Today I have a couple of websites to write drafts for, both starting from scratch. It made me think of the dilemma a lot of people face when planning a new website: how many pages should you have, what should the pages be, and what order should they be in?
Let me offer you three ways to approach the question.
#1: Go Classic
The simple, obvious plan for a website’s structure is this:
- About Us
This gives you a nice left to right progression for your readers. They have the homepage, where most visitors begin, and then they can see your products and/or services, they have your blog for more information, your About Us page to reassure them of your qualifications and integrity, and then they can contact you. If this suits your business, there’s nothing wrong with it. It meets the expectations of your visitors, covers the bases, and works just fine for thousands of websites.
The problem is when this structure doesn’t work and you try to force it. That’s when you see a Services button that leads to an FAQ page, an About Us page with a primer on the site’s industry, or a Contact page that’s really a store.
If this almost works for you but not quite, you can use it as a starting point and change out pages. For example, one of the sites I’m working on is for a public speaker. She doesn’t exactly offer products or services, so we can replace Products and Services with credibility pages, pages that establish her authority in her field. Examples of credibility pages could be testimonials, FAQs, or pages with basic (or advanced) information on your subject.
Our site for Rocky Grove Sun Company includes a section called “Solar 101” that tells you more than you probably want to know about voltage and currents and inverters and arrays. It brings search traffic to the site, and it demonstrates to prospective clients that these guys really know their stuff.
The classic structure might work for you with a bit of lateral thinking, too. For example, our public speaker’s presentations aren’t exactly products, but she does want descriptions of what she offers so people can choose — which is a lot like a product page. We can call it “Presentations” and put it in the same place as a products page. We also often put a Gallery in this spot.
#2: List and Sort
One of the best ways to approach your site structure is to list all the things you want to include, and then sort them into groups. You can do this physically and literally with index cards or you can just think about it if you don’t have too many items to consider. Our educational website, FreshPlans, has hundreds of lesson plans. It makes sense to sort them into math, science, technology, music, and so on. When we ended up with too many categories, we sorted them into higher level divisions.
A tech support site we worked on has this type of division: they’ve sorted their services into three main groups. Along with their Home, About Us, and Contact pages, these three groups of services create a sensible site plan.
#3: Think of Users
We should always think of our users, of course, but sometimes that’s the best way to plan your site architecture, too. Our site for Northwest Arkansas Bride immediately sorts the brides from the vendors, since their needs are different. Our site for Trout Fishing in America has a page for kids and a page for educators, and those two groups can find their paths from the main navigation.
Imagining (or researching) the various ways your customers are likely to reach you can show you the best paths for each, and those paths then can guide your site plan.
The other site I’m working on today is for a company that reps industrial valves. Their website should work for companies that plan to sell valves at a retail level, for end users of valves wanting to buy in bulk, and for manufacturers of valves seeking representation. These three groups have overlapping needs and interests, so we don’t necessarily want to sort them as we did the brides and florists. If I manufacture valves, I’ll want to see which other manufacturers these guys already serve, and if I need some valves for my petrochemical plant I want to see a good selection of butterfly valves; all three of the company’s primary markets can be served by product pages, but we should have sorting both by manufacturer and by specific products.
Order the Pages
Now that you’ve made your plan — and it should probably include a Home page, About Us and Contact pages, and two to four other main pages that can lead your visitors to all the useful stuff your site has to offer — you need to decide on the order.
More and more sites now are not including the homepage in the navigation. Modern web users know to click on the logo in the upper left hand corner to find the homepage, so any site that a) is designed to attract only up to date visitors and b) has a logo in the upper left hand corner can leave the homepage out of the main navigation. Make sure your audience can handle this by testing it with people in your target demographics.
Your contact page should be toward the end (the right or the bottom, as the case may be) of your navigation. Put contact information in the upper right hand corner where people expect to see it, and those who arrive at your site ready to contact you will be set. The rest of your visitors need to get to know you a little, through your products and services and credibility pages and possibly even your About Us page, before they can be expected to make the commitment to contact you. We sometimes put things like a blog or resources page to the right of the contact page, if we want folks to come back repeatedly and find those things quickly, but usually Contact Us belongs on the right.
The About Us page is for reassurance, so you might choose to place it toward the beginning if your clients are likely to need reassurance. The site we built for a roofer has About Us at the top, because choosing someone to fix your roof is all about trust. Usually, though, customers go to the About Us page right before contacting or purchasing, so it should be toward the end.
The middle of the navigation bar probably matters less, in terms of order. I like to have a logical left to right progression if possible, and some of the designers we work with make the decision strictly on the basis of the attractiveness of the words on the labels in varying orders. You could test different arrangements and see which gives you the highest conversion rate. However, your inner tabs will probably be different from other sites’ inner tabs, so there’s no hard and fast rule.