Actually this post should probably be titled “Which is More Important Content or Navigation?” The term “content is king” has been around for at least as long as I have been involved in web design which is quite some time. I have heard this saying repeated over and over. However in the other corner you have the usability group usually led by Jakob Nielsen which leads me to the question; after your sites aesthetics which is more important to a users experience content or navigation?
A Small Ripple in the Ocean or a Big Wave in a Pond?
I have arguments for both sides of this question, but what it really comes down to is which is more important to you? Engage a customer or get them to somewhere else? It’s not to say the two can’t exist together, it just means at some point you are going to have to accept that vast amounts of content will be hard to create a sustainable information architecture around (without some smart technical intervention). Statistically speaking the more content your site has and assuming you are good at keeping this content in a sitemap.xml file for search engines to use and consistently practice good SEO, the more likely the search engines are to return long tail search results for your pages. This strategy is great for reaching out to customers that may not have even known you existed. This is what I like to refer to as external reach or external navigation (getting to your site from sites you don’t control). In this case content really is king, and not just in terms of quantity but also quality.
“Before something is even created ask yourself what is this going to link to?”
Content should be well formatted properly annotated with compliant HTML and be interesting and easy to read for your audience, sites like Digg generate repeat traffic based on sheer volume of refreshing content. Most traffic to a site like Digg generates so much traffic to the front page that a front page story can shut down a server within minutes based on the volume of clicks to the linked site. The rest of the content on Digg is toiling away in some void behind their site. Sites like IMDB tend to rank high on search results because of the massive amounts of good data on certain subjects (specifically movies), Amazon again the same thing, large volumes of content and lots of external navigation.
What’s interesting with these sites is because they consist of large volumes of content, site search seems to be their best navigation tool. Amazon has almost made it an art form of using site search as a navigation tool. I think Amazon does have a good general navigation and taxonomy (which I’ll explore further on), but I would be willing to bet more users navigate through Amazon based on site search results and “Amazon Recommends” results on product pages, then casually surfing their site.
How do you Connect the Dots?
For most sites it is not realistic to expect vast amounts of content, nor to be able to sustain that content, most of the examples I used for the content examples rely on user generated content to sustain. So most sites out there, navigation really does become important. Consider again the user that arrives to your site from a search result be it something you optimized for, or a long tail term you never thought of. A user is going to hit your page and they are going to scan it starting in the top left, working their way across the page most likely in an F-pattern or reverse F-pattern. This makes sense most site designs these days are navigation on the left or right, with a core set of navigation across the top and a site description, and then your content in the middle. The first thing people are looking at is your navigation (is there something more important or related to what I’m looking for elsewhere on this site? What else is there that supports I’m in the right place?) Information architecture has become a field in and of its self in the last couple years for website design. Most people assume this is something that is done at a high level and only needs to be done once, they would be wrong.
Remember what I said about Amazon using the “Amazon recommends” functionality? Amazon does a fantastic job of reassuring their customers they are looking at the right product by showing other similar products AND linking to those products AND telling you the percent of people who also bought that product. Amazon’s information architecture is designed at both the macro and micro levels. At the Macro level they have an easy enough product categorization or taxonomy to understand. At the micro level Amazon presents content that is as close as possible to the content you are looking at. This trend is starting to pop-up in blogs where there is a section of “similar articles” and if you run a small business and you offer more than one service, you probably want to link to the other related services, or testimonials, or white papers, or anything else that is similar to what is on that page.
But Not All of my Content is Getting Traffic, nor is My Navigation Being Used
Maybe a page with really solid relevant links on it doesn’t get a lot of clicks on all the supporting content, and maybe 75% of your traffic only ever gets to see 5% of your content, but that’s OK. All that supporting content is simply acting as psychological triggers to assure a customer they are in the right spot, they are not primary goals they are reassuring triggers. When you first started your website what was the goal of it? It is most likely going to be one of three things. Buy a product or service, communicate with a user base, or click on an ad. To maximize your reassuring content then a couple simple rules to follow when setting it up are:
Buy a product or service: If this is the case get the user to the check out, and make your supporting reassuring content also lead to a checkout just like “Amazon recommends” if not product “A” then why not product “B”.
Communicate with a user base: Old users know your content and probably are only coming back for new content only. New users want to know what your old content was and will make a decision based on this if they think new content will be enticing to come back to. Digg does this by listing ALOT of stories on their home page something has to stick doesn’t it? Make your top rated content persistent and also call out similar content in another spot.
Click on an Ad: I’m assuming this is a legitimate ad for your business or affiliate program, in which case you should expect a hit and run, either your ad is interesting or it’s not. Supporting content should probably drive to other similar ads or products or services (not everyone is looking for a deal they just want to know it’s an option).
So what is more important content or navigation? I’m going to say content as a way of navigation. Before something is even created ask yourself what is this going to link to? And more importantly what existing content on my website should link to this new content?