The Importance of Content Architecture

» Have a Pro Design Your Navigation

Ease of navigation is one of the most-often overlooked facets of site design. Site owners want slick looking graphics, an eye-catching logo and compelling sales copy. After that, many e-biz owners don’t know what they need for an effective, on-line sales tool.

If you don’t know the fundamentals of your potential site’s information architecture, designing site navigation is something best left to professionals — those with experience in directing visitors to the proper information and seeing that the Most Desired Action (MDA) is accomplished. This is how site owners improve their conversion rates.

Sites that are user intuitive — that anticipate the needs of site visitors — will be used more frequently. Repeat traffic will increase and, along with it, site sales. Repeat visitors usually come back for a reason. To buy something.

Determining a Site’s Content Needs
The first step in the development of site architecture is to develop a list of needed components and content. Naturally, this will change from site to site. For example, a small corporate site selling services might have an ‘About Us’ page detailing the careers of company principals, awards and recognitions, a client list and work samples.

This information would not be necessary on a retail site. Here, the objective is to sell the goods. This requires clearly-delineated product heading links, detailed product descriptions and large photos of each item. A ‘Contact Us’ page will direct visitors with product questions to an email or telephone contact.

There are literally dozens of possible site elements: FAQs, client or customer testimonials, a visitor log-in, privacy statement and on and on. To develop a list, visit similar sites to the one you envision. Make a list of what works and what doesn’t.

A word of caution, here. Many site owners overstuff their pages with information, pix, unnecessary and confusing links, promos and extraneous content that doesn’t help the visitor. This “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to site design may be daunting to the first time visitor.

How does the visitor move through the site to accomplish the MDA? This is a question of accessibility. How easily can the visitor access the critical information needed to perform the MDA?

A site that’s difficult to navigate is a site that’s frustrating to use and, as such, it won’t generate a lot of repeat traffic. If visitors can’t find the information they need quickly, they’ll leave to find a site with a more accessible content architecture.

The Importance of Link Headings
Visitors have certain expectations when they use the Internet. One of those expectations is that a link will take them to the information they’re looking for. If it doesn’t, more often than not, they’ll just leave.

Example: A site selling high-end pens has a link off of the home page clearly labeled ‘Products’. The first time visitor rightfully assumes that this link will take her to a list of products and prices — in effect, the retailer’s catalog. However, when she clicks and finds herself reading through a long article on the importance of quality craftsmanship in pen design, chances are she’ll move on to the next pen retailer listed in the search engine results pages.

A better descriptor, in this case, might be ‘About Our Products’ with a second link labeled ‘Our Product Catalog’. This informs visitors of what they’ll find down this path versus another. Link descriptions must be clear and unambiguous to facilitate the needs of visitors and to make the sale.

Pay Attention to the Little Things

For example, we’ve all visited sites that use a script font with lots of curly-Qs and other flourishes. It’s a design element. Unfortunately, at least some visitors will have difficulty reading this text. They may have vision problems or be dyslexic. They may read at an 8th grade level. In fact, the average adult American reads at an 8th grade level, so keep type fonts simple and the text large — at least 12-point type. It’s a little thing, but something that will make a big difference in a site’s success.

Color is another small thing that has a big impact on visitors. Yellow text on a white background is difficult for many people to read. Colors that clash, too many different colors or colors that send the wrong message will discourage visitors from performing that MDA.

Do the captions fit the pictures? Do the pictures make a statement or clarify informational content? Are links large enough for vision-impaired visitors? Many site owners focus on the big things but fail to consider the small details. These are the site owners who don’t usually survive on the web.

Add a Site Map
This may not be necessary for a small site with a limited number of pages, but it’s an absolute must for larger sites with numerous links throughout. A lost visitor is an unhappy visitor. By providing a site map, visitors can find their way back to the correct path with a simple click.

In addition, search engines spider site maps. If a site changes often with new promotions, special sales and price blowouts, a site map is useful in helping search engines identify new content — an extra bonus.

Substance Before Form
Substance is the meat of a site. It could information, it could be products, a description of services — it’s the reason the site exists.

Form is the shape the substance takes on. Form is a design consideration and includes everything from typeface and colors to how the text is laid out on the page.

Given that the average visitor will spend less than 10 seconds to determine how useful a site is, the home page must grab visitors’ attention. But after that, people are looking for the substance behind the glitzy home page.

Are the products easy to identify? Is the checkout simple to use and secure? Does the text provide useful information regarding products and their use? Sure, you need sales copy, but any site requires substance. Good products, clearly described services, money-savers, free shipping — this is the type of information that visitors want to see when they visit a site.

And substance should always take precedence over form. You may have the most compelling text ever written, but if that text is set in a hard-to-read font or appears in some oddball color, form has taken over. The shape, the look, the feel of the site is given greater importance than the content. And people want content, regardless of the site’s purpose.

Form attracts but substance sells.

Let the Pros Do It
By a large margin, most sites fail to accomplish their MDAs. In fact, only six out of 100 sites actually succeed in their mission. Now, some of these sites fail because the revenue model doesn’t work. Some don’t make it because the products are sub-par or overpriced. But some sites fail, not because the business model is flawed, but because the site design is.

Budding entrepreneurs are turning to the world wide web to put their visions of success into action. Unfortunately, many of these fledgling sites are undercapitalized. They’re constructed on a shoestring budget.

The owners of these sites must cut corners somewhere in order to get the on-line business up and running, and site design is the most obvious place to make cuts. Site design is outsourced to unqualified designers or, worse, the owners develop their own sites. They may be terrific businesspeople, they may be top-notch retailers. But if they don’t understand what visitors expect from a site, the time, energy and money spent will be wasted.

The conclusion? If you’re considering your own on-line enterprise, make sure you can afford to build a site designed by an experienced, knowledgeable professional with experience in SEM and SEO. Your site is your on-line business. It’s not the place to cut corners.

If you can’t afford a professionally designed site, wait until you can. Otherwise, you’re taking a substantial risk and, with an on-line failure rate in excess of 90%, the odds are not in your favor.

Cut corners if you must, but let a professional design your content architecture. It’s your best assurance that your site will thrive and your vision come to fruition.

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