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SEO 101: How Your Website’s Structure Affects its SEO

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Sujan Patel
Sujan Patel VIP CONTRIBUTOR
SEO 101: How Your Website’s Structure Affects its SEO

When it comes to SEO training, most of the resources out there are quick to extol the benefits of both on-site optimization (typically, including your target keywords in key areas across your website) and off-site SEO (as in the case of external link building activities).

Site construction - courtesy © Maxim_Kazmin - Fotolia.com

Site construction – courtesy © Maxim_Kazmin – Fotolia.com

However, many of these introductory guides gloss over a subject that’s just as important to your website’s natural search success—its underlying structure. In fact, there are a number of different ways your website’s structure can influence its overall SEO authority, so be sure to brush up on the following site structure elements to make your website is as search-friendly as possible.

Element #1: Site Navigation

At first glance, website navigation might seem like one of those things that happens organically. That is, you don’t plan out where you’ll place every page on your website; categories and hierarchies simply start to form on their own as the size and breadth of your website grows.

When it comes to SEO, though, this is a huge mistake! The structure of your website plays a tremendous role in its overall SEO authority, and the specific navigation elements you put into place deserve plenty of attention in this process.

Your first site navigation consideration should be to avoid using navigation types that make it difficult for the search engines to crawl through your pages. Particularly, steer clear of navigation structures that are built entirely in Flash or JavaScript. While these formats might look flashy to your visitors, they’re nearly impossible for the search engine spiders to parse and crawl.

Instead, stick with navigation schemes based in XHTML and CSS (or, if you must, images that use appropriate keywords in their ALT tags). These navigation structures are more easily read by the search engine spiders, making it more likely that your pages will be crawled, indexed, and displayed in the SERPs, where appropriate.

But beyond the initial setup of your website’s navigation structure, you’ll also want to pay attention to your website’s depth.

When it comes to websites, “depth” refers to the number of clicks needed to reach any page on your site from your home page. From an SEO perspective, a shallow website (that is, one that requires three or fewer clicks to reach every page) is far more preferable than a deep website (which requires lengthy strings of clicks to see every page on your site).

As an added bonus, don’t forget that shallow navigation structures improve your website’s usability, making it far less likely that visitors will give up trying to find the content they were looking for in your buried pages. This decreases your website’s bounce rate and may improve your overall average time on site, both of which are factors that are suspected to play a further role in SEO rankings.

Element #2: Internal Linking

Of course, if your website is large, controlling the depth of your website through your site’s navigation structure alone isn’t entirely feasible. If you have 100 total pages, for example, you’d need more than 30 separate categories to make all of your pages accessible within three clicks using navigation structures alone, which would almost certainly bog down your site’s appearance and functionality.

So, while structuring your navigation paths correctly from the start can help to improve your website’s SEO performance, you can also decrease your site’s depth through the use of internal linking.

In the world of SEO, there are two types of backlinks:

  • External backlinks, which are links that point to your website from an entirely separate site, and
  • Internal backlinks, which consist of connections between individual pages within your website.

Creating internal links between the pages on your website offers a number of different SEO advantages:

  • As mentioned above, internal links decrease the number of clicks required to access each page on your website, allowing the search engines to use their crawl budgets more effectively.
  • Internal links offer opportunities to use keyword-rich anchor texts throughout your pages (though you should be careful to only create internal links to relevant, useful pages, instead of using this as an opportunity to create keyword-stuffed links).
  • Internal links improve the user experience on your website by providing readers with additional materials that may pique their interests. As a result, both average time on site and average pages per visit go up, leading to potential SEO and conversion rate benefits.

Fortunately, unlike plotting out your website’s entire navigation structure, getting started with an internal linking plan is easy. Whenever you add a new page, article, or blog post to your website, take a second to see if the readers who are accessing this new content might be interested in other topics you’ve covered elsewhere on your site.

If you do find opportunities to recommend related pieces, create internal links within your new content that point to these other website pages.

Again, keep in mind that, though there is some benefit to creating internal links that utilize keyword-optimized anchor text, this shouldn’t be your primary pursuit. Keep the focus on serving up interesting content to your readers, and don’t be afraid to skip internal linking on new content pieces altogether if you’d have to stretch to make other articles seem relevant.

Element #3: URL Structure

One final website structure element to consider is how your individual page URLs are built. As you might expect, there’s a potential SEO benefit to be had from integrating your company’s target keywords into this vital navigation area.

The specific steps you’ll need to take to set up an SEO-friendly URL structure depend on whether your site runs on HTML or a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, Joomla or Magento.

HTML websites

If you run an HTML-oriented website, your page URLs will be built according to the file names of every new HTML file you create and upload to your site.

For example, if you use a desktop website editing program like Dreamweaver to create a new article and save your file as “my-new-article.html,” the full URL of your article once uploaded to the root domain of your website will be “http://www.mydomain.com/my-new-article.html.”

Now, in this example, odds are you aren’t trying to get your website ranked for the keyword phrase “my new article.” So, instead of using generic file names, take the time to label each file with a descriptive name that includes your target keyword.

Be sure to separate multiple words with dashes, rather than underscores, as the search engine spiders may interpret words separated by underscores as a single word (as in, the file name “apple_pie” might be read as “applepie” to the search engines in some cases).

CMS websites

Typically, most CMS websites make it easy to create search-optimized page URLs, though you may need to tweak a few settings to get the greatest SEO benefit possible.

For example, in the case of WordPress, you’ll need to first navigate to the “Permalinks” section of the “Settings” area within your dashboard and select a link structure option that includes your post title within the full URL assigned to each post. If you don’t take this action, your URLs will—by default—include the numbers and codes created for each new post by WordPress’s standard settings.

According to the default WordPress settings, a new post URL structure could look like this:

http://www.mydomain.com/?p=144

By selecting the “Post name” option within the “Permalinks” panel, this URL would be transformed to:

http://www.mydomain.com/post-title.html

This second variation is both more appealing to readers (leading to higher rates of engagement on your website) and confers the SEO advantage of being able to include your target keywords in your URLs.

If you’re using a CMS other than WordPress, consult the Help section of your chosen platform for complete instructions on how to set up SEO-friendly URLs on your website.

Even if you’ve already built your website without these elements in mind, it’s still very possible to go back and make the changes needed to ensure that your website qualifies for full consideration by the search engines and their automated spider programs.

Try correcting one element, or even one element on one single page, at a time. With consistent effort, you’ll see substantial SEO benefits as the result of your site structure changes.

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Sujan Patel

Sujan Patel

Sujan Patel has over 12 years of digital marketing experience and has helped hundreds of clients increase web traffic, boost ... [Read full bio]

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