Information architecture – the backbone of every website

In computer science, the term “information architecture” refers to the classification, labeling, and structuring of information. It plays an important role, especially in designing a structured website. Web designers just have to name individual topics or products and then assign them to semantic categories. These categories then form the main components of a website hierarchy, which makes it easier for users to orient themselves and for page operators to work. An organized structure and flat hierarchies also ensure good website rankings on search engines. But what elements are the most important when it comes to information architecture, and where did the term originate?

Origin story and definition of information architecture

Information architecture (IA) is common in intranet and database system design, and the term also used to come up often in connection with chip design. The first record of the term “architecture” when referring to information technology dates back to 1959. Frederick P. Brooks and Lyle Johnson explained the structure of the stretch supercomputer using thieterm. Richard Saul Wurman then coined the term “Information Architect” in 1976 in a lecture he gave at the American Institute of Architects in Washington D.C. However, the actual origin of the field lies in library science: the categorization and archiving of information, as well as its availability, are basic building blocks of the library system, and are also used in IA.

Another scientific field that has related elements is cognitive psychology. This examines the human brain’s information processing and decision-making methods. To create a user-friendly website design, it helps to understand how users mentally search for and store information. Effective information architecture divides a website into categories and subcategories, and assigns the paths to individual pages in such a way that visitors can reach the desired information intuitively in just a few clicks.

Architecture as visual art gives the term its symbolism: it means giving a website a solid foundation that fits the content and works effectively with the website.

Definition

Information architecture deals with the structural design of a website, as well as apps and databases. Information architects categorize a site’s information into semantic units that are as intuitive as possible to users. Additionally, they structure the page hierarchically so that the functions, data, and communication paths can be effectively located and retrieved.

The main aspects of a website’s information architecture

The structural design of a website is a multi-level process that involves various tasks. Good information architecture begins even before the website is designed.

Keyword research and relevant analysis

Before designing a website, it is important to find out what potential visitors will be looking for. Using a keyword research tool can help you find out how relevant a particular term is for a particular target group. Also, the absolute search volume and the number of competitors who also want to rank highly for this keyword play an important role. Relevance to the audience reflects whether the keyword fits thematically on the page.

A high search volume promises a lot of traffic, but usually goes hand in hand with an equally high number of competitors. The more competition there is, the more you will have to optimize your keywords to get ahead of the crowds. Alternatively, you can rely on less popular search terms (long-tail keywords), provided that they match the content. The keywords found can then be grouped according to importance and topic affiliation to different categories.

Page navigation and hierarchy concept

Using the pre-researched topic groups, web designers create a concept for the page hierarchy from the homepage right through categories and subcategories, to individual product or information pages. A flat hierarchy is the best choice to allow users to find their way quickly through the website and to ensure that search engine crawlers can enter domain pages as quickly as possible.

Information architecture is represented by the above example of two online shops. While the site Master Gardener (MG) decided to search for keywords according to three main categories, the site Master Baker (MB) has five heterogeneous thematic groups. Since MG has fewer major categories, they are more extensive. The path from the main category to the product page goes through several steps which reduce the subject area. To get from the domain to the product, just four clicks are needed. Search engine crawlers no longer browse every subcategory of a website, as it is too time consuming. Therefore, product pages that feature a website’s main offerings rarely end up being considered in rankings. 

On the other hand, the MB page is structured so that the broad categories allow you to navigate to the bottom of the hierarchy in just two clicks. This is not just an advantage when it comes to search engine indexing, it also gives visitors an easier-to-understand page, which results in a better user experience. The MB example also shows that product pages or subcategories can be assigned to more than one main category. The paths to the search target are based on semantic linking chains that a user would most likely use. 

It also takes into account that users can access the information for different reasons. The path: Master baker à Ingredients à Candy melts assumes that a larger purchase may be made, which includes flavors and other ingredients in addition to the sugar product. The path Master baker à Glazing and icing à Candy melts on the other hand, focuses on the search for the different products that surround the baked goods.

Thanks to the MB website’s information architecture, navigating to find the product you are looking for can be done in two ways. This means that the information page for Candy melts can be found intuitively for users with different approaches. A third way is through the search function integrated in the website. This way is primarily used by visitors who already have a specific product in mind and want to go directly to the product page. Another way is the direct entry on the bottom of Candy melts, since this is displayed as a search result in the search engines when users look specifically for the product.

A breadcrumb (Homepage » Glazing and icing » Candy melts) on the product page helps the visitor navigate the page and quickly access higher-level categories if needed. The more opportunities users have to get to the information they need quickly and intuitively, the more they value the pages’ usability, and the greater the potential time and likelihood of closing a deal (conversion rate). The navigation design plays an important role here.

Website navigation is a reflection of information architecture. There are two approaches to arranging subject areas: the top-down approach assumes that users find website offers from the first page. Therefore, the most popular keyword categories are featured together on the homepage, from where all other content derived. The bottom-up approach, on the hand, assumes that users enter the site by searching for a particular term. Therefore, navigating from a subpage to any other point should be easy and intuitive. Breadcrumbs, or fixed navigation points on each page leading back to the main categories help.

