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What's What In A Website's Information Architecture

Posted by fusionbox on April 17, 2012

As you may or may not know, last November I had the opportunity to attend PubCon Vegas 2011. In the resulting flurry of activity (not to mention having to catching up on "actual work" upon my triumphant return), I never got a chance to write in any real depth about the sessions I attended or the wonderful speakers I got to hear.

That makes this the first of (I hope) many posts on search engine optimization, social media marketing, link building, website hosting for SEO, and more.

And I must say, the first session was one of my favorites – simple, strategic, and insightful. Lead by Kristine Schachinger (@schachin), Stoney deGeyter (@stoneyd) and Ted Udelle (@tedulle), it was called SEO & Information Architecture. In it, they discussed the most important priorities to keep in mind when building out the structure of a website.

Here are some highlights I took away from each of their talks (italics are mine):

Kristine Schachinger, an Independent Consultant for SEO, SMM, Accessibility & Usability

*The website – and especially the home page – can't be everything to all users.

As Ted Udelle will say a bit later, "Too Many Choices = No Choice". Don't overwhelm every user in an attempt to solve all the problems of each audience in one place. You'll end up losing them all.

*It SHOULD be a painful process. If there isn't yelling, YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!

And likely, you're bowing to internal politics to the detriment of your user & your goals.

*The "Three Clicks Rule" is no longer valid, except to the most important pages on your site.

The "Three Clicks Rule" is a theory of website navigation wherein a site would be designed so that your user could find any and all information within no more than three clicks of your mouse.
But, "flat" websites are just that – they have no depth. Since some content isn't as important as other content, prioritize in a pyramid layout. Just be sure to keep your most important pages easily accessible.

Pyramid structure for websites:

seo website architecture

*Use separate navigation elements for separate "intents".

This is my personal favorite bit of advice, because I see this done incorrectly on so many sites. Try to think, and organize, in terms of INTENT instead of in terms of your audience, or your organization. By "intent", I mean what the user is seeking to do. Are they there to shop, browse, learn or buy? Give each of those intentions something to do so you can catch them and market to them. Buying eventually is better than buying never!

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't have landing pages for special interests, just that you'll save yourself a lot of hassle (and potential duplicate content issues) if you aren't creating the same page over and over again for a slightly different audience.

Stoney deGeyter, President of Pole Position Marketing

"Singularity, Similarity & Specificity"

These organizing principles can go a long way in helping you organize and prioritize the content of your site.

  • Place items together that are of a Singular nature – if they are basically the same thing, they should go together.
  • If they are Similar, they should be near each other and easy for the user to find.
  • And finally, Specificity: don't try and fit more than one concept on one page. For Example: Web design and web development, while similar, aren't the same thing. They'll need separate pages if your users understand (or search for) both of them.

And one more quick tip from Stoney: Prevent duplicate content on "printable" versions of your web pages by styling them with CSS instead of creating actual documents with C+P content.

Ted Udelle, Senior SEO at Converseon

According to Ted, building your website's information architecture:

*Is an intensely personal process, based on perceptions – which vary!

Just because you believe an organizational method is simple, doesn't mean your customer does. This is one area where usability testing comes in handy – depend on statistically significant data to make big decisions like this. Many times you'll be right on the money, but you'd be surprised how often your opinions differ from that of your users.

*Is territorial and political.

Hence all the yelling you might see during this meeting. Relax, it's natural!

*Is NOT an organizational chart of your business.

So try not to organize according to it, even if it means making some departments mad. If you can't be all things to all people, focus on being GREAT at one of them instead.

*Must balance marketing goals & ease of use.

All together now – prioritize!

Some other tips from Ted:

*Too many choices = No choice

Users will get overwhelmed if you give them too many choices. Think of your last trip to the Cheesecake Factory – huge menu, and 2 minutes to decide before the waiter starts bugging you. What do you pick? The first thing you see, or what you ordered and liked the last time.

On a website, it's much easier to leave – no customers staring at you and judging you. So when you confuse them, chances are they are out of there (your website) and they aren't coming back.

*Don't make people feel stupid

This may feel pretty obvious, but it's easy to do on accident. Your user should be able to figure out - in milliseconds - what their next steps are. If they can, and do, points to you for doing it right.

*It's a library based science – think of the Dewy Decimal System

More information = even more like it.

*Check out Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites from O'Reilly

This book is a wonderful resource. It looks sort of intimidating (the size!) but it's worth it.

Hopefully this has been a good introduction into information architecture (IA) for you. If you have any questions, please feel free to add them in the comments!