A Short Guide to Website Architecture (and Why it Matters to Your Business)
Build it and they will come. Well, it’s a nice sentiment. But sadly not one that works as far as websites are concerned.
With comfortably more than a billion sites on the web, it takes a good deal more than simply putting something online to guarantee the sort of traffic that makes a website successful. You have to know how to elbow your way through the crowd.
That takes a considerable amount of marketing know-how, covering everything from how to make your website visible on search engines to creating the kind of wow-factor content that keeps people coming back for more.
It also goes right to the heart of how you build a site in the first place. Websites are, after all, tools – tools for disseminating information, tools for promoting or running a business, tools for entertainment etc. As with any tool, how a website works matters. Users will always ditch the awkward, clunky, confusing or just plain unreliable ones in favour of those that are smooth, simple, easy but effective.
Building a website that works is key to building a website that people want to use. And underpinning how well a website functions is something we call website architecture.
What is website architecture?
You can probably have a good guess at what website architecture is and what it does from the name. Just as an architect’s job is to plan out a building’s structure so it is safe, fit for purpose and looks good, so in web development, planning the architecture of a website is all about designing a structure that allows for optimum performance.
In particular, website architecture is concerned with how pages in the site relate to one another, how information is presented, how easy it is to move between those pages and find the information you want etc.
Website architecture is therefore part of the broader field of information architecture, which can be described as the science of how information is presented for consumption and use. Information architecture has a broad range of applications, from how you catalogue books in a library to the most effective way of structuring a report or an article or a blog post.
But it is of particular interest in software development (including web and app development), where the relationship between different parts and how you navigate between them is integral to considerations of the user experience (UX).
Website architecture and UX
The average visitor spends just 15 seconds browsing a website. And within those 15 seconds, around one in every two visitors will decide they aren’t going to find what they want and leave after looking at just one page.
You don’t get a lot of time to make a positive impression with visitors to your site. If you want to make them ‘stick’, you have to be pressing the right buttons from the moment they land. That’s why UX is such a big topic in web design. That experience your visitors get right from the very first few seconds is absolutely vital.
Sometimes website architecture gets described as another term for UX design. That’s not quite accurate – information architecture is part of good UX design, but UX also covers other things, like how interactive a site is, the quality of its graphic design and the technical aspects of how a site performs (i.e. the hosting side of things).
However, it’s no stretch to say that it would be very difficult to achieve a good UX without paying attention to information architecture. UX design is all about thinking of website functionality from the end user’s perspective and making things as attractive, straightforward and enjoyable as possible.
A lot of this has to do with how easily people can move around a site and find what they are looking for. Website architecture is not just about internal navigation, but it’s a part of it. It also relates to where pages are located in relation to one another, and to how content/information is prioritised, signposted and labelled. That feeds into on-page design and thinking about which content goes on which pages as much as it does the broader whole-site structure.
If we use the analogy of a library, cataloguing systems are created to make it as easy as possible for people to find what they are looking for. Website architecture has the same overarching goal. The faster and more seamlessly visitors to your site can move around and discover relevant information they want, the longer they will stay on your site, the more engaged they will be with your brand and, ultimately, the more often they will convert into customers.
Website architecture and SEO
While good UX is the driving force behind website architecture, it has another important benefit. Like human web users, search engine algorithms scour (or ‘crawl’) websites for information, and use what they find to list search results for any given search.
A key part of search engine optimisation (SEO), or the practice of boosting a site’s search rankings, is making them as ‘bot friendly’ as possible. So as well as creating an information architecture that makes things easy for people, web designers take great care to ensure search algorithms can scan information quickly and easily, too.
So, for example, search marketing specialists use metrics known as domain authority, page authority and topical authority to describe how sites and pages rank in search. The term ‘authority’ is shorthand for how useful, relevant, detailed and widely used a site or individual page is on a particular topic area. A high ‘authority’ score means a page or site is more likely to rank higher in search results.
Strong information architecture practices boost page authority by ensuring important, relevant content is distributed evenly across all pages on a site, while things like metatagging help to in effect catalogue the information available to help algorithms identify it. Domain authority in part depends on how easily internal links can be navigated to access information across a site.
What’s involved in building a good website architecture?
Creating an effective website architecture begins with understanding your customers. Any site should be designed with a clear understanding of who your customers are, what they most want to get out of your site, what their habits are online etc. An effective website architecture should be thoroughly tested throughout the development process via UX prototyping and testing to ensure it meets their needs.
There are various stages involved in creating an effective website architecture. The key elements are as follows:
- Organisation: You can think of this as the ‘map’ of your website. Site organisation determines how pages relate to one another, e.g. how many pages do you have linking directly to your home page? The architecture of many sites can be rendered in a hierarchical ‘tree diagram’, with a few main hubs branching out into sub-pages. But for things like ecommerce sites, for example, it makes more sense to create more of a sequential structure, which is designed to help visitors move seamlessly from browsing a product through to checkout etc.
- Content siloing: Closely related to site organisation is how you arrange content across pages. The idea of ‘siloing’ is about having clear lines of demarcation, i.e. having all your product and service information in one section of the site, having self-help resources in another etc. This makes it easier for people to use, and also helps search algorithms understand the relationships between content types.
- Labelling: If you visit any website, you quickly get an idea of how it is organised and how content is grouped from the way tabs and links are labelled. Effective labelling is all about supporting use through clear signposting.
- Navigation: A key part of how any site functions is how you move from page to page, or even across content on the same page. Internal linking makes the organisation of your site navigable. A good way to think of effective on-site navigation is providing the most straightforward path through the maze.