More Than a Site Map: The Information Architecture of Your Website

Guest Post by Carrie Hane, Founder & Principal Strategist, Tanzen

If you have a website, you probably started with a site map: a hierarchical list of the pages on your site that becomes the main navigation menu.

Menus are very important to websites. They are visible and help the site’s visitors get to the where they want to go. But the information architecture—the IA—of your website is so much more than a menu. Like physical structures, websites and digital products need to have good plans, designs, and construction if they are to last and be useful.

Information architecture (IA) is the system of organization, classification, labeling, and structure used in an information space.

IA is a discipline. A branch of knowledge concerned with the design, construction, and organization of information. It seeks to make sense of large amounts of information. And we have nothing if not vast amounts of information that need to be made sense of.

People can be IAs (information architects). These people specialize in planning and designing information to make sense to other people.

When we talk about the IA, we need to consider the four systems make information findable, usable, and understandable:

  • Navigation
  • Organization
  • Labeling
  • Searching

Yes, the IA is so much more than a site map or even a menu!

How We Architect Information

As soon as we went beyond oral storytelling and started creating written information, we had to find ways to classify and organize it. Long before we had websites and computers, humans developed ways to make sense of it. Things like:

  • Alphabetical lists
  • Dewey Decimal System
  • Maps
  • Indexes
  • Diagrams

It helps to think of doing IA as a verb and turning it around and think about how to architect information. How do we plan, structure, and organize it?
Start with intent. What do you want to convey? Then move on to context. Why do people want what you have to offer?

There is your foundation for your plan. Now you need a structure. It needs to make sense to the people who will use your website. It needs to reflect your intent and help your audience achieve their goals so you can achieve yours. All information can be broken into smaller pieces and put back together with distinct meaning. Be deliberate about how you structure your information to create something that is sustainable and doesn’t have to be torn down and rebuilt in a few years.

The classification and organization of things is taxonomy. Get used to this term. It isn’t just keyword tags on web pages. It’s any number of vocabulary sets applied to pieces of information. How you choose to classify and organize things reflects your intent. Your taxonomy is a set of instructions for people interacting with you. (How to Make Sense of Any Mess, Abby Covert)

Now you’ve got to organize it all. A site map is a hierarchy—successive categories. You could also organize things in a sequence—the order in which something happens. You probably have all kinds of hypertext on your website (commonly known as links). They provide connection without putting the items together. It does not change where things are located. Rather it is used to jump between taxonomies. All of those provide ways for people to navigate through your website.

Yes, it helps to make navigation a verb too. Here are all the ways people can navigate through a website:

  • Menus (main, secondary/local, utility)
  • Search
  • Breadcrumbs
  • URLs
  • Contextual links/calls to action
  • Guides
  • Wizards/configurators
  • Social (algorithms based on how users interact with content)

So much more than a site map!

The way you architect your information can either make people feel capable or rather dumb. Think about how you have felt when using a poorly organized and labeled website or product. Don’t make your audience feel that way! Follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you’d have done to you. Use your IA to educate people. Create a new level of understanding by categorizing and labeling things in a way that matches users’ mental models. Then show how you think about it, which may be different than they do, but now they are thinking, “ Wow, look at all of these things that are this category!”

What Good IA Does For Your Organization

There’s even more to tempt you to think beyond the site map.

When you look at all these things and optimize your IA, you get:

  • Better business outcomes—people aren’t frustrated and so engage and buy more
  • Enhanced understanding of your space—when you understand your audience’s mental model and expectations you can fulfill their needs
  • Connection—with your audience, across your divisions, and between systems
  • Flexibility to change things around—no more tearing everything down and rebuilding every 3-5 years; smart planning means you can make incremental changes constantly
  • Ability to scale your business—because you have a solid foundation, you have a path to grow in whatever way makes sense

Now you know that IA is more than a site map and search. You don’t have to be an IA to do IA and have a good IA. If you need to architect information but don’t have the luxury of having an IA handy, you can go just a bit deeper to learn some basic and make big changes. Here are some resources that are easy to digest:

Living in Information by Jorge Arango
How to Make Sense of Any Mess, by Abby Covert
Everyday Information Architecture by Lisa Maria Martin

And if you read this in time, you can sign up for Information Architecture Fundamentals: Make Information Findable and Usable on December 10, 2019, in Arlington, VA (just outside Washington, DC). You’ll learn techniques for doing all of the things described in this post and more.

