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SEO, UX, IA & Content Strategists: Hang Together or Hang Separately

Marianne Sweeny

The title comes from Ben Franklin and was reportedly said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He is reminding his rebellious colleagues that they must set aside differences in the face of a common enemy (hang together in their common cause) or they will fail and perish (hang as traitors separately).

Ever since Google shifted from the link-based model of PageRank to the User Experience-based model of Panda and Hummingbird, I have been doing shuttle diplomacy between SEO, User Experience (UX), Information Architecture (IA) and Content Strategy (CS). I am here to report that our situation is more desperate than I could have imagined. 

SEO is in a complete rout

Google’s displeasure with the SEO community has been clear from its beginnings. Matt Cutts makes regular appearances to refresh the fear, uncertainty and doubt laid down like ground fog that protects its tight-fisted control on SERPs. Consequently, the SEO community has developed a siege mentality from constant bombardment by Penguins, Pandas and Hummingbirds. Icing on the SEO FUD cake is Matt Cutts telling us that guest blog posting is all spam, retreating a bit to say that it is mostly spam and leaving us with nothing concrete on how Google would tell the difference.

Neville Chamberlain must have been a UX designer

I first discovered search while studying to get my degree in library science so I could be a better information architect (what UX designers called themselves before someone made up UX designer). It was a sweet discovery because I learned about the inner workings of ALL search engines. From that, I made the connection between how structure influences retrieval.

In 2007, I brought this understanding to the IA Summit with "Search Engine Optimization and IA: the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship." The talk was very well-received. I got a call out in the closing plenary and was promptly forgotten as the IAs went back to their offices where the in-house SEO chased them back down the rabbit hole with recommendations to carpet bomb content with targeted keyword phrases.

Not long after, squishy human factor siblings UX and IxD (interaction design) joined IA on the user experience front. This started an intense rivalry over who was more important to the success of a project, who mom and dad (read: customers and clients) liked better, and which conferences were more cutting-edge. During all of this bickering, the Content Strategists wisely kept to themselves figuratively and literally (in terms of their conference programming).

It is no wonder Google selected this community as the driver of position in search results. Matt Cutts must be sleeping safe and solid with no worries that some pesky UX person is going to deconstruct the latest change to throw a monkey wrench into Google’s SERP plans.

What are we to do?

If we are to be successful in asserting human mediation into Google’s display of what’s relevant to a search query, we must be proactive in reaching out. It’s not that our colleagues across the cube farm are uncaring or unintelligent. They are uninformed. It is up to us to educate our colleagues in how SEO is relevant to their work because: 1) it is how users find their carefully designed experience, and 2) it is how clients make money to pay them to design said experience. And here’s how we do it:

Crack the books on IA and UX

Incorporate UX, IA and Content Strategy thought leaders into your daily blog, twitter and online magazine digests. Jared Spool (@jmspool, www.uie.com), Peter Morville (@morville, www.semanticstudios.com), Boxes and Arrows magazine (@boxesandarrows, www.boxesandarrows.com),  (@smashingmagazine,  www.smashingmagazine.com), Melissa Weaver (@meaningmeasure), Jonathan Colman (@joncolman, www.jonathancolman.com) and Ian Lurie (@portentint, www.portent.com) are some of the folks that I follow religiously. Start there and you’ll soon branch out.

Stop Preaching to the Choir

Lobby for more conference sessions on user experience, information architecture and content strategy. In 2013, Search Engine Strategies had zero sessions on UX and five on content strategy. SMX Advanced has zero sessions on UX.

I submit far and wide. I presented last year at SMX Toronto on User Focused Keyword Research and at the Enterprise Search Summit on a user-centered approach to enterprise search configuration. Let’s keep chipping away at search, user experience and content strategy conference programming in the hopes of gaining more visibility there.

Incorporate UX relevance into SEO consulting

As best as we can distill from Google, industry luminaries and ongoing speculation around Panda and Hummingbird, the algorithms focus on these core UX areas: click-through (do they select the result), engagement (do they interact with the destination), content (is it fresh as well as relevant) and links.

Click-through: The days of scatter-shot keyword research are gone. Panda and Hummingbird were the final stakes in the heart of that vampire.

Today, successful keyword research is more deliberate and focused on customer behavior rather than client magical thinking. Google Trends provides synonymous phrases to targeted keyword phrases in the forms of Top Searches and Rising Searches. It is an even odds bet that this data also feeds the Hummingbird synonyms database. You can even do your own correlation analysis here. Next up is a content analysis tool like the Ranks NL Page Analyzer, which measures phrases density on a particular page to ensure that your targeted phrase and synonyms are supported by the page content.

Engagement: Google has the Page Layout Patent that establishes certain parts of a page as more relevant than others. This combined with the relative impatience of searchers means an optimized page layout is one that encourages engagement to browse the site with visual and text link appeal (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) or engagement to quickly find information with enhanced information segmentation and navigation options (National Cancer Institute).

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

National Cancer Institute


Content: There have been reams (literally and digitally) written on this subject, and I have little to add here except that a content inventory is your friend. No one is really interested in that press release from 2002. So, get rid of it and any other content item that has low visits with high bounce rate that indicate low value to the search engine.

Content inventories illuminate the old, tired and irrelevant content that is chewing up crawl budget. There are many content inventory tools out there. I use Content Analysis Tool (CAT) from Content Insight. The CAT tool is quick, efficient and produces a comprehensive inventory from which to start auditing content items.

Links: This is a good time to put away the “link juice” binky. Links, while important, do not influence relevance as much as content, context and click-through. More of them can be better if customers are using them to get where they want to go. Yes, they are still important and yes, we’re still not supposed to buy, solicit, beg or steal them. However, you can program them on client sites with relational content models that see key content items providing links to “next steps” authority content both on and off the site. This enhances the content experience, promotes engagement and develops authority.


Our Founding Fathers were the gangstas of their day. They banded together to take down Britain’s tyranny. I’m suggesting the same for us, to take down Google’s tyranny over search results and our efforts on behalf of our clients to obtain their rightful position in search results.

Join me, won’t you?

Author bio:

Marianne Sweeny is a Search Information Architect at Portent Inc. She is passionate about optimizing the user search experience on the Web or inside the enterprise firewall. Marianne’s last article for SEMrush was “SEO: We're All Gangstas Now.”

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Marianne Sweeny is VP of Internet Marketing for Strategic Edge Partners, a medical marketing agency. She is passionate about optimizing the user search experience on the Web or inside the enterprise firewall. Marianne’s most recent article for SEMrush was entitled: "SEOs, Guns & Religion."
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