Architecting a Unicorn: SEO & IA at Envato (A Podcast by True North)

Posted by Loop11

Rapid growth. In the business world, it’s generally thought of as a good thing — scratch that, a great thing. But when you’re an ecommerce site, that rapid growth can also mean more hurdles to jump, especially when it comes to your SEO and information architecture.

In this episode of True North, you’ll be given a firsthand look at how one company found a way to overcome the obstacles and unite their processes of search, discovery, and transactions.

Architecting a Unicorn – SEO & IA at Envato

Episode transcript

Ben Newton: “Hi. I’m a serial entrepreneur.” We hear that a lot these days, don’t we? I don’t know about you, but when I hear a person say that, I kind of find it repelling, as though someone has blown cigarette smoke into my personal space. It didn’t always used to be this way. Ten years ago, for instance, being an entrepreneur wasn’t the buzzword it is today. Another thing that happened 10 years ago was the founding of a bootstrapped company called Envato.

Chris Thelwell: We’re a marketplace for creative professionals. So we have people that produce assets for us like WordPress themes, like graphic assets, like photography and videos, and then we have people that want to buy that kind of stuff. And we’re the marketplace that fits in between.

Ben: Unlike the many wantrepreneurs of today, Envato has actually helped to create thousands of real entrepreneurs who have been hugely successful.

Fiorella Rizzà: A lot of our authors were able to quit their day-to-day job and just focus on doing what they love. We have stories of authors that have built houses and were able to provide for their children and were able to stay at home and spend more time with their family or travel around the world. To me it’s — we actually help people reach for freedom.

Ben: In the last six years, Envato has grown exponentially. Today, it has roughly 10 million assets available for sale through its network of websites. Some of their sites, such as ThemeForest, are among the most trafficked websites in the world. All of this is good news, but with a rapid growth fueled by user-generated content, problems are created. Many of these issues can be thrown into two main buckets: information architecture and search engine optimization, also known as IA and SEO.

Kate Hunter: We’ve got sort of two streams. We have new products. So when it comes to new products, it’s about working with those teams prior to development and mapping out a structure that will allow it to scale and not run into architecture problems down the track, that will inhibit the ability to grow organic traffic. And then conversely on the marketplaces, if you architect for a small amount of categories or a small amount of content 10 years ago, and you now have a large amount of content and you now have to shoehorn that into the original structure you created, it’s not necessarily the best fit.

Ben: So put yourself in Envato’s shoes. You have a runaway success, which is only growing in momentum, yet you know some things have to change. The bones of Envato need to be altered to not only handle future growth, but also to get the most out of what is currently there.

There’s no easy path here. And no step forward seems to be without two steps back, but they’re not letting that stop them. Let’s find out how they’re planning for success.

Search, discovery, and transactions in one seamless experience

Hi, and welcome to True North. My name is Ben Newton and I’m from Loop11. This is the podcast where we share stories of discovery and innovation.

As we found out, Envato manages roughly a dozen websites which are geared towards connecting creatives, from around the world, with people who need their services or assets. Having millions of visitors pouring into their sites would seem like the kind of problem you want to have, and it is. They’re not complaining.

What they are trying to do, though, is figure out how to give these visitors the best product, and this ultimately means wrapping search, discovery, and transactions into one seamless experience.

So whose problem is this? Is it an SEO problem? Or maybe it’s IA. Maybe it’s a UX or development issue.

Fiorella: From 2010 to 2015, the number of items that were uploaded to our marketplaces grew exponentially, roughly 50,000 items at the beginning of 2010 to almost 10 million items now.

Ben: That’s Fiorella Rizzà. Her role straddles copywriting, search, and information architecture.

Fiorella: But of course, what happens when you get all this content coming through is you just want to put it out there and make sure that the users are going to see it. So we have this technical constraint where an item cannot fall under multiple categories. It might sound like it’s not a big deal, but it’s actually extremely . . . like it’s a huge constraint, and it doesn’t allow for flexibility.

So what happened was the easiest way to go was just create new categories that would accommodate for a new technology that would come up or a new type of item. But of course, the result of that is that the IA is, at the moment, extremely complex and not intuitive at all.

Ben: Often problems with IA don’t become apparent until you’re literally using the product and a completely rational use case exposes a severe limitation.

Fiorella: So we have a top-level category on VideoHive that’s called Stock Footage, which is pretty straightforward. You’re going to go there, you’re going to find Stock Footage. But then Stock Footage has a number of subcategories that — I’ll give you a few examples: Holiday, Water, Nature, Hobby.

