Website Hierarchies Make Visitors Happier

When planning new websites, we often run into one of two problems related to content. The first is that the company doesn’t have enough content and needs to produce much more to fill out the site. The second is too much content. To be clear, it’s a good problem to have, but it often results in conversations around how to organize everything. The answer, in a word, is a hierarchy. 

The clients I’ve worked with that have plenty of content tend to view it all as equally important. They expect website visitors to read through every word of every page and walk away completely understanding the company’s ethos and ready to buy their product or service. Unfortunately, visitors rarely interact this way; they tend to have a short attention span and/or simply don’t care about much of what the website has to say. This is why, as challenging as it can sometimes feel, it is important to prioritize. 

In order to understand what a site hierarchy looks like and how to be successful in creating it, we need to consider the status quo for many sites. Content creators often consider their sites to be a linear progression of ideas, with users following the same general path: 

Many times, these ideas correspond both to pages on the site and to links in the main navigation menu. In addition to becoming unwieldy with more than a few pages worth of content, the other problem with this approach is that visitors will often see ideas in a different order, whether by choice or based on where they land from a search query or other inbound link. If someone has to see Idea 1 before Ideas 3 makes sense, the visitor may simply leave rather than go back and read Idea 1. 

In contrast, a hierarchy creates a logical grouping that works no matter what order a site is read in and allows visitors to choose how deep they’d like to dive into an idea. 

Users may progress through the site in any order they like, even skipping pages completely. The content always makes sense, and they can see exactly as much or as little of the site as they like. 

So, how do we actually go about creating a hierarchy? The first step is breaking your content down into fundamental ideas. The exact number of ideas is going to vary depending on your site, but here are a few guidelines to consider: 

  • If your site is focused on content (as opposed to, for example, focused on selling products) then you may want to have your navigation correlate to your ideas. In this case, it’s best to stick to less than a half-dozen ideas, so your menus don’t become too thorny to quickly navigate. 
  • If your site is very general, your high-level ideas may need to also be very general in order to maintain a suitable number of top-level ideas. Think of it as taking notes in outline form, and don’t be afraid to further break down ideas into sub-ideas later on if your high level ideas feel too vague. But for now, keep the number manageable. 
  • If you were to write one or two paragraphs only about your top-level ideas, all of those introductory paragraphs should be able to be read in no more than about ten minutes. If it takes longer than that, you have too many ideas. 

With your main ideas broken out, we’ll start to use the exercise I just alluded to; each one-or-two-paragraph summary will form the first main page of your idea. From here, you’ll break out your remaining sub-ideas into an outline and link to them from this page. (I highly recommend not adding these sub-level pages to your navigation menu; it tends to just clutter things up.) Complete your outline and be sure that all of your content maps this structure. Here’s an example based on our Empower Ideas website. 

Main Ideas: E-commerce, Design, Marketing 

Sub Ideas for E-commerce: 

-Overview 

-Process 

-Technologies 

-Insights 

--Blog 

(Notice how, in this case, all of the new content gets lumped underneath “Insights” whereas the evergreen site content is broken out separately.) 

Depending on the level of complexity of your outline, you’ll determine how to link to your various sub-ideas. Here are some options: 

  1. “Read More” links: In an ideal world, each sub-level builds on the introductory content of the level above, allowing a visitor to dig deeper and deeper as they desire. If your outline fits this format, then you can provide a read more link at the end or throughout the body of your content to provide pages to continue the narrative at a deeper level for visitors that want to read more. The key to note here is that if a reader stops digging at any point, the content they’ve already seen makes sense even without deeper details. 
  1. Table of Contents: If you have content that lends itself well to a complex outline, but there isn’t actually that much of it when written out, then a table of contents can be a great strategy. In this type of organization, you’ll keep your content on a single page, but provide links to each section of the page for users to scroll to directly if they’re interested. The advantage of this technique is that it is more linear than separate pages if ordering is important, but still allows users to easily read out of order (but then go back to gain context if necessary) if they want to. 
  1. Section Navigation: If you have too much content for a single page, or too much content would be lost without a dedicated Read More link, then section navigation is a viable strategy. In this case, each sub-page (and any deeper sub-levels) receive their own secondary navigation menu. The key to success with this strategy is that the menu only appears when someone is already in the section, and it clearly lays out each page using the same outline format you’ve created. This allows a user to get a sense of the large idea if they enter the site from the top (e.g. your homepage) as well as have the visual outline form while reading or to see how everything fits together if they join from any random page via a search engine. One key for this technique to be successful is that every page should be completely free-standing in that there are no pre-requisites to understanding the content, regardless of which page is read first. 

If you can keep the general idea in mind of introducing a topic, then providing more and more detail as the user drills down deeper and deeper, then you will be able to create a successful hierarchy that makes your site easier to navigate, easier to understand, and more successful. At Empower Ideas, we’ll help you walk through this process during the design phase, basing our recommendations on the amount and type of content you have as well as the overall structure of the site. Since search engines love content and organization, this strategy will also often help improve your search engine performance. 

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Empower Ideas is a digital marketing agency focused on building custom websites and e-commerce stores from a holistic perspective. We also offer online ad management, search engine optimization, content creation, and conversion rate optimization.

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