improves the other. This is one of those cases.
“Information architecture” is geek slang for organizing a website’s topics and subtopics together. Let me illustrate why it’s relevant with a couple of examples.
Ex. 1: Have a mishmash of overlapping and/or underused tags and categories in your blog sidebar? Should PPC posts go under your advertising category, SEM category (for those people who still think SEM is only paid search), or be in their own PPC category? If this is you, you know that this is a big concern.
Heck, I just had to create a Usability category (after much foolish resistance) for this post.
Ex. 2: Borrowing an idea from the Eisenbergs or maybe Tim Ash, imagine a supermarket organized by product colors. Vegetables, St-Patrick’s day cards, and Ms. Vickie’s jalapeno chips would all go in the green aisle. Sure it’s organized, but it’s pretty silly because no one makes a supermarket buying list by color!
Well, card-sorting helps you avoid such zaniness, and lets your shoppers browse your store for fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, etc.
Here’s how card sorting works. You put your main topics and subtopics on the cards, and maybe even have some articles on the cards, too. Then, leave it up to some members of your target audience to sort through the cards and tell you what should go where. Write things down, and repeat with the next person. A pattern should emerge, and you can use that to create your information architecture.
What’s nice about the pattern is that all the pieces of information (articles, sales pages, categories, sub cats, etc) in one group are all relevant to one another, by user’s standards. While no search engineer has ever told me so explicitly, it only follows that if relevant external links are good, so are relevant internal links.
Card sorting makes your internal navigation within any particular theme (or silo, to cite Bruce Clay’s language) more relevant.
What about just organizing according to keyword research data – short-tail keywords in the global navigation and longtail stuff in the local navigation?
That’s a great technique too, which I love to use myself. The catch is that this is limited to SEO, and it doesn’t help much for the things you aren’t trying to rank for. Should “Press mentions” go under your About section or Investor Relations? Should Contact Us have its own place in the sitewide navigation or fit better under About Us.
If you’re doing card sorting anyways, you may as well get some SEO value out of it too :).