Site structure is one of the hardest SEO techniques to master and one that can sink your site from the beginning. This is not because there are certain complex coding steps involved, but because site structure is just another term for user experience.
If you use WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, or any other content management system, then you already have a great coding structure set-up. If you are building your site using custom code or are using static HTML pages, be sure you organize your content in a rational way. Google and the other search engines do a good job of understanding your site and how it works together, but there must be some kind of organization for them to understand.
If your site is custom made. Make sure that each section and each page is somehow linked to one another so there is no ‘island’ pages.
We usually recommend using a CMS even if you have complex functionality. A lot of hard work goes into SEO for these platforms, so you might as well take advantage of it. We also recommend Magento CMS if you are going the ecommerce route. (We’re partial to Drupal for complex content sites, but use WordPress for standard content websites. We suggest staying away from Joomla if only because it seems to be slipping in popularity).
One of the first interactions with your site that Google will have is the menu you set-up for the site – the top navigation in other parlance. Since most menus are across the top or down the left-hand side of a website, those are first thing Google sees in terms of navigation.
Navigation seems easy, but there are some mistakes to avoid and ways to make navigation work for you on an SEO basis. Many website owners make the mistake of just using terms like “About Us” or “Contact Us.” Those that do are really missing out on a great opportunity for some keyword usage which could make Google be more likely to see your website overall as a trusted source. For example, if you are a business consultant website, your two sections might be called:
Contact A Business Specialist
About Our Business Consultants
Those terms are a bit longer than “About us” or “Contact us” but they tell Google a lot more about what you do. This is especially effective for local business which will be more likely to return at the top of searches around their location.
Some sites will opt out altogether of putting the contact/about link in the top menu and this is a good strategy for magazines, blogs and content websites. You’ll still want these links but they can go at the bottom of the page. On content-rich sites you’re better off having the top menu be your different categories of content. These categories should be well thought out and supplement the overall theme of the site.
Since we’re on the topic of content sites, let’s say you have a niche technology news website. A less effective choice for your menu items would be:
Home | Latest | News | About | Contact Us
Sure it’s clean and concise but it has very little SEO benefit. A better idea would be to make the navigation items longer but more informative:
[Website name] | Coding, Tutorials and Software Reviews | Mobile News | About Our Writers | Contact Our News Team
You can see that we filled in some niche keywords, informed Google that we have more than one writer (which Google requires if you want to get listed in Google News), and put an emphasis on news. This communicated to Google much more precisely and should lead to more traffic.
Remember, Google wants to return the best results possible and one way it determine whether a result is “good” is by whether it considers the site an authority. Using little tips like these can help your site gain that credibility.
Three Degrees of Separation
The basic rule of building a user-friendly website is that it shouldn’t take more than three clicks to get to anything recent on the site. So if you have a long list of content pages, a visitor should be able to click on a category, click on a sub-section of that category, and then click to an article at absolute worst for new and relevant content.
Of course, three clicks is the worst user experience you want for your best content. Two is better and one is perfect. This is SEO as user experience where visitors should be seen as customers. Make the “shopping” experience better and get people what they want faster and they are more likely to come back.
It might take more clicks to get to older content, or content that is really obscure, but three degrees of separation should apply for anything recent. Your most important sections should only be one click away and any section that is more than three clicks away from any given page will not be seen as relevant.
Always think about the path a visitor will follow to get to content. Constantly work on taking steps out and examine what content is the most popular. If a page on your site gets a lot of Google-driven traffic but not much from direct visitors, perhaps it is not easy enough to find.
In creating the best user experience possible, Google Analytics is your friend. Look at the paths people follow and where they leave your site. Look for frustration points or other areas where people are clearly getting fed up. Improve, revise, and redo your pages to make the most popular and/or useful pieces of content as easy to find as possible.
Site structure is not really about doing something technical in order to get an SEO boost. It’s about user experience. As mentioned earlier, the major CMS platforms have figured out the basics of SEO for you, and what has the most “SEO” benefit in terms of site structure is delivering a good user experience.
You can have the best content in the world, but if a user comes to your page and there is a pop-up, and a video playing out of nowhere, it’s pretty likely they are going to leave quickly. And in the eyes of the site that referred them (Google or another search engine), your site is not seen as a trusted source. The same can be said if a user comes to the website via their phone and can’t read the content. Say goodbye to that user, and it sends a message to Google saying “This is not a great site for mobile.”
Put users first and be protective of their experience. Pop-ups, auto-play videos and other things that mar user experience can be used (and sometimes have to be in order to make money) but always consider the impact they will have on user experience. Make conscious choices and be protective of your audience – think of them as customers with a lot of choice in what stores they go to.
Some of the sites that get indexed the best are also the ones that are the most simple and straight forward. Bounce rate and time on site are very important factors in determining the usefulness of your site. By thinking about the user and their experience, it creates a more trusted relationship between you and your reader. And that relationship will carry through to your search visibility too.