Website architecture for SEO: learning the basics | White.net

Website architecture for SEO: learning the basics

By Shaad Hamid / October 13, 2011

 

This post was written as a response to a direct request from @mitchholt. Apologies for the delay, but we thought it’s better 2 months late than never!

Website architecture is an important part of the overall search engine optimisation strategy. There is a large volume of literature covering the importance of website architecture with two separate perspectives, both of which are extremely important for effective website optimisation. The first perspective is focused on the user and the user requirements; the other is focused on the search engine bots and the flow of ‘link juice’ (I will explain what link juice is and its role in SEO below). As a webmaster it is imperative that you get them both spot-on. Anecdotal evidence shows that there is a direct correlation between the two. When the user experience improves, so does the distribution of ‘link juice’ and vice versa. In this post I will be focusing primarily on the flow of ‘link juice’ and how you could use your website architecture to accomplish this.

Before we continue, it may be worth having an understanding of how ‘link juice’ works. There are many great resources that cover this topic, but for the purposes of this post I’ll provide an explanation with an analogy (please be forewarned that my use of analogies isn’t my strongest of skills; having said that, I’m giving it a go anyway!).

Links that point to your website bring along with them benefit to your site. A link to your site is similar to a vote. The benefit of all these links that point toward your site is what is known as ‘link juice’. Imagine for a moment the flow of water for the purpose of irrigation; the similitude of link juice here is that of water. Just as crops require water to grow, individual webpages require link juice to rank for search queries on search engine results pages (SERPs). The lack of water flowing into crops can result in the destruction of crops. Similarly the lack of link juice passing onto webpages can severely hinder its ability to rank and even get indexed by search engines.

Similarly to how farmers distribute the flow of water to all their crops, good website architecture helps the flow of link juice to all your webpages, helping them rank well. Most often websites with architectural issues will behave similarly to a dam. All its link juice will be blocked at the website’s homepage, which wouldn’t allow the flow of link juice to its category, subcategory and content pages. Recently here at SEOptimise, we encountered this very problem with one of our clients. They were receiving thousands of links directed to their homepage but an entire section of their website was not indexed and nor did it pass any link juice to its category or content pages. They were not taking advantage of the vast amounts of link juice they were receiving due to poor website architecture (among other issues). Therefore, not only is it important to obtain high quality links (or link juice) to your site, but it is equally important to cash in on link juice to help bolster the ranking ability of all your webpages.

I hope my (attempt at an) analogy helped you grasp the concept of link juice and how it ties in with website architecture. So how do you make sure your website architecture is SEO friendly? Below you’ll find a list of basic yet powerful list of tips that can help optimise the flow of link juice throughout your site.

Inspect your site’s global navigation
Most websites receive the highest number of backlinks to their homepage. Therefore, in terms of link juice, homepages are generally rich. The medium by which link juice is distributed to the rest of the site is the global navigation menu. The global navigation helps link all category pages from the homepage. In order to find common issues with the global navigation, disable JavaScript on your web browser (this will allow you to see what search engines see) and check if the global navigation still works. If it doesn’t, then this is cause for concern and should be addressed immediately. The most SEO friendly global navigation menus appear as standard HTML unordered lists. Also observe if all the major sections of your website are linked to from the global navigation. As mentioned earlier, all major sections of your website must be taking advantage of the homepage link juice.

Category and subcategory pages
Generally when a website has a sizeable number of webpages it is only logical to separate these pages by category. These pages serve two key purposes; first they need to be useful for users. For this, not only will you need to make sure it’s simple for users to navigate through to content pages but you will also need to make sure that there is enough unique and useful content on these pages. Webmasters must put at least a minimal amount of effort into making these pages linkworthy. Second, they need to act as ‘link juice’ routers. The links that they receive from the homepage need to be distributed to the content pages. In fact, if optimised cleverly and strategically, category pages have a strong chance of ranking on the SERPs for extremely competitive keywords.

Content Pages
Content pages are the reason your visitors arrived at your site. In order to provide the greatest ‘link juice’ benefit to your content pages, make sure the number of clicks to your content page is as minimal as possible (don’t hide your content 6-7 clicks away from the homepage). Also, in addition to making the content extremely relevant, you should make sure you make it easy for search engines to figure out the purpose of the page. In order to leave clues for search engines you can use the following:
• Title tags
• URL
• The actual content and
• Images

Title tags
Make sure your most relevant and targeted keywords are placed within the title tag of the page. Search engines generally display only 60-70 characters from the title tags on their search results page, so it is considered good practice to make sure you stick to this character limit. Personally, if the target keyword is extremely competitive I would place these keywords ahead of their brand name.

URL
URL structure is important because they’re a great clue for search engine bots to make sense of the site’s information hierarchy.
www.ExampleJewelleryStore.com/jewellery/engagement/rings/blue-sapphire-rings/
The above URL clearly defines the architectural hierarchy of the site. It lets the search engine know that this page is specific to blue sapphire engagement rings (not merely the stone).
However, URLs that look like the following are not so clear about their architectural hierarchy or about defining the purpose of the page.
www.ExampleJewelleryStoreNumberTwo.com/products/sh01453868

Content
Although this is a no brainer, it is surprising as to how little thought is put into the actual content of many websites. Make sure content is unique and targets specific keywords. This does not mean stuffing your content with keywords, but make sure that the targeted keywords appear on your content naturally. It is also worth pointing out that attention should be given to spellings and grammar. See “Time to brush up on your grammar” for more on this subject.

Images
Of late, there’s been much written about image optimisation and its correlation to attaining high rankings on SERPs, especially on image searches. Therefore it is best practice to include the alt text attribute in all HTML code for images for all publicly accessible pages. This attribute declares what text should be displayed if the user is unable to view the image. Therefore you should make sure you include keyword rich and descriptive alt text.

These tips should stand you in good stead when planning your site architecture. It’s obviously worth noting that website architecture is only part of the whole SEO process (albeit an important one). There are many more techniques and tips on improving website architecture. I would love to hear your thoughts, views and tips too. If I fell short in covering certain parts of this subject please feel free to question and discuss within the comments below. I have also provided a list of some great resources for if you want to do some additional reading on this topic.

Sources:
Baxter, R. (2011). Successful Site Architecture for SEO [SES London 2011]. Available: http://www.seomoz.org/blog/site-architecture-for-seo. Last accessed 08h Oct 2011.
Dover, D. (2011). Search engine optimisation secrets. Canada: Wiley.
Fishkin, R. (2007). PageRank, Link Patterns & the New Flow of Link Juice. Available: http://www.seomoz.org/blog/pagerank-link-patterns-the-new-flow-of-link-juice. Last accessed 08th Oct 2011.
Google (2011). Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide. Available: http://static.googleusercontent.com/external_content/untrusted_dlcp/www.google.com/en//webmasters/docs/search-engine-optimization-starter-guide.pdf. Last accessed 09 Oct 2011.
Morville, P. & Rosenfeld, L. (2007). Information architecture for the web. 3rd ed. USA: O’Reily.

 

Image credit:  Britanglishman on Flickr

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