I have come across many website development projects that seem to focus too much on the visual aspects of their website before they put any thought into the structure and information flow. By just inserting information design, sometimes called information architecture at the beginning of your process, you can dramatically change your website’s performance. The benefits of a successful site architecture will not only increase visitor engagement but it will help you attract more of the right visitors. This process will also lead to higher conversions.
Step 1 – Identify Keywords
This first step of identifying high-performing keywords is essential if you wish to drive the right traffic to your site. Take the time to perform a thorough keyword research study from the beginning. It’s a given that you will be using branded keywords on your site, but more importantly look for keywords that your target audience might use to find you. Use a couple of keyword research tools like Keyword Discovery, WordStream, or Wordtracker, along with the Google Keyword Tool to help you gather data on each keyword. Some things to look for and determine are:
Relevancy. How relevant are the keywords to your business and do you have (or will have) relevant content on your site for that keyword?
Specific or long-tail keywords. Very specific search phrases will attract people who are toward the end of their buying cycle and who are ready to convert. For instance, if someone uses the search query “laser printer,” that would suggest they are beginning their research process and haven’t decided on one yet. On the other hand, if they search using the term “HP Laserjet PRO P1102,” that would suggest they know what they want and are ready to buy.
Competition. Find out how competitive the keywords are. Highly competitive keywords will be harder to rank for and may cost more to use.
Search volume. Keywords that have a high search volume represent a popular search term that many people are likely to use. Compare similar terms and see which is the most popular.
As you go through a keyword research study, you will learn more about potential visitors, what they might be looking for, and their wants and needs.
Step 2 – Map the Keyword Space
Categories will emerge from the keyword research, identifying different subsets of your products or services, or information that your potential customers would find useful. Those keyword groupings or categories will help you in identifying relevant pages of content you will want to build into your structure.
As you map the keywords you plan to use to relevant landing pages, you create a fluid connection to content that your visitors are likely to be looking for. It also helps you to perform a kind of gap analysis to identify subpages you might have missed.
Step 3 – Develop Your Site Architecture
The next step is to build out the architecture of your site. Most people refer to this as building a site map. A site map is basically a hierarchical representation of your site and all of its levels and pages. As you mapped your keywords into logical categories, you have already started this process. Continue to build out the rest of the site structure and make sure you include all of the information your target audience and each persona may be searching for.
Richard Baxter presents some very interesting arguments about how deep your site map should go. He makes a case that a flatter site architecture will be best for usability since it will take less clicks to get to the deepest level. A very good tip to consider as you build out the structure of your site.
Step 4 – Wireframe Prototyping
Now that you have a solid structure that outlines your site’s content that is mapped to relevant keywords, you should start to develop your wireframe for each page. A wireframe is a simple representation of the content and navigation for a page on your site. It is not a sitemap. It takes each page on the sitemap and blocks out the placement of content and navigation as seen below.
If you wish to take this a step further, then you can convert your wireframe into a “clickable prototype,” which is a website that incorporates the wireframe with clickable navigation and links to get a feel for how the website will behave and operate.
This is a good best practice, especially for large sites to work out the information flow and usability issues. You can even conduct user testing with a clickable prototype to learn where the problem areas might be before you start programming and coding the site. There are many tools to help you with this process. One that I have used is ProtoShare. It allows you to develop a sitemap, wireframe, and clickable prototype in the cloud and allow your team to work on these elements in an online collaborative environment.
Step 5 – Content Development
The final step is to build into the wireframe the actual content for each page. To bring this full circle, you should make sure the content uses the keywords that you have mapped for each page. Use the keywords in the body copy, text links, video and image tags, etc. This is all a part of SEO best practices. But, more importantly, it bridges the searcher expectation to relevant content on your site. So when your visitors arrive they will feel they have landed at the right place. As a result, you will find that you have more engaged visitors that will be more likely to convert.
Once this process is done, you should plan to add a visual skin to the site that is in harmony with your logo and other branding elements. A mistake many people make is to begin their process with the visual elements first as they design their home page. It is best to look at your site holistically and work out the information flow ahead of time.
I have used this simple process over the past 12 years with a tremendous amount of success. It will help you get into the minds of your audience and anticipate their needs. When they finally land on your site, they will feel right at home since you have taken the time to lay out the information just for them. They will reward you with higher conversions, lower bounce rates, and undoubtedly word-of-mouth praise through social media channels. A win-win for all involved.
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