How I Structure Site Content

For the last few weeks we’ve been looking at information architecture. First with 8 principles of usability and then with some thoughts about setting up your site structure so search engines could find and understand your content. When I started I promised I would offer my own process for setting up the content structure on a site.

Gothic architecture sketch

First here are those other posts about information architecture to get you caught up in case you missed any.

Bear in mind that much of what follows is the process I use when I have complete control over the information on a site. That usually means it’s one of my own sites. When clients enter the picture they’ve often already done a good deal of the work in terms of deciding what content will be included on the site and how some of it needs to be organized. I’ll make suggestions, but in the end they get to decide.

My process with structuring a client’s site will end up being a little different than what’s described here, though I’ll follow as much of the process below as the client allows.

My Process

When it’s entirely up to me what content will be included on a site and how that content will be organized I run through the same process.

  • Brainstorm
  • Organize
  • Prune
  • Revise
  • Create files and folder structure
  • Think about navigation

The majority of my time goes into the first 3 items above. The organizing and the pruning will often happen at the same time, but they are separate things in my mind. Overall it’s an iterative process as I’ll revisit every step several times even after the site has been built.

Graphic of a person's profile overlaid with computer chips

Brainstorming

As a first step I want to think about every possible piece of content I might include. I know most of the ideas will never see the site, but some that only come from brainstorming almost always do.

While I generally know by this time what the site will be about and have ideas what its business model and competitive advantage will be, I’m still flexible to changing those things. Brainstorming comes very early to me in the development of a site and part of why I’m doing it is to help shape my business model and marketing.

Thinking up any and all possible ideas for content helps me turn the general site idea into what I hope will be a business with a solid plan for making money, and offer a plan for how to set it apart from the competition as well as a strategy for how to market the site.

There are a 3 ways I’ve used to capture initial ideas for content.

Index cards

  • Index cards – This was the method I originally learned. You write a page title or file name at the top of the card and can use the rest of the card for additional notes. Index cards are easy to rearrange and are easy to set out on a table to get a visual overview of your content structure.
  • Listing items in a text file – This is the simplest method and the one I currently use. I use spacing and indentation to show structure and rearrange things by cutting and pasting. What I like about a simple text file is it provides space for me to jot down any thought I have in the file.
  • Mind mapping – This is the method I’ve used least often in this process, though I use it to generate ideas for other things. Mind mapping presents a a good visual overview and gets you to make instant connections between ideas. I find it a little harder to rearrange the organization than the other 2 methods, though I think this is more me than the mind mapping tools themselves.

If there’s an existing site I begin by listing all the pages already on the site. I wouldn’t list every blog post or article, but I would list blog as an entry and the main categories the blog uses. If there’s no existing site I start with the obvious pages like home, about, contact, just to get me going. Then I’ll move on to some of the sections I think the site will ultimately have.

Mindmap for Digital Inspiration Froums

Researching Content Ideas

One way I gather ideas is to visit other sites in the same industry. It’s a good way to see what most sites are including that you probably need to include as well. Sometimes after seeing a page on another site I know I want to include that same kind of page on my site. Other times they’ll generate ideas for new pages.

Even better it’s a way to see what most sites haven’t included, but you could. This might be where your competitive advantage comes from. It’s a way to see where the market isn’t being served.

Keyword research is another step in my brainstorming process. It may not be exhaustive, but I’ll usually visit a few keyword tools and create a list of a few hundred phrases. In addition to generating ideas for pages, keyword research can lead you to ideas for complete sections to include. The keyword themes I discover often lead to the main categories on the site.

Combined with researching the competition keyword research (PDF) might uncover some general topics people are searching for, but the industry isn’t offering. This could lead to content that easily ranks well in search engines and even more new ideas for making money.

You can probably tell I use brainstorming for a lot more than just jotting down a few pages to include. Much of the business itself will take form while brainstorming the content I’ll include on the site. There’s no specific time limit for how long I’ll brainstorm. I’ll usually keep doing it until I feel I understand the business model and marketing for the site as well as possible.

Organization and Pruning

Since I tend to do both of these at the same time I’ll talk about them together.

