The structure of a website is one of it's most important aspects, if not the most important. And yet, website planning, sometimes referred to as content strategy or information architecture; all too often falls by the wayside. The general (and outdated) assumption is that websites are explicitly the realm of the web developers/keyboard monkeys, and therefore they will handle the actual layout of pages on your website.
This is only partially true. Unless your website is exceptionally simple, weighing in at perhaps three pages
There's actually a lot of reasons why your site's structure matters. Some are obvious, some less so. If your site structure has been planned out and implemented well:
If your site structure was poorly planned or cobbled together in a rush, then will you have few to none of these things. In that eventuality, what's the point of even having a website?
Ideally, before development has even begun. First, you have to decide who will be responsible for the planning and there's three primary options:
Remember how I said before that there's the outdated assumption that websites are only to be touched by web developers? The reality is that websites, as far as the planning and content strategy goes, should (ideally, if budget allows) be handled by a digital marketing team. Your web developers will still handle the technical side of things, of course, but the decisions about what pages and what content will go where is largely out of their hands.
Regardless of who's planning the website, here's roughly how it should be carried out:
This is possibly the most important step. Research is done into both the primary keywords for the industry/market/target audience, and research is done into primary competitors. You should collect and decide upon a number of key words and phrases that you believe your target audience will be typing into search boxes, and then use these words/phrases and inform the content and structure of the site. You should also audit competitor sites - try to figure out who ranks well, why they're ranking well, what keywords they appear to be using, and how their website is laid out. To find competitor sites, simply pretend that you're your own customer - perform Google Searches of your services/products and see what comes up.
You know what your keywords are. You know what your competitors do well, and you're starting to think about how to match or beat them. Perhaps you noticed particular pages on other websites that you liked, or that you think would answer the questions your potential customers will have.
You might start with something like this:
At this point, you have something that performs the simplest and most important functions of a website: you've got a launching point into the whole website (Home), information about you have to offer (Our Services), a way for people to get in touch (Contact Us), and some emotive information about who you are (About Us).
If you're running an eCommerce website, you'll also have pages on this list like Cart, Products, and Checkout.
For some sites, something like the above might cover all the bases. If not, carry on.
You're thinking roughly how your keywords are going to map across into the above structure, and you've got a few things left over in your head that you haven't given a home to yet. Some examples:
This is the point where your site structure draft is ready to be seen by the development team. They will most likely recommend some modifications, based upon their experiences and what they have in mind for the functionality of the site. Design of the site will also take place somewhere here, with all parties working together.
Once development has completed, you can take your website for a spin in a testing environment. You'll be able to see how original plan came to life, and be able to determine whether the thing in your head has made it into the real world and whether it will meet your needs, and the needs of your customers. Any final structural changes can be made, and then it's ready!
Awesome. Let's bring it to life.