Common mistakes of site structure

Paul Boag

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