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How to create a site structure Google will love

Posted by Justin Deaville
Learn SEO
A well planned site structure improves your chances of ranking well in Google's results. In this comprehensive article we look at how to set up your site’s structure - so that the search engines find our best and most profitable content.

A well planned site structure improves your chances of ranking well in Google's results. So, today, we’re going to look at how to set up your site’s structure - so that the search engines find our best and most profitable content and your site's visitors have a great experience.

Why site structure is crucial to online success (part 1)

I’d like you to imagine that you’re about to start building your dream house.

It can be whatever style you like, with as many rooms as you’d want. Money is no object: you can have a spacious indoor swimming pool, a large, elegant library, and super-sized indoor cinema.

How would you begin the project? Where would you start?

It’s unlikely you’d start digging the foundations before you’d created an architectural plan. You want the house to feel welcoming, it should be easy to find your way around; and the layout should be logical, yet intuitive. It’s the same with your website.

Planning your site’s architecture - its navigation and logic - and knowing what keywords you’ll be targeting is crucial to your chances of attracting relevant traffic.

In fact, your site’s architecture - the way pages are linked together - should be a key part of your business planning. It’s that important.

Yet, all too often, website structure is left to website designers to figure out. Most web designers I know are very creative, they have great ideas, and usually they produce beautiful looking websites. But, very few web designers have a good knowledge of SEO - so what we often find is that those beautiful websites don’t see much traffic.

Unless you’ve got an enormous marketing budget, chances are your unoptimized website will become a very lonely place.

Why site structure is crucial (part 2)

Your site’s structure and navigation are crucial for three reasons (all of them fundamental to SEO):

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.

Link power - distributing it to all your 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 (especially the most important pages on your site).

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: poor usability is poor SEO.

Let's look at a real site

Let’s look at the structure of a real site, so you can see what I mean.

When you link to pages from your home page or your main navigation, you're making a statement that they're important.

See how Amazon.com links to the pages that users want to find. Its most important pages are just one click away from the home page.

Amazon Navigation

How keyword research suggests site structure

We know that keyword research can tell you what people are interested in. And so we’ll use that knowledge to plan our site.

Here’s how a generalized site structure might look:

Site structure

You’re likely to target ‘head’ keywords on your home page, with long tail keywords targeted on your deeper pages.

Your choice of keywords will depend on:

  • the size of the keyword niche
  • how relevant that niche is to your business
  • and how many resources you have to develop new content

And here’s what a simplified site structure might look like for a site that sells beads:

Site structure

The home page targets the keyword beads.

From the home page, we’ll then link to our category pages. Where we’ll target longer tail phrases that are part of the ‘beads’ niche - such as glass beads, wooden beads, prayer beads, and so on.

You’ll then want to create content pages (or product pages) to target keywords from the glass beads niche. So, we might target vintage glass beads.

Where you can, it’s great if you can create themes across categories. So, let’s say we have a page on our site for handmade glass beads. A page for handmade wooden beads creates a theme.

Any links that we get containing the word ‘handmade’ will benefit both of these pages.

If you're not selling products and if you're an informational site, you may decide to organize your content into topics. As we see in the Wordtracker Academy:

Wordtracker navigation

Whatever strategy you choose, a clean site structure will really help search engines understand your entire website, find your content, and help searchers find what they're looking for.

A real-life example of site structure

Let’s look at another example, this time for hotels.com which lists hotels from around the world.

On its home page you’ll find a map that allows you to navigate through the continents to find the hotel you want. First we see continents.

Hotels map

Then we see countries. And, finally, cities and towns.

Map Paris

That’s a nice clear structure that Google and humans can understand. Which is exactly what we want.

Map Paris

However ...

Some of the most important pages on Hotels.com - the pages that deliver most business - are buried at the bottom of the site structure. So, for example, our Paris hotels page generates lots of business. It’s a hugely popular destination. But our site structure isn’t signalling that importance. We’re not treating our Paris page any differently from our Timbuktu page.

Our site structure is logical, but it’s not going to be good for business.

How link power works

It’s worth recapping on how Google ranks pages. So that we’re able to let Google know which pages on our site we consider important.

For the first year of Google's life, it was actually called BackRub. The system 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 just index the text within a page to figure out what the page was about. It also looked at the links pointing to the site. As we know, pages that rank well in Google’s results do so because they get links from other sites.

Google Beta

Google worked differently from other search engines. It treated each link as a vote. Your pages will get ranked if they get lots of votes (links).

You can help Google know which of your pages you’d like to rank in the search results by directing your site’s link power towards those pages.

Which are your site's most important pages?

Before you can plan your internal linking, you'll need to know which are your most important pages. So, how do you discover your site’s most important pages?

