When thinking about the web, Search (with a capital ‘S’) gets so much mindshare when it comes to finding things. This makes sense. You’ve got a question, you type it in to a search engine, it finds things that relate. Groovy. End of discussion, right?
Ok, ridiculous strawman arguments aside, optimizing for search engines is a big point of attention, sometimes to the detriment of other ways of organizing things. Here’s the rub about search (when it’s working very well): there’s no serendipity. You have a query, you get very related results back. You shouldn’t be surprised by anything that comes back as a result.
Search is always the best way to find something, except when it isn’t
Except that, particularly for people who are in the early stages of researching something, they may not know what questions to ask yet. If I’m learning about something new to me, I don’t know enough to ask questions that will lead me into further expertise.
For example, I don’t know the first thing about masonry. Brickwork, stonework, any of it. I know that it’s highly skilled work, and takes a long time and a lot of effort to become good at it. I know the term ‘grout’, and that it’s related, and that’s the extent of my knowledge on the subject. So, imagine that I’m looking to hire a mason (I’m not, so all the masons out there that read this blog, calm down). I have absolutely no idea what to be looking for to get a basic acquaintance with the subject. So what would I do?
Why does this matter to you? Because, in your line of work, there may not be that Wikipedia article that serves as an overview. If you have any sort of specialized expertise, you may well fall into that category. So, your site’s content (organized by the information architecture and metadata) should be able to serve as that overview. Set up your information architecture so that both novices and experts can find things.
You lost me at ‘information architecture’
When I say information architecture, I’m talking about the way that you organize the content on your site. Things like the navigation structure. Here are some basic tips: refrain from trademarks and other brand-specific terminology for navigation. Unless you’re Apple, organizing the navigation by product names or service branding will not help people that don’t already work at your company. Remember those Personas that we’re big on developing early in the site build? Think about how that person that doesn’t know much about either your company or your field will find something.
For a masonry business, I might set up a main navigation item called Services, and then have a sub-item called Regular Maintenance. This would lead a neophyte like me to the sorts of things that need to be done on a regular basis; I might not even have been aware that these things need to be done before I looked at the site! The navigation itself proved to be a resource to a prospective client.
This shouldn’t prove to be annoying to someone with more expertise, as the organization is clear and logical. Particularly if coupled with a more powerful finding tool (like an intelligent site search tool, or filters that make use of good metadata – which I’ll talk about more later), this is an effective site architecture.