site structure for SEO

From your site’s goal to its structure

From your site’s goal to its structure

Last update: 14 December, 2016

Your site’s structure is closely related to the purpose you have for your site. This goal should determine the keywords you want to be found for, and your keywords, in turn, are influencing the structure of your site, and its taxonomies. Thinking about keywords, site structure and taxonomies can be a bit daunting, but just dive in and get going, it’s worth it, I promise.

Determining the goal for the site

The process for building a new site, any site, starts with a lot of questions: why are you building this site? Should it be generating leads for you? Or is it purely informational? Do you expect clients who have just received a proposal from you to check it out just to see that you’ve done similar projects before? You should really be going over all the different needs you have for your website, asking yourself questions like:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What are you going to offer them?
  • Why would they be coming to your site?
  • What do you want them to do on the site? Which actions do you want them to take?

While asking yourself all these questions, jot down the words and phrases that come to mind, or make a mind map. These will come in handy later. You have to be 100% sure that you’ve written down all the things you think your site (or even more important: your clients site) should be doing. If projects go wrong, it’s often because people have unvoiced ideas about their site, or come up with these things halfway through a process. If you’re involving other people this can lead to frustration, hold-ups and even people being unhappy with the site, even though it sticks to all of the initially formed goals.

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Keyword Research

Every project should start with some form of keyword research. I’ll assume here that you actually want people to understand what you are talking about, and preferably being able to find you through a search engine. Keyword research though is not just done for search engine optimization purposes. Keyword research has one goal, and one goal only: to get you to understand how your visitors think and talk about your product or service, so you can talk to them about it in their language.

While there are a lot of tools out there that can help you (more on that later), the trick is to start simple. Start writing down the words people use when talking to you about your products or services. If you’re in a larger company and have people handling phone calls, for instance support or sales people, listen in on those for a while, or explain them what you’re doing and ask them to come up with a list of words people have used when talking to them.

Once you’ve got a list, start using all the tools out there you can to make that list bigger. In our interview with Vannesa Fox for the WordPress Podcast, Vanessa pointed at a great list of keyword research tools she has on her site.

Keep in mind, especially if you’re in a small niche, that keyword research tools will sometimes be off with their suggestions, and sometimes have very little suggestions whatsoever. Also note: no matter which niche, industry and country you’re in, those tools are more often wrong than right on search volume. You’ll only get to know real search volumes if you start advertising for these terms in Google AdWords, but not everybody will have the budget or need to do that. So take all the data you get out of these tools with a grain of salt, the initial data you had is probably better: they’re real words used by real people.

While doing all this keyword research, it’s very important to maintain relations between keywords. Keep keywords that are related together, so when you start structuring your site, you’ll have keyword groups ready already. Best way to do this is to make groups of “main” keywords with “sub” keywords. If you encounter words that are often used around those keywords and think could help you in writing, jot those down as well.

If you know that certain keywords people are using to describe your product or service are very competitive, make sure you find all the keywords surrounding that topic. You’ll use these later on for something that is often referred to as “keyword clustering”. This process is very well summarized by an info graphic created by Elliance:

Keyword Clustering info graphic by Elliance

Site Structure

Site structure is as much a science as it is an art. There are so many things to keep in mind that the task can become daunting. In their seminal work on Information Architecture, aptly named Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld start by talking about architecture for buildings. They also tell us why, in one single line that redefined how I thought about website architecture when I first read it:

Like buildings, web sites have architectures that cause us to react.

Chew on that one for a while. It’s not just your design, it’s not just your content, it is how you structure your content as well that determines whether your site has any chance at all of being a success.

If you followed my advice during keyword research, you have natural building blocks for your site: those groups of keywords you kept together. Determine which keywords are your most important ones and make those your top-level pages. I usually do this in Excel: each column represents a level of your site, each row a page. This looks something like this:

Site Structure Excel

Each of those keywords get’s it’s own page. Of course some keywords don’t deserve their own page, but keep in mind that it’s a lot easier to rank for a keyword if you are able to totally focus the page on that keyword. Keep building on your site structure until your certain you’ve covered all the area’s your site needs to cover, and until it contains all the keywords you jotted down. Remember those words you jotted down that were often used to describe certain terms? Add them into this site structure: create an extra column on the right and add this as “meta data”. We’ll add more meta data later on.

Once you’re ready, start adding in other pages that you might have missed: your utility pages, contact pages, about us pages etc. Add them all in to this site structure.

The goal for your pages

While I know of more people using this method to get to a site structure, the next step is often forgotten: add another column and determine a goal, for each and everyone of these pages. These goals can be all sorts of things: from a contact request directly from that page, to a click through to another page to read more, to signing up for a seminar or newsletter, etc. etc. The options are endless, but it’s very important to determine a goal for each page at this stage.

If you have determined those goals for each page, you know which functionality you’ll need. Start mapping those functionality needs to pages. By doing this, you’ll figure out two things in one go: the functionality you will need for your site, and how many different page templates you’ll need. How you’ll know that? Well, simple: a page template is nothing more than a combination of all the types of content and functionality on a page, so by going through the list you should be able to determine how many different types you’ve got.

Taxonomy and post type needs

At this point, you might have figured out that you’ll have several different types of posts and pages. Going from news articles, to product descriptions, product fact sheets, and so on. Luckily, WordPress 3.0 adds the functionality we’ll need for those. Up until WordPress 2.9.2, leaving out all the hackery, a post consisted of 3 unique parts: a title, a slug or URL, the content. With WordPress 3.0, we can now determine what kind of content our post or page really needs and create those different post types. Justin Tadlock has a great post on the topic showing off what you can do with those custom post types.

With the need for custom post types, you might also need custom taxonomies. You might want to categorize your products by material, for instance, and thus create a material taxonomy. Or categorize books you’ve published by genre, or author, or… Well, you get the point. The possibilities are endless, and it’s pretty easy to create those custom taxonomies using my Simple Taxonomies plugin.

Go through your Excel for your site structure again, and add in your newly thought of taxonomy pages. Now you have the basics for your site ready.

Read more: ‘Site structure: the ultimate guide’ »

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