So there is an item where you can just see a boat on water, and that’s it. That’s all you see, and it’s currently falling under the Water subcategory of Stock Footage. But there’s also a Vehicles subcategory, a Hobby subcategory. All these categories would be okay for this video.

The problem there is that those pieces of information are all good to describe that item. The problem is they have been treated in the wrong way. It’s not really about the content in this case. The content is fine. The problem is how we captured the information and how we presented it to the user.

So if you search for it from the homepage, then you’re going to find it. But you click “Stock Footage” and then you click “Vehicles,” and then you’re inside the Vehicles category, and you search for a boat, you’re not going to find that one because that one belongs to another subcategory. So you’re not going to find it.

SEO is what happens when everything else is done right — including UX & IA

Ben: Although navigation and discoverability are arguably two of the most important facets for an ecommerce website, poor IA has wider-reaching implications. For a company like Envato, organic search is a massive source of traffic, and the level of your IA relates directly to your potential to perform in search engines.

Kate: To steal a quote from a conference I was just at, SEO isn’t something you can sprinkle on or apply over the top of something. It’s what happens when everything else is done right, and one of those things that has to be done right is UX and IA.

Ben: That’s Kate Hunter. She’s the Organic Performance Manager at Envato.

Kate: Search engines are trying to emulate human behavior. If it’s hard for them to crawl, if it’s hard for them to understand, then they’re not going to rank you as high as possible because they don’t think you’re doing as good a job as you could.

So at the moment I can say we’ve mapped our click-through rates based on where you can possibly rank, and our content in some cases deserves to rank two positions higher than what it currently is, but it doesn’t because search engines aren’t able to crawl it efficiently. Which also means we’re aren’t allowed to distribute our PageRank efficiently between our pages, which means discoverability and authority is very hard to achieve and execute, which is why we don’t rank those two positions higher.

So the other thing is competition. So sometimes if you were to launch a niche and you launch with a terrible IA and it stays that way, but no one ever competes with you, you’ll always rank for that because you are still the best content. But the Envato business competes in a highly competitive field with a lot of money attached to them, and the reality is our competitors are building sites the way we would build them, if we built ThemeForest today, except we built ThemeForest 10 years ago.

Ben: So this cuts to the core of the problem Envato is facing. The direction that information architecture should head is clear, but how and when to implement those changes isn’t. Their decisions are bookended by the urgency to stay in front of newer competitors and the realization that the old architecture takes a long time to change. It’s the common scenario of too big to start again, but too important not to address.

Chris: Legacy is a huge issue, and you can sort of plan where you want to be. You can plan the future. It’s a similar issue with design. We have, we could design a really great marketplace, but we can’t deliver that. We’re too big to just deliver. We have to deliver in little tiny steps, and we’ll probably never reach that end goal.

Ben: That’s Chris Thelwell. He’s the head of UX and Design at Envato.

Chris: So that kind of vision idea of where you want to get to is really hard to achieve, and you have to kind of work out how we can take those little steps together. One of the examples is, who believes in clicking logos to go back to the homepage? Now, we’ve seen a significant amount of traffic that goes to our homepage. That’s the exits on that page. The theory behind that is that people are clicking on that logo expecting to go somewhere different than where we send them. So it’s kind of trying to understand why you get the results you do.

We’ve got a page with a very high exit rate. You’re trying to understand, why has it gotten that higher exit rate? Where do the people come from to visit? And it’s not necessarily a problem of the page, it’s maybe a problem of where the link to that page was, and we’re constantly trying to understand those things.

Ben: So knowing your product and the user data behind it is key to understanding the problems you need to address. We’ve also heard that SEOs are a big reason for getting your IA right, but can it work the other way? Can improving your SEO help your information architecture?

Can improving your SEO help improve your IA?

Kate: More and more importantly for SEO is tone of voice and authenticity. Google has always said it’s trying to get its algorithms to understand results and websites in the same way that humans do. It’s never been able to do that more so than it does now.

A great example is that, two years ago, best practice would be to not use stop words. So stop words being things like “on, a, by, from” because you’ve got character limits in your title tags and that’s a waste of characters in that title.

