Common mistakes of site structure

Getting a sites’ structure right is hugely important and avoiding common mistakes is a good starting point to achieving that.

Although creating a site structure is normally the role of an information architect, the reality is that everybody from designers to website owners find themselves working on it. So what are the most common mistakes and how do we avoid them?

In my opinion there are two pitfalls that many people fall into when structuring the content for their site; confusing naming conventions and overwhelming options.

Confusing naming conventions in your site structure

The biggest mistake I observe when it comes to information architecture is in the naming of pages and sections. The problem manifests itself in three ways:

  • Use of jargon: Every industry and company has its jargon. Web design is certainly no exception with more acronyms than you can shake a stick at. The problem is that you can never assume your users will know all the acronyms. They maybe new to the sector or use a slightly different variation of your companies terminology. The names of your sections and pages should be free of jargon and where possible, product names that the users will not have previously encountered. Page and section titles should be descriptive of their content in the plainest language possible.
  • Long names: Although naming should be descriptive they should also be short. Ideally all menu items should be one or two words long. The idea is that users should be able to quickly scan down the list of pages available and identify the one most likely to have content they need.
  • Inconsistent naming: Be careful that the way you refer to pages does not change depending on which section you are in. Every link to a page should be referred to in the same way. Where a page title needs to be longer than the wording used in menu items make sure it mirrors it closely. Inconsistent naming can cause confusion and doubt in users making them unsure if they have previously viewed a particular page.

A site structure with too many options

The second common pitfall is that of presenting the user with too many options. I commonly come across site structures with more than twelve links in a menu bar at any one time. This goes against conventional wisdom that the optimal number of options to present a user with is between six and eight. Anything more than this and they quickly become overwhelmed and struggle to process the options available.

The desire to present the user many options is an understandable one. As with the homepage there is pressure placed on website managers by different stakeholders to ensure particular content is not &#”;buried&#”; deep within the site. There is also a misconception that the number of clicks in a site should be minimized.

Like many of the misconceptions relating to the web, the belief that users do not like to click is based on out of date thinking. The major problem with clicks was that they meant the loading of a new page and in the pre-broadband days this meant a delay. Of course today that is becoming less of a concern as broadband becomes more pervasive. What is more I think it is safe to say that users do not mind additional clicks if it keeps the process of navigating a site simple and intuitive.

With the myth surrounding clicks dispelled that leaves only the fear of content becoming buried deep within the site structure. How will anybody ever discover a crucial product if it is buried four levels down? Also what do you do with a page that could sit under multiple sections? What if the user looks in the wrong place?

The answer to these concerns are simple. There is more to site navigation than the sites hierarchy. A good website will provide lots of navigational tools to help the user find content and to ensure key content is made clearly visible. These include:

  • Search: Search results can contain side links to key content or even weight that content more heavily so it appears nearer the top of the results.
  • Related links: By adding in a related links box into each page you can highlight related content that the user maybe interested in.
  • Shortcuts: Shortcuts are commonly used on home pages to highlight important content buried deeper in the site structure. However, these links could potentially be used on any page of the site.
  • Body links: Its easy to forget the humble body link. However they are a powerful way of highlighting a page on the site no matter how deep in the site it is buried. One technique is to automatically transform any occurrence of a defined keyword into a link to content you wish to promote using either Javascript or some server side processing.
  • Tagging: More and more sites are introducing tagging as a navigational method. By clicking on a tag associated with an individual page you are then taken to a list of other pages including that tag. However, there is no reason why key pages associated with a particular tag could not be highlighted in some way to draw further attention to them in the listing.

With so many options available for highlighting content it quickly becomes apparent that positioning in the site hierarchy should not be an issue of contention.

Getting a sites structure right is hugely important and avoiding these common mistakes is a good starting point to achieving that. But what other tips do you have for creating the perfect information architecture? Post them in the comments.

“Model House And Key On Plans” image courtesy of

  • May want to take into account these findings on your overwhelming options section.
    Homepage link options:

  • Hey Paul,
    I’m wondering if you have any research which shows that “the thinking that users do not like to click is out of date.” I can definitely see the logic – it’s much less of a commitment now – but my instinct is that there is still a great deal of hesitancy to click. Even though it may take 3 or 4 seconds for a page to load, rather than 30 or 40 (thank God), I feel like there’s still the feeling of commitment – at least there is for me.
    I just have to believe that content that is 4 clicks away will get seen less than content that is 3 clicks away…and, if that’s true than the “misconception that the number of clicks in a site should be minimized” may not be a misconception at all.
    I love the alternate navigation recommendations, by the way, and fully agree with them…it’s just that it seemed like this information about users willingness to click was presented as fact. I’m just wondering if it was.
    Many thanks for all your work,
    Josh Knight

  • I thought the aim of links on a site is to drive a user to a specific place? Or at least for the majority of commercial websites should work this way.
    Take a Landscape Designer’s website for example, the aim would be to get someone from the home page to the contact page and deliver enough reason to make that contact / enquiry.
    I agree with not having too many links, but the website should have enough links to pages that “drive” the user to the information that is relevant to them.
    In most commercial cases, the structure of the site should display information in this order):
    1) The key benefit that the product or service has to offer.
    2) The secondary benefits that the product or service has to offer
    3) A credibility re-inforcement e.g. Case Studies, Samples, Testimonials
    4) Contact Us / Buy Now
    So long as each step drives the user to the next logical step, I think it doesnt really matter how many links, or exactly how the site is structured.
    It can be all in 1 page, or a series of pages that link to each other with call-to-action links.
    Its hard to call something a pitfall or a sucess. In the end of the day, if the visitors are subscribing, buying or enquiring, isn’t that the measure of a whether a website is structured well? What do you think?
    website design

  • Website Design Professional:
    I have trouble trusting website design advice posted by a website designer who hides content in his own webpage. A quick perusal of your website shows “website design website designer web design web designer” in white text against a white background underneath your flash header. I don’t know how web design works in Australia, but hiding text and deceiving search engines is usually frowned upon in standard web design.

  • Bit late listening to this episode, but thought I would expand on one of the points raised for anyone interested. Paul mentions that conventional wisdom is that the “optimal number of options to present a user with is between six and eight”. As Paul rightly says in the podcast (#106) there’s “something about the number 7 and that we can retain 7 items in our head at any one time”. This is from Cognitive Psychology and is know as The 7+-2 Rule proposed by George Miller. Interestingly however, despite often being described correctly (as Paul does) it is frequently mis-appropriated to situations where users don’t need to retain the item in their head. Such as website navigation bars, where they don’t need to store the information because they can simply refer to it when they need it.
    That said, reducing the number of navigation points is still great advice to avoid general information overload, but another point Paul mentions is equally crucial – that of grouping information logically. If that means you can reach less than 7, which you often can, then great, but don’t compromise to reach this magic number. If logical content structuring dictates having 11 navigation items, in my opinion, you should use 11.
    Agree whole heartedly with everything else. Another great post.

  • I could not agree with you more about keeping the categories simple. Too many sites out there have long named categories with over whelming amounts of links on their frontpage.
    Embedded links in related articles keep users attention on and in your site as well as show them related articles…and search functionality will find even the most “buried” content.
    So, all in all, there is no need to smother your frontpage in links. All this does is serve to scare away unique hits.