Site Mapping: Home Is Where the Hub Is
I recently started a new position in which I have to think a bit differently: I used to be more of a web designer and coder, and now I'm more of an information architect. For the most part, I really enjoy the change; I still wear many hats, but I get to see web projects from a bit of a different vantage point now. I've also begun looking at many well-known web conventions in whole new ways. I'm into questioning convention, but I'm also very practical, so I try things, see what works and what doesn't, and adjust my thinking and way of working based on the results.
Thinking Outside the Box and Around the Arrows
Recently, I've been thinking about information architecture conventions and processes, one of which is the traditional hierarchical site map used for many sites. When I say "site map," I mean a way to visualize grouping of information, usually for smaller sites, not necessarily as a navigation technique. Some people refer to this as a page taxonomy, content blueprint, or by any of a host of other names.
I'm really questioning the traditional concept of "home down" in which a site map is presented, and how that hierarchical visualization (and often the groupings themselves) drives a site's design, content, and navigation. The concept of "home" is appropriate, although the idea that it's first or at the "top" of the site structure isn't really accurate in many cases. It makes more sense to visualize "home" at the center, as kind of a hub around which the site revolves. It's really about the way in which people search for information on the web.
Are the concepts of "home" and "web pages" and where they live in a site's organization always relevant? When talking to stakeholders, placement of web pages always causes at least some difficulty. I've spent hours trying to choose the right labels to satisfy every internal audience (let alone visitors!) and make sure that every bit of content is properly "bucketed." Everyone wants to reach a consensus as to where everything lives, which often leads to heated debate about where a page or piece of content is grouped.
Part of the problem stems from the idea that items on a web site can't live in more than one place within a taxonomy. This, my friends, is unrealistic, impractical, and, well...silly, in many cases. It may seem obvious to information architects, but it can be a real challenge to get stakeholders to see that it's okay to put things in more than one grouping, even if it's just via related item linking. Or, maybe a larger and more common issue, to get them to understand that it's okay to place something into a grouping where it might not exactly fit.
And then there's the home page. Stakeholders want to know what "lives" on the home page, and often have large internal struggles to get that issue sorted out. Such difficulties can lead to an ongoing maintenance drain as the home page is constantly reconfigured—let alone the effect of an ever-changing home page or hub page on users.
Stakeholders often don't realize that their stuff might get more visibility on internal content pages than on the home page. And it's not just internal stakeholders who have a problem with these ideas: For example, it always amazes me that people will pay more for one ad on the site's home page than for a load of internal page ads. That strategy doesn't make sense, especially when there's an opportunity to relate the ad to the content on the internal page, à la Google's AdSense.
Quite often, these struggles are next to meaningless when it comes to helping a user find what he or she wants. The fact that everything is conveniently grouped within a hierarchy and mapped down from a home page doesn't help everyone (or even most people) coming to the site looking for information. It can be very helpful to those who begin at the home page and browse through your site. However, as search engines become more accurate, and as web services and syndication spread content around the web and, in some cases, away from the web browser, starting from the home page will become less and less common.
I'm not trying to suggest that we shouldn't organize group content at all; I still feel that that's important. It helps searchers, browsers—everyone—to have some kind of consistent and accurate organization and grouping structure. My problem is with the idea that one organizational standard will make everyone happy; this will never be the case. As with many other web challenges we face, we need to reach a compromise in this area. Unfortunately, the nature of the site map deliverable and the process behind it don't really lend themselves to compromise or consensus. This problem creates a bloated process and quite a bit of effort that is ultimately wasted if it doesn't help people find what they're looking for.