At this point in the process I’ll have a good idea of what the site will be about, where the revenue will come from, and how I want to market the site. I’ll also have a loosely organized list of potential pages for the site.

organize

Organizing

At first I just read through my list. At some point I find myself cutting and pasting a few of the pages and moving them near other related pages. As I do this some obvious sections for the site form and I may then start scanning through all the possible pages for those that might be appropriate to the sections that have emerged.

I usually don’t set out to organize things in a certain way. Mostly it’s just moving things that seem related to each other into groups. All 8 principles of information architecture (PDF) are in my mind, but at this point I’m not consciously letting them decide how things will be organized.

I’ll be thinking about topical categories, keyword themes, the ways I think people will look for the content, the goals of the site and the business, though again I’m not consciously trying to fit things into preplanned groups.

Ideally I want the content groupings to form organically and have some themes reveal themselves to me, though it’s hard not to have some preconceived ideas about how the content should be organized. Ultimately I probably end up organizing the content to some degree based on those preconceived ideas, but I’m looking for other structures to reveal themselves.

Bonzai tree

Pruning

While organizing I’m also pruning. Some of my brainstormed ideas are pretty bad and clearly aren’t going to end up on the site. These are easy to cut.

Others are pretty good ideas though they don’t fit with my plan for the site or business. I start cutting these out to make the overall list more manageable. Usually I’ll save the file with a different name before cutting anything, since you never know and I like to keep the initial list around.

Some ideas I’m just not sure about. I’ll move them off to the side so I can focus on the ones I am more sure about. I’m not yet ready to cut these ideas, but my thought is they probably won’t end up being pages on the site.

Copyediting marks

Revising

Eventually I have things organized and I’ve removed most of the worst ideas. At this point I’ll get away from things for a couple of days before coming back and revising everything.

Again I’ll begin simply by reading through what I have. There are usually a few pages that didn’t quite fit into one of the groups or some I couldn’t quite decide which group to place them in because they related to more than one. I’ll start thinking about these pages and asking myself if there are other ways to structure everything so these pages don’t feel so out of place.

I’ll cut a few more pages and even brainstorm a few more. I’m looking for different ways to organize things at this point. This is a more conscious process for me. I’m looking to solve a few problems I encountered with my initial organization and also looking to explore different ideas. The initial organiztion may ultimately be the best choice, but I want to try other possibilities before assuming it is.

For example with this site there are currently 4 main sections, Home, Design, SEO, and Blog. Both the design and seo sections list services I offer. I could have easily grouped the pages under a Services heading and then pulled out those pages that aren’t specifically mentioning services and placing them in a different section.

Was my solution the best? Maybe, maybe not. It was one of several ways to group the content and the one I chose.

While revising I think of the principle of choices and try to keep the top level categories to as few as makes sense. I think about classification and and focused navigation as I think of different ways to organize the same content.

Young sapling growing out of the rocks

Planning for growth

I also think of the principle of growth, though perhaps in a different way than intended.

Some of the content ideas I may have originally come up with could be good, but aren’t things I’m quite ready to add yet. Perhaps I discovered a group of related services that I think would benefit the business, but I’m not yet capable of offering.

As an example when I built the current version of the site I was ready to say I designed and developed sites on WordPress, but I wasn’t yet ready to offer specific WordPress services. I cut some of the WordPress related pages at that time. I am capable now and I could add that section to the site. I haven’t because I’m working on a complete redesign instead.

When launching a site I want to first think about what’s absolutely necessary and remove most of the other ideas. I’ll possibly add a few back in right away, but some will be things that get added at a later time when it makes more sense to add them.

Having all these originally part of the brainstorming and organization helps me see where the site will grow so as to prepare for that growth early on.

File folders

Creating Files and Folders

Sooner or later I need to call the revising done. I’ll create a blank file for each page I’ve decided will be part of the site and I’ll set up folders for each section where and place the blank files in them.

All I’m really doing with this is getting a different kind of visualization of the hierarchy of content. It’s possible I’ll make a few changes after seeing the files and folders set up, but in reality I’m mainly setting the files up to prepare for writing the content.

