How to create a site structure that search engines (and human visitors) will love
A well planned site structure improves your chances of ranking well in Google’s results. In this post we’re going to look at how to set up your site’s structure – so that search engines can find your best, most profitable content and your site’s visitors have a great experience.
Why site structure is important (part 1)
Imagine you’re planning to build your ideal house.
It can be whatever style you like. You can plan as many rooms as you want. For once, money is no barrier: you can have a sizeable swimming pool, a Dallas-style dining room, or an indoor cinema to watch reruns of your favorite soap. If that’s what takes your fancy.
How would you begin? Where would your plan start?
It’s unlikely you’d start choosing the soft furnishings before the architect had finished her designs. Sure, you want the house to feel welcoming, but as a starting point, it should be easy to find your way around. The layout should be logical, yet intuitive.
You should apply the same thinking to your website.
Planning your site structure and knowing what keywords you’ll be targeting is crucial to your chances of attracting traffic that converts.
In fact, your site’s architecture – the way pages are linked together – should be a key part of your marketing planning. Yet, very often site structure is left to web designers. Of course, most designers are creative, with great ideas. They often produce websites that look fantastic. But few designers have good SEO knowledge. And all too frequently those beautiful websites don’t attract much traffic.
If you fail to plan your site’s structure, the chances are your website will become a very lonely place indeed.
Why site structure is important (part 2)
It’s worth recapping on why your site’s structure and navigation are crucial to successful SEO. Good site structure helps with:
- Indexing – helping search engines find all your pages.
Only if a page is indexed by a search engine (such as Google) can it appear on that engine’s results pages.
- Distributing link power to your most important pages.
Link power comes from other sites linking to yours. And for all but the least competitive of keywords, it is the most important factor in deciding where a page appears on search engine results pages (SERPs). Link power is crucial and your pages can’t have enough of it.
- Usability – helping users find what they want quickly (with as few clicks as possible)
Good usability is a must, both for search engines and users. So your site’s usability is paramount. It’s worth repeating: poor usability is poor SEO.
Site structure on a real site
Let’s look at the structure of a real-life website.
When you link to pages from your home page or your main navigation, you’re making a statement that they’re important.
In the screenshot below you can see how UK-based retailer Cash Generator links to the pages that users want to find. Its most important pages are just one click away from the home page.
Keyword research = site structure
Your keyword research can tell you what people are interested in. You should use that knowledge to plan your structure.
Here’s how we might show a simple site structure:
Site map created using Wordtracker.
You’re probably aware that you’ll target ‘head’ keywords on your home page. You’ll target long tail keywords on your deeper pages.
Your choice of target keywords will depend on:
- the size of the niche;
- how relevant the keyword niche is to your business; and
- what resources you have for creating content
Here’s a simplified site structure for a site that sells beads:
In our example, the home page targets the keyword beads.
From the home page, we’re linking to our category pages. One these pages we’ll target longer tail keywords in the ‘beads’ niche – These might include glass beads, wooden beads, or prayer beads.
Deeper in the site, you’ll want to create content or product pages. On the glass beads category page you’ll target keywords in the ‘glass beads’ niche. For example, we’ll target vintage glass beads.
If you can, create themes across your categories. Let’s say you have a page targeting handmade glass beads. Create a page for handmade wooden beads and you have a theme. Any links you attract that contain the word ‘handmade’ will benefit both of these pages.
If you’re not selling products, if you’re an informational site, you may decide to organize your content into topics. Yet the same thinking applies.
Whatever strategy you choose, a clean clear site structure will help search engines understand your content, and help searchers discover what they’re looking for.
A sample site structure
Let’s look at another site, this time hotels.com, which as the name suggests, promotes hotels from around the world.
On the site’s home page you’ll see a map that allows you to navigate through the continents to find the hotel you want. First we see continents.
Then countries. And, finally, cities and towns.
That’s a clear layout that both search engines and human searchers can understand. That is exactly what we want.
While this layout is logical, the important pages on Hotels.com – the pages that deliver most business – are buried at the bottom of the site structure. For example, the ‘Paris hotels’ page generates lots of revenue. It’s a popular destination. But we’re not signalling that importance. We’re not treating the ‘Paris hotels’ page any differently from the ‘Timbuktu hotels’ page.
The site structure is logical, it’s a good first step. But, it’s not enough, and it’s certainly not good for promoting our most profitable pages.
How link power works
Let’s remind ourselves how Google ranks pages.
For the first year of Google’s life, the search engine was called BackRub. It got its name from the term backlinks – the links pointing from one site back to another. Unlike other search engines at the time, Google didn’t index just the text on a page to determine what the page was about. It also examined the links that pointed to the site. Nowadays, we take it for granted that pages that rank well in Google’s results do so because they attract authoritative links from other sites.
