How to clean up your site structure

We all know that moment where your website has grown to this monstrous collection of pages. That moment when you realize that you have too many pages in your menu and the coherence of your website is nowhere to be found. And we also know what a struggle it is to clean this mess up.

In this article, I’d like to go over a number of things we would take in account (at least) when changing your site structure. It’s a tough job, and sometimes it takes a lot of rewriting and perhaps even creating new pages, but as it is a job we have postponed way too long already, why not start restructuring today.

From chaos to order: your menu

From chaos to order in your site structureThe visual structure of your website is, in most cases, presented by the menu of your website. Of course breadcrumbs and permalinks help a lot here as well, but these are not the things an ordinary visitor will take in account. The menu is. Your menu ideally consists of a limited number of top level items, to keep the website focused.

How many levels?

My personal preference would be to create at most one sublevel, but I know this will get some criticism from customers stating that they “can’t squeeze all they have to say in just a few pages”. Please realize there are more ways to get from one page to another and your menu isn’t the only navigational option on your website. More on that in our upcoming ebook, by the way (release this September).

Home and Contact

For the majority of websites, the menu starts with the Home item and ends with the Contact item. We’re used to that, and every time we review a website that lacks either one of them, the menu just doesn’t feel right. Everything between these two items should be related somehow. Either list the main product groups or focus areas of the website.

Relevant menu items

One of the sites we reviewed recently has three major interest areas: freediving, scuba diving and spearfishing. It is clear that these items have a link between them, and therefore the menu feels natural. If these menu items had been freediving, scuba diving and Dakar Rally, that wouldn’t feel natural, right? Keep things on-topic. If you have a diving website and want to write about your Dakar experience, I’m sure you can squeeze in a blog post or link to a specialized, optimized site about it. It doesn’t belong in your menu. This is your basic site structure.

Optimizing your site structure

Joost did an excellent piece on cornerstone content that we refer to on a daily basis. Cornerstone content (in short: assigning one main page per content and linking that from related pages) shows how internal links contribute to your site structure. Although menu links are the most visible, if a visitor is reading an article and wants to know more about the subject at hand, a link in the text is more easily found than a menu item that relates to it. Joost and Marieke also wrote an eBook about content SEO and how to optimize your site structure.

Write it down

Call it organogram, call it data flow diagram or whatever name you think is suitable, but making a visual presentation of your site structure will pay off. Start with your desired (one or two level) menu and see if you can fit in more of the pages you have created over the years. You will find that some pages are stil valid, but don’t seem suitable for your menu anymore. As mentioned that’s no problem, just make sure to link them on related pages and in your sitemaps. This way Google and your visitor will find these pages. Perhaps this diagram will also show you the gaps in the site structure and you need to add pages to clean up the chaos. If you have a website for a company that develops websites, one thread in your site structure could be:

Web development → Content management system → WordPress → WordPress themes  → Responsive WordPress themes

Not all steps need to be in the menu (perhaps just Web Development and WordPress would be enough,) but all pages in your site structure should ideally be set up and optimized. It will create a rich collection of pages that strengthen each other. By the way, I am sure more that one step in this example also has links to other pages in your site structure, as it belongs to other collections of pages as well.

Remove pages (redirect them!)

What I expect, is that you’ll also find pages that need urgent updating or worse: that actually shouldn’t be on your website or simply don’t fit the current or new site structure. Services you used to offer or information that just isn’t accurate anymore. Write these pages down or copy the URLs to a text file. Is there a way to redirect (301) these pages, like with our WordPress SEO Premium plugin? Preferably you should redirect the URL to a related article, to preserve any traffic that this page had. If that related article doesn’t exist, redirect to a related category page, or as a last resort to your homepage. This way the (outdated) page won’t interfere with your site structure anymore.

By the way, be sure to read this nice post on analyzing your own content by Everett Sizemore: How To Do a Content Audit – Step-by-Step.

Rethink your taxonomies

When using WordPress, an obvious site structure is provided by the Categories and Tags you have divided your posts and perhaps pages in. In WordPress, these are called ‘taxonomies’. We have mentioned this before, but 8 to 10 categories would suffice for a website. Perhaps a webshop could have more, but the top level should preferably consist of that number of categories to keep your site and site structure focused. We’ve seen sites using over 300 categories, accompanied by over 5,000 tags and more. That’s not structuring your website, that’s messing up your site structure.

For me, the basic guideline is that if I don’t think I will reuse a tag, I won’t apply it to a post. And if an eleventh category would knock on my door, I’d probably wonder if the website could use another taxonomy next to categories and tags. There are several WordPress plugins that can help reorganising taxonomies, but most of them don’t seem to add redirects after merging or deleting taxonomies – be sure to do that, of course. If you know of a plugin that flawlessly takes care of this, please let me know, as we have some customers that could use that plugin for sure.

