Information architecture or content architecture: what’s the difference?

April 3, 2012
Topics covered in this article:
Content Architecture illustration by Shelly Bowen
Site and content architecture illustration

I was recently talking about content strategy needs with a new client when the conversation turned to site architecture. This client is embarking on a new site redesign, and with 3,000 pages of searchable content, architecture is important.  But what kind of architecture did they expect from the content strategist -- and from the designing agency? Information architecture (of which site architecture is a component) or content architecture? I needed to clarify.  

Although the terms seem interchangeable, and in fact, there are often overlapping principles and responsibilities, they do different things. And you need both.  Many excellent definitions of information architecture and content architecture exist (see resources below), but here, I’ll put it into my own words, from my own experiences:

Information Architecture

Information architecture helps organize content overall so it’s easy to find and use. Imagine a storeroom filled to the brim with things ... let’s say these things are all related to sports equipment, like bicycles, surfboards, skateboards, and tennis rackets. They may be whole items or pieces and parts. They may be items that help fix the equipment, like pumps, screws, and patch kits.  How do you organize and label all of these items so they are easy to recognize, find, and use?  

Wait! That’s a trick question, because it totally depends on who is doing the searching. If I’m the user of the equipment, I may want to search by sport type or by brand. But if I’m a store clerk, I may want to search by part number. Very different.  This is a over-simplistic description, but it gets you started. And content architecture?

Content Architecture

Content architecture helps you organize and label the components of content, so they are useful, reusable, and effective. Let’s go back to the messy storeroom. The information architect has decided to organize by sport type, because that’s how consumers are shopping. As the content architect, you need to decide which pieces go together.  

Take the bicycle, for instance. Does it include tires, a bell, a seat, and fenders? That makes sense if you need everything. But what if you’re not looking for a whole bicycle, and you’re looking in the subsection for fenders? The fender needs to appear in both places at the same time.  

Audience matters here too. Although you have your eye focused on the end consumer, there should be someone else in your sight: the content manager. The content manager relies on the way the content architect has structured the content components to remind him or her what is required, where it should be placed, and when.

How Does Content Strategy Fit In?

How does the content architect and information architect know how to best organize the content? They turn to the content strategy. The content strategist has, after understanding business and consumer goals, audited and analyzed the content to help better align it with the business’ and consumers’ needs. What’s missing? What needs to be deleted? What needs clarification? The content strategist makes this very clear.

Labels Shmabels

Now that I’ve gone through the trouble of metaphors and definitions, toss these labels out the window. You don’t necessarily need to hire an information architect, a content architect, AND a content strategist to create exceptional content. You just need to know where you’re headed and what you need to do to get there.  

Some information architects are also fabulous content strategists. Some content strategists (like me), can give you a big push in the right content architecture direction, but they may not wire up all the business rules or metadata for you. Everyone has a unique set of skills and interests to contribute to your content, regardless of their titles -- that's the magic of it.  You might also like: The Definition of Content Marketing.

About the Author: Shelly Bowen

Shelly Bowen, content strategist

Shelly Bowen, MFA, is a content writer, content strategist, and founder of Pybop.

For decades, Shelly has written for businesses on complex topics from disease prevention and medical devices to alternative energy and leveraging data. Today, she's hyper-focused on supporting B-B technology businesses. In her spare time, she hikes, kayaks, draws, and works on her T-Bird.

A wide variety of brands rely on Shelly as an essential freelance writer and content strategy resource.

Follow Shelly on Instagram @pybop or connect on LinkedIn. More about Shelly and Pybop.

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