Wireframing/prototype

A so-called wireframe presents page layout concept in a simple and clear way. It is the first blueprint of information architecture. There are static and dynamic wireframes, with static showing a single page and dynamic linking multiple pages. Developers use these functional prototypes to test navigation. The following graphic is an example of the static wireframe of an online store. It shows the basic elements and functions of the page as well as their placement. The main categories are located in the navigation bar. They are visually linked to the subcategories through the page ID assignment.

The category Bakeware gets the page ID 1.0. The IDs of the subcategories “muffin moulds”, “cake moulds” etc. are subordinated with the designations 1.n. The muffin moulds subcategory is highlighted because the example shows the corresponding category page. The image fields to the right refer to the individual product pages with page IDs 1.1.1 to 1.1.12. The numbering reflects the hierarchy within the categories that makes the wireframe virtually invisible. The layout moves from the main categories on the left, to the sub categories in the middle, to the individual products on the right.

The logo is at the top, at the head of the layout. There are also links to basic functions, such as login and a search bar. Contact, legal, and further information about the company are in the footer. Even buttons and input fields for an e-mail address are found in the wireframe. However, the concept does not include the full functionality or the finished design of the website. The page structure is in the foreground of the prototype. Depending on the priorities of the website operator, it can be created as a result of individual modifications to be a well-structured, beautifully designed user-friendly website.

Labeling

Labeling links allows a fixed assignment of each subpage. A URL should be illustrative, so try to use the main keyword of each page. Start off with the domain name, which should be as short and memorable as possible. As a representative of the brand, the best idea is to pick a name related to the topic, ideally the main keyword. In our example of the bottom “Muffin moulds” the domain (“master baker”), main category (“baking molds”) and subcategory (“muffin moulds”) results in a solid structure for the link marketing https.www.masterbaker.com/bakingmoulds/muffinmoulds. This kind of static URL does not change as content is updated, unlike a dynamic URL.

The advantage of a dynamic URL is that content can easily reach the page via the back end without much formatting. When viewed by search engines however, a dynamic URL is at a disadvantage because it lacks a connection to its content through the keyword.   

It can be hard to find a fresh, new domain that is not already taken, especially for a website dealing with a topic that has a high search volume. There are different ways to acquire a domain. If the domain name you are looking for is already taken, you can offer to buy it from the current owner. You will find plenty more tips on domains in the 1&1 Digital Guide.

Categorizing

By grouping single pages into categories and subcategories, you create meaningful topic channels from the domain to each piece of information. The page hierarchy should be traceable in the URL. Make your URL demonstrative and static so that search engine crawlers have an easier time indexing them. It will also help users remember the address. You can help users to orient themselves with a good visible representation of their current location on the website (“sense of place”), using tools like breadcrumbs and an easy-to-understand path through different categories and subcategories (“information scent”).

There should always be at least two options: a direct search bar is a good option for users who know exactly what information they are looking for. Taking a path through related main categories with flat hierarchies is useful for users who wish to browse through the website, but also still find relevant information quickly. If these main pages and categories fit into more than one parent category, web developers can create their own URL using the canonical tag, which then signals to search engines that the original entry is on a different URL. This means that you avoid being punished for duplicating content. In addition to grouping, they also create metadata for each subpage so that they can be found by filtering through smaller, easier-to-find groups.

Information architecture as a basic building block for SEO

A good search engine ranking is the ultimate goal of SEO. The basic building blocks of search engine optimization are off page and on page optimization. SEO experts achieve off page optimization through so-called backlinks (links from trustworthy sources to their own website). Partner pages refer to the relevant page as a further source of information or a suitable offer.

However, on page SEO is more important in terms of a website’s information architecture. This includes all measures that can be implemented directly on your own page to improve a ranking. The focus is on writing high-quality texts that provide users with comprehensive information on a website’s topic. These texts are created by SEO editors after conducting a keyword search. The information architecture structures the framework of a website for the same search engine optimized keywords. It also provides a way to the desired information through thematic channels. Clear web page architecture with illustrative URLs helps search engine crawlers connect the generated content to a frame.

                Example: masterbaker.com/Glazing-Icing/Candy-Melts/

As seen in the example, the site has a relatively short domain name that matches the keyword, as well as a trusted domain extension. The categories are semantically linked and can speak for themselves. The most important keywords are included in the link. An SEO text picks up this and other semantically linked keywords to add multifunctional content to the page. If the content and link match, this positively affects the ranking. Flexible architecture also makes it possible to expand the site with new categories.

Conclusion

Information architecture is an important component of web design. With a well thought out concept that emphasizes user-friendliness and solid but flexible structuring, it optimizes the usability and user experience of a website. It also provides the foundation for search engine optimization.