Getting your website structure right, from both a search engine and user point of view, is extremely important. The easier it is for your content to be found, the more likely more people are to find it – it all sounds so simple, right?
The importance of website structure stretches beyond the perceived basics, and there are many justifications for spending the time on effort on getting a website structure right the first time (during the setup of a new website, ideally). From the distribution and layout of important products and services, to the considerations of keyword targeting and search engine visibility, there are many implications of getting things right or wrong. Below I examine a few of them in further detail.
Starting with the most broad-level point, the hierarchy of your website defines the dependencies of each of the web pages within a site. Generally speaking, websites no longer have flat hierarchies due to the complex nature of the data that needs to be portrayed, and hierarchy plays an important role in forming the natural relationships within your website.
Ensuring you determine the most appropriate hierarchy for your website depends on a number of factors, such as product or service categorisation, logical grouping, and the results derived from keyword research. Any initial thoughts you have in relation to the hierarchy of your website may be very relevant, but ensure you confirm any decisions prior to implementation through keyword/industry research to understand the way users are searching, and to research any potential uniformed standards.
Remember to ensure, as a rule of thumb, that pages are no more than a few clicks away from a user; and although this aphorism is widely-used when talking about navigation, it’s also very relevant to page hierarchy.
Digging down into the more specific implications of website structure leads us to URL structure. Essentially the structure of a web page URL should reflect how the page appears in the overall hierarchy of the website. So for example, a product that is named ‘Epson Stylus S21′ and appears in the printers section of the website, the URL structure should follow the visualisation, such as:
As a side note, use dashes in URLs over underscores.
The forming of web page URLs is seen as an important aspect of SEO nowadays, with Google and other major search engines seemingly favouring websites with keywords present in the URL. Although the most weight is given to keyword-rich domains, considerations should be made to keyword placement within specific web page URLs (this should be logical anyway in most cases).
As you will no doubt hear Matt Cutts say a hundred times if you sit through all of the Webmaster Help videos on YouTube, if something is logical and works well for a visiting users, then the search engines should like it too – and this is something that I heavily believe is true with website URLs. It’s surprising the amount of people who actually navigate by removing parts of a URL (techy people mostly, no doubt), so it is important to reflect your website structure within them.
Next up in our list of website structure implications is sitemaps (both static and XML). One thing that annoys me greatly when visiting a website (especially big sites) is when I look at the sitemap to find a specific page or category, and I am presented with an almighty list of left-aligned links. Most (good) content management systems now make it very easy for sitemaps to be created that reflect the hierarchy of a website, providing it is setup correctly, and this can make a big difference in terms of usability.
A static sitemap is present to provide a reflection of how the pages are laid out within the website (in terms of navigation and structure). Essentially, this list of navigational links should show depth and relationships, but without being overpowering. For large websites, restrict the sitemap and have numerous ones to split the various categories and sections – the same of which applies to XML sitemaps for the search engines.
Not only are breadcrumbs extremely useful for navigational and usability reasons, they can now contribute toward enhanced SERP listings within Google. As with page URLs, navigational breadcrumbs allow a user with a visual way of navigating up through the hierarchy, which can improve page views and decrease the overall bounce rate of a website. If a web page is categorised inappropriately or illogically then breadcrumbs are nothing short of useless, so strive for perfection when mapping out the site.
Coincidentally, if you are using WordPress, then Yoast’s Breadcrumb plugin is awesome.
Page Content Relevancy/Distribution
One aspect of SEO that is clearly becoming more important is the semantic linking of relevance; be it key phrases or the actual displaying of data. As the semantic web continues to evolve, search engines are looking more and more at potential triggers that can allow them to understand data. Micro formats have provided web masters with a means of semantically marking up web data to ensure it is easily identifiable, but other factors are undoubtedly used in some instances to allow them to form understanding.
By not giving consideration to your website structure, you are potentially confusing both the visiting users and the search engines. Having a page about an Epson computer printer next to one about garden lights (for example) may seem like it’s ok on the outset, but that is essentially going to give off many mixed signals about the message you are trying to portray. Semantically, pages or information about printers should be next to printer ink cartridges, and this example should help to portray how content relevance and distribution plays such a big part in website structure – although, as I say, this should all be logical.
Consider The Implications
Whether you are able to be involved at the beginning stages of a website, or have to put a strategy in place post-launch, it is important to consider all of the implications involved in the structure. Getting the structure right first time, including all of the technical and usability aspects, can really set a website out as an authority both in the eyes of visiting users and the search engines. Finally, allow keyword research to change the scope of initial thinking, while ensuring logicality remains within the hierarchy, navigation and overall layout.