Are you starting a new website project? Well, the first thing you should do is choose your website structures. If you don’t already have a basic idea of how you will present the information on your site, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to organize it. Website structures are the first step to building incredible information architecture, something that separates good websites from awesome experiences.
You’ll want to invest time in selecting the right website structure now because it can help you in the future. Trends and customer needs can quickly change, and websites often need updating. If you want to avoid costly do-overs later down the road, you’ll want to choose a structure that will last over time. Choosing the right one from the start is the best way to do this; however, you should leave room for change over time.
This article will not only tell you what website structures are and how they benefit you, but it will also explain how to choose the best one for your project.
The four types of Website Structures
If you’ve ever been tasked with building a website from scratch, you probably already know how difficult it can be to know where to start. Many newbie designers might opt for beginning with a theme, however when you are building custom websites, and larger sites, a prebuilt theme may not cut it.
All websites have a basic organizational structure that falls into one of four types. These website structures (or a combination of them) can help you begin to organize a site of any size.
These are possibly the most common types of website structures. They start with a broad set of information (parent pages) that filters down into more detailed information (child pages). Sometimes these structures are called trees, and they are very similar to organizational charts in corporations.
These types of structures are exactly like they sound – they lead site visitors through a sequence. Whereas a hierarchical structure might lead site visitors down or across to another parent page, sequential structures only lead visitor either backward or forward from one step to another.
Although this structure may be nontraditional, in the early years of the internet, it was quite popular. A matrix type structure lets site visitors choose where they would like to go next. Instead of building a sequence, or limiting navigation with parent/child relationships, this structure provides many links under topic groups with those who land on the page choosing where they go next.
This dynamic approach to website structuring integrates a database with search. To build a site like this, you’ll need to think from the bottom up – carefully tagging your content’s metadata based on information architecture principles. When done correctly, this structure produces a site where visitors can create experiences based on what they are looking for.
Why you should start with the site structure
Now that you know a little about the basic types of website structures, it’s time to discuss how using them can help you. Besides making it easier to organize any website project, utilizing site structures can also improve usability.
The process of creating a site structure forces a designer to think about how visitors will navigate through a website. This is a stark difference from merely thinking about what will be placed on the site. Whether you use a straightforward sequential model or build a complicated matrix, you’ll start by thinking about the how rather than simply the what.
Website structures explain how users navigate through a site. This impacts usability because much of usability is based on how easily website users can find their way through a site. A highly usable site is easy to navigate (in addition to other factors). Website structures don’t guarantee high usability, but they certainly help with it.
You can also use your site structure to create themes, which can come in handy if you build the same types of website projects over and over again. While you could work from your last site to quickly make something similar, it is much easier to create a general theme that you can customize as needed. Perhaps you can even sell your themes online for newbie designers that need help structuring their sites. Choosing your site structure, however, is the only way to start.
Site structures also benefit larger websites, since they often need special attention when it comes to navigation. When there is a lot of content to be shared, it is incredibly easy to become overwhelming. By choosing a website structure that is most appropriate for your organization, you can reduce website visitor fatigue, and help keep them on the site longer.
How to choose your best website structure
To put it simply, website structures help you build better sites. So, the next logical question for most people is, “how do you know which structure to use?” Here is when it gets a bit more complicated. You start by understanding who you are building the website for.
Site Structure and Audience
As we mentioned above, certain sites might benefit from a mix of website structures based merely on their size. However, you may also want to consider who will be reading the site (in addition to how it will be used) when choosing your site structure.
For most website users the hierarchical model works just fine. For this structure, information is ranked and presented in logical order. One reason most people appreciate this type of organization is because it is currently the most popular model online, making it easy to navigate simply because it is familiar.
Hierarchical structures are also easy to adjust to fit many scenarios. You can go for a simple hub and spoke style or build more complex hierarchies with subheadings based on the intended uses and user. Simple hierarchies also work great on mobile sites, where the options are limited to a single page and a few links. The trick to choosing a structure that will stand the test of time is creating one that isn’t too shallow or deep. Too many (or too few) subheadings is a bad thing.
Sequential sites are often associated with educational sites, and this is no surprise since this structure is based on the style used by print publications. If you are presenting content that teaches, naturally occurs in a logical order (such as alphabetical), or is intended to be given chronologically, a sequential structure is probably best. It should also go without saying, that the intended audience is those looking to learn a significant amount of information that is presented over multiple pages.
Although sequential structures follow a clearly defined order and work best on smaller sites, there is room to customize these to fit the needs of larger sites. Utilizing some of the principles of hierarchical structures, programmers can add digressions to this site structure. These “subpages” leave room to add supporting pages of information without letting the site user go off-track from their goal. No one likes clicking a link only to get lost and not know how to get back (even if intentional). Digressions let site visitors wander, but not too far.
Matrix and Database
If there were one phrase to summarize this type of website structure, it would be: “Enter the matrix, if you dare.” Not only are matrix and database structures more difficult to organize effectively, but they are also tricky to navigate if you don’t already know what you are looking for.
The matrix and database structure build upon large amounts of information and presents it either as a web of data or a simplified input-based interface. Those who enjoy utilizing associative thought processes or don’t mind being given a large amount of information at one time, might enjoy these types of setups.
In web design, a matrix is often seen as a collection of links to ideas, or a word cloud of topics that takes visitors to where they need to be. Database designs rely on a search parameter and pull related information for the user. These types of sites can deliver mind-blowing amounts of data to users; so you must be careful to consider how much is too much. When there are a large number of topics to choose from with little to no organization, or no related information can be found from a search, many people become overwhelmed and leave.
This likelihood to cause confusion and miss connections is the main reason why the matrix and database structure is reserved for smaller sites, those with readers that have a high amount of education around the topic already or organizations that can invest in advanced filtering and search.
Building your Structure
Now that you know a little about website structures, you’re probably wondering what you should do next. The short answer is, start building a sitemap. Need some help getting started? This article by digital marketing agency Protofuse does a great job of explaining how to use Slickplan to present your chosen site structures, plan out your navigation and create an architecture that will survive the test of time.
Written By Jenn Marie
Jenn Marie is a freelance copy writer and internet marketing strategist based out of the Seattle area. A true tech evangelist, Jenn previously helped individuals utilize the full potential of Dell, Microsoft and Amazon products. She now focuses on building authentic online presences for small businesses and entrepreneurs through her company, Jenn Marie Writing & Marketing. Find her on LinkedIn