So you want to build a website. You went out and got your domain, your designer, and are already writing content.
Wow, you think, this isn't so hard. I don't get what all the fuss is about. Making websites is easy. Then you think, Hmmm...maybe I'm forgetting something. What could it be?
Well you did forget something very important. You forgot the most obvious, most overlooked, and most difficult part of creating any site: your site information architecture -- or in layman's terms, your site blueprint.
Now this happens with more sites than not, but why?
- Seems obvious because you need some type of structure when you build anything, but isn't that what HTML is for?
- Assumed, so overlooked because structure is often just designed in by the designer or writer, no one stops to think about the structure these team members are actually creating and assumes the task complete.
- Can be difficult because when done properly a site architecture will cause you to question not only your website direction, but everything your business does online, and off.
Why You Need a Site Information Architecture
Your site information architecture is essentially your building plan. If you were building a house, it would be your blueprint. You wouldn't build a house without a blueprint, so why would you build a website without a proper site architecture?
The architecture tells your designer what parts of the site should be graphically emphasized, either for user retention or revenue generation. It also tells your content team what content they are creating and your business team how they will best evaluate how well the site meets their business goals.
Without a plan there is no clear goal. With no clear goals, it becomes difficult to have a successful site.
Without a proper architecture, sites tend to wander aimlessly with no clear direction or pathing, so users don't get the information they need; you don't get the conversions you desire; and over time the site languishes.
In addition, without proper architecture your on-site search engine optimization (SEO) efforts are hindered. So, as with a house, proper planning is often the difference between success and failure.
So What Makes a Good Site Architecture?
A good architecture thrives on topic specificity and proper sub-categorizations. The architecture is generally comprised of the following:
- Top (or primary) level navigation
- You select these by what topics are most important to your users and what paths you need to bring in revenues or path users to site goals. These aren't always mutually exclusive.
- Redundancy is good, though repetition is not. When using redundancy, don't use the same terminology.
- Don't combine categories unless this is how they are always used outside of your website. A category shouldn't be generalized to where you're covering two separate topics under one top-level item.
- Secondary level navigation
- Each top-level navigation item should be specific enough that they can't be duplicated, but broad enough that subtopics, or secondary navigational items can easily fit within the topic in a logical manner.
- Tertiary level navigation
- Only large sites have a need for tertiary (or third level) navigation. If you have a small site and are using a tertiary level navigation, then you probably want to re-examine your top level navigation and make sure you made each category specific enough.
- Fourth level navigation
- There is almost no reason a site, except a very large one that has been properly outlined, should have a fourth level navigation. If you have a fourth level navigation in more than one or two sections of your site, re-examine your architecture and see where you can make adjustments.
Keep it Quick
Keep each category set as similar as possible (i.e., if you do it for one, you do it for the next) and do your best to make sure you have all content within four clicks of the home page.
Does this mean users have to be to the end of the content by the fourth click? No. The user just had to have found the content path by the fourth click. If not, then you're likely to lose the user, but as long as you have them in the path by this point you will be OK.
Of course, the rule of quick applies. The quicker you get them to their information, the better your chances for retention and/or conversion. So whenever you can shorten the path without sacrificing content, do!
SEO & Site Architecture
Your navigation contains the site path for the user, but also the search engine spider. So make sure before you do your site architecture you have done your keyword research. Hone in on those words and use those in your architecture, your URLs and your linking structures. No architecture should be rendered complete before the keyword research has been finalized and incorporated into the site plan.
Being an Architect is Tough, Isn't it?!
Site architecture is tricky business and people who do it well are worth the time and money. But when you have to do it yourself, remember nothing beats an excellent site architecture for your customers and for the search engines.
It's sort of like when you get a map. If the map is easy to read, easy to use, and provides you a proper path to where you need to go, you'll find your journey much more enjoyable. Users and search engines are no different when trying to find your content.
Simplify. Make the path an easy one and you'll be rewarded with happy customers and satiated spiders.
However, developing a true site architecture means looking at your business goals and departmental contributions and how those should be represented on your website. So this may invoke discussions such as which department deserves home page real estate and which vertical appears on the top-level navigation. This alone can cause internal and departmental conflicts.
This can become an intensely personal, or even territorial, debate, so try not to be too surprised the first time you work on your company's site architecture. If you treat these discussions as potentially riddled with these inherent issues, and follow these suggestions, you should avoid many obvious pitfalls.