The Home Page is dead! Long live the Home Page! That might be overstating it a bit, but it’s well past time to rethink our approach to website architecture.
Evolving Website Architecture
I’ve been involved in website architecture, design, redesign, and rebuilding projects in various ways during the past decade. In this time, nearly everything has changed about how companies communicate with customers and prospects. We’ve become comfortable with email as a marketing tool—in fact, we’ve become pretty good at it. Printed mail certainly has not gone away (judging by my mailbox this week), but we’ve found effective ways to replace some printed media and blend print and email.
We’ve become social. Do you remember your social media presence in 2004? I’m guessing not, primarily because you didn’t have one. Twitter didn’t exist, and Facebook was the cool new thing on Harvard’s campus. Now, most companies have some sort of social media presence, and the ones that are doing it well are integrating social media directly into their communication with prospects and customers.
In 2004, even search marketing (both SEO and SEM) were hardly in use. We were still figuring out how that worked, which gave rise to the seemingly endless supply of people who spend their time trying to outwit Google’s search algorithm (and Bing’s and Yahoo’s and…).
But in the same decade that saw the creation and explosion of email, search marketing, and social media, website architecture has been virtually unchanged. We still build websites in the same traditional structure as we did in the late 1990s: We start with a home page that summarizes our company and brand message, include a hierarchy of pages (products, solutions, about us, careers…sound familiar?) that describe everything we want visitors to see when they show up.
We’ve seen tremendous advances in website design: from the “above-the-fold” designs of the 2000s to the current trend of responsive, parallax, and endlessly scrolling websites designed for the ever increasing number of devices we use to visit these sites.
If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I tend to focus not on what your company wants to say but what your prospects and customers want to hear—and how they want to hear it.
Looking at it from that perspective, we’ve learned one very important lesson in the past decade about how visitors, prospects, and customers use our website: People come to the site looking for something. They want to go directly to whatever that particular thing is on our site and skip all the other stuff.
Some visitors take advantage of the hierarchical structure of the site to find what they need. Many, many more come in directly to some specific page on our site as the result of a Google search. Many come to our site as a result of an email or social media campaign directing them to a landing page. And some come to a specific page on our site through referral (a link sent to them, posted somewhere, etc.) or other various means.
We even spend time designing click paths through our websites both to serve specific kinds of visitors and to encourage them to take actions we design.
Improving Website Architecture
This means the way we build websites has no relationship whatsoever to how visitors use them.
What can we do differently?
A modest proposal: Outside–in architecture.
Let’s go back to that idea of click paths. We know how to do that (at least some do, and most of the rest of the marketing world is learning). We also know that pretty much every single person who visits our website will have a click path that is unique to them and serves well the visitor profile (or persona) they fit.
My proposal: Build for that.
Take the personas (or whatever method you use for profiling visitor needs) and the click paths and needs you’ve already figured out. Build those pages. Put the right information, content, and calls-to-action on those pages that lead where you think that person wants to go.
Then do it with every single profile/persona you have built (and maybe a few on the edge that don’t visit as often).
Then you will have a jumble of pages that meet defined click paths.
Every single one of those journeys through your site starts with some inquiry, and most (we hope) end in some action, even if it’s just reading information.
Arrange your starting points in a circle (conceptually or on your design board). Lay out the paths moving toward the center of that circle. They will overlap. Some will spiral. Some will go straight to the center. Some will stop halfway.
But you will find significant overlap among your paths. Many different kinds of visitors need the same information at different points in their journey through your site.
Each of those landing pages and stopping points becomes a page. If you’ve taken into account all the types of visitors who come to your site (don’t forget job seekers, investors, researchers, etc.), then you’ll also find you’ve included all the information you need. And anything that is not there, by definition, is not needed by your visitors and does not need to be on your website.
We know where our visitors land or start. We have a pretty good idea of where they go and how they get there. Why not build our websites around that journey and make it easy for them to get there and engage with us they way they want to—and, ultimately, the way we want them to.
What do you think? Have you done this? Have you taken an unconventional approach to website architecture? Tell us in the comments!