I’ll work my way through one section at a time following a process similar to my process for writing blog posts. I’ll jot down an outline in each file, begin making notes, write the content, and then come back later to proof and edit that page.

nav-bar.png

Navigation

The navigation is more of a bridge from the information architecture to the visual design. By the time I’m ready to work on the navigation the site structure is pretty much set and I’ve really been thinking about the navigation all throughout the process described here.

It’s possible that the way I’ve organized the various directories and subdirectories aren’t going to lend themselves to a workable navigational system so I may have to go back and work through some of the above.

Maybe when thinking how the navigation will be on the site gets me to see where one section of content is too deep and creates issues. For example the visual designs might lend itself to 2 or 3 levels of navigation and I have to figure out if it makes more sense to come up with a solution to show a 4th level or if it would be better to reorganize the content so it fits within 3 levels.

Mostly though, by the time I’ve reached this point I’m more involved in the visual design than the content organization. I include it here, since both are tied so closely together.

Inside Saint Patrick's Cathedral, New York

Summary

When designing a site you won’t always have complete control over what content to include. More than likely your client will provide information about what content needs to be on the site, though you might recommend additions and even recommend why a few pages might be better to drop. When I do control the whole process the above is what I do.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the content because it’s so important to the success of the site. I don’t think you can truly design the visuals of a site without a solid grasp of what will be included in the site. In many ways a website is simply a home for content.

You can see that a large part of my process for organizing content involves brainstorming. It’s the part of the process where most of my time goes and to me it’s about far more than deciding what pages to include on the site. Through the research I do while brainstorming I develop marketing strategies and new business models. Both inevitably lead toward new content ideas and suggest different content structures.

Hopefully seeing my process will help with your own. You may already do some of what I do above or you may have a different workflow. The one thing I would urge you to do is to spend more time researching the competition and keywords early on in your process.

Do you go through a similar process as I do? What do you do differently?

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15 comments

  1. Thanks for the detailed description of your process! It’s always helpful to see how other designers execute on projects.

    For site redesigns, I’ve also experimented with doing the organizing and pruning directly in WordPress. So, instead of creating folders and files as you do, you could create blank pages in WordPress and then migrate over any content that already exists on the site. Apply a vanilla theme to the site and you immediately have an interactive prototype you can use to navigate the site and possibly even show to the client. While fairly abstract at that point, I find it does help to get the client thinking about their site content and giving some input on the organization.

    You could also train the client on how to use WordPress at that point, thus allowing the editing and organization to be a collaborative effort, and, best of all, promoting a sense of ownership in the client of their site content.

    • Thanks Kristine. I hoped seeing my process would be helpful to someone. You never know.

      Interesting that work closer to WordPress. I have done that will smaller sites I’ve designed. Sometimes the client will give me a few page ideas and I’ll just set them up directly in WordPress as you do.

      It’s a good point about having an interactive prototype that way and get the client thinking and learning WordPress. I haven’t used WordPress that way, but I like the idea and think I’ll give it a try the next time the opportunity presents.

      When it’s for myself I tend to use the folders. I find it easier to write outside of WordPress. I’d rather write in plain old TextEdit or something like MacJournal. When the site is for me I usually write all the content before starting on the design.

    • Thanks. Hopefully designers always know to help real people navigate their sites, but hopefully they also remember to think about search engines as well. The real people are more important, but the search engines shouldn’t be excluded.

  2. Very important article . I think that determining the actual content of the site and organizing that content are the most important steps in the process and I’m struggling to have a grasp on those concepts …. Do you know any book title or any resource that helps me how to come up with the necessary content and how to relate it to each others.

    • Thanks Tameem. Most any book on information architecture will probably work for you. You should be able to find plenty online too.

      I think some of how you decide what content to include and how to organize it is a bit of art. My process is set out in this post. For me it starts with brainstorming ideas and doing some research. I try to narrow down the possibilities to keep things as simple as possible and then just do my best to decide how everything should be organized.

      There’s no one best way to organize things. That was one of the first things taught to me. You do your best and see how it works and learn from your success and failure for the next time.

      Look into information architecture either online or in books. I think that’s what you’re looking for.

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