How to structure your business website

I’ve always believed that the most important part of planning a business website takes place with just brain, pen and paper, long before you get anywhere near a developer.  I’ve had to structure a couple of websites from scratch in the last month or so, one for a client, the other for a new business I am launching, and the process has forced me to ponder about how to get it right from the start.  The trick is thinking about the site from the point of view of your prospective customer, which is much easier when you are advising another business, and near impossible when it’s your own business and you just want to shout about how brilliant it is.  So here are some simple steps to help you do just that:

1. Define your customer groups

Be clear about who your prospective customers are – and if they naturally fall into distinct groups, in which case they will need to be treated separately as you go through this process.  For an existing business,  review your current customer base – for a new one you will need to do some research.  Who will be most important to your business in future? Who will be using the web as a research tool?  This step will help you prioritise.

2. Understand their (unspoken) questions

For each customer group, work out what questions they will ask themselves before they consider your product or service.  They may need to check key features or prices, read reviews or testimonials from your current customers, or may need prompting on why they need your product or service at all.  For each key question you will need to develop content that provides an answer, and keeps them interested in finding out more.

3. Work out their research process

Investigate how they currently research products/services like yours.  Do they simply use Google – in which case SEO and tailored landing pages will be important.  Do they start with directories, publications, associations, or other reference sources; if they do, then you will need to focus on links and testimonials.  Do they rely on social recommendation – if so, you will have to be present on the right networks.  How long do they take to research? Will they check several sources? Will they need to get sign-off from boss or partner?  All these answers will determine where you put the emphasis.  Get a second opinion if you can from someone linked to your business but who can still see the wood for the trees.

4. Plot the paths they will follow before a decision

When you have worked out how you will drive traffic to your specialised landing pages, think through the path that each group could follow before deciding to buy or to contact you to find out more.  I find it helpful to sketch out flow charts on paper, and allow for people following their own individual sequence of questions before making the decision to buy.

5. Test the navigation

Ask a friendly client or business colleague to test out your navigation.  Draft out the content that each page will have on a separate piece of paper (or do this on word or powerpoint if you must) and follow the sequence.  Try it out in different ways.  Don’t worry about creating a neat pyramidal site map.  It is more important that the journey is intuitive for each individual.  Allow for different navigational styles – main nav vs text links vs search.  If SEO is important to your market (see point#3 above) then make sure you optimise each landing page for that specific group.

I’d be interested to hear your experiences, and any tips on site structure you have found helpful.  If you’re ready to take your website plan to a developer or agency, you might find my earlier post on working effectively with digital agencies useful.  There’s also some tips on writing a great developer brief here.

Carolyn Morgan

Penmaen Media creates practical digital media and marketing strategies.  We have worked with several SMEs on website planning and have particular expertise with media businesses, training and professional services.  If you’d like advice on structuring your website please contact us for an initial discussion.