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information architecture vs sitemap

Information Architecture vs Sitemap: What’s The Difference?

Website architects often search for Information Architecture vs Sitemap differences.

From a user’s perspective, it’s mind-blowing that we can look for information about almost anything online.

Learning about something is as easy as typing in a few keywords and going through the pages of results.

And If you’re like most everyone, you usually find what you need on the first page of these search results.

The problem is when you don’t find what you’re looking for on one of these initial results.

You quickly abandon a site to look for them elsewhere. 

It is difficult to include a website in search results.

This is where Information Architecture and sitemaps come in, albeit in different ways.

Let’s learn more about Information Architecture vs Sitemap differences in this article!

Information Architecture (IA)

What Is Information Architecture?

One way we can define Information Architecture (IA) is the art of organizing content.

It is organized in a way that it supports excellent User Experience (UX). 

For those who are familiar with UX, this definition would make absolute sense. 

But let’s take a step back and say you’re new to things such as UX as well.

Let’s break this down into its base concepts and how it relates to Information Architecture.

Basic Concepts

In computer studies, computer processing is converting raw data into useful information. 

If data cannot be stored, organized, and given back to users, then it is no use.

An example of this is when a user fills out a form containing individual data; let’s say a customer profile page for a company.

This form will transformed into information that will help someone else in the organization do their jobs.

Someone from another department may ask for a report on their customers,

Such report may be on what countries/cities most of their customers are from, or the age demographics for different products and services.

The amount of data stored and the kind of information produced by a system can be significant advantages for an organization.

But as systems evolved., their capacity to store and the ways they can manipulate data into information increased exponentially.

Evolution of Systems

Over the years, the amount of data stored in a system’s repositories has become a problem to manage appropriately.

The data may be there, but is it stored in a way that it is easy for specific information to be produced?

Knowing that the information you’re looking for is in there somewhere , it is useless if you can’t find it when you need it.

It is also useless if it is in a form that you can’t understand.

This is especially true when you consider data on the internet.

Imagine a virtual sea of knowledge, like the most significant library imaginable with endless shelves of books.

Whenever someone uses a search engine to look for information, think of how it knows which websites contain it.

And the quest for information doesn’t stop when this list of websites is suggested.

When a user visits a site from this list, and the information is not available on the page, the user will move on and look at the next suggested site.

This is the type of interaction we are primarily concerned with when we say UX.

User Experience

UX encompasses a wide range of concepts.

For our discussion of Information Architecture, we are focusing on the interaction between a site user and the website itself.

According to Norman and Nielsen (Nielsen Norman Group 2017), creating great UX means “to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother.”

Although UX is most referred to when designing web pages or apps, this is a concept that encompasses the total experience a user has regarding a product or service.

To learn more about what other considerations fall under UX, a term coined by Don Norman, you can get more information from his group.

IA Comes In

Going back to our scenario of users interacting with a website, Information Architecture is concerned with establishing an order for a site’s content so that users can easily find what they are looking for. 

According to Klancar (Career Foundry 2020), when considering site content from Information Architecture’s point of view, organizing it should be done in an “effective way.”

The fact that a site has many users can complicate its effectiveness.

The users each come to its pages for different purposes.

So, Information Architecture answers the question of how we can effectively organize a website’s content

It organizes the contents in a way that users’ needs for coming to the site are met without fuss or bother.

But how exactly does an information architect achieve this?

IA Organizes Content

In Dan Brown’s “Eight Principles of Information Architecture,” he wrote that IA assumes the architect is focused on making information structures.

Meaning what an information architect makes are representations of this act of organizing content.

It is the underlying reason as to what data is on a site and how it is presented/accessed.

They are not necessarily involved in designing the user interface or producing content that can be found on these pages.

It also presumes that before creating these information structures, the architect is fully aware of what functionality needs to be supported.

Functionality refers to what the site is used for and what its users can do on it.

This can become complicated if we consider that a site has multiple users and that a company could have different purposes for creating it.

This understanding of the website’s functionality needs to be paired with complete knowledge.

It must be understood what site content is available or expected.

Creating a content list or content inventory includes checking exhaustively what data resources are already available to be put on the site.

It must include what is needed to be created to be placed on it in the future to meet user needs.

Without knowing these, creating useful information structures for a website would be near impossible.

To find out more about Dan Brown’s principles, read here.

The creation of structures that represent how a website’s content is organized is what IA is all about.

It should be organized in a way that company and user goals are met adequately.

Contents Of Information Architecture

User Requirements

Information Architecture considers both site functionality and site content in creating structures.

Doing this would start with getting to know the business or organization. 

The actual organizational goals that drive their business are also known. 

Just like in the step of defining User Requirements when developing software, an information architect need to have a thorough understanding of the company’s needs. 

This not only ensures that the structures created can support current goals, but it also gives room for targeted growth.

Is the company focused on expansion or cost reduction?

Will the site’s functionality focus on sales growth or membership increase?

Or will it be more for supporting office processes and centralizing data?

All of this can be made more explicit by taking the time to discuss and thoroughly know company goals.

Once company goals are established, the main functions of the site can be detailed. 

User goals are identified for each of these functions.

For example, the site will be used by employees as a port for submitting leave applications.

What do they need to be able to do on the website for this need to be met?

What information needs to be available to the user to use this function?

Use cases and storytelling can help the architect walk users through their expectations of how it will work for them.

Making sure that user goals align with company goals is also an essential consideration while creating User Requirements.

Common Denominators

An architect may be tempted to start creating a custom-made information structure with UX defined. 

Each company is unique, it’s true.

But the way information is structured on websites all have underlying common denominators.

And with UX in mind, we need to consider these commonalities as well.

Creativity in designing websites is something that may sound good, but not if it becomes detrimental to UX.

The familiarity of content or function improves UX, as proven by how Windows has kept the START button’s concept from the get-go.

It doesn’t matter which version of the operating system you’re using if you want to find something you know roughly where to find it.

They keep common denominators with each rollout.

More On Common Denominators

When we think about websites, the basic expectations would be that there would be a header, a body, and a footer. 

We even expect the things to be found in these parts to be constant.

Like the company’s logo would be in the header, there’ll be a menu to quickly navigate pages.

if you need to send them a message there’ll be a contact form you can use.

Going to a site and not seeing these would lead to confusion or frustration.

Whatever type of company a website is for, there are standard functions/content that are expected.

While knowing what your own company and their site’s users need, it is also a must to understand what is typical for websites with a similar nature to yours.

If you’re creating structures for a banking website, what are the standard functions available on other banking websites?

What page content is commonly expected for this industry?

How are they reaching their company’s goals through their website?

Making these observations will refine your User Requirements and make sure that there are no oversights.

Content Inventory And Navigation

Whether a site already exists or not, identified content could already be existing or even those that are expected to be created in the future.

These need to be labeled and be classified into different assets such as articles, descriptions, images, videos, links, etc.

Page names need to be listed with their connections explicitly stated.

Where is any particular content available, and how can a user get to it?

This part of creating the structure is where flowcharts and sitemaps are designed to have a visual representation of content and their interconnection.

Checking these against user requirements will help in making sure that the informational structure of a site is stable and allows room for growth.

An architect can then determine which content is needed and which content can be left out.

What Is A Sitemap?

As mentioned earlier, a sitemap can also be part of Information Architecture. 

Together with flowcharts, they describe a site’s content and their interconnection.

Flowcharts can represent any of the entities and process flows underlying your web site’s information structure.

A sitemap’s concept is the relationship between pages and how they are accessed by a user.

A sitemap may sound like a simple enough representation, but it can take time to build.

The term sitemap can be another page used to add accessibility to your site.

It could refer to a visualization tool, a document to help a team map out the hierarchical relationship of pages.

But some sitemaps are files meant to be used by a search engine such as an XML sitemap.

XML Sitemaps

XML sitemaps are files made available to search engines.

With these, they will know what pages you have in your site and additional information about them.

The necessity of providing information for search engines was brought about by how search engines work. 

Have you thought about what happens when you press search on Google or whichever search engine you use?

Search engines work by going through all web pages they discover through what are referred through as “crawlers.”

These bots or “spiders” are software created to download pages from the internet.

After downloading web content, these crawlers then place them in another structure called a search index.

A search index is like a catalog which will contain information about the page for reference.

This includes what words are on that page, what media is on it when it was last updated, user interactions on the page, and the URLs found on it.

With your keywords in a search engine, they use search indexes to determine which pages are relevant to the keywords entered based on what information was found when your pages were crawled.

It becomes essential then that “web crawlers” can see your web pages and get included with enough information in search engines to make them relevant.

More On Search Engines

Crawlers usually start downloading web content from a list of known URLs. 

After this list, they will follow the URLs found on the pages they crawled.

They find new pages to crawl if they’re referenced as links from other pages.

This is a massive part of why planning link relationships are part of the website’s information structure. 

Having isolated pages means that crawlers won’t be able to find them and include them in search results. 

But depending on their goals, companies may not want all of their web pages indexed. 

There is content that website owners don’t want showing up on search results, in which case there are ways to indicate that a page is not for indexing. 

Again, established goals could help determine if you would need to hide these pages from crawlers.

Contents Of Sitemaps

URL

XML sitemaps are a list of Uniform Resource Locator (URLs).

Browsers use URLs to identify where a web resource can be found on the internet. 

This is a unique address that tells browsers where the resource is stored so that it can be retrieved for viewing.

These resources include web pages, media like photos or videos, or otherwise files on a server.

Using URLs, we can map the resources on a website, starting with its pages.

URLs are different from links, although external links and backlinks play an important part in search indexes and how your site rates in searches.

Links are a way for users to navigate to a page or other pages.

Backlinks are those from a web page from another source, essentially linking your page to another website.

The concept is that if your site receives links from other websites, and those other websites are relevant to your site content, it’ll increase your ranking.

This is why maintaining the information structures for your website is essential.

Regularly updating when you’ve made changes will ensure that things like broken links don’t affect your ranking in searches.

You can find out which sites are referring to non-existent pages on yours, and take steps to correct this.

Metadata

HTML sitemaps can include metadata or “data about data.”

Think of metadata as a reference to the type of data you’re looking for, just like what we use in searches.

To use a search engine, we enter what is referred to as keywords, which is what quickly comes to mind when we hear the term metadata.

You may want to refine your search to include keywords such as your country’s name and the phrase “pet owner.”

Sitemaps with metadata are essentially providing a better basis for relevance for searches.

The more relevant your content is to the search, the higher you are in the results ranking and allowing for more potential site visits.

The goal of writing metadata is to give an overview of a page’s content that it matches most of the collective descriptions a user may use to find.

This overview is commonly given in two parts: in the meta title and the meta description.

Meta Title and Meta Description

The meta title gives the page title, which includes a strategically placed keyword.

The meta description is a compelling summary of the page content,.

It includes keywords but is most effectively written as a convincing snippet to get users to click on your link from a results page.

So basically, what we’re trying to relate to is not the search engine itself.

Figuring It Out

It’s like saying you have a page, and it’s full of the complete history of candy, which should be easy to describe, and most people would search for it precisely in that same way “history of the candy.”

But there are other considerations: what if they search for it using a different term?

What if someone were to enter “sweets” instead of “candy,” is this term related to your page?

Or what if they’re using another language to search, will your page still appear with a good ranking on the results page?

Descriptions can vary from person to person, and matching metadata to content may be a continuous process.

As human language tends to change, changing metadata to incorporate new terms is also essential.

This goes back to information architecture, being something that needs to be maintained. 

Content should not stay the same if there are changes that need to be reflected.

Updates must be relevant to people looking for information. 

There are different types of metadata.

What is included in a sitemap may vary.

Most metadata writers will stick to some guideline which helps them achieve a goal.

Since these same people are mostly concerned with Search Engine Optimization, they mostly stick with a search engine’s suggestions on metadata.

To learn more about writing metadata, read here.

Tags

XML sitemaps have tags in their format to give additional information regarding URLs.

Location, Last Modified, Change Frequency and Priority tags are the most commonly accepted.

But specific sitemaps have other tags that help their content become featured in search engines.

For example, Image sitemaps can contain optional tags such as Caption, Title, and Geo-Location.

Think about adding these tags to the information for your URL and how can they improve your page feature in search results. 

To read more about allowed tags in an XML sitemap, read here.

Final Thoughts

Information Architecture and Sitemaps may both work on organizing the content of a website, but for different purposes.

Information Architecture refers to a broader scope of structure that focuses first on the underlying goals and processes that a website represents.

From these, they relate to user interaction and content.

Sitemaps are more specific mapping focusing on how a user can find information in the structure through the relationship between pages and how to best describe them.

Information architecture builds the hidden structures for the content, and the visible organization of content can be seen through a sitemap.

If ever you’re one of those who looked for Information Architecture vs Sitemap differences, we hope this article has helped you.

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