Hello, hello all my lovely SEO peeps! Happy 2013, we made it, yay! And now Search Engine Academy is back with the continuing series on Information Architecture (IA) search engine optimization (SEO).

I started this series back in February 2012, and it looks like it’s going to go a year plus at this rate, which is very cool indeed. Anyways, let’s get on with it. We are now talking about how to actually incorporate IA into your web site design and SEO strategy. Specifically, we are going over how to get feedback from your web users that you can apply to your site to make it more user-friendly.

First, you need to specify who you will get that feedback from. Who is your primary web site participant? If you have the resources, market research companies can do great work to help you define the target web visitor.

However, a lot of folks reading this blog aren’t at that level yet, so let’s go a little more cost-effective in our user research. You can set up and run a survey. Nowadays, they aren’t that expensive, and if you really push the survey out, you can get a decent number of responses to help you see trends.

It’s best to keep it to as few questions as possible, make sure you offer anonymity and possibly a freebie (AKA a “bribe”) to get more people to do your survey. Nobody wants to do anything for free. Nobody.

Some good uses for a survey are to discover what users like and hate the most about your website; how they would improve your site; and if they’re satisfied with what you currently have up on the air.

Not only will you discover surprising things from your target audience, if they validate weaknesses you suspect are in the site, but haven’t been able to get anyone above you to acknowledge, this is a great tool to gather that evidence and present it. This doesn’t mean you’ll be vindicated in that management will fall to its knees in gratitude and thank you profusely, but you might make some headway.

What would be really cool for you to do is to sit your target users at a computer and have them go through the site as if they were not right in front of you. Watching them navigate the site, hearing their comments and capturing this data can be really eye-opening.

Watching web visitors use your online forms, pay for products or services, or use an application will be valuable for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the site.

Got money? Create and run a focus group. Develop a standard set of questions to ask, and record the responses. They’re good for brainstorming new ideas about content, website usability and functions that may or may not work. However, keep in mind these are consumers, not IA or techie folks, so what you get may not jibe with your goals and objectives.

You may also get one on one sessions with users, but these take up a lot of time and cost money. These sessions may not be very efficient for supporting your IA goals. You can develop interview questions, but make sure they trigger discussion, and are not just “yes” or “no” responses.

You can ask the participant what she currently does, her background and how long she’s been familiar with the website. You may also ask what knowledge she needs to do her job, what’s the hardest piece of information to find, and if she can’t find the information on the site, where does she go next?

Some great open-ended questions are those where you solicit suggestions for improvement. Whatever you do, please be sure your questions are non-technical. If you ask things like does she think HTML 5 is the way to go, or what sort of controlled vocabulary would she suggest, you’re going to lose her and your credibility.

A very effective, low-tech method to get some IA feedback without the participant realizing it is card sorting. This is where you grab index cards. Label them with your categories, sub categories and web site content. Put numbers on each card, so you can track them. Have the participant sort the cards into piles that make sense to her. Give out Post It notes so she can label them her way.

Tada!!! Now you have data that you can quantify easily. This is very flexible, it’s cheap and easy to use, and you will get to see how each person’s mental processes work.

Another way of figuring out some possible IA is have each person sort according to what’s important to them. If you get a majority, that may well be your blueprint for implementing IA.

There are several different ways to do card sorting. I’m going to stop here for today, and we’ll pick up on those next week. For now, think about if you can pull some people together and do an experimental card sorting of your website. You might be surprised at the results.

Until next week, keep it between the ditches!

All the very best,