By Evan Carmichael on June 1st, 2010
As part of SES Toronto 2010, I’m doing a series of interviews with some of the expert panelists to get some insider advice to help improve your SEO efforts.
Last week I profiled Jeff Quipp from Search Engine People. Up next is Dan Klyn. Dan is an information architect and e-commerce strategist at RidersDiscount.com and he teaches the information architecture course at the University of Michigan School of Information.
He’s going to be talking at SES Toronto about Information Architecture, Site Performance Tuning & SEO
Here are my questions for Dan and his answers.
1) Can you tell us about Riders Discount and the top 3 things you’ve done from an information architecture point of view to improve your site’s performance and your customers’ experiences?
“Riders Discount is an online retailer of motorcycle and motorsports apparel, parts and accessories. The business was founded five years ago by a couple of guys who love motorcycle racing. Our founders’ previous work experience had been in online retail and information technology, and believe it or not the company’s very first commerce website which launched in 2006 is, with very few exceptions (and of course, different products), the same RidersDiscount.com website that we present to customers today. The site has held up remarkably well given its vintage. I joined the company six months ago as part of an end-to-end replatforming project and the first customer-facing pieces of this project will roll out in Q4 this year.
We like to keep our cards pretty close to our vest, and identifying the top 3 things Riders Discount is doing in *any* department makes us a little uncomfortable. But I do have three information architecture approaches to enhance site performance and end-user experience that I’m happy to share, and that retailers in particular can benefit from:
Give yourself a recurring to-do item each week and spend an hour looking through the log files from your on-site search engine. Build some reports to show you the most frequently used words and phrases that customers are using to search, and then lay that data over top of the labeling scheme for your product catalog and site navigation.
If you’ve got a navigation label which says “calendar” and your on-site search logs tell you that you’ve got 100s of visitors each week who’re searching for “upcoming events,” changing that one navigation label ends up enhancing site performance (avoiding the computational overhead from running search queries) and more importantly, it enhances user experience and findability.
Ontology has to do with sense-making – it’s the science of what we mean when we say things. And so where taxonomy tuning is about the systems of specific words we use, ontology tuning is an activity that information architects and content strategists can engage in to ensure that there’s a sort of cognitive consistency across all of the elements, features and offers. The word ontology makes some people uncomfortable, so a less nerdy way to think about ontology is to ask the question “what are you on?”
An example of a broken ontology that I use in my class is one I took from Maidenform.com back in the mid 2000’s, when they were using the word “pants” as the organizing concept for products such as panties, thongs and boyshorts. The site section was called “pants.” But then if you did a search on the site for “pants”, it returned zero results. When you examined a product page for a given pair of panties, the language used to describe the product and the images used to depict it were very much in-line with what Haines and Victoria’s Secret were doing. The product-level merchandisers and content authors didn’t call them pants, and didn’t describe them in terms of pants. But somewhere, somehow, somebody in the organization decided that what Maidenform means when it says “pants” is panties, underwear, thongs etc. and that the website would present all products that’re worn from the waist-down as “pants.”
This is what I mean when I say that ontology is as simple as asking “what are you on?” And while this may appear to be a taxonomy issue with the label, it’s actually a deeper issue of ontology. What were you smoking when you decided that the “aboutness” of this section of the website should be framed in terms of pants? Everywhere else on the planet, pants means something very different than panties.
The problem I’m describing at Maidenform several years ago has since been corrected.
I like to think of the way that customers interact with websites as being akin to a sort of dance – and a nearly endless number of small optimizations around site performance and user experience can be identified by deconstructing this dance the way that a choreographer would. Web analytics and user-session playback are essential tools for understanding the way the dance is happening, as is a periodic role-playing session on your own site and on competitor’s sites.
The folks who’re responsible for site performance tuning and user experience need to know a lot of technical details about the different kinds of dancing that occur in the ballroom that exists within their infrastructure, but they’ll only understand it to a point unless they get up and dance themselves.
Requiring your engineering and user experience folks to play the role of a new customer and step through the choreography of browsing, searching, analyzing, purchasing, statusing, unboxing, returing etc. on your own site and on your competitors’ sites will uncover inefficiencies and friction that’re low-level enough that few customers notice and complain about but which in aggregate can add up to significant improvements in performance.”
2) What are the biggest mistakes most website owners fail to do as their websites grow?
“I think it’s hard for companies who’ve started out small and who’re experiencing explosive growth to understand the fundamental differences in the dynamics of doing business at a bigger scale. And let’s be fair: you can’t necessarily blame business managers for not “getting” how and why the business processes and technical infrastructure which were integral to the success to-date are no longer appropriate and effective.
When you’re in rapid growth mode, there’s a sort of “bunker” mentality … an “us against the world” mindset that can have very positive effects on morale and teamwork. But at some point, you have to get out of the bunker. There’s an old saying about how generals are always fighting the last war. And the way we do business on the web today, with analytics wired into almost every aspect of our business… we don’t have dashboards – we’ve got a gigantic rear-view mirror.
So I think one of the biggest mistakes website owners can make as they’re experiencing rapid growth is not getting out of the bunker. Or not getting out of the bunker soon enough to identify, analyse and capitalize on the unique opportunities that’re afforded to businesses who’se initial success has allowed them to “level-up” and operate at a large scale. ”
3) Cloud computing – is it worth moving to the cloud? When should someone consider making the switch?
“I still laugh a little when I see the words “cloud computing”. It makes me think about laying on the grass and looking up at the clouds with my kids: the same cloud is either a crocodile or a rocketship, depending on which one of us you ask. In some ways, “cloud computing” is just new jargon for “infrastructure that we don’t own, that we’ll never be 100% certain of and which we pay people we’ve never met to be accountable for.””
4) MYSQL optimization (if you can answer this as a number my readers have asked me about this) – what are some of your top tips to optimize a large MYSQL database as it grows in volume?
“Your question reminds me of why I’m so excited to speak to the audience at SES Toronto about the topic of information architecture – I think that the profession of information architecture and the basic principles and nature of information architecture aren’t crisply defined for people outside of the web design consulting industry.
I know that Forrester, for example, has begun using “information architecture” interchangeably with “software systems architecture”, which is unhelpful. There’s a sysarch at Riders Discount who knows all about optimizing MYSQL :) The least painful way I can explain information architecture takes four minutes and one second.”
5) What session are you most excited about attending at SES Toronto this year?
“I’m really looking forward to hearing Peter Morville’s keynote address – this man is an endless source of inspiration for me. As some of your readers will know, he’s the co-inventor (along with Lou Rosenfeld) of information architecture as most folks understood and practice it today, and I think the work he’s doing right now with regard to the user experience of search on the web and around user interface strategies to make search more rewarding for users and site operators alike will make his talk un-missable.
The other session I’m excited about is Bryan Eisenberg’s 21 Secrets to Top Converting Websites – I’m a longtime reader and admirer of Mr. Eisenberg’s work in online retail and I expect that I’ll come away from that session with some specific ideas to try when I get back to the office.”
To view details about this session visit SES Toronto 2010.
Is there anything else you would like to learn from Dan? What have you done to tune your website?
I’ve love to hear your thoughts if you leave a comment below!
Tags: 3 things, architecture course, commerce website, different products, expert panelists, first commerce, information architect, information architecture, insider advice, klyn, michigan school, motorsports apparel, online retailer, performance tuning, quipp, school of information, site search engine, strategist, user experience, work experience