SEO and Successful Site Architecture

  |  November 22, 2004   |  Comments

The six building blocks of a successful site architecture that addresses the needs of search engines and visitors.

A Web site’s information architecture can greatly affect a site’s search engine visibility. Specific page elements, such as the site navigation scheme, and design technologies, such as CSS (define) and JavaScript, can interfere with a search engine’s ability to spider a site.

Site architecture has been poorly addressed by search engine marketers (SEMs). Many of them have limited knowledge about information architecture and site usability. Some only specialize in search advertising, focusing on the media buy and the bidding process. Many SEO (define) firms specialize in cloaking (define). Nowhere in this skill set is information architecture. That’s a shame.

A top Google position is useless if visitors aren’t converting into buyers. That’s where usability and site architecture become important. This column looks at the six building blocks of a successful site architecture that addresses the needs of both search engines and visitors.

How Directories Are Set Up on Servers

As a general rule, pages closest to the root directory are considered the most important pages on your site. The two most important documents that should be in the root directory are the home page, commonly named index.html, and the Robots Exclusion Protocol, commonly named robots.txt.

A widespread SEO myth is search engines won’t crawl past the third subdirectory. Not true at all. So long as related pages are linked to each other in a spider-friendly manner, search engines will crawl deep content.

Generally, I keep around 100 to 200 pages in the root directory, the pages that are most important to my target audience. Most of these root-directory pages are category pages, because a category page directs site visitors to more specific pages on a site, usually products or services.

Site Navigation Scheme

Another element of site architecture is a site’s navigation scheme. Some site navigation schemes are more spider-friendly than others. For example, a set of navigation buttons is often more spider-friendly than a DHTML pull-down menu. And a set of hypertext links is often more spider-friendly than a set of navigation buttons.

Another widespread SEO myth is that text links are "the bomb." Though text links are easy for programmers and developers to format (via CSS), they often forget whom the site is designed for: end users.

Through usability tests and focus groups, I sometimes find visitors show a marked preference for multimedia effects and pull-down menus. In fact, visitors in the computer/software industries actually use pull-down menus, even though usability experts might not recommend them.

Are pull-down menus a spider-friendly navigation scheme? Sometimes they are. Sometimes they’re not. When I wear my usability hat, I give the target audience what it prefers. When I wear my SEM hat, I recognize the drop-down menu may not be 100 percent effective. I know I can put spider-friendly links throughout a site without taking away from usability.

SEMs shouldn’t fall into the "text-links only" trap when a target audience clearly prefers a different type of site navigation.

Subdirectories, File Names, and URL Structure

Many Web developers like to divide different site sections into subdirectories to keep related pages close to each other (on a Web server). On a larger site (250-plus pages), this site architecture makes sense. On a smaller site, this so-called SEO strategy may confuse site visitors.

When I do focus groups on URL structure, I typically ask, "Which URL do you remember?"

  • www.domain.com/boots/hiking.html

  • www.domain.com/hikingboots.html

Over 90 percent of the people queried prefer the URL without the subdirectory. It’s easier to type and easier to remember. "Too many forward slashes" is a common complaint.

Many SEMs create that extra subdirectory just to add a keyword in the URL, hoping it will help with ranking. I’ve never experienced this phenomenon. I find a keyword-rich title tag is more important than a keyword-rich URL.

Remember your end users when you create an URL structure.

Types of Web Pages

According to some usability professionals, there are seven types of Web pages. Others claim there are 11. Regardless of the number, it’s important for SEMs to understand different types of Web pages do exist. How you write, design, optimize, and promote a Web page depends on the page type.

Some Web page types:

  • Home page

  • Category/gallery page

  • Product page

  • Form page

  • News/media page

  • Services page

  • Advertising (landing) page

  • Search/search results page

  • Shopping cart page

  • Credibility page

Should SEMs optimize a product page the same way they optimize a credibility page? Optimization and design strategies are different because the calls to action (CTAs) are different on each page type.

Page Layout and Structure

Since there are different page types, it naturally follows the layout strategies for one page type, such as a product page, may not work for a different page type, such as a press release (news page). Likewise, the keyword phrases on a category page may be more general than the keyword phrases on a product page. Yet there might be some overlap.

Cross-Linking

If I had to pick one component of Web site architecture developers and SEMs do incorrectly, I’d have to pick cross-linking. Cross-linking is not only important for search engine visibility, it’s also important for upselling and usability.

Basically, there are two types of cross-linking: hierarchical (vertical) and related (horizontal). One only need look at the breadcrumb links of an online clothing store to see the vertical hierarchy:

Home > Men’s Clothing > Shirts > Casual > Polos

Cross-linking is evident in this text-link navigation. To view the categories in Men’s Clothing, site visitors can click on the "Men’s Clothing" text link. If they want to see the types of shirts available on this site, they can click the "Shirts" text link.

Here’s another example: If prospects find your site’s press release through a news search engine or ad, what do you want them to do when they view the press release page? View your featured product or service? Contact your PR rep? Request more information? Call you? What are you doing to ensure prospects reach the information they searched for?

A few well-placed hypertext links can enhance both search engine visibility and page conversions.

Conclusion

Successful site architecture is a must for any Web site. Not only can it improve the ability of a search engine to access keyword-rich content on a site, it can increase site conversions as well.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shari Thurow

Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.

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