Why You Should Map Out Your Site’s Information Architecture

Over the past year, I’ve realized the value of investing a significant amount of time at the beginning of a project to thoroughly understand a client’s site and business. An example of this type of investment is that I’ve started systematically mapping out the information architecture of my client’s sites visually (this was recommended to me via an internal Distilled discussion). Although, this process is time-consuming and often times rigorous and intense, it has easily returned its value multiple times over.  Below is detailed information on how to map out the information architecture of a site, as well as different tactics on why mapping is useful from an SEO perspective.

How to Map Out the Information Architecture of a Site

Initially, I started mapping out the information architecture of a site using Microsoft Word or Balsamiq. Recently, I’ve started using the free version of Lucidchart (see diagram below). However, any wire framing tool would work for this task.

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Below is an example of a mapped out version of a site’s information architecture. It is particularly important to visualize the differences between internal links going up and down the hierarchy, so it’s best to use two distinct colors. In my diagram I chose to use blue for links going down the hierarchy and red for links going up the hierarchy. I would also choose another color for links going across the hierarchy (although it is not demonstrated in this particular diagram). If you plan to share this map with other individuals, it’s best to also include a legend/key, so that it is really easy to distinguish the significance of the different colors.

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Your information architecture map should incorporate the following:
  1. Hierarchical structure
  2. Internal links (both vertical and horizontal) - see image below of the difference between vertical and horizontal internal links
  3. URL examples
Guide to Site Navigation for SEO - distilled

Image Courtesy of: Distilled 

How to Use Your Information Architecture Map

I’ve utilized my information architecture map in 4 distinct ways:
  1. Correlating the site’s information architecture to metrics
  2. Identifying page types
  3. Identifying technical issues
  4. Competitor analysis

1. Correlating Information Architecture to Metrics

Often times, my clients will come to me and ask specific questions, such as “I’ve built this page to target so-and-so keyword, yet another page on the site is ranking for that keyword. Why is this happening?” Although, the reason could stem from multiple factors, like external links, having a map of the site’s internal linking structure provides you with clearer insight on how you can possibly rectify this issue sitewide.

Having this format also makes it easier to compare and contrast two internal pages. This makes it easy to address questions like:

  • Is a page being linked from a page higher up the information architecture?
  • Is a page being linked from pages with higher PA?
  • Is a page being linked from more internal pages?
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2. Identifying Page Types

By mapping out the information architecture of the site, it becomes very easy to discern the different page types that exist on the site. As a result, when you start conducting a technical review of the site and spot technical SEO issues, it’s quicker to determine whether this is just a page-level issue or one that involves all pages of a similar type. Knowing this information is critically important when communicating with developers because it defines how they will solve the problem and it also relays how well you know their site and how thoroughly you assessed the issue.

Having a strong understanding of the different page types that exist on the site also plays a major role in how you build out future recommendations. Instead of identifying strategies that pertain only to specific pages, it makes it a lot easier to visualize larger scale strategies because you have a really clear understanding of how many different page types exist on the site and how they relate to one another.

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3. Identifying Technical Issues

Mapping out the information architecture of the site forces you to also become very aware of not only the information architecture of the site, but its content and URL structure. As a result, going through this process makes it really easy for you to spot technical issues with the site, such as duplicate URLs, URL issues (trailing slashes, inconsistencies with upper case/lower case, page types that you may have forgotten about, etc...) and identify patterns of where/why they appear. This is a perfect complement for any type of technical crawl you’re already performing on the site.

4. Competitor Analysis

Once you’ve mapped out the information architecture of the site, you can also build out a map of your competitor’s information architecture. This is useful for identifying the different page types they have built to target specific keywords and why they might be ranking well via internal linking. Furthermore, I’ve effectively used information architecture maps to build business cases for developing longer term/large scale strategies for clients because often times, developing a new internal linking framework or new page types is a big endeavor for my clients. From their perspective, It may be difficult to comprehend the value of this investment, but when you visualize the differences between their site and their competitor’s site, while correlating this to certain metrics (like rankings and estimated traffic), it makes it much easier for you to get buy in for your strategy.

As a result, I find information architecture maps useful for both gaining a firm understanding of my client’s site needs, as well as helping me visualize larger scale strategies that I want my clients to implement in the future.

Stephanie Chang

Stephanie Chang

Stephanie helped open Distilled’s New York office in June 2011 after working for a year at a New York-based full-service agency. She oversaw the SEO and social media execution for a variety of clients including B2B, B2C, e-commerce and international...   read more

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7 Comments

  1. Stephanie, thanks for the great read.

    This is very well-timed as I have been working with one of our interns on this exact task for about a month now. You're not kidding when you talk about how rigorous it can be; seems like we go deeper down the rabbit hole with each page we try to document, but what we learn from this is incredibly useful already. We quickly spotted a few technical issues, some places we were still linking to defunct content, and certainly have a better understanding of how our customers can get lost.

    Without a functional document of our information architecture, we cannot say with certainty that we are offering the best path to the customer with our internal links. While we may be showing them information that is useful & informative, does it really help all our customers, or is it causing the funnel to under-perform due to distractions?

    Once completed, pairing the architecture map with in-depth attribution and navigational analysis will enable us to do a better job at simply getting out of the way and letting the customer accomplish what they really need to do, while still making sure we support them in the most intelligent way possible.

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  2. Nice Stephanie! Seems like everyone skips this. Best way to avoid "website rabbit holes." Bookmarked.

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  3. This sums up most of my frustrations of the last 2 months working on one of my clients' websites, except the views I seem to share with you have mostly been summarily dismissed in a mad rush to just "get it out there".

    Personally I prefer to put into practice the 7 Ps whenever practical and possible.

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  4. This is the best posts Ive read this month. Im going to share it with my team.

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  5. Hi Stephanie,

    I was happy to find a post on IA as it often doesn't get the attention it deserves in the community. I have traditionally used XMind for this task, but am looking forward to trying out Lucidchart. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. Great post Steph, I'll keep this wisdom in mind next time I feel myself getting lost in a client's site...

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  7. Great post on an under discussed topic.

    Mapping a website manually can be time consuming. We created an in-house software to automate various elements of the process--something that saves us an incredible amount of time (and saves our clients money!).

    The output isn't quite as pretty as a visio diagram or the like, but the goal of the process isn't a pretty chart--it's improved performance, right?

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