Site architecture is the unsung hero of search engine optimization. Foundationally, your site’s navigation and URL hierarchy are the most-valuable components determining whether your site can rank for competitive, high-volume keyword phrases.
You can have the best content in the world, but if your site is difficult for visitors to navigate or for search engines crawl, it will not perform well for organic search.
While foundational, it’s incredibly easy to implement site architecture incorrectly, or worse, ignore it completely. The good news: it’s never too late to fix site architecture that has run amok. If you’re redesigning a website, or building a brand from scratch, site architecture recommendations are the same.
Proof in Analytics
One of our most stark examples of a website succeeding by implementing a site architecture is below. This example had a 100% flat architecture (all of the pages were off the site root) from 2015 to early 2017. In early 2017, a site architecture was put into place.
The above image shows the weekly trend for organic sessions. Beginning in early 2017, traffic begins to improve. If you look at the traffic for 2017 vs. 2016, organic sessions grew more than 700%. Site architecture was not the only tactic implemented during this time. This site also began a very aggressive content marketing strategy, publishing content on a weekly basis.
Below is an example of a site with a flat site architecture. Due to the flat nature of the site, the URLs are overstuffed with keywords. In fact, each category level page contains their most valuable non-brand keyword phrase.
The flat architecture worked for a while, but in mid-to-late 2016, the site took a major hit. Unfortunately, it did not fully recover in 2017, and took another hit again in early 2018. While the site does experience some seasonality – their peak traffic times are from March to early-July and again from October to late-November – the year-over-year drops in organic traffic are telling.
These drops are proof that architecture is a major component to site quality, and if that signal is off or confusing it has major consequences.
Several years ago, a trend in the SEO industry was to use a flat site architecture where URLs lived right off the site root. The rationale was to increase the link juice funneled to those pages through the home page. But, when Google Panda was rolled out, site quality, including site architecture became a larger consideration.
Another observation about flat URLs/architecture: they lend themselves to being overstuffed with keywords.
Where to begin with site architecture? Usability first
Sound site architecture leads to good usability metrics. When visitors intuitively navigate a website, that site tends to convert better. Google’s mantra has long been: “Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.”
In other words, the organization of your website is as important to Google and other search engines as it is to your customers and site visitors. If a searcher doesn’t find what they are looking for on your site, they return to search results, and perform another search. This phenomenon is known as pogo-sticking.
Pogo-sticking occurs when a user performs a search, clicks on a result, very quickly clicks back to the search result page, and clicks on a different result. This type of behavior is a direct result of immediate dissatisfaction in the search result, and—unlike bounce rate—pogo sticking is always a bad thing. – Foster Web Marketing
Google recently went on record saying that pogo-sticking behavior is not a negative ranking factor. However, positive usability metrics: an attractive click-through rate; higher dwell-time, and lower bounce rate correlate to higher rankings. Ultimately, an effective site architecture improves organic traffic and conversions.
Proper site architecture has other benefits:
- Sitelinks: Searches for your brand name return a list of pages Google believes are most useful/sought after.
- Improved crawling: An intuitive architecture with a clear folder structure is easier for Google to crawl. Googlebot will spend more time crawling your website, and crawls will be much deeper and thorough.
How to create the best SEO friendly site architecture
1. Navigation should be intuitive for visitors and reflect your customer journey
Your most valuable pages should be within a click or two of your home page. These pages target keywords between one to three words in length. The deeper into the site visitors navigate, the longer the keyword phrase they should target.
2. User experience and URLs should be like other sites that dominate your niche or industry
Remember that your customers visit a lot of websites. Probably more than you do. Sites are similar because they meet the expectations of their visitors. Think about the websites you visited the last time you researched a major purchase decision online; chances are they were all organized similarly.
3. Plan your site hierarchy before you build your site
Every site development team has their own approach to this. My recommendation is to brainstorm how you think people should use your site. Gather your key stakeholders together and draw up your navigation on a whiteboard or use sticky notes to plan out the top-level navigation and sub-pages. Look at other sites in your category and think about what they do well and what your site currently does not do well. Once you have the navigation mapped out, plan your URLs.
Make sure your hierarchy is logical and balanced. Avoid having categories that are very deep with lots of sub-pages and others with few sub-pages. If your hierarchy is unbalanced, you may need to create new categories, or recategorize your existing subpages.
Once you have your agreed-upon hierarchy, you can begin drafting URLs.
4. URLs should reflect the depth of the page
As you navigate from the homepage to a category page and further into the site, the URL representing the page should be longer. The longer the URL, the longer the keyword phrase that page should target.
5. Use a shallow navigation structure
As mentioned early, your most valuable pages should be reachable in three clicks or less from the home page. The three clicks or less rule improves both the usability and ‘crawlability’ of your site.
If you look at the Vertical Measures website, nearly all our pages can be reached in three clicks or less.
Considerations for mature, established websites
Frequently established sites forget to target category and sub-category level topics. We’ve seen websites that have omitted this level of content from their sites completely. As part of our on-going process, we perform both a content audit and competitive keyword analysis that can identify these missed opportunities and provide you with a blueprint for including this missed content on your website.
A properly implemented site architecture should be the cornerstone of every website. When planned for properly, it ensures that your site will be easy for visitors to use as well as easy for Google to crawl. Ultimately it determines just how successful your long-term SEO efforts will be.
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