Since Hummingbird, the difference is that these stop words are actually really, really important now because they’re not a waste of characters because stop words help to define intent. So that’s where copywriting comes in. So, example, in that page title, instead of using “WordPress templates” or “WordPress themes” with the pipe character and then the term “ThemeForest,” it will now say “WordPress themes from ThemeForest,” because we need to indicate that we are a platform that allows people to sell this.

If we say “buy,” that would indicate that we make these ourselves, that we’ve made them. But we need to say they’re from us because we are the platform. If you think about how people talk or use voice search, they wouldn’t just say “WordPress themes ThemeForest”, they’d say “WordPress themes from ThemeForest.” So voice search is a good indicator. So how you’d search if you were verbally searching is a good indicator of how you should be looking at your on-page text.

Ben: What this can teach us is to keep coming back to what real people would respond to. How would normal people group or search for your information? This is easily forgotten, especially when the focus is on rankings and not the end user.

Now, Kate has said that good SEO is as a result of everything else being done right. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not constantly being monitored during each and every process of UX, design, and IA development. Both Kate and Fiorella are constantly forming benchmarks, running tests, and measuring results to ensure that the waves of constant improvement keep flowing.

Fiorella: When you create or change the information architecture, basically what you’re doing is you are defining or redefining the discovery patterns of users. So whether they’re going to be successful or unsuccessful is all up to how you structure the information. What we’ve found to be extremely useful is card sorting and especially tree-testing exercises. First we test the current structure and then we come up with a new proposed way of organizing the content, and we test it again and see how the results compare.

Ben: The way Fiorella executes tree testing is to use an online tool which is completely removed from their website’s design and content, so as not to influence the results. Rather, it’s an interface which shows just the categories and the subsequent subcategories as the user proceeds through the test. She then configures tasks for the user to complete which provides feedback.

For example, if she was testing the ThemeForest IA, the task might be for a user to pretend they were a restaurant owner looking for a new website template. They’d be asked to navigate the categories until they found an area which they believed would contain the content they were looking for.

Fiorella would then analyze the user data in aggregate, looking for the most common paths taken by users and what percentage of them found the right pages.

This example also acts as a counterpoint to the SEO monitoring and testing done by Kate. While IA can be done offline and removed from the actual website, SEO is a constant monitoring and tweaking process, based on what’s actually happening out in the wild.

Kate: One of the first things I did coming into the business was put in place a rank tracking tool, which allows me to see in the current state for popular terms which were relevant for how we were ranking. And I now know where everything ranks and I know where I think we deserve to rank. For me SEO isn’t about number one. Number one is a very old-school place to play, particularly because we’re a global company. You have to be at the top. One of the best 10 results worldwide, so it’s a very competitive game.

In WordPress for example, we’re highly relevant to WordPress, but WordPress is not our business. WordPress is WordPress.org or WordPress.com. So ThemeForest ranks for number two in the U.S. for WordPress themes. We cannot aim to be any higher than that because we will never trump the original source.

So a business like ours which is, we don’t actually have our products, in a lot of cases we can’t be number one. The best we can hope for is number two, which is not a bad thing by any means. It’s about we are not the most relevant in every case. So the goal is to improve and I have an idea in terms of where we deserve to rank, and that’s my goal. Number one is not the goal.

Build with a vision of the future in mind

Ben: So as Envato moves forward, there are two clear and separate ways in which they’re addressing the problem of IA and SEO.

Kate: We have, I guess, two streams. There’s the one working with the existing aging platform which we’re retrofitting, and then there’s working with the new products. Baking in IA before development, so mapping out what the future looks like. If you’re an online clothing retailer, you might only have pants and t-shirts to sell right now, but could you imagine where you sold all sorts of apparel in the future? And if so, what would the IA for a really detailed clothing store or online clothing store look like in 10 years? Map that structure and then build for that structure, but only populate the content you have now.

Fiorella: To me the thing that helped most was that we made the decision to go with the best-case scenario. Like imagine we don’t have any constraints. What is this going to look like? Because this helps you have a vision. You know where you’re going and what you’re heading towards, and that helps you, prevents you from losing track of what you’re doing and just wander off, thinking about other possible solutions, which it’s very likely to happen.

Ben: To find out more about the team at Envato and how they’re thinking about the challenges they face, go to inside.envato.com. If you have a story you’d like us to consider for the show, please visit our website and send us an email.

You can subscribe to our show on iTunes where you can also rate and review us. Or go to truenorthpodcast.com and join the community.

Our music is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.

True North is produced by Loop11. We’ll see you next time.

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