Google was different from other search engines. It treated links as a vote. It ranked pages well when they received lots of links (votes).
You can help Google know which pages you’d like to rank well by directing your site’s link power towards those pages.
Which pages are the most important?
Before you start planning your site’s internal linking, you’ll want to find your most important pages. So, how do you discover them?
If you’re selling products you can set up Google Analytics to track your sales. You can then find the pages that are generating most revenue (and profit).
If you’re a blogger making money through advertising, you might want to promote the pages that get lots of traffic and clicks on your ads. Again, you’ll find these in Google Analytics.
Link to your site’s most important pages
Once you’ve discovered your site’s most important – or profitable – pages, you’ll want your site structure to promote them.
Let’s go back to our bead site. Here is an oversimplified model. Our site has three categories, with three content pages in each. We have created a flat site structure (which is a good thing) with links from the home page to the category pages, which link to individual pages.
At most, it takes 2 clicks for search engine crawlers (or human visitors) to get from the home page to the deepest level of the site.
On most sites the home page is the page that attracts most links. Our site navigation passes link power from the home page through the category pages on to the product pages. Let’s keep things simple: we’ll assume our site has 36 links pointing to its home page.
The home page contains three links, which point to our category pages. Each link transmits one third of the link juice (or link equity) from the home page. This means each category page has 12 units of link juice.
In turn, each category page links to three product pages. So, in our simple model, each product page has four units of link equity.
This simple model helps highlight the problem we face as marketers.
Let’s say that our Vintage glass beads page makes a large proportion of our profits. We’d like to improve its ranking. Yet our site navigation links are passing just four units of link equity. We’d rather it had more.
Our solution is to link from our home page directly to our most important commercial pages. We might add a link from within the body copy on our home page direct to our vintage glass beads page, as you can see below:
The home page still has 36 inbound links. Each of the category pages receives one-quarter of the link power – that’s nine units.
Our vintage glass beads page also receives nine units of link power (much better!).
Each category page continues to pass on its link power. Most of our product pages now receive three units of link equity. But, our vintage glass beads page receives a total of 12 units. This means it will rank higher in Google’s results. That’s really beneficial for our marketing, because it is the page that generates a large proportion of our profits.
Site structure in reality
We can look at an example of how this works in real life. Let’s look at winesdirect.co.uk.
The site has has a link to its Tesco wine vouchers page from its home page.
This link sends valuable link equity to the site’s most profitable pages.
You, too, should link to your most profitable pages from your home page.
Flat structure vs deep structure
So far, we’ve looked at an oversimplified site structure. In real life, your site is likely to have many more categories and many more pages.
A mistake that many site owners make is to bury important pages several clicks away from the home page. Google’s less likely to index these buried pages, and users are less likely to find them.
Let’s say I arrive at the home page of this ecommerce site looking for a product – a roof rack for my car. It’s a great site, with a vast range of products. I’d recommend it for many reasons, though not for its navigation.
Here’s what I have to do to choose a roof rack: on the home page, I find ‘Car roof racks’, and I click.
I choose my car. I click.
I’m then asked for my model. So I click.
After that, I have to select the year. Then, on another new screen, the number of doors the car has.
I’m now rapidly losing my will to live, but I click again. At last, I am able to choose the roof rack I want.
So far, I’ve made 5 clicks. We know that with every click, you’ll lose some potential customers. They’ll get bored, lost, or distracted and will leave your site. Which means fewer people will see these deep pages and you’re less likely to sell anything. Almost as bad, fewer people will see the pages, so you’re less likely to attract links.
And it’s not just your visitors that are affected. Search engine crawlers also have to make those clicks. By putting our product pages so far away from our home page we’re teling Google that our pages aren’t important. At every level, we’re losing link equity and our pages are losing authority.
You’ll find a better way of selecting a type of vehicle on other UK insurance sites; there’s a good example on Confused.com – all the options are presented in a simple one-page form:
By creating a shallower, simpler site, with all your pages close to the home page, you’ll not only conserve link juice, but also keep more visitors on your site.
Google recommends that you have no more than 100 links on each page. That gives you up to 10,000 pages within two clicks of your home page. So, when you’re planning your site, make sure your most important pages are, at most, two clicks away from your home page.
We’ve covered lots in this post, so let’s summarise. When planning your site, you should:
- Research your target keywords to determine your site’s structure.
- Use the results of your keyword research to decide which keywords you’ll target on your home page, category pages, product pages and blog posts.
- Create a flat link structure – with all your pages close to the home page.
- Make sure your site’s most important pages get lots of lovely link equity.
I hope you’ve find this post useful. If you’d like help planning your site’s structure simply complete our contact form below.