At SES Chicago this morning, Shari Thurow (@sharithurow) gave a talk titled “Next-Generation Site Architecture” to an audience that nearly filled the grand ballroom. Shari presented several best-practice ways to go about building your website and ways to think about how it can help in making your business successful. The main thing is to always keep your users top of mind. Here are some highlights from the presentation:

1) Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a bit of a misnomer. What we do with SEO is optimize our sites for the people who use search engines, not just for the search engines themselves. Although one could argue that optimizing for the search engines themselves is the way in which we do optimize the search experience for people. If you want someone to easily find your own website through Google or Bing, you need to do all of the technical things that Google and Bing like in order to appear near the top where people will, indeed, find you.

2) Web Search Goals are these:

  • Go – to a specific site
  • Know – more about a topic
  • Do – some activity

Your website’s listing in search results needs to appeal to user intent. Do your title and URL and description all clearly and quickly inform someone? Does the page that the search result links to actually contain the content described in the search result? Be sure that your titles and URLs fit with the content on the pages. When people get frustrated by what they find and leave your site, only 12% will come back to try again.

SES Chicago 2012

3) Good usability means that someone finds what they’re looking for quickly and easily without giving it much thought. Does your site provide that? Here’s a quick usability test: Show a web page to someone for 5-8 seconds. Take it away. Ask that person to write down everything they remember about that page. Do your keywords show up in what they write? Was your content quickly understandable? If not, try something different with the structure and be sure the title and content are clearly placed and easy to digest.

4) Remember that people are not search engines, and people do not necessarily think logically. Two big questions to ask when discerning how to structure your site are: 1) How do people search? and 2) Why do people search? Don’t base your site architecture on keyword research only; base it on your users’ mental models. You are building to a user’s unarticulated expectations.

5) It’s all about context. One clear example of this is to look at the letter K. What does K mean to you? To a developer, it might mean kilobytes. To a jeweler, it might mean karats. To a nutritionist, it might mean a vitamin. To an accountant, it might mean a 401(k). The same thing can mean something entirely different depending on context. Build the right context to support your content and to help people quickly and easily find the thing they’re seeking.

This may not be next-generation so much as current best practice. But it is all a good reminder and solid advice from Shari Thurow about how to construct your site so that search engines offer it up near the top and people quickly find what they’re looking for on your site. Doing this definitely goes a long way towards gaining new customers and growing your relationships with those you already have. After all, your website is your most public-facing employee. Make sure it has everything it needs to do its job well.