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Organizing and Navigating Web Content

Once you have your interface design drawn up with content that you'd like to transfer to the website, a careful consideration needs to be given to the way in which users are going to access your information.

Every good website should use a form of information architecture to lay down the manner in which users can move from page to page. Navigation is crucial to the browsing experience of your web audience and you don't want them pointed in the wrong directions, do you now?

It's possible to make use of a CMS (Content Management System) which automatically generates web structure for your content, and enables you to oversee the hierarchy of pages. This is helpful in the sense that it adds a lot of functionality to the administration of your site, but it's also a restraint if you don't have the money to purchase a sufficient CMS or the know-how to install a freeware version. Products like Serena Collage and other popular CMS tools can be extremely expensive.

There are two methods that you can use for the navigation of a website : taxonomy and folksonomy.

Taxonomy is the approach that most of us will be familiar with. It represents the idea of dividing content in to specific categories and grouping as such. Folksonomy, on the other hand, is a relatively new formula which several of the popular community websites put to good use. If you have what's known as user generated content being created by users "rather than uploaded by the developer" it becomes plausible to organize by the author rather than the category.

In either case, navigation plays a crucial role to whether the general public is going to find the data that they're looking for.

When you design your homepage, draw up a list of links which will cascade from the first page and make a note of them. Your links should be descriptive and to the point. Don't fall under the spell of Mystery Meat Navigation. Users stand no chance of finding the content they're looking for if you have hyperlinks which simply say "Section" or "Stuff".

Your goal should be to limit the destinations so that your web traffic is channeled to the right areas of the site. When a user arrives on the site, they should be presented with as few links as possible. Instead of listing every last product that you have for sale, include a simple link to a "Product" section.

Categorizing links is an absolute must if you have a vast number of files for navigation. Organize a hierarchy of priority. Where do you want the users to go upon arriving on the homepage?

Simple formatting such as bold links and drawing attention to them with white space - never underestimate the power of white space: can attract your visitor's eyes to where you want them to go on the site.

One thing to take great caution over is the use of navigation images. It can be very tempting to produce navigation buttons and provide a little more glitz to your interface, but is it really worth it?

Optimized web usability is an important factor in accessible content, and if you design your navigation to make use of relevant images rather than text, you may be missing the boat so to speak.

Search engines, or search bots as they're known by some, will fail to spider your website correctly if the links aren't effectively formatted. If you can't escape the idea of using images for navigation, always use the HTML ALT tag to assist users and search engines alike.

Consider the way that you name your files and subfolders. Did you know that a website loads much faster if your first level of files is restricted to simply the homepage? When a browser points to your server, it will automatically scan the entire top directory of files until it reaches an index.html (or relevant extension) file.

If your top-tier folder includes an index.html file, along with several other pages, you'll be missing out on optimized loading times. Not to mention, a website with clearly defined categories can assist users if they wish to manually point their browser to a sub-section of your site.

A good way to look at organizing navigation is to treat your homepage as a portal and the access point for the rest of your content. Don't include a "Home" link on your homepage. It's a common mistake made by many designers and one that can disorientate the less canny users that drop by your site. They don't want to see links to pages that they're already on. If you're not using a database driven system such as Access or mySQL, this can be a little tricky to address. The solution is simply to add a distinguished style of formatting to the currently active page. Take the A HREF tag away and apply a simple bold style, for example.

Another issue for web designers to address is the consistency of the navigation. There is absolutely no excuse for a site infrastructure where essential links only appear on certain pages. Your key categories should be available from every sub page. This is one of the most important stages in perfecting your navigation design. A user should not have to trace backwards to find a key link.

Look at your website from the perspective of a complete stranger. Would you feel capable of finding a certain area of the site? If not, you have poor information architecture and your navigation design is lacking.


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