Site Structure: How to Create a Solid Foundation for SEO and Boost Rankings
Website structure is critical for a superior user experience and better search rankings.
Few things deter quality visitors from using your site than frustrating navigation. If a potential customer cannot identify critical information quickly, they’re going to bounce away to a competitor.
Defining how to structure a website is the first step to marketing success. But, what goes into a quality structure?
If you’re struggling to earn new clicks and need some tips to shake things up, you’re in the right place. We’ll define the different types of structures you can use and explain how to build a solid foundation for SEO best practices.
What is Website Structure?
Website structure is a term that explains how we organize webpages and their content on the domain.
A quality structure sees website owners carefully grouping related content for classification purposes. Users then should be able to navigate to and from content with an intuitive sense of progression.
Before we dive in too deeply, be aware that there are four primary ways of structuring a website.
We list this first as it is the most common website structure and likely the style you’re currently using.
A hierarchical structure follows the pattern of moving from a broad category to more specific ones. Think of any modern website you visit and how those developers segment certain types of content to certain sections of the website.
For example, when a user visits the DashClicks site, everyone arrives on the same home page.
Immediately at the top of the site, you see a navigation menu that separates the core content into four specific categories. You can then follow the main category into smaller sub-categories down the line. The navigation ends up looking like this:
The Home page always serves as the top of the hierarchical tree and then branches downward. However, the branches can exist separately to distinguish each type of content from one another.
The hierarchical structure is popular as it is the only real solution for medium to large websites. Even if your new website is on the smaller side, choosing a hierarchy early on will futureproof your site as you add new pages and content.
If you were to eventually add a blog, a store, or even a native help center, you would continue to follow the same hierarchical structure you already have in place. Users will already understand the pattern and be able to discover new content without it having any impact on the experience they’re accustomed to.
A linear website structure is ideal for a site that exists to promote one general product, service, or offer. Think of your standard landing page or sales funnel.
With this structure, the user is only moving in a line from Point A to B. Of course, your site can have more than one or two pages, but the content is always directly related to the page that came before.
For example, a user clicks on an ad that leads to a website focusing on lead generation. The user fills out the form on page one and then automatically gets redirected to page two. This makes the structure look like this simple formula:
However, you can add more steps to the linear structure as necessary. Instead of leaving users with a thank you/confirmation, you could instead ask them to book an appointment, creating a new page in the sequence.
In either scenario, the user is always meant to move forward and does not need to provide a pathway away from this linear structure.
A “Webbed” or Network Structure
This type of structure technically breaks the rules we just established for traditional website planning.
Instead of having rigid segmentation of your content, users can quickly access any other page from their current URL at any time. This can work for brands that have a smaller website promoting products, services, or ideas that directly connect.
However, this structure also works great for eCommerce sites. Users can be viewing a product in one category segment, but quickly access links to related products or items from unrelated categories. This is often tailored to the user based upon prior browsing history or data pulled from other users with similar behaviors.
This final style only applies to websites that must produce sensitive data that’s only meant to be viewed by a specific user.
Examples of database structure sites would be banking, loan companies, social media platforms, etc. When a user logs into their account, that website provides content specifically tailored to that user. This is as opposed to the prior models which see all users viewing the same content regardless of how they choose to navigate.
This type of structure is advanced as it requires sophisticated programming to properly display the correct data. However, it’s important to be aware of when understanding how different websites are planned and developed.
Why is Website Structure Relevant for SEO?
Website structure impacts SEO both regarding the user experience and how well Google understands the content the site offers.
Site Structure and User Experience
If a user can find quality information and engage with the website, then you are providing a quality user experience. Google cares about the UX enough to consider it a primary ranking factor for SERPs.
A quality user experience can be defined by the following qualities:
- Optimal loading times
- First input delay (how long it takes a user to act)
- Visual stability (does the site behave as intended?)
- No intrusive interstitials (no popups or elements that prevent users from engaging)
With these factors in mind, we know that Google makes inferences about our website structure based on user behavior.
If a user searches for a term and clicks on our website, they should be able to find the information they need within three clicks. If the user is frequently clicking links while spending little time on each new page, it can be a sign that the structure is flawed.
What can prove worse for SEO is an increase in bounce rate based on poor website structure. If users are clicking on navigational links, but quickly leaving without engaging, Google recognizes this. It may stop serving your pages as a result as they do not seem to properly match the user intent when they search for specific keywords.
Impacts on Technical SEO
Google regularly crawls websites on the internet to properly index the content.
During this process, Googlebot follows the website structure you have in place. It will attempt to move from the home page to each page following each pathway.
As it moves from URL to URL, it begins to form associations based on the structure.
