How to Structure Your Website for Search Engine Optimization

Last Edited November 10, 2016 by Garenne Bigby in Search Engine Optimization

site structure seo

In order to rank higher in search engine results, your website structure needs to be at its best. Every single website has its own unique structure—being tidy and streamlined, or disorganized and messy. When you plan your web site structure with intent and purpose, you will be rewarded with a website that performs excellent in search results. Here, you'll find some of the best advice on making your website's structure the best that it can be – It will be successfully crawled and indexed by spiders, it will appeal to users, and it will give you the best search engine results listings and rankings possible.

Why Does Website Structure Matter so Much?

For some reason, website structure is commonly overlooked. It can be seen as one of the most important aspects of a website search engine performance, but at the same time not all webmasters and website owners really know what it means to have a website structure that will enhance its search engine optimization.

Think of a website. Now take away the graphics, the fancy fonts, the pretty colors, the images, and the white space—underneath all of this is the structure that is the most important. Humans prefer to be able to put pieces together logically, locate what they are seeking, and see things where they are expected. A strong website structure that is also logical will please the eyes and mind of its users. This is much like the skeleton in your own body. It is fairly simple in parts, yet they all work together in a complex way to help the body function. It is the basis for good health. When your skeleton is good, your muscles and everything else has a change to grow to their best. When the skeleton is fractured (a poor website structure) the problem need to be fixed at that deep level, nothing on the surface can be done to make it better, and might even hinder the growth. You want a solid structure for your site, like you want a solid skeleton for your body.

It is not so obvious that the more appealing a website is to the users, the more appealing it is to search engines as well. Google uses an algorithm that incorporates information from searchers in order to rank a website. If a website has low dwell time and poor CTRs, it will perform negatively in search engine results pages. On the other hand when a user finds the website that they like, usually with good structure, they will not bounce away from it quickly—they will actually stay longer period of time. A great site structure can reduce bounce rates and bring up dwell time, and both of these things will improve upon search engine rankings.

A good website structure will provide your website with site links. These are a listing format in the search engine results page that show a website's main page along with a few internal links below it. These are a great advantage to SEO. They improve the ability to navigate through your website and will aim users in the right direction to receive the most relevant information to their search query. The availability of site links will also increase the click through rate, shorten the conversion funnel, improve the trust of your user, increase your reputation, and really win in search engine results pages.

Site links are so great but how do you get them? It's not as simple as filling out a form in Google's Webmaster tools. You can't request to have them. Google has an algorithm that will award a website with site links. This is all based around a great website structure. If your website has poor structure it is likely that it will never receive coveted site links. And this could be costing you targeted traffic and conversion.

Bots and crawlers will crawl at the level of a website's structure. They index content so that the content can be returned in search results for a relevant search query. The better a website structure is, the easier it is for crawlers to access and then index the content. A crawler does not automatically discover every single item on a website. But, crawlers do have an easier time crawling, indexing, accessing, and then returning pages that have a strong website structure.

All in all the organization of a website will set the pace for successful SEO. Some people even argue that you will never see SEO success without a good website structure. It is a strong foundation that every website can benefit from.

Creating Your Website's Structure

When or if you are starting from scratch building a website, you are in the best possible position to plan the structure of your website to have the best SEO possible. Prior to creating pages in a content management system, you'll need to plan out your structure. This can be done on a piece of paper, on a whiteboard, in a spreadsheet program, in a word processor, or the like. This will be your hierarchy. It is simple and it must make sense. This will also be your navigation and URL structure – the backbone. It needs to be logical, there should be between 2 to 7 main categories, and your amount of subcategories will need to be even throughout. You should not be overthinking at this point. You will want to go for simple here—it will be beneficial. The main categories need to be distinct and unique. The subcategories should relate to the main category in which they are under. Unless you are a website as large as Amazon, there is no need for a lot of main categories. There only needs to be a few main things. When there are more than 7, you should be rethinking the organization and slim it down just a shade. The subcategories then need to be kept even among the main categories. For example, if one main category has 10 subcategories while another main category has 2 subcategories, the unbalance is glaring. It should be balanced, but does not have to be completely even across all categories.

