Web Development

How to organize website content for easy navigation

Justin James offers practical tips on creating a site navigation strategy that effectively guides users/customers to the information or products they are looking for.

If you've ever struggled to find something on a company's Web site without resorting to using a public search engine, you've probably encountered an issue with how the data is organized. Far too many websites have their pages structured in a way that makes sense to them, but not to their visitors. There are a number of causes of this issue, but most of the time, it is that the site either uses a navigation that reflects the company's organization chart, or it is because they are using wording that real-world visitors do not. I am going to show you how to approach your site's content organization to help visitors easily find what they need.

The structure of a site is the hardest to correct once the site is in place, so it is best to get it right from the beginning. Once the structure is in place, moving pages around can mess up bookmarks and search engines if the URL paths reflect the site layout. If this is the case, make sure that you use HTTP status 301 ("permanent") redirects when the move is complete to ensure that bookmarks and search engines know to be updated.

Understand what your users are looking for

The key here is to understand how users look for information. They usually drill down, and they really do not want to have to go more than three or four layers deep. The first mistake that Webmasters make is at that first layer. They offer choices which make little sense to users. For example, I was recently looking to purchase a server. One site I looked at immediately presented me with a choice of product lines. Unfortunately, the only way for me to know which product lines were right for me was to look at each one, then look at every product in each one, and then find one I liked. The only reason why I bothered is because I really like this company's products! Why should I have to spend so much time and effort to learn which product was right for me? Instead, they should have started with the rough size ("4U," "3U," etc.) or purpose ("file server," "application server," "VM host," etc.). This would have let me start with the most important consideration (size or purpose), as opposed to a distinction (product line) which was meaningless to someone who is not familiar with their product lines already.

Another similar mistake that happens is when the company divides their products into a usage category based on criteria that their customers would not use. Again, while looking for servers, some companies start with "home," "small business," "medium business," and "enterprise" for their servers. What's the distinction? Who determines what a "small business" needs? I have seen some small businesses with a lot more server power, storage, etc. than many "enterprises" so the label is really meaningless.

If you can, use a guided search system once people are in your products/services area. If you can't use a guided search, then it is even more critical that the page structure is based on the lines that customers use. It should also be well understood that a well-oiled search system for your site is a must!

Use common terminology for page types

Do not ignore the "typical Web site pages" either (like About Us, Contact Us, and so on). Customers use those much more than you think! These pages should be universally visible; if the main navigation lacks the space for those links, putting the links on the bottom of the page is just fine; people know to look for them there. But one thing that hangs up many sites is the terminology. Users do not want you to use "innovative" or "unique" names for these pages, they want familiar names. Here is a list of the names that visitors expect to see:

  • Shopping Cart, or Cart (not "bag," "buggy," "backpack," or any of the other cute names some sites try using)
  • Services
  • Products
  • About Us
  • Contact Us
  • Support ("help" is fine too, but "support" is much more common)
  • Downloads
  • Pricing
  • Request a Quote
  • Search
  • Advanced Search
  • Home (not "front page")
  • Buy Now
  • Add to Cart
  • Wishlist

Use popular keywords instead of jargon

Another problem with wording is that companies tend to use company or industry jargon whereas users have different terms (anyone who has worked at a help desk knows this pain!). A great way to see what words your customers use is to take a look at your Web traffic logs and paid search engine advertising accounts to see what search engine keywords are drawing users in. Also, if you can, record the searches on your on-site search system to mine that as well. You may find that your users can't find what they need simply because of the mismatch in terminology.

Luckily, there is an inexpensive, easy way to test your site structure before you even write a line of code, and that is to use paper. Take some index cards, and make various sets representing the most important workflow through your site (that's the one that leads the customer to giving you money, usually). For example, a computer maker would want the user to end up looking at a particular model and selecting "Buy" or "Customize." Your first set of index cards would represent proposed navigation at the top level. Make a few different sets using different terminologies. Get a handful of people who are not familiar with your Web site or products and use them as your test group. It cannot be stressed enough that these people should not have an intimate understanding of your offerings, or else they will throw your results off! You only need 3 - 5 people to make this work. Give them different sets of cards and have them attempt to find a product through your "navigation." Time each level with a stop watch and record your findings. You will quickly see what navigation systems and wording work best for your site. A great alternative to index cards is the Verify application from Zurb. It lets you mock up screens and see where users click to do things.

Once the reorganization is complete, you will want to take a look at your site metrics to see where you have improved and where you have not. To get an apples-to-apples comparison, use percentages, not overall numbers. What you are going to look for are two things: primarily, what percentage of users ended up at the desired conversation pages, and how many clicks did it take them? You will want to compile a good size sample from before the redesign to after, to ensure that you see what is working and what isn't.

By keeping your users in mind when setting up your content structure, and sticking with terminology that they use, you will see visitors getting information much more easily, which should lead to increased conversions.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

3 comments
CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Again, while looking for servers, some companies start with ???home,??? ???small business,??? ???medium business,??? and ???enterprise??? for their servers. What???s the distinction?" And I really don't get it when those are the first options when placing a support call. Does it matter if a server is used in a business or by the government? What difference does it make if the software is used by a SOHO or a student? Ask me what type of hardware or software I'm calling about; any other question implies callers with identical products won't all receive the same quality of support.

ian
ian

I can't count the number of sites I've backed out from simply because they're hard to navigate. I've never used Zurb but after doing the demo will probably give it a shot. thanks for the article

hic2010
hic2010

Great Article. Dean Wolf www.upfrontbydesign.com

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