Note that we actually had a plugin like that, but that one just wasn’t suitable for all ill-structured websites, that’s why we took it off the shelves a few years ago.

Don’t take this lightly

Although one can write this down in a couple of paragraphs, it could be a lengthy process that shouldn’t be taken lightly. When changing the structure of a large website, it could make sense to change the permalink structure as well, which can have a lot of consequences. In this article we focus on restructuring the site for user experience (and SEO), not on all the technical implications this might have if you want to take restructuring to the next level.

Tell Google about it

In the unlikely case you have constructed your HTML sitemap manually, update that sitemap after changing your site structure. In the likely case you have an XML sitemap, resubmit it to Google Webmaster Tools. In case you have removed a page that just shouldn’t be in Google anymore, delete it from your website. Redirect that page to a page that is closely related to it. If you really don’t have a clue which page to redirect to, serve a 404 Not Found error.

Let us know

Drop us a comment if you have ever struggled with changing the site structure of a (customer) website. We’re looking forward to your stories. Also let us know about that killer plugin to organize taxonomies!

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26 Responses

  1. Ben DavidsonBy Ben Davidson on 21 August, 2014

    I’ve found I can’t easily navigate to the yoast.com/wordpress URL from within your website, as you don’t link to it from the menu or sidebar. But this is the URL that ranks in Google for a host of ‘WordPress X’ related keyword searches. Ontop of that, in the footer for ‘WordPress’ you link to yoast.com/cat/wordpress which is a different page to yoast.com/wordpress, but both are actually represented by the same breadcrumbs as ‘Home ▸ WordPress’ . The former appears more of a category of WordPress related content, the latter being more of a landing page for your WordPress products.

    This seems very mildly confusing to me; and perhaps at odds with the recommendations just given of cleaning everything up? I was hoping you could explain the logic behind why you have setup your WordPress pages like this. Thank you for the informative post.

    • Michiel HeijmansBy Michiel Heijmans on 22 August, 2014

      Hi Ben,

      Thanks for your comment. Nice example. The WordPress page was actually added to our site structure recently as we only had WordPress plugins first and then started adding products (themes) that were also related to WordPress. We needed that page for our logical site structure, so we could add another layer in it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be in our menu, right? Like explained in the article :)

      And the WordPress page and the WordPress category are obviously two separate things. You just have to pick one to be your main page (or cornerstone page).

  2. Doug SmithBy Doug Smith on 21 August, 2014

    If you really don’t have a clue which page to redirect to, serve a 404 Not Found error.

    Wouldn’t it be more appropriate in that case to serve a 410 gone error instead? That would acknowledge that the page used to exist but no longer does.

    • Michiel HeijmansBy Michiel Heijmans on 22 August, 2014

      Spot on. If you find a convenient way in WordPress to do so, let me know :)

  3. Nicolas RicherBy Nicolas Richer on 22 August, 2014

    Indeed, I have reviewed some clients’ sites and the “300 categories and 5000 tags” does exist… WordPress is a wonderful tool but too often in the wrong hands. Taxonomies are the worst when doing sites reviews.

    In order to manage many pages in a better visual way than the standard WP back-office, I found the Swifty Page Manager really useful. It clearly shows the hierarchy between pages and it becomes easy to navigate from one to another.

    • Michiel HeijmansBy Michiel Heijmans on 22 August, 2014

      Thanks for the tip, Nicolas. Found the plugin here. Looks nice, might take it for a spin later!

  4. دانلود فیلمBy دانلود فیلم on 22 August, 2014

    Thanks for the article my friend . Doest redirecting pages hurt my seo scores?

  5. Gary KirwanBy Gary Kirwan on 22 August, 2014

    Micheal when you say: “We have mentioned this before, but 8 to 10 categories would suffice for a website” would adding sub-categories to 8-10 parent categories be a chaotic problem in your view?

    • Michiel HeijmansBy Michiel Heijmans on 27 August, 2014

      No, but if you could create additional taxonomies instead of subcategories, I would definitely advise that instead.

  6. Jeff SchultzBy Jeff Schultz on 22 August, 2014

    Great post. Definitely need to incorporate some of these suggestions. Thanks.

    This is my first time learning about cornerstone content. Would a plugin like Display Posts Shortcode work to create a cornerstone content page? Or do would you recommend hand coding a page? I use it now o generate pages like “Most Popular” and “Most Recent” posts. Should be able to make a page based on categories or tags.

    Thoughts?

  7. James DoyleBy James Doyle on 22 August, 2014

    Nice post, given that I am in the middle of doing a restructure of my website. I just recently took the plunge to use Genesis Framework and thought what the heck, why not just remodel the whole site.

    As I’m not a hard core coder or developer, one of the most time consuming tasks has been cleaning out the database tables manually of nearly 8 years of use. Way too many redundant entries, wish there was a plugin or something to do it automaticlly and safely.

    Enjoyed the read!

  8. DamonBy Damon on 22 August, 2014

    Sorry about the cheeky comment, but I just had to point this out.

    “For the majority of websites, the menu starts with the Home item and ends with the Contact item. We’re used to that, and every time we review a website that lacks either one of them, the menu just doesn’t feel right.”

    I’d love to hear why you don’t have a contact link on Yoast, maybe in another post.

    There is a bit of tension between what is best for SEO and what is best for users when deciding whether to add contact (and about in some sites) links. Your choice seems the best for SEO making giving your most important search sections prominent links from every page, but users expect a contact link.

    Thanks for the good read.

    • Nigel AberyBy Nigel Abery on 23 August, 2014

      Hi,
      I was also thinking about how home, about and contact pages titled as such as they are not exactly words that I would want to SEO rank for, though I would obviously want to rank the home page or contact page.
      Also, slightly off topic, soz. If you remove a stop word from your page keyword but in the page text the phrase needs the stop word (so obviously it needs to be left in to make sense). Will this penalise your SEO? Your WP SEO plugin gave a lower SOE check rating when i did this compared to leaving the stop word in my keyword. Thanks!
      P.S. love the plugin and your SEO advice!

      • Michiel HeijmansBy Michiel Heijmans on 27 August, 2014

        No. Our plugin checks for exact match for the focus keywords. It provide guidelines, but make sure your texts make sense for the visitor as well :)

    • Michiel HeijmansBy Michiel Heijmans on 27 August, 2014

      Contact should make sense. As we are mainly communicating via social media and our support system, and a contact link just gives us a lot of emails about our free products (for support on those, check the WordPress forum or our knowledge base). If you add a contact form, and most businesses should, make sure your back office is ready for that or provide alternatives, like we do. Does that answer your question?

  9. Holiday DealsBy Holiday Deals on 22 August, 2014

    Hi Michiel,

    what is best Genesis child theme that has a exelent structure for a blogs?

    does the website structure depend on a themes ?

    • Michiel HeijmansBy Michiel Heijmans on 27 August, 2014

      No, doesn’t depend on a theme, it’s all user depending :) So it’s really up to you and how you configure/setup things.

  10. Repairs UKBy Repairs UK on 26 August, 2014

    Hi Joost we took your advice on both posts (the slider one as well) we have removed the sliders from our site and cleaned up all the crap and it has impacted our conversions by 27% . Our homepage now consists of 4 call to actions and nothing else :)

    Check it out here
    http://www.repairsuk.co.uk

    Thanks Joost and keep up the good work. If your in the UK some time we would like to buy you a gallon of coffee :)

    • Michiel HeijmansBy Michiel Heijmans on 27 August, 2014

      Thanks. One quick remark: please remove the cities listing in the footer (“Aberdeenshire, Anglesey, Angus, Argyllshire, Ayrshire, Banffshire, Bedfordshire etc”), as that just adds useless words to a page and won’t help you rank locally ;-)

      • Repairs UKBy Repairs UK on 27 August, 2014

        Cheers Michiel i removed it 6 months ago and lost around £2k in sales a month. I do not want to rank locally as we are mail order. Gets me a lot of work in them “useless words” do lol :)

        • Michiel HeijmansBy Michiel Heijmans on 27 August, 2014

          Are you sure that was the only thing you changed..? Seems odd! perhaps the page needs more content, just not sure it’s that content :)

          • Repairs UKBy Repairs UK on 27 August, 2014

            Yep, i know for a fact as Analytics keywords dropped. Google “Nexus 5 Repairs Aberdeen”

  11. Danielle ParsonsBy Danielle Parsons on 29 August, 2014

    Excellent article Michiel. Have been needing to overhaul my sites for some time now. The business I am in is so competitive that having a site rank well in Bing and the other search engines is important. Looking forward to learning more from your posts & pages that you already have published!

  12. CharlieBy Charlie on 29 August, 2014

    Great article on not over thinking site structure! Structure is always an important part and sometimes a pandoras box of whats best and what doesn’t work.

  13. JoeyBy Joey on 29 August, 2014

    I discovered this article a day after someone in the WordPress forum has suggested to me that I should restructure my menu. Before, My menu items was like this, (Home, About, Contact…). I’ve followed the advice and I believe my menu structure is better now. I have one main menu. It contains the list of my categories (but not all). The sub-menu has some of my tags. Do you think I’m doing it correctly?