One of the most powerful features of the Web is its ability to present millions of Web pages as one huge hypertext document. Search engines play the role of the master index, relating virtually every page on the Web to other pages that have similar topics. Many pages have links to pages on other sites that may be hosted half a world away. But this web is not of your weaving. Unlike the spider, who knows exactly where a fly has landed, you have to work a little harder to locate your information prey. Even with the help of search engines, finding specific pieces of information can be a challenge.
However, within your own site, you do have control over how you weave your web. This week's article will help you avoid weaving a tangled one. From my experience, the best way to do that is to plan carefully, and my favorite planning tool for thinking through a web site design is a bubble diagram. A bubble diagram is exactly what it sounds like. You draw bubbles on a sheet of paper and connect them with lines. Each bubble represents a Web page, and each line represents a hyperlink connecting two pages.
Before you start drawing, you should take a moment to collect and organize all the information you need to represent. Write down a title and description for every page you want to put on your site. In the beginning, don't worry about how that information will be organized, just get it down on paper. Each web page should contain a single and complete subject. Then you can look at how the pages interrelate. Group them by category. If necessary, group them into subcategories as well.
Now you are ready to draw a diagram. Start with a Home bubble, which is the entry point of your site. Then draw a bubble for each category and connect them to the Home bubble. If you have subcategories, draw them in and connect them to the appropriate category. Finally, draw your page bubbles and connect them to their category or subcategory bubble. Your diagram is a graphical representation of your site and shows how visitors will navigate to the information they seek. Note that this technique also works well for organizing a catalog of products on an e-commerce site.
Your diagram shows that you need to plan for transitional material in your web site as well. For example, your Home page introduces your entire site. Your category and subcategory pages introduce and summarize the information that is linked to them. This kind of architecture helps your visitors make sense of your site organization. The diagram also helps you decide what your site's navigational menu should look like. Each category should be menu item, and subcategories should appear as links on the category page or on a menu that drops down from the category menu item.
To test your site organization, pretend you are looking for a specific piece of information that is on one of your pages. If you start at the home page, does the organization you chose naturally lead you to the information you want? Ask a friend who was not involved in the organizing process to try the same test a few times. The art of proper organization lies in how easy it is to retrieve what you want.
Now for the hard part: If your diagram doesn't cut it, don't be reluctant to start over. Don't become attached to the diagram. It's just a tool. The goal here is to create a Web site, not a bubble diagram. Just remember that every time you scrunch up the paper and start over, you just saved yourself hundreds or even thousands of dollars in Web development fees. The diagram helps you do it right, so you won't have to do it over.