If nothing else, do me one tiny favor: don’t confuse the IA with the site map any more.

About the Author

Carrie Hane helps organizations create more effective content more consistently by coordinating the people, processes, and technology. For 20 years, she’s been putting together teams and creating processes that stick while untangling information to make it findable, usable, and ready for whatever’s next. She is the co-author of Designing Connected Content. Find her at

Small Investments, Big Marketing Results

You can have effective marketing with a small budget. Here are five great – and inexpensive – marketing options you want to try.

Offer Great Content

The best marketing happens with great content. That means providing information that your target audience needs on your website, on social media and everywhere you are online.

Content can come in the form of videos, blog posts, social media posts, white papers, etc. The best content is about helping your customers and not selling. Share useful information that’s relevant to your customers and you’ll earn their trust and create a positive impression of your brand.

Use the customer service queries that you’ve received in the past as a way to get some content ideas. Pay attention to metrics to determine what content works best. Do more of that!

Optimize for Search Engine Visibility

You can spend a lot for SEO. In fact, many businesses do. However, search engine optimization doesn’t have to cost you anything except time. Optimize your website for search engines by researching which keywords customers use when they’re looking for products or services like yours. Once you determine your keywords, use them in your website content. Use your selected keywords in headlines, content, alt tags on images and meta descriptions.

Use Social Media

Social media platforms are great for getting attention for your content. Your business pages on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter etc. are a great place to share your content. They should reflect your branding and always link to your website.

Make connections with your customers and target customers. Interact with them to learn what they care about and where you fit in.

List Yourself in Local and Industry Directories

Local search directories are typically free or low cost. Create business pages in search engines like Google and Bing! Claim your business listing in local search directories, such as Google My Business, Yelp and Bing Places for Business. Also pay attention to local community websites that feature business listings. Most industry professional associations also have directories. Get listed!

Get Reviews

More than eight in 10 American adults say they read reviews at least some of the time before making a purchase. Make sure your business is listed on important review sites for your industry and that your profile on these sites is complete and detailed.

Encourage your customers to review your business by including links to your review sites on your website and in your social media. Be sure to acknowledge all reviews that you receive.

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Your digital strategy is all about driving traffic to your website – your online home base. Taking time to make the pages you send people to – your landing pages – a great and well presented experience can create the engagement and conversion you are looking for.

When visiting your site, customers expect an experience that is fast and well-designed — no matter the device they’re using. In a recent study, Google found that 81% of smartphone users are more likely to purchase from companies whose mobile sites or apps help them easily find what they’re looking for.

Optimize for Mobile

Think mobile with your landing pages. Optimizing the web pages for mobile usage is a requirement, not an option. To make your site mobile friendly, run your landing pages through Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test, which will give you the insights and resources you need to improve your pages’ mobile performance.

Use Google Analytics as a Guide

Which areas of your site are performing under expectations? Are certain landing pages turning leads to more sales? Where do site visitors linger? Where do they leave?

Google Analytics offers detailed reports that are specifically designed to help you better understand the performance of your landing pages. In Analytics, follow this path: Behavior>Site Content>Landing pages report. Use the data to understand which landing pages are doing well and which need improvement.

Test Landing Pages

Google Optimize enables you to make multiple versions of your site and see which version performs best. You can test different layouts and content to see if the changes impact conversion to your desired outcome.

Testing with Optimize helps you build pages that offer better user experiences, drive more conversions, and provide a higher return on ad spend as a result.