Card Sorting For SEO

Author: Gab Goldenberg

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 colours. 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 colour!

Well, card-sorting helps you avoid such zaniness, and let 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, subcats 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 :).


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  1. I was glad to see you mention the BC "siloing" as my first thought when reading the opening paragraph was how closely SEO and usability are tied together. We include usability as part of our SEO services not only for the value it brings in conversions, but for the simple fact that I don't know how you can optimize a site without factoring in user interactions. Another solid post - I'm looking forward to trying the card sorting approach. Up to now we've used white boards and charting software, but there is something to appreciate in the shuffling of physical cards and being more hands-on.

    Comment by RKF - August 25, 2009 @ 9:43am
  2. Site architecture is so important for keeping visitors on your site. Frustrate people by making it difficult for them to find the information they desire on your site, and they will be hitting the back button without blinking an eye. This is especially true for people who are new to the internet or use it infrequently. The card sorting tactic you describe sounds like a great suggestion that can benefit site designers and SEOs at the same time.

    Comment by Andrew@iGoMogul - August 25, 2009 @ 1:53pm
  3. You're absolutely right - you can't optimize without factoring in user interactions! I'd love to hear back from you on how the card sorting went! I think whiteboards and software could work fine too, for what it's worth.

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - August 25, 2009 @ 4:24pm
  4. We're on the same page, Andrew! In fact, you just inspired me to try something out!

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - August 25, 2009 @ 4:27pm
  5. Well, now I'm curious as to what you are going to try out! As for me inspiring anyone, well, I wouldn't bet on those odds in Vegas!

    Comment by Andrew@iGoMogul - August 26, 2009 @ 4:51pm
  6. I was going to make cards to bring to a local internet marketing meetup, but it turns out things are on break for the summer.

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - August 26, 2009 @ 10:22pm
  7. Do'nt make the mistake using the card sorting method as the solution for your navigation design. Card sorting is used to help you unstand the thinking process of your users not the navigation design itself. Use card sorting to discover patterns and surprising twists.

    Comment by webdesign groningen - August 2, 2010 @ 4:28pm

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