When given a task of making search terms and frequetly visited pages more accessible to users, the uninitiated fire and fall back. They leave in their wake, broad, shallow sites with menus and navigtion which look more like weeds than an organized system. Ultimately , these navigation schemes fail to do the one thing they were intended for, enhance findability.

Though one of my latest projects was the final straw, prompting this post, I’ve seen teams approach sites with the goal of findability and navigability in mind, only to end up with a system of menus and a field of links that are almost impenetrable to even the most tenacious of webonauts. Documents, pages and external links mingle in a taxonomic and architectural nightmare.

Perceived site architecture is to blame for this iniquity, regardless of the real information hierarchy. Although broad and shallow architecture is fine for small, simple sites, it is unforgiving as the site grows and the number of pages needed to contain all of the information provided balloons up.

Broad and shallow architecture is precsiely what it sounds like. Instead of crafting a set of taxonomical structures and an architecture that reflects the hierarchy of information on the site, broad and shallow architecture offers all pages at the same level and provides no understanding of the interrelation between pages and the information they contain.

When search and analytics data is taken without proper insight, it can quickly become confusing to try and unravel the intent of the users visiting a site. Users search for strange items and land on pages that may not reflect what their intent was originally. Often, frustration mounts and they will search for anything that seems related to what they want. Ultimately, the user will become discouraged and leave the site angry and unfulfilled. Angry users are never return customers.

These frantic searches can lead to unexpected search terms. Someone who is unskilled in assessing user data is likely to assume that pages need to be accessible directly from the home page of a site. Eventually buildup occurs and ever page becomes a direct link from the home page. When this happens, a broad and shallow architecture emerges from the mire. With Draconian enforcement, teams will inflict “usability” upon the user in heaps and gobs.

The only way I know to solve this kind of problem is to strip a site down to nothing and begin again. It’s a hard pill to swallow and many teams respond horribly to this kind of news. I typically revel in this kind of situation because it gives the site new hope for a fresh beginning.

The best thing any team can do is uncover a clear hierarchy and stick to their guns. Often, it’s not the information hierarchy, but the navigation architecture and highlighted links that kill the user experience faster than anything else. Undestanding information importance and subordinance will always provide for a solid foundation to build a site with longevity and scalability.

After a solid, clear hierarchy has been laid in place, select clear, descriptive language to describe the categorizaion. Be certain you are using the user’s parlance. Review search terms, both internal as well as search engine referer sourced, to select the right verbiage. These carefully selected, key terms will be fundamental in guiding your user in a comfortable, transparent manner that will provide comfort to their experience.

Find key terms which are most searched for and focus on guiding your users there. Most often the users that are searching on your site are not finding what they are looking for. Even if the pages are clearly defined in the information hierarchy, the path to arrive there may not be so clear. Provide road signs for the user to follow.

Signs on your site should be sparse, much like signs found describing the roads on which you drive. Don’t inundate your user with directions to get everywhere. They have a goal. Find out what it is and lead them to the promised land. Guide them gently and let their discovery feel like their success.

Ultimately, large sites should avoid the broad and shallow approach, opting for a narrow and deep approach instead. Give signs along the way to ensure the user experiences incremental success. Guide your user gently and let their success be a rewarding experience they will look forward to recreating when they return next.