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Information Architecture (IA) is the art of structuring a website and its content so it’s easy to use and works well. Good website IA helps visitors find what they want on your website quickly and easily, so they get the best possible experience of your service, product or brand. Good IA helps your site work well on a desktop, a mobile phone, a tablet, or any other kind of mobile device.
IA design has to balance what your visitors want against what your organization wants to achieve. Plus it has to make sense to a variety of audiences who may interact with your website in different and even unpredictable ways.
With IA, you’ve got four areas to consider.
1. Content organisation
When we say ‘content’ we mean much more than words and pictures on a web page. Think downloadable files, video, interactive modules, data feeds, security barriers, third-party sites, standalone apps, etc … your IA has to make everything work well for your audience, no matter who they are, what they do or don’t know, where they enter your website, or what device they use.
- Is all the content that needs to be online actually available on your organisation’s website?
- Where you have different kinds of content to present, does the information architecture take them into account?
– As in, if you have a gallery of photographs are they easy to view, search and navigate?
– Or if you have a library of documents, can you easily search and find what you’re looking for?
Meeting visitor and business needs
- Does the content help your organization achieve its business goals?
- Does the content help your website visitors get what they want?
- Can visitors easily share content from your website?
- Is the content organised to give your visitor what they want? (Because there are two ways to do things. Option 1 is to show visitors what your organisation wants them to see. Option 2 is to show them what they want to see. For instance, if a cinema chain website shows the top movies currently on, that’s all about what’s important to the cinema. But with cookies and good IA, the website can tell a visitor what movies are playing in their area, and it can even say what movies they’ve recently seen.)
- Is the content organised to reflect your organisation’s internal workflows and processes? This is likely to make it easier to maintain.
- Is the content accessible across different platforms – desktop, mobile devices etc.?
Does your website:
- Require users to download a Flash application before they can navigate the site?
- Require users to sit through a video clip or sound file before they can access the site?
- Require users to enable or disable pop-ups or ad blockers?
- Accommodate users who don’t conform to your website’s technical standards? (If not, how do you communicate that to them, and how do you help them to remedy that problem and then find their way back to you with a sense of trust that the site won’t reject them again?)
Centralised versus distributed content
Depending on your business requirements, all the information your visitors want can be contained within your single website, or it can be spread across several different sites which provide different parts of your service.
For example, a marketplace website can hand customers over to third party retailers, or sites which contain product reviews. This is fine, as long as the customer can easily find their way back to the original site to complete the sale.
Does your website ever send visitors off-site?
If it does, read on. If it doesn’t, skip on down to Future Proofing.
Websites with content distributed across more than one site
- If another website provides part of your online offering to visitors: when it starts up, does it open in a new window so visitors can easily find their way back to your site, or does it display within your website, potentially confusing users? (What you don’t want is for your visitors to be kicked off your site when they use your outsourced service.)
- Are visitors automatically delivered back to your website when they’ve finished using any external service?
- If not, can they easily find their way back to your website on their own?
Ideally your website IA can easily accommodate future content changes.
- Let’s say all your website content is perfectly organised into five categories. Can you easily add a sixth category if your or your users’ needs require that?
- Can your website IA easily adapt to sudden emergency requirements, or to accommodate a different audience? For instance, a legal firm sponsors a community event and attracts queries from the public and media. It also shares content with social media sites which it might normally avoid. In a similar situation, would your website’s IA be able to handle different requirements?
You know what content your organization wants to make available to website visitors, and you know what you call it. Here’s the catch – how we see ourselves is different from how others see us.
The words and colours you use to describe your content can make sense to you and be nonsense to somebody else. Different audiences can use different words and colours, plus visitors can come to your site for a purpose which is completely different to what you might imagine.
This means good labeling is a vital part of information architecture. It’s not just something you add in at the last moment.
Does labelling on your website:
- Communicate the content effectively?
- Reflect the language of your brand?
- Help visitors have a good experience on your website?
- Give visitors an experience which is consistent with similar online offerings presented by other organisations? This helps visitors know what to expect.
- Use commonly used terms so search engines and other third-party functionality can ‘understand’ your website? (Things like Search, Buy, Specials, About Us, Help, Results etc.)
- Work well for visitors who have no previous knowledge or experience of your organization or product offerings, but whom you want to immediately understand your content? For instance, if you offer structural engineering services, your labelling needs to be instantly understood by structural engineers. If you offer services to immigrants, your labelling needs to be instantly understood by prospective immigrants. Think about the needs of your particular audience when you answer this question.
3. Navigation (as measured by Website Metrics)
Good website navigation helps your visitors easily find and interact with the content they want, and it usually gives them a number of different ways to get there.
It also considers other websites with similar content. For instance a library site could reference the Dewey system because other libraries do, and a book store site might employ Amazon’s category system because it’s already widely known.
The best way to assess the effectiveness of your website’s navigation is to analyse website metrics data from Google Analytics.
- Do you have Google Analytics set up on your website?
- Do you know how your visitors find your website? (Hint: Analytics will tell you.)
- Do you know whether visitors get what they want before they leave your site? Are they getting lost, dropping out half way through a transaction or process, or getting frustrated because pages take too long to load? Only Analytics data will give you this kind of info.
- Do you use Google Analytics to monitor how many visitors complete specific goals on your website?
- Do you use Google Analytics to find out where visitors are dropping out of sales processes or other important transactions?
Do you use this information to:
- Improve your website results?
- Check for ‘dead spots’ on the site?
- Check for parts of the site which are over-used or under-used?
4. Search functionality
Why have a Search function on your site when everyone just ‘Googles’ everything anyway?
Well, you want visitors to come to your site and stay, even when your content organization, labelling and navigation haven’t taken them where they need to go. Once your visitor heads off to Google to search, they can get distracted by something else and they might not come back.
How good is the Search on your website? Because we all know the frustration of a search that returns the wrong results, or just too many results. It’s about as useful as no search at all.
- Does your website search return useful results?
- Does your Google Analytics data show large numbers of visitors come to the home page and then go straight to ‘Search’? If so, this could mean your content organisation, labelling and navigation isn’t working for them.
- Is it easy to download and print your search results?
- Is it easy to share your search results?
Search engine friendliness
- Is your content tagged so it shows up on third-party search engines such as Google, Bing, Duckduckgo etc.? To find out, use a third party search engine to search for your product or service and see if it appears in the search results, and where it ranks compared to industry competitors and peers.
- Is your content tagged so it will show up on industry specific search engines such as Pricespy, Nextag etc.? To find out use an industry specific search engine to search for your website and see if it appears in the search results, and where it ranks compared to industry competitors and peers.
Webstruxure’s Information Architecture Expertise
If users can find what they’re looking for, they’re much more likely to complete your ‘Calls To Action’. And if they enjoy the experience of using your site, they’ll be back again for more. So improving the IA of your site matters.
Redesigning the IA of your existing website doesn’t have to be a complex job. The advice above should help you to decide which IA changes would make the biggest difference to your users.
If you need support to improve or redesign your website IA, talk to Webstruxure.
Web Content Warrant Of Fitness - Making It Work For Your Business
We hope you’re keen to get busy changing/fixing your website content. Before you do, please consider this: whatever you change has to work in the real world, for real people. Especially the people who write and maintain your organisation's web content.
How are you going to take those people with you? A good start is to talk with them. Tell them what you're thinking and then really listen to what they say about how their work is now, and what they think of your plans.
These people do content work every day. They know the problems that need solving better than you do. Their feedback is not only valuable, it can save you a heap of grief. Get them to help you work out the best way forward and you can implement it together.
Read our advice on Making Web Content Strategy Work In The Real World.