Let’s say that a landscaping business has a page dedicated to “irrigation.” This keyword can serve a variety of purposes, which makes it hard to match content to the user intent by itself.
Google then crawls the brand’s website. It follows this pathway using the site’s hierarchical structure:
Home > Services > Irrigation
Because Googlebot crawled this pathway to completion, it now better understands the relationship “irrigation” has to other pages on the site.
It is then able to properly classify your irrigation page as a service URL for your brand. It can then better serve that page as a result to users that are searching for an irrigation service, not necessarily facts about irrigation itself.
With this in mind, we can begin to understand why having a poor website structure will negatively impact our SEO. Properly segmenting the content on a site ensures that Google can effectively crawl each page and properly index the content.
That means that Google serves the web page to better-qualified users, which then leads to improved SEO and search rankings.
Keyword mapping, page crawling, and matching search intent are all SEO factors that directly root themselves in your website structure. If you want to ensure that your pages rank well, you must begin web development with a solid foundation in place.
Creating an SEO-Friendly Website Structure
The first part of this article described the “what” and “why” of quality website structure.
Now, we need to understand the crucial steps that go into building a strong foundation from the start.
Start Compiling a List of Essential Keywords
Let’s face it – keywords are pivotal for helping any webpage rank on Google.
Keywords are how users find our websites. They’re also what Google looks for to match page content to the user’s search intent.
You’ll want to create a preliminary list of any keywords that tend to get results. A great place to start is by entering any terms relevant to your industry into keyword planner tools like SEMRush or Moz Keyword Explorer.
Another ideal strategy to consider is examining the core keywords of your competitors’ website pages. Try to get a solid understanding of how they structure their websites, particularly the ones that are in the running for the top rankings.
During this step, you’ll like gain a preliminary idea of which pages you’ll want to create for your site based on certain keywords. You don’t necessarily want to go after the terms with the most clicks, but rather ones that will best suit the true intent of each page.
Certain keywords may have a lower search volume but can exhibit a much higher engagement rate because they match the user’s search intent.
Visualize the Structure and Begin Categorizing
Next, you’ll need to determine which keywords are worth pursuing and which best match the functional needs of your website.
It helps to come up with clear category titles to help with compartmentalization. Let’s call back to the example we used earlier – the new DashClicks website.
Our team created a hierarchical structure by categorizing all content into five distinct categories:
- Platform – any pages related to platform software & tools
- Fulfillment – any pages related to white label fulfillment services
- Solutions – any pages related to customer use cases
- Resources – any pages related to support and education
- DashClicks – any pages about DashClicks as a business
From these major categories, we can then add individual pages or even create sub-categories that fell underneath that umbrella. These segments also prove broad, yet descriptive enough to allow for future additions without making changes to the structure.
The pages we chose to create underneath those hierarchies are a result of two major factors:
- A functional need (explaining or offering something of value to the user)
- Keywords with matching user intent (users that search this term want the type of content we will offer)
Creating a hierarchy may prove simple or complex depending upon the number of pages your website needs. A basic site may only need sections to describe a company and its services, while large eCommerce sites need unique categories for every type of product.
Take all the time necessary to nail this foundation down. Plan not only for what you have now but anything that you could potentially offer in the future.
Make Sure Navigation Steps Logically Help the User Progress
Once you get an idea of the core categories you want to use, pay close attention to the path of navigation.
There’s a rule that’s been long perpetuated online known as the “three-click rule.” This commonly held belief explains that the average user loses interest if they cannot find the ideal content within three clicks on your domain.
However, many studies have been held that directly challenge this belief. Among these is a study by Center Centre – UIE that found no correlation between clicks and user satisfaction. The Nielsen Norman Group corroborates this with similar findings.
This widely held belief may lead to an unnecessarily broad browsing experience where more detailed-focused categories may serve users better.
Regardless of which side you fall on, we can agree that the navigation should intuitively make sense to users. So long as the categories make sense and the pages fall under appropriate hierarchies, users will likely prove satisfied.
Instead, what alienates users is unnecessarily complex or dysfunctional navigation. Users should never feel lost when moving too far away from the landing page. They should understand how to easily move forward or backward from any given page on the domain.
Reflect Navigation with Clean URLs
Examining page URLs is a great way to test the cleanliness of your site’s navigation.
A quality URL should provide users with key clues that indicate where they are on the site. Let’s take a look at yet another example from our website:
This is the URL that appears in the browser when you visit the DashClicks Analytics page. From this URL, we can understand that the user followed this pathway:
Home > Platform > Apps > Analytics
Notice that the categories become more specific as you progress to the result. At any point in the process, the user should understand where they are and why that particular content was placed where it is.
