Pathways for Finding Information

My previous blog post was about the importance of a website's About Us section. And, though I didn't mention it explicitly there, I should say that the whole point of an About Us section is to build trust -- which, as we know, is all-important on the Internet -- because, the more your site visitors know about you and your company, the more they will tend to trust you.

However, the broader point of that blog post was to say that the language used on websites -- in both text and hyperlinks -- plays a major role in getting information across to site visitors. Of course, that isn't the whole story. There are two other elements of a website that are equally important:

  • The site's design -- which is the way in which elements are laid out on the page, the colours and images that are used, and so on.
  • The site's information architecture (IA) -- which is the way the site's content is logically structured.

Information Architecture

I won't talk about site design here, but I do want to address the importance of a good IA. First off, a good IA is one that is "logical", not to someone as knowledgeable about the company as you, but to someone who knows nothing about the company. It's important to remember this otherwise IAs tend to get very convoluted very quickly.

Also, a good IA isn't all that useful if you don't complement it with a good site navigation system. This can be in the form of a left or right navigation bar; a top navigation bar; a nested, multi-level, or drop-down menu system; or a combination of all or any of these. As long as it's easy to use and your hyperlink text is simple and clear, you should be okay.

Three Basic Pathways

Within your IA, however, it is my opinion that you need to provide three basic pathways to help site visitors find the information they're looking for.

First, you need deep links on the site home page that point to the most important or most frequently used site content. Often this feature is implemented via a 'quick links' box placed in an eye-catching location (such as in the right column, just under the top navigation bar).

In some cases, the links in this box may be dynamically generated (by the Content Management System) based on actual site usage in which case this is called a 'popular links' box. Sometimes webmasters will include both 'quick links' and 'popular links' boxes on their site's home page.

If you want to help your visitors out even more, you'll include a 'relevant links' box in your sub-pages as well. This list can be set manually (on a page-by-page basis) or may be generated dynamically based on content meta data (e.g. other articles on this topic or by this author).

Second, you should have cross links (i.e. links to other parts of the site) on the 'About Us' section's landing page to help users figure out where to go to next in order to find the information they want. These should link to information about the company itself (i.e. general 'About Us' information) and to pages that talk about what the company does. As a small example, look at my 'About Me' page for this blog and notice all the links within the text.

Third, you need a comprehensive 'Site Map' page to help clear any IA confusions that visitors might have. That is, should visitors be unclear about where in your website a particular piece of information will be found, this page should clear things up for them. And the bigger your site is, the more important this page becomes.

A Godsend and a Cop Out: Site Search

There is one more thing that you need to do to help your site visitors find the information the want: your site needs to have a great search engine. This is both good and bad. It's good because, if you implement it well, it's a really useful tool. It's also bad because it lets webmasters get away with a poorly thought-out IA. That is, even if your IA is crap, people might still be able to run, say, a Google search on your site to quickly get to the information they're looking for.

Regardless, to do site search properly you need two things: well-structured HTML pages -- ones that have good titles, text, and meta data (i.e. keywords, summaries, tags, etc.) -- and access to a good search engine (or you need to implement SEO practices so Google does all the indexing for you instead).

And There's More...

There is, of course, much more you can do to make your website go from good to great. For example, it's important to have an FAQ page, a 'Contact Us' page, a featured news/article/story/page section (often on the home page), a good footer, useful breadcrumbs, good images and graphics, and so on. But I won't be talking about all that here.

The point I wanted to make here is that your site's IA (and the information pathways within it) is as important as the language you use on the site itself. Hmmm...maybe I should review the five telco sites again, but this time focusing on their IAs. Maybe later :)