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.

If you don’t yet have Analytics set up, make that a priority.

Link to your site's most important pages

Once you’ve identified your most important - your most profitable pages, you’ll want to make sure your site structure helps promote them.

Let’s look at our bead site example. This is an oversimplified model, with just three categories, and three content pages in each category. In reality you’ll have more. We see a flat site structure (which is a good thing).

Bead site structure links

At most, it takes two clicks to get from the home page to a product page.

For most sites the home page is the most powerful page, it’s the page that attracts the most links. Our site navigation is likely to pass link power from the home page through the category pages on to the product pages. Still keeping things simple, let’s assume that our site has 36 links from other sites pointing to our home page.

Bead site links 2

The home page has three links to our category pages. What happens is that each link transmits one third of the link juice from the home page. So, each category page has 12 units of link juice. And each of those category pages links to three product pages. So, each of our product pages has four units of link juice.

Bead site links 3

Of course, this is a massive oversimplification. But, it helps highlight the problem we face, as business people.

Let’s say that our Vintage glass beads page makes a large proportion of our profits. So we’d like to improve its ranking. Our site navigation links are passing four units of link juice, but we’d rather it had more.

Our solution is to link to our most important commercial pages direct from the home page. So, we’d have internal links from the home page, as before, but we’d also add in a link from within the body copy, direct to our vintage glass beads page.

Bead site links 4

In which case, the home pages still has 36 inbound links. But, now each of the category pages receives one-quarter of the link power - nine units. And our vintage glass beads page also receives nine units of link power. Each of the category pages continues to pass on its link power. So, most of our product pages receive three units of link juice. But, our vintage glass beads page receives 12 units in total. Which means it’s likely to rank higher in Google’s results pages. And that’s really beneficial for us, because that’s the page that pays our wages.

Bead site links 5

Navigation by site structure - in reality

Let’s look at an example of how that works in practice. We’ll return to Hotels.com.

We’ve seen how the navigation by structure helps users find any page quickly. We can see that, on its home page, Hotels.com has additional navigation that sends link juice to its most profitable pages:

Paris

And in the list we see Hotels in Paris, France. We don’t see a link to ‘Hotels in Timbuktu’, because it’s not a money-making page. We’d rather send our link juice to our profitable pages.

For the same reason, www.winesdirect.co.uk has a link to its Tesco wine vouchers page from its home page.

Tesco wine voucher

You, too, should link to your most profitable pages from your home page.

Page Rank

In real life, link juice is measured by something called PageRank, after the Google founder, Larry Page (click here to learn more about PageRank )

It’s a 10-point logarithmic scale that is a major part of the algorithm that Google uses to choose and order its search results.

‘Logarithmic’ just means that as you acquire more PageRank, going up to the next level in the scale gets harder. So going from one to two is easier than going from four to five, which is in turn is easier than going from nine to 10.

There are very few pages - about 12 in total - that have a PageRank of 10.

PageRank

We won’t worry too much about PageRank, because Google’s algorithm considers many other factors when determining its results.

What we should keep in mind is that the quantity and quality of the links that point at any page will determine its position in the search results. And you can learn more about internal linking here

Flat structure vs deep structure

So far, we’ve looked at an oversimplified site structure. In real life, you’re 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’ve arrived 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.

On the home page, I find roof racks, and I click.

Motorack

I choose my car. I click.

Motorack 2

I’m then asked for my model. So I click.

Motorack 3

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 lust for life, but I click again. And, at last I am able to choose the roof rack I want.

So far, I’ve made five clicks. And we know that with every click, you’ll lose some potential customers. So, fewer people will see these deep pages. And you’re less likely to get inbound links to these pages. And you’re less likely to sell anything.

And it’s not just your visitors. The search engines have to make the same number of clicks. And what we’re saying to Google by putting our product pages so far away from our home page is that our pages aren’t important. And at every level, we’re losing some of our valuable link juice. Our pages are losing their authority.

You'll find a much better example of how to select a type of vehicle on UK insurance site, Confused.com. All the options are presented in a simple one-page form:

Confused

By creating a shallower, simpler site, with all our pages close to the home page, you’ll not only conserve your link juice, but also keep more visitors on your site. Google recommends that you have no more than 100 links on each page. But, that still gives you up to 10,000 pages that are within two clicks of your home page.

When you're planning your site, you must ensure that your most important pages are, at most, two clicks away from your home page.

Let's recap

We've covered loads of information, so let's recap. When planning your site it's a good idea to:

  • Research your target keywords before deciding on your site 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 juice.

  •  

And you can read more about how to manage your internal links in this article and another take on keyword mapping