If they want to check out a different app, they know to go one step back. If they want to go back home and check out something else, they can revert to step one or simply click the logo at the top of the page.
Make sure every URL follows this setup. Try to avoid unnecessary characters or strings that offer nothing to the end-user.
Utilize Internal Linking
Internal linking is a great SEO strategy that can reinforce connections between pages in a category.
This can provide users with quick ways to discover similar content, but it can also teach Googlebot more about the website. If we refer back to our Analytics page as an example, we can see examples of effective internal linking.
Because this page teaches users about the Analytics software, we can infer that users may also want to learn about the other software. That’s why we include a direct link to each other app so that users can take the next step with just one click.
Avoid linking to additional pages unnecessarily. Your website is there to inform, not to overbear the user with sales pitches. Help Google better understand the content, and they’ll help deliver results organically.
Breadcrumbs are a secondary way of highlighting the user’s navigation on a website.
Many websites utilize breadcrumbs by placing them just above or near the title of the current page. The breadcrumbs show a pathway similar to what your page URL should show.
By using the breadcrumb, you can provide quality internal links that help users jump back to any previous page in the path. This provides a better user experience as it allows them to always be one click away from a previous page.
This type of breadcrumb applies to hierarchical structures. However, you can also utilize attribute-based breadcrumbs when applicable. This is primarily reserved for eCommerce sites that show users exactly how an item is listed under categories and subcategories.
Finally, you can use history-based breadcrumbs that keep track of the user’s actual clicks. This can help improve the UX by tailoring the site to their experience rather than sticking to the rigid structure.
Fix the Main Navigation Menu to the Header and Footer
Just like with internal links and breadcrumbs, providing quick navigation at all times makes for a better user experience.
High-ranking websites will often fix the header, meaning it scrolls with the user and remains in the viewport at all times.
When you attach the main navigation menu to this header, the user can click around to new pages much easier.
Likewise, adding a navigation menu to the footer calls users to click on another page once they finish consuming the content. This can keep users on the site for longer and provides more space for detailed menu layouts.
Create an XML Sitemap
To further assist with creating an SEO-friendly structure, Google encourages the creation of sitemaps.
A sitemap, most commonly an XML file, is a document that lists all of a website’s pages and corresponding URLs.
When you submit a sitemap to Google Search Console, you are helping Googlebot understand which pages of your website to crawl. With this in mind, you can use your sitemap to omit certain technical pages or define key pages with canonical tags. This can help in scenarios where you find yourself getting flagged for duplicate content.
Telling Google which pages to crawl will also make better use of your monthly crawl budget. The more updates you make to the site, the more frequently you will need to crawl to index those changes.
Overall, a sitemap helps Google to more accurately portray the health and status of your website and its structure.
Monitoring Your Website Structure
Use Google Search Console to Crawl the Site
As with any SEO strategy, you’ll want to actively monitor your website for structural health concerns.
Google Search Console will crawl your website regularly either automatically or by manual request. Whenever it completes the crawl, it will generate descriptive reports.
Within your report, you can see how many pages are indexed and which are not. If Google is unable to index a page, this indicates an error on the site.
These errors can result from a variety of factors. It can be something as simple as broken links, which are easily fixed by updating the link or editing the URL. However, continued issues may indicate a structural problem with your hierarchy.
Use the reported data to guide changes in your website design or structure.
Monitor User Activity within Google Analytics
Google Analytics is another free tool that can provide you with 24/7 updates regarding your website activity.
This tool can tell you everything you could ever want to know about a given page including:
- Bounce rate
- Average session duration
- How they got to the page
- Other pages clicked
- Actions are taken on a page
Understanding user behavior is an excellent way to measure the qualities of a site. Regarding structure, you’ll want to be on the lookout for red flags such as high bounce rates or low session duration.
These negatives generally occur when a user is unsuccessful in finding the content they require. This may be a result of having low-quality content on the page.
However, if your research shows that you have content users want, but no one is clicking, you may need to revisit your site structure. Finding opportunities to make that content more accessible and visible through improved navigation and internal linking can help to improve your SEO and search rankings.
Quality Website Structure Provides a Quality User Experience
Creating a strong foundation for the website benefits the user first while offering SEO benefits as a bonus.
The type of structure you choose depends entirely on the complexity of your content and how you’re using it to communicate with customers.
For most brands, a hierarchical structure will not only support you now but futureproof your content for years to come. Plan your keywords, compartmentalize the content, and establish clear pathways to and from each URL.
Finally, always monitor any changes or activity on your website if you want to improve your SEO. You cannot obtain better rankings overnight but through continued testing and mindful changes that ultimately improve the user experience.