It’s finally happened: a day you’ve been dreading. Your site, originally planned and built 5 or so years ago, has grown into an untamable monster. You’ve got 15 items in your top navigation, and each one has 30 sub-pages. At least 10 of those sub-pages actually live under more than one category. Half of your new content is getting lumped under something called “Other.”

“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together — mass hysteria.”  – Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) in Ghostbusters

Maybe it’s a bad CMS, maybe it’s a busy schedule; in either case, you lost control. Like the final seconds in a game of Tetris, new content just started piling up too fast, and you went into reactive, “put that content anywhere it fits!” mode.

A strategic reorganization of your pages would do wonders for your users, but the task can seem impossible. Card-sorting, a simple user experience exercise, creates a natural process for grouping and categorizing topics, and I’m about to explain how it can work for you.

A Bottom-Up Approach

Many times when a site has gotten to this level of “yuck,” there’s a knee-jerk reaction, like “We’re going to have 3 top-level navigation sections, and that’s it!” Frankly, this is a great way to build an awful experience. Creating such an arbitrary and artificial requirement is a recipe for “shoehorning,” and you’ll hear your team coming up with some amazing excuses for terrible decisions.

Let the content dictate the categories, not the other way around:

  • Acquire/create a sitemap for your current site (ideally exported directly from your CMS to capture any hidden pages).
  • Before we destroy your familiar structure, give it a quick review and remove any elements that are clearly outdated or otherwise don’t need to exist anymore — we don’t want to start over by polluting our navigation. While you’re at it, this is a great time to capture any new content that still hasn’t made it into the site
  • Now, strip all sense of existing hierarchy and categorization. Any items that have natural relationships can be kept together (multiple variants of a single product, for example), but we really want to remove most of the structure that’s making the website a horror show.

You should be left with a relatively “flat” list of topics your site covers. Now, there are a number of approaches you can take to regenerating your navigation.

We Can Rebuild It. We Have The Technology

Ok, that’s a mildly misleading heading. You actually don’t need any technology; you could have each of your topics listed on an index card or Post-it. That said, there are also a number of online and offline apps available for performing a card sort:

Regardless of what tool you use, the next step is the fun part: start grouping and sorting your pile of topics in a way that seems logical and natural to you. You can do this as a team exercise, or have individual team members do their own sort and then compare results to discover any patterns. Ideally, you’d open this up to actual users, whether they’re existing clients or prospects — even family and friends can provide priceless unbiased input.

As your groups are formed, options for labels should become clear: the group/category name should describe the types of content you included in that category! If it feels like you’ve still got too many top level groups, see where things can be consolidated, or wrapped up under a parent item. “Products” and “Services” groups could be child items of a larger “Products & Services” menu item. Perhaps your “News” content could be rolled up under your “Company” section?

Handling The Fallout

As you sort out your squeaky-clean and beautiful new navigation, don’t forget to keep your SEO house in order when updating your website/CMS.

In a big navigation overhaul, a fair number of URL updates usually need to happen. Page URLs should properly reflect the page’s topic and location in your site hierarchy (like For example, if a page moves from your News section to your Company section, the URL should reflect that move.

These changes require an organized strategy to ensure the following steps happen in the least disruptive way possible:

  • Update page URLs
  • Fix any in-content or navigation links that will be rendered invalid/broken by the update
  • Create proper 301 redirects pointing any old URLs to their corresponding new URLs
  • Deploy these edits, and test thoroughly(!!!)

Friends In Webby Places

A few paragraphs ago, you may have noticed that I called feedback from friends and family “priceless.” The sad truth is that the value of your sorting and labeling is questionable if it’s completed entirely through company-tinted glasses. This is where having a digital marketing partner comes in really handy.

While clients certainly need a partner that understands their goals and audiences, I often tell them that — in these situations— a big part of the value I offer is the fact that I don’t know their business inside-and-out. I haven’t been “drinking the company Kool-Aid,” and I’m able to look at their site as an outside user would.

The time you spend on an internal card sort lays a great foundation for site architecture consultation with an external UX practitioner, plus it gives you a chance to re-familiarize yourself with your own content and message.

Try It. You’ll Like It.

Ultimately, a card sorting exercise can be as scientific or low-tech as you want. You can leverage a tool that provides in-depth charting of trends across multiple individual sorts, or you can simply use index cards to get your head wrapped around your current content a bit. In either case, the exercise provides just enough structure to get you on the path to fixing a navigation system that’s gotten out of control.