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Moving Towards Modular

Publishers quit their linear content heritage when architecting Web sites.



By Bill Mickey
01/04/2008

Site design and architecture changes almost as quickly as the Internet technology that drives it. As publishers work their way through site rebuilds, developers must keep a sharp lookout on the horizon for changing trends. When it comes to organizing content, however, publishers can all agree on two things (for now): There’s content type and content topic. No longer simply concerned with arranging text-based content, publishers have a buffet of multimedia assets that must be displayed and arranged—often under myriad vertical niches—in a way that facilitates the best user interaction and navigation. Trends are pointing toward simple, easy-to-use, modular architectures that blur the lines between content type—text, video, audio—while simultaneously corralling it into defined information centers.

The Experience Matters

The first thing to recognize, says Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, a Web site design and usability consultancy, is that user needs are different online than they are in print. It’s an obvious distinction but one that forms the foundation of an online experience. “In print, people are very issue-oriented and it’s also a more immersive experience where they’ll sit and leaf through the whole issue,” adds Nielsen. “Online is the opposite. It’s much more goal-driven and solution-oriented.”

Building a Web site’s information architecture springs from the way the audience will use it, and fundamentally, this originates from a need to solve a problem or answer a question. “That then begs the question of what the proper hierarchy should be,” says Nielsen. “There is no specific answer to that because it depends on the market but think of it from a problem perspective and try to structure it around answers to those problems.”

It can be a tough transition. “The challenge is creating a site that really anticipates and reflects the critical points in the workday of your community of readers,” says Alison Johns, vice president, e-media, business information group at Access Intelligence. “For example, my products, as they evolve out of monthly magazines and into daily Web sites, have never been news-led. We’ve focused our build-outs on appealing to our readers’ needs for how-to and tutorial information.”

News is an easy target for publishers that desire a consistent level of content turnover, but in Johns’ case, news was not what users were looking for on her site, Studiodaily.com. “We did grow at first in the direction of news but realized that where we could offer the most to our community was by giving them rich media tutorials.”

Content for Studiodaily.com has coalesced around what the users are interacting with the most. “The number-one destination on the site is the blog, not the news,” says Johns. “Now what we do is present the areas that we think will be the most engaging in the first scoop and that is still blogs, training and news.”

Fluid Navigation

Categories and taxonomy certainly matter, particularly since magazine publishers often cover markets that contain a variety of vertical niches. Forbes.com, for example, which has 15 million to 20 million uniques per month, has a navigation system crafted around nine main verticals, with a number of subcategories under each. Tracking visitor patterns helps determine what content users are interested in.

“We’ll track on a very direct basis our high usage pages like the index pages for the channels and the home page for the site,” says Jim Spanfeller, president and CEO of Forbes.com. “And we certainly will look at page views per session, page views per unique, time per session, time per unique, and so on.”

But some publishers are finding that a much more fluid presentation of content is gaining popularity among users. Particularly when content means anything from text to video to audio. “Navigation, when you used to design it, was set in stone,” says Johns. “But now there’s much more flexibility.”

While you want to make sure that visitors can use multiple techniques to find what they’re looking for—navigation bars, search, related content, and others—relying on a rigid hierarchy may backfire. “A lot of us have a tendency to get carried away with the need for identifying a ton of content buckets on the site,” says Scott McKenzie, vice president and editorial director of Nielsen Business Media’s digital division. “But you’re actually doing a huge disservice to the audience. If you think about how you use sites that you visit every day you tend to do two things: You use the home page or you use search.”

Accordingly, McKenzie is leading a redesign of most of Nielsen’s Web sites. Billboard.com, for example, now has a modular, three-column design that incorporates a variety of content types while still offering a tabbed navigation scheme across the top of the page.

The home page displays a mix of every content type, giving users a variety of ways to interact with the site. It’s a strategy that’s particularly important for what’s essentially the gateway. “The home page is like a mini TOC,” says Eric Shanfelt, vice president of e-media at enthusiast publisher Aspire Media. “It’s giving you a preview into everything that’s going on in the site.”

To illustrate, McKenzie’s redesign of Billboard.com brought video to the forefront, which used to be clicks away. “We had a lot of video content that we were producing and had it in a sub-navigation area and people were just not finding it. When we re-skinned, the video usage went up 300 percent.”

Keep It in the Family

So content types are blending under content categories, but they should also be accessible in standalone “media centers.” This is all part of giving users redundant methods of finding what they want. “Every piece of content really winds up being categorized in one of two ways,” says Shanfelt. “It’s defined by the kind of content it is and the category or categories in which it fits. So if I’m navigating by topic I’ll find it or if I’m navigating by type I’ll find it.”

There’s also huge importance in arranging and attracting related content subjects, especially from the search function. “People are lazy. They don’t want to browse,” continues Shanfelt. “They want to search and bring up all the results. When I search, I’m not just looking for an article. Show me everything that you have that’s related to this question, whether it’s a forum thread, a video, an article, whatever.”

Navigation used to reflect taxonomy but it doesn’t anymore, adds Johns. “Nor should it,” she says. “You need to have the ability to pull that information of what’s associated so people can go deeper into a particular topic.”

So, when constructing, or even rebuilding, a site, what comes first—taxonomy or navigation? The taxonomy may come first, but navigation is not far behind, and often merges with it as the site build progresses. “I start with the database,” says Johns, referring to building the taxonomy into the CMS. “I start with what the community wants now and how we can differentiate from the competition. It’s about how you’re going to taxonomize the information your community needs and then how you prioritize it—what you float to the top and what you put off to the edges. You have to understand their needs and then you map that to your database and then map your navigation to that.”

Web Site Architecture and Navigation: 6 Tips

1. Start with the database (taxonomy) by focusing on what your users want, then build the navigation scheme on top of that.

2. Content categories should have their own mini-homepages, or information centers, where users have access to content associated to that one category.

3. If you’re rebuilding your site, examine the old site’s search logs. This will provide insight into not only what users are looking for, but the language they use. Categorize your content accordingly.

4. Don’t skimp on internal search functionality. You may have great content in a variety of formats, but if people can’t find it and link to related content, it’s useless.

5. Integrate all content types—video, audio, text, etc.—that belong to a certain category. Don’t isolate your video content on a video page, for example.

6. Weed out or de-emphasize short, one-off posts from search results. Users are typically looking for substantial content, not a two-sentence blog post that might have had value in its day, but no archival value.

By Bill Mickey
01/04/2008







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