SEO 101: Best Practices for Website Architecture
Some websites start simple with just a few pages and little by little over the years grow into something big, complicated, and unorganized.
If you don’t take time to think about your site structure early on, it’s easy for your site to grow into something chaotic before you realize it. A badly organized site is confusing for the user, hard for the website owner to manage, and bad for SEO.
Whether you’re reading this soon after launching a new website or already have a years-old website that’s grown unwieldy, it’s worth taking time now to define your website architecture. It’s important for improving your SEO, and it will make your life easier when maintaining the site in the years to come.
What Website Architecture Means
Website architecture is the structure you use to organize your website. For most websites, your site hierarchy should have a pyramid structure:
- At the top is your home page, which is the most important page on the website.
- The next level below that will include the next most important pages, so those that you want to see in your website’s main menu. That probably means your About page and the few main category pages that most of your products and content will fall into.
- Below that will be any relevant subcategories that go under each category, followed by the individual pages that are all organized into the relevant categories you’ve defined, such as product pages.
A website architecture helps you organize your website so that you’re giving priority to the most important pages in terms of visibility on the site while ensuring that every page is easy for visitors to navigate to when it’s what they’re interested in.
Why Your Site Hierarchy Matters for SEO
To start, a well-organized website is easier for users to navigate.
Given that Google cares about metrics that indicate a good user experience, such as bounce rates and the amount of time a visitor spends on the website, making it easy for your visitors to find what they’re looking for will pay off in improved behavior metrics.
In addition, a clear site hierarchy makes your website easier for Google to crawl.
By using intuitive, clear categories and subcategories, Google’s bots will have an easier time understanding the layout of the site, which pages are the most important (those high-level categories), and seeing how different pages relate to each other. That information helps Google better figure out what your website is about and what search terms your pages should show up for.
How to Build an Intuitive Site Hierarchy
The earlier you define your site hierarchy, the easier it will be to keep your website organized in a way that’s intuitive and good for SEO.
If you already have a large site, then you may have to do some work upfront to move all of your current pages into the new structure, but once your structure is in place, sticking with it in the future will be easy.
1. Create an organization plan.
The first step is to sit down and figure out how best to organize your website. If you have a small site with fewer than 10 pages, then this part should be fairly simple (although it’s still important to do!). If you have a larger website with dozens or hundreds of pages, it will be a little more complicated.
Aim to keep your site hierarchy as simple and straightforward as possible. Unless you have a particularly large site with thousands of pages a la Amazon, your hierarchy shouldn’t go more than three levels deep. Ideally, a user should never be more than three clicks away from any other page on the website.
Your site hierarchy will also help with element of your SEO we’ve covered in a separate blog post: your URL structure.
For most online stores, the category name is included in the URL for each product page in the category. If we take an online bookstore as an example, if the website has a category for Textbooks with different subjects as subcategories underneath, the URL for a math textbook would look something like: www.book-website.com/textbooks/mathematics/name-of-specific-textbook.html
This provides an extra SEO bonus, as categories become extra keywords in the URL that help Google understand what each page is about and which search terms it should rank for.
2. Define your primary categories.
Think carefully about the main categories you can divide your pages into that are:
- Descriptive of what the different pages and products are
- Intuitive to any visitor to your website.
As an example, for an online bookstore it may be possible to divide your products into categories like length or the color of the book covers, but most visitors to the website will find it more intuitive to see your products divided into categories like Fiction, Nonfiction, and common genres.
In other words, don’t choose your categories arbitrarily; they should be based on information that’s valuable to your end user. Think first about the way they search and browse, then structure your website based on that.
3. Define any relevant subcategories.
Not all websites will need subcategories within the larger categories, but many will. Using the example of our online bookstore, Fiction and Nonfiction are both huge categories on their own. Visitors will have a much easier time finding a book they like if they can browse more specific subcategories like Science Fiction or Memoir.
As with your primary categories, try to think like your customers in determining the most useful subcategories to include. You want them to be specific enough to be useful, but not so specific that your categories become bogged down in lots of words and details. For our purposes here, Science Fiction is a better category than YA Dystopian Books with a Female Lead (although the latter could make a good topic for content).
4. Minimize the number of clicks between pages.
One of the benefits of a good site hierarchy is that it helps you create a site menu that makes the website easier for people to navigate without losing sight of other key parts of the website they may want to navigate to.
If people can see the main menu on every page of the website, and see the relevant subcategories as a dropdown menu when they scroll over it, then you make it easy for people to move through your website without having to use the back button or do a lot of clicking around.
This helps with the goal we discussed above of keeping every page on the website within three clicks of every other page. As you work out your site structure, pay attention to whether or not there are any pages or sections of the website that are more than three clicks from each other. If there are, then re-think your structure to correct that.
5. Strategically use internal linking.
Internal links are an important SEO tool that help Google to more efficiently index your website and understand the relationship between your different pages. And since you have total control over the anchor text for internal links (the words that are hyperlinked and show up underlined in blue), they give you the chance to tell Google specific keywords to associate with the page.
Internal linking is also useful for your visitors. When they find a page on your website helpful, they can trust that the links on that page will bring them to more information that’s also relevant and useful. It gives you a way to guide them from page to page and increase the traffic of related pages on your website.
As an added bonus, when you have a page that’s doing especially well in the search engines, internal linking is a way you can spread some of that page’s authority around. By linking to other pages on your website on the page that Google’s decided is authoritative, it boosts their authority as well.
As with most SEO tacticss, you have to be careful not to overdo it with internal linking. Only use it when it’s relevant and helpful to visitors. But if you keep an eye out for relevant internal linking opportunities, you’ll find that there are plenty of times you can use internal links without getting spammy about it.
6. Make use of 301 redirects.
Creating a site hierarchy and re-arranging your website to fit it will likely mean moving some pages to new URLs. Anytime you change a web page’s URL – for this reason or any other – make sure you use a 301 redirect.
If the page you moved has built up any link authority, you don’t want to lose it. A 301 redirect lets Google know that the web page at the new URL is the same one that people liked and linked to at the old URL.
And importantly, it means that potential visitors can still find the page they’re looking for rather than ending up on an error page. Broken links create a bad user experience, something you always want to avoid.
Defining Your Website Architecture
Creating a site hierarchy is a useful exercise for clarifying what you want your website to look like and how it should be organized. It’s an important step for on-site SEO, but it’s also a good practice for keeping your website organized and intuitive for both your users and yourself. Good website organization has no downsides and plenty of upsides.
Don’t miss the rest of the articles in our SEO 101 series!
- How Do Search Engines Work?
- How to Write Compelling Title Tags
- How to Write the Best Meta Descriptions
- What’s the Best URL Structure?
For more help improving your SEO rankings, get in touch with HostGator’s expert SEO services.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.