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How Your Site Architecture and Website Navigation Affect SEO

September 11, 2013

Photo Credit: Peter MorvilleIf you've been following me for any length of time, you know that my SEO mantra is to always make your website the best it can be. While it would be great if you only had to worry about making your website great for your users, it's also important to make it as usable as possible for the search engines.

As discussed in my last article about technical SEO issues, it's crucial to be sure that you have no server errors on your site. But there are other technical issues that relate to your website navigation and how you set up your overall site architecture.

What Is Site Architecture?

Site architecture is the way every page of your website is linked to every other page. It's the way people and search engines navigate your website, and it's equally important to both of them. You want both people and search engines to be able to easily find what they're looking for.

Believe it or not, a poor site architecture can completely kill off rankings, traffic and even conversions. The reasons for this are many. First, if there's no way for a search engine to access much of the content of a site because the only way to reach the "meat" is through search forms that need to be submitted, search engines won't find or index most of it. In fact, I recently had a client with a real-life example of this -- an e-commerce site that sold a certain type of car part. The home page was basically just a search form where users had to enter the make and model of their car before they could browse for the products they were looking for. While a person can certainly do that, search engines typically don't. In the end, there were no static product pages for the search engines to find and index. So it was next to impossible for this site to show up in the search results if someone was looking for a specific product such as "Mini Cooper brake pads."

The site in question tried to compensate by submitting to Google an XML sitemap with product page URLs, but without having static links within the site itself, that wouldn't help. In addition, they created static landing pages that were simply words on the page talking aimlessly about various models of cars and why they were nice. These were, of course, not at all useful to people, and certainly not something you'd want to see in the search results when looking for a specific product for your car.

Sadly for this website, the fix is not an easy one. They will have to start from the ground up to rebuild the website to be crawler friendly. Even sadder is that this site was only recently developed in this horrific manner. (Thank you, clueless web design agency!) I can't stress enough how important it is to develop your site from the start with a logical hierarchy in mind.

Internal Link Popularity

In fact, the way you develop the navigation of your site can have a huge effect on which pages and which keyword phrases will rank in the search engines. You see, pages that have lots of other pages linking to them will have higher internal link popularity than those with fewer links pointing to them. And this is a crucial factor as to whether or not they'll be deemed "worthy" by search engines. In other words, pages that are easy to find and have lots of links within your site will have a better chance of ranking for more competitive keyword phrases than those pages that are not prominently featured. This is why top-level category pages are so ripe for optimization. They've got all sorts of internal link popularity going on.

Similarly, individual product pages are rarely linked to from every page of your site. They often have just one link from a main category page. But that's okay because they don't need a lot of link popularity to rank for their specific product name, model, or whatever.

Basically, your site architecture should consist of a number of levels within the hierarchy:
  • First is your home page. It usually has the most link popularity of all pages, which means you can optimize it for the most general and competitive phrases.

  • At the second level are pages linked to from your global navigation menu. These are usually top-level products or services pages. You can optimize these for fairly competitive keyword terms relating to the category itself.

  • The third level is often the specific product or service pages themselves. They can be optimized for the names of the products or services.

  • The fourth level often consists of your value-added content such as blog posts, articles, videos, podcasts, etc. These are often the basis for your content marketing campaigns. They help establish expertise as well as credibility within your industry. Plus, they're great for bringing in lots of search engine visitors using long-tail keyword search queries. While these pages may not have lots of internal links, they are often your best bet for gaining external links.
The important takeaway here is to be very careful when you are developing or redeveloping your website. Think long and hard about what main categories of products or services you offer, and integrate them into your global navigation in a logical, search engine-friendly manner.


Jill Whalen has been an SEO Consultant and the CEO of Jill Whalen High Rankings, a Boston area SEO Company since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen

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Post Comment

 Pete Prestipino said:
Four-levels seems far too deep for "value-added" content - upon which most of our "first-visit" search engine traffic arrives. I too am a believer in the importance of a formal site wide hierarchy, but in your opinion, would keeping value-added content higher in the architecture be beneficial?
 Jill Whalen said:
@Pete, well, certainly, you'd link to your blog at the first level. But posts themselves will end up getting pretty deep at times. One way to keep them up a level or so is through the use of a static number of categories or tags that are used in a logical manner.
 Stephen Dow said:
Jill, Do find that's it's better having your blog on a separate domain - or as a subdomain? I have tried both and have had excellent results (which is confounding). I wonder if one approach is "known" to be better than the other?
 Jill Whalen said:
I'm a firm believer of having it on the main site, not in a subdomain. The whole idea of a a blog is to have link worthy content. So if/when that content gets links, you want it to easily pass to the main pages of the site. That's going to be done best when it's all one domain. (Although it doesn't necessarily have to be.)