How to Build Your Information Architecture


Organize your thoughts and name your website pages

If you're in the beginning stages of building or rebuilding your website, you know you need to identify which pages you'll have on your site. The pages you have on your site, and how they relate to each other, is your information architecture (IA). It's the skeletal structure of your site. 

Let's run through a few IA definitions:

  • Primary navigation: these are the set of links most visible on your site, typically located near the top of your webpage. These links will be the most heavily trafficked pages in your site, and should help tell your story. 
  • Secondary + tertiary navigation: these are a set of links that are less visible than your primary links. They are often sought-after pages, but pages that may distract from your central story or may route audiences away from the actions you hope they'll take. 
  • Family pages: in web design and development, we talk about pages in terms of family relationships. A parent page has one or more pages beneath it. For example, if you click on Women's Clothing you may have options such as Women's Shirts, Women's Pants, Women's Shoes underneath it. In this example, Women's Clothing is the parent page. The pages below it (Women's Shirts, Women's Pants, Women's Shoes) are the child pages. Women's Shirts and Women's Pants are sibling pages because they are on the same level. 
  • Call-to-action (CTA): a CTA lives within a page or set of pages and it clearly asks your audience to do something (Learn More, Sign Up, Join Us, Contact Us, etc.). CTAs are most often present in the form of a button, image banner, or distinct link. 

When you're ready to decide on your IA I recommend the following steps:

Start with a free writing exercise. Either on a piece of notebook paper or in a Google Doc, write pieces of information you need to have on your site. Don't feel as if you have to organize this information just yet. If you think of something that needs to be on your website somewhere, write it down. Most websites will have dozens, if not more than 100, pieces of information.

Once you have all of the major pieces of information listed, begin to group that information. If you did this exercise in a Google Doc you can quickly cut and paste statements around on the page. There's no limit to the number of groups you can have. 

Once you're happy with your groups, review the information within each group and label it

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When you finishing labeling groups take a look your labels and decide which items are the first pieces of information you want your audience to know about you and/or the primary actions you want your audience to take. Be critical here. Audiences have a short attention span. This is your beset chance to get a website visitor to know what the need to know so they'll take the action you want them to take. When you decide on the few items that you want your audience to know first, put these aside. This set will become your primary navigation. 

Identify a few of the items you thought might be in your primary navigation, but that didn't make the cut after serious consideration. These are groups of information that are important, but don't lead customers to the desired action. One such group of information is often the About or Mission & History set. This information is great information and it is typically a highly-trafficked page for small businesses (people like to know more about who they're working with), but it very rarely needs to be in your primary navigation. You may also identify a few pages that need to be prominent for legal reasons, such as your privacy policies. Once you have this set, this group will become your secondary navigation. Some companies have many less-than-primary groups of information. In some of those cases, both a secondary and a tertiary set of navigation is necessary.

Once you decide on your primary and secondary navigation, nest remaining labels underneath these items. You may nest only one level deep (creating child links for your primary and secondary navigation) or you may have several layers of navigation (creating grandchild or great-grandchild links). Nest and organize these labels in the way the makes the most sense.

Now you have primary navigation, secondary navigation, and groups of information underneath your primary and secondary navigation. Congrats! We're not done yet, though ...

Do you have labels remaining? This often happens when your primary or secondary labels aren't broad or general enough. Look through these labels again and see if you can re-label anything to accommodate the outstanding information groups. If not, does it make sense to add remaining labels to secondary or tertiary navigation? Finally, do you need a FAQ page? Some clients have multiple small bits of information that they need to convey to audiences, but don't make sense as a single page or group of pages. In this instance, they often find FAQ pages help them collect information for clients. 

Now that every single label or group of information lives somewhere, let's look back at those labels again. More than likely your page with information about you, your company, or your blog is named About. This works for a lot of websites because it's standard and audiences know what to expect when they click on it. For some brands, though, it makes sense to infuse more personality into the label. For example, you could call it Our Story. Instead of calling your contact for Contact Us you could label the navigation item as Get Started or Let's Chat. Your blog could become Thoughts, Recommendations, How-tos, etc. You don't need to assign every item in your navigation with something custom. As I said, audiences come to expect certain standard links. However, choosing different words or phrases for a few key areas is an excellent way to stand out and give more information about who you are. 

My final thoughts on building your IA:

  • Not every piece of the IA equals a separate page on your website. You might have Services in your primary navigation and Content Migration, Content Strategy, and Content Creation underneath that. You could create three separate child pages for each type of service. Or, you could have a single page with three headers (one for each service). Be purposeful with pages you create. You should create a separate page when you have a lot of content around one item or when you want to separate the audience from other information so they focus solely on that one thing. 
  • Fewer links is better in your primary navigation. Most sites should have between 2-5 links in the primary navigation. Each primary navigation link should serve your primary message and should include a call-to-action, directing audiences to a next step. 
  • Secondary and tertiary navigation typically lives in your site footer. Audiences know to scroll down for additional links or information. For some websites (a traditional blog layout for example), a secondary set of links in a sidebar may makes sense.