Beginner’s Guide to Organizing Website Content
Organizing your website’s content can feel a bit like putting together the pieces of a puzzle – without the picture on the box to help you along.
Where should key pieces of information go? How can you be confident your visitors will be able to quickly find the content they’re looking for?
Whether you’re launching a new site or redesigning your current web property, the key to proper organization is having a plan. Here’s how to come up with one that’ll guide your website to success:
Start with Your “Whys”
Before you even beginning thinking about layouts or site content, get crystal clear on why you’re building your website in the first place. For instance, are you trying to:
- Share key business information (like hours or location)?
- Sell physical or digital products?
- Capture leads?
- Teach visitors a new skill?
- Build an email list?
- Grow your personal or professional brand?
- Spread new ideas or affect change?
- Gather charitable donations?
- Organize for a political cause?
The specific “whys” behind your website will give you the first clue as to how it should be organized. If your primary purpose is to grow the number of subscribers to your business’s email newsletter, burying your opt-in form at the bottom of a second-tier page in your site’s navigation won’t help you achieve your goals.
It’s possible, of course, to have more than one website goal. You might, for example, have a primary goal of selling physical products, but a secondary goal of growing your business’s brand so that future customers come to you without extra marketing on your part. Keep all your different priorities in mind as you move through the rest of this guide.
Inventory Your Existing Content
If you’re starting fresh with a new website, skip this section. If, on the other hand, you’re updating your current site, your first step should be to understand what content currently exists on your website – and what’s worth moving over to your new web property.
If your site is small, you may be able to conduct this content audit manually. If your site is larger (or if it’s been awhile since you built it), you may find it helpful to use a tool like Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider to automatically capture all the different pieces of content currently published.
Once installed and run, the tool’s output will look something like this:
Export these records to a spreadsheet file so that you can conduct your own analysis:
Once you’re left with just your pages and posts (if applicable), add columns to your spreadsheet to assess each content piece based on any or all of the following factors:
- Is this information timely or out-of-date?
- Is this content something my current readers still need to know
- Is this information high-value for visitors?
Don’t overthink your analysis. All you really need to determine is whether or not each content piece is worth keeping from the perspective of your readers and Google’s quality guidelines (which suggest that content should be useful, informative, valuable, credible, high quality and engaging).
If any of your current content pieces don’t meet these standards, ask yourself whether it’s worth your time to update them (for instance, a blog post explaining industry best practices that are several years out-of-date) or whether they should just be trashed.
Build Your Navigation
Now that you know what content you need to have on your site – as well as what you already have – it’s time to construct your website’s navigation.
If you’re a total beginner, “navigation” refers to collection of menus that help visitors move around your site. Typically, the navigation bar spans the top of the site (though you’ll occasionally find it running vertically down the right- or left-hand side). Navigation can consist of a single menu bar, a single menu bar with tiered drop-downs, or a combination of multiple navigation bar elements (including your website’s footer).
Here, the iPage website uses a main navigation bar (containing the elements “Web Hosting,” “Domains,” “Marketing Services” and “Get Started Now”), as well as a smaller navigation bar in the upper right-hand corner (Support phone number, “Help” and “Live Chat” options, a “Log In” button, and a country currency selector drop-down. ):
If you’re using a free iPage Website Builder template, your navigation bar’s position may be set by the them you’ve chosen. In the photography website template below, for instance, the navigation bar is set to span the top of the site horizontally.
If you’re coding your own website design, you’ll have more flexibility with your site’s menu layout – though you’ll still want to keep navigation best practices in mind.
Navigation Tips and Tricks
With web design, anything is possible. Yet, despite infinite flexibility, a set of best practices and norms has evolved that dictate how websites and their navigation should be laid out. Rather than being restrictive, adhering to these accepted guidelines makes it easier for new website visitors to immediately understand what your site is about and how to get around it.
Keep the following guidelines in mind as you organize your site’s content:
Choose your navigation structure according to your site’s size
According to Danny Halarewich, CEO of LemonStand:
“Sites with only a small amount of content, up to around 6 pages, can get away with a single navigation bar, where all page text links can be visible at the same time. But sites with a large amount of content, such as eCommerce sites, don’t have this option. If these sites want a navigation bar, they should implement a mega menu. Another alternative for bigger sites is to have a vertical collapsible menu.”
Halarewich offers three examples demonstrating these principles:
Apple’s single navigation bar
If Only’s mega menu
YouTube’s collapsible vertical menu
Your navigation isn’t the place to innovate. Listen to what your site’s expected content is telling you in order to come up with a solution that’s intuitive to visitors.
Be descriptive in your navigation titles
As you build your navigation menu, resist the temptation to load it with generic labels like “Products” or “Services.” As Orbit Media’s Andy Crestodina suggests, descriptive is better from both a user and an SEO perspective.
“Use your main navigation as a place to start telling people and search engines about what you do. Use labels that use top-of-mind phrases for visitors and popular keyphrases according to the Google Keyword Tool.”
Here’s the difference in action, according to Crestodina:
Help users find their way
If debate over how your site’s navigation should be structured or labeled has you feeling overwhelmed, don’t panic. Instead, think about the ultimate goal of your site’s organization: helping users find the information they came for.
For a long time, web design and UX experts clung to the “3-click rule” (that users will give up if they can’t find information after three clicks of the mouse). But since placing everything within three clicks might not be possible for large or complex sites, Ally Reeves – writing for Medium – offers a bit of hope:
“Research shows that if the progressive revelation of information takes the user down a path towards refinement that feels like progress and gets them where they need to be, they will give you up to twelve clicks before turning grumpy. Yes, twelve.”
Knowing this, your primary concern doesn’t need to be minimizing the number of clicks it takes to reach pieces of content (though limiting them may be helpful). What you’ll want to focus on instead is incorporating things like breadcrumbs, recommended reading lists and other sign-posts into your site’s eventual design.
Putting It All Together
Take what you’ve learned about your site’s content needs and website navigation best practices to build a plan for your site’s structure. Some people like to do this with a pen and paper. Others do it using Post-It notes stuck to a wall. Work however you prefer – just allow some flexibility as you test different categories and organization structures.
Here’s how the process might look in practice:
Imagine you’re an auto repair shop. From your earlier content audit, you identified the following as pieces of information you plan to include in your new website:
- Shop hours
- Shop location
- Shop contact information
- Shop services
- Helpful articles on common car repairs
- Product reviews for the tires your shop stocks
- Shop news updates
- Testimonials from happy customers
Because your goal for your website is to get more customers, you decide to feature your hours, location, contact information and testimonials on your homepage. Everything else can then be divided up into categories to build your navigation bar.
You might choose to put all of your articles, product reviews and shop news updates together on a single blog. Or, you might dedicate an entire navigation bar item to “Tires,” if they’re a primary revenue-generator for your shop. In any case, you might also choose to build breadcrumbs into each of your pages to simplify visitor place-finding.
The organizational structure you choose doesn’t have to be final. Think of your navigation as a living, breathing entity that may change as the needs of your site visitors and business evolve. Watch your analytics and test tools like heat maps to see where visitors are getting stuck. Then, make whatever changes are necessary for their success on your new website.
Got a tip to add to our suggestions on website organization? Leave us a comment below sharing your thoughts: