Navigation in an ecosystem

A common IA can exist across a complex site or an ecosystem of sites. In either case, it needs to make every page findable, give every page a unique purpose, and connect every page so that no matter where you start, there’s a logical path to where you need to be. It also needs to ensure menus, linking, and SEO work together to boost search rank and reduce bounce rate.

Internal competition, whether within a site or across many sites from a single company, for customer attention is bad for customers and for the business. It hurts SEO because there’s not one place for us to focus our efforts. It hurts customer outcomes and trust because they get five answers, not one good one. It hurts our operational costs because it’s expensive to create, maintain, and serve up all that redundancy.

To do this well, we need to think about our experience having three layers:

  • Entry: Basic shallow hierarchy providing access to each aisle.
  • Aisles: Organized around topics of interest (branded or unbranded), deliberately cross-silo. Focused on eliminating redundancy.
  • Stock rooms: Each one has a specific purpose, content type, product, etc. They are governed to prevent redundancy. The purpose of these are to be pure content indexes that we can pull from easily.

Different areas of the site should be oriented around different organizational principles, like product, content type, topic, audience, etc. Each “aisle” should have everything a user will need. The best way to decide on an orientation is to match it with the types of keywords users are using.

This is primarily an organizational challenge, because you have to definitively decide what you want people to find when they look for a term (whether that’s a product name, an audience segment, or an unbranded concept).

Once you have a list of the significant concepts in each of those organizational principles, you can create ecosystems for each product, topic, audience, and content type (type will not always be relevant.) Each ecosystem has a number of elements living within it:

  • Menus provide access to pages within that ecosystem, including the homepage and similar pages.
  • Pages for the same product/topic/audience should have clearly different intents. They get their purpose from their content type and their subject from their topic/product/audience/etc. Each content type has a page template that provides standard options for content, design, and queries. Low-priority pages can be automated, high-value pages can be customized.

You need to design for three kinds of movement:

  • Drill down by topic (or step up to more general ideas)
  • Progress through a funnel (or retrace steps)
  • Zoom in from related content to core content (or zoom out from core content to related content)

Navigation affordances do different things:

  • Tags provide access to parent ecosystems (both the primary parent used for the hierarchy and alternate parents).
  • The main sections of a page provide entry points to other relevant ecosystems. These sections are populated by query, where they serve up other documents via standard references and programmatically displayable chunks.
  • Personalization can get layered onto pages as the system matures. The best candidates for personalization are CTAs and recommended resources.
  • An “Explore More” footer provides a safety net.

Ecosystems will inherently overlap, so you need to establish sitewide priorities for that overlap, otherwise it will be decided by the loudest group in each case and inconsistency will reign. Docs that are primarily available in one ecosystem get that menu, URL path, and breadcrumb, but are contextually available from other areas.

A priority hierarchy to start with: - Usage: Documents that are primarily about a product or suite should be in that product or suite’s ecosystem. - Unbranded interest: Documents that are about a topic, like “Security,” should be in that topic ecosystem. - Brand (for content ONLY about a brand, not any of the products in that brand) - Content Type (if it’s not shared, it sits under the product. If it’s shared, it sits under the content type nav.)

Governance has to ensure people check for existing pages, review tagging, and plan with cross-org product or topic squads. Automation needs to check draft pages against what people say they’re about and identify legacy content that might be redundant with new content, or otherwise needs to be linked, integrated, or retired.


Priestly, Michael. Topic-Oriented IA for the Enterprise . IA Conference.