We plan and write a lot of websites at Caboodle. Big websites. Little websites. Iddy-biddy single-page sites. And we’ve found that copywriting – or content creation – tends to be a bit of an afterthought, especially for smaller businesses or startups. Design and development get all the time and money, which is understandable, but misses the point of a website. It’s content that converts visitors into customers (or members, or donors…). But we digress.
This isn’t a spleen-venting exercise. We’re not here to bitch about being the poor relations (don’t get us started). We’re here to talk about where your website journey should start. Before design. Before development. Even before content creation.
We’re talking about information architecture, or IA. We’re talking about planning your website.
The good and bad news about information architecture (IA)
The good news is, there are lots of resources you can use to find out about information architecture and how to plan your website. The bad news is, you’ll find a lot of it is contradictory.
There are some great books on the subject. We love Don’t make me think by Steve Krug . It’s full of great stuff about planning your website and optimising the user experience.
There’s also a wealth of research you can draw on, but the truth is, best practice is changing all the time. There are few hard and fast rules. There isn’t really a right or wrong answer.
So, what should you do if you’re setting up a new website, or giving your current site an overhaul? If you don’t have an in-house web development and UX team, how should you start planning your website?
How we think about IA and planning websites
These days, we plan many of the websites we write. Most, in fact. And if we aren’t planning the IA ourselves, we’re usually asked for our opinion or input.
When you think about it, it makes perfect sense for your website copywriter to plan your website – structuring and prioritising content and messaging is second nature to a good website copywriter.
We take everything we know – about the psychology of website users, about website copywriting, about search engine optimisation (SEO) and conversion rate optimisation (CRO) – and provide our clients with a range of potential site maps based on different approaches to information architecture.
These site maps enable us to have a conversation with our clients about the pros and cons of the different approaches, then refine the option that best suits their current and future needs and objectives.
And the ‘future’ bit is really important. You need to create an IA that you and your business can grow into, without having to completely revamp your site’s menu. But that’s a topic for another post.
Where to start when it comes to information architecture
Now, it’s easy to tie yourself in knots if you’re planning your own website, so before you get caught up in menus and navigation and page names, we suggest taking a deep breath and looking at the big picture.
First, you need to consider and then reconcile three fundamental IA planning issues:
#1: What your visitors want and need
When someone visits your website, they’re looking for something – usually an answer to a question.
Some personality types will just want a brief answer, pronto.
Other personality types will want the answer to their question, but they’ll also want more detail and information – they’ll want to be reassured that you know what you’re talking about.
But one thing holds true for all personality types: nobody likes having to search around for what they want. Nobody wants to waste their time.
So, your challenge is to understand what your visitors want, then create a structure for your site and navigation that makes finding the right answer quick and easy. You need to put yourself in a visitor’s shoes and think about the questions they will have. You need to make it intuitive.
#2: What Google wants and needs (SEO)
If you know anything about search engine optimisation (the art and science of optimising your website so that search engines will reward you with high ranking in search results), you’ll know SEO copywriting is a thing.
In the bad old days, people used SEO copywriting to ‘game’ Google. In the early days of the interweb, you could simply stuff your website’s content with search terms and secure a high ranking.
Thankfully, things have changed and Google uses an increasingly fancy shmancy algorithm to tell good websites (with useful, original content) from bad websites.
What does this have to do with planning your website and information architecture?
Well, the key thing to remember is that Google wants to help users find the answers and information they’re looking for, so if you structure your website in a way that users will like (see #1), chances are Google will like it too and reward you with higher rankings in their search results.
But it’s also worth bearing in mind that, like visitors, Google will read the content on your site. They will look at what your pages are called and the titles in your menus and navigation and use this information to decide what your website is about.
With this in mind, it’s worth considering what search terms people are using to find companies or organisations like yours on Google.
You can do this in a number of ways, from simply thinking about what people are likely to search for, through to using Google’s Adwords tool to get some ideas. Either way, it’s a good idea to consider the terms people are likely to use when structuring your website and naming your web pages.
#3: What you want to say (your brand story)
This one’s a bit easier.
You already know what your organisation is all about. If you’ve done your homework, you’ve already put some thought into your brand messaging and brand positioning. You’ll know what brand story you want to tell people, with a view to winning new customers and growing your business.
Now, you need to consider how your IA and, particularly, the menus and navigation on your website can help bring that brand story to life. Your navigation is one of the first things people read on your site, so think carefully about the words they’ll see.
How can you use your navigation to start telling your story? How can you use it to immediately differentiate your business and offer? What is the appropriate tone of voice for your brand, and how can your navigation help set this tone?
Want to find out more about how to plan your website?
There are a lot of things to consider when planning your IA and website. The three considerations we’ve outlined here are just a starting point, to help you get the ball rolling.
In reality though, it’s often quicker, easier and (crucially) better if you hand over the responsibility for information architecture to a third party – a specialist who can be a bit more objective. And if that’s the case, we’re here to help. (Plus, we can write your website for you.)
Paul Leonard is an award-winning copywriter and creative director. He has plied his creative craft in the UK and Australia for more years than he cares to mention, working with (and winning awards for) clients of all shapes and sizes across an equally diverse range of industries. When he’s not building brands and crafting copy, concepts and campaigns, he enjoys running, drinking iced coffee and writing profiles about himself in the third person (not necessarily all at the same time).