Then, you will create a URL structure that will follow the navigational hierarchy. If the hierarchy has been logical thought out, this step will not be too difficult. The structure of the URL follows the hierarchy. The URL structure will be planned according to the website's hierarchy, meaning that the URLs will have real words as well as appropriate keywords assigned to them. This will need to make logical sense. It is still the planning phase, so things can be arranged and fixed as necessary, but just know that your users should never have to guess what their next step should be in order to find out the information that they are trying to get to.

Next, you will need to create your navigation in either HTML or CSS. In creating the navigation, you will need to keep the code simple, and these two options are your best bet. When coding in Flash, JavaScript, or Ajax, you will limit a crawler's ability to go through your entire site, even if the hierarchy and navigation is amazing. Think in terms of less being more. You will spend way less time developing a simple navigational system that will be easily used by your website visitors as well as search engine crawlers. The easier it is for a bot to crawl your website, the more of a chance that there is your site will get preference within a search results page.

Your navigation structure should be shallow, but still follow your site hierarchy. The important pages need to be easily discovered and not buried deeply within the site. A shallow site navigation works better overall for both users as well as crawlers. A deeper navigation will require more clicks from the user in order to be able to see every page on your site. A user should not be able to get lost on your website and be so far into it that they aren't quite sure where they are in relation to the home page. Also, when a navigation goes deep, the less of a chance there is that these areas will be crawled and indexed, thus making them unavailable to anyone performing a search query that might be relevant. How would one know when a navigational structure is shallow? It should only take three or less clicks to reach every page on the website. This is the rule of thumb.

The top header of your site needs to list out the main pages of the site. Adding in more pages is just unnecessary and will actually become distracting. If the website design is parallax, you will need to make sure that a persistent header menu will fully display through each phase of scrolling. CSS effects like drop down menus or disappearing menus will provide a novel experience, but it will not enhance SEO. These are strongly advised against. It is also not wise to use a navigational structure that is based on images. The best bet is to use textual links with appropriate anchors. If there is a footer that has menu links, they should be duplicated with the main links of the top navigational menu within the footer of the navigation. This just means that navigation should be the same at the header as it is on the footer. Don't change the order of the links or add in categories, this will just complicate the user experience unnecessarily. But remember, less is more but make sure that your navigation will stay shallow.

Finally, you will need to develop your comprehensive structure for internal linking. This is the process that bulks up the skeleton of your logical hierarchy. Internal linking is important because it helps to establish the informational hierarchy of the site, allows users to navigate the site, and helps to power up a website. All of this leads to creating a website structure that is well integrated and tight-knit. Internal linking doesn't have to be super complicated. Basically, the idea is that each page will have a link to a link from another page on the site. The navigation should be able to link to the main categories and subcategory pages, but the leaf-level pages need to have internal linking as well. Leaf-level pages are those that are the last pages in the hierarchy—the end of the road. The internal linking is what tells the search engines which pages are important and how it can get to them. The more internal linking is done across the pages on your site, the better. Remember that these are links within your site that are pointing to other pages on your site.

Considering Everything

Website structure is made up of careful design, conscientious thinking, and impeccable organization. Before creating a website is the best time to develop a strong website structure. Conversely, if you are looking to redesign the website, it is possible to work the design over in a way that will reorganize the navigational elements in order to improve the overall SEO. When thinking about the things that can be done to improve the SEO for your website, there are so many options. Site structure happens to be one of the most important factors, but many times it is the most overlooked. Just know that when your website has a great structure, great SEO is not far behind. It is not difficult to implement all of these things for your website's structure, especially if you are building it from the ground up. And if you are not, have no worries—you will still be able to fix it so that you are performing your best within search results pages. Don't be one of the developers that overlooks the importance of a website's structure, be one of the few that know the importance of it and will work to make it awesome, so that there's no way the site won't reach its own full potential.

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite: http://garennebigby.com
Founder @dynomapper
Garenne Bigby is freelance Chicago developer and founder of DYNO Mapper with over 10 years experience in both agency and freelance roles in design, development, user experience, SEO, and information architecture.

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