Intelligent Site Structure for better SEO

Search engines are still one of the most important traffic drivers to sites these days, which is why Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is incredibly important. While SEO is often thought to be just a set of some technical tricks – and as a professional SEO, I confess to spending a lot of time with clients fixing technical issues – the site structure is just as important. Your site’s structure determines whether a search engine understands what the topic of your site is and how easily it will find and index content relevant to your site’s purpose and intent.

By creating a good structure, you can use the content you’ve written that has attracted links from others, and use your site’s structure to spread some of that “linkjuice” to the other pages on your site. On a commercial site, that means that you can use the quality content you’ve written to boost the search engine rankings of your sales pages too. Did I get your attention now? Ok, now we’ve covered what and why, let’s get on to how.

Developing a good site structure

When developing a new site, or restructuring an existing one, it helps to draw out your site’s structure in something like Visio, or even putting it in Excel. What you’ll want to do is put all the pages and sections in there as a tree, something like that shown in Figure 1 (based on my own old site structure):

a typical site structure

Figure 1: A typical site structure

Now as you can see this structure is unbalanced, as the Code section constitutes more than half of the entire site. You should make sure your site structure looks like a reasonably balanced pyramid. I’d advise you to have something between 2 and 7 main sections, depending on how content heavy your site is, and no section should be more than twice as large as any other section.

As well as the code section being way too big, there’s another couple of points to consider about Figure 1. First, there are three pages that are basically about me: “About Me”, “Projects” and “Websites”. In addition, upon checking out my site statistics I found that the WordPress pages were responsible for about 30% of my site traffic, yet they were down on the third and fourth level.

The benefit of using a tool like Visio or OmniGraffle, as I did, is that it’s quite easy to rearrange stuff, and it’s easy to get a good “feel” for whether the new structure is going to work. I’ve often used a desk or a wall and a lot of post-it notes for this purpose too, and that has also worked fine for me.

So I started to rearrange the sections and came up with the section structure seen in Figure 2.

improve site structure

Figure 2: A more refined section structure.

As you can see I decided to move some pages “up” the tree, and I removed some pages. When you’re rethinking your site structure you’ll often find that some pages are not really beneficial to your users. Deleting them is the best thing you can do if that’s the case.

Another choice I made was to move the blog to the homepage. My homepage was utter nonsense, and basically yet another “About Me” page. And though I like myself, that’s not what I was hoping people came to my site for. My blog is the basis of my site, so I decided to make it the cornerstone of this structure too.

Naming your sections

Once you’re satisfied with your site structure, have a look at the names you’ve come up with for your sections. If you have enough content about a subject for it to be able to have its own section, you can bet people are searching for it as well. That’s why it’s very wise to make sure your section names use the keywords people are searching for!

For example, if you’re like me and you’ve written WordPress plugins and created a section for them, you should not call that section “WordPress”. What would you search for? “WordPress plugins”, right? So name it that (which doesn’t mean you can’t call it WordPress in your menu structure if that works better, just make sure the page title and breadcrumb links are “WordPress plugins”). You can do quite a bit of research on which keywords people search for. Some freely available tools are:

Pick the right names for your sections and subsections, and you’re halfway there. Now use the same techniques to pick the titles for your pages, and make sure to keep them short and clean. My sections now have names as shown in Figure 3.

Site Structure with Sensible section names

Figure 3: Site Structure with Sensible section names.

Now we’ve covered the two most important parts of defining your site structure, we’ll turn our attention to some other important points to consider.

Other Things to keep in mind

There are another couple of things to keep in mind when working out the structure of your site.

Forums, and other user-controlled content: If one part of your site is producing way more content then another part, and the quality of that highly productive part is poorer, you may not wish to mix the two. For instance, let’s say your front page is like A List Apart, updating every few weeks with very high quality articles gathering loads of links. Another section of your site is your forums section, which produces loads of new threads every day, of questionable quality.

Your forum is probably going to deteriorate the rankings for your front page, because you’re constantly “flowing” ranking strength from your high quality front page into your forums. So the best thing you can do with them is move them to a subdomain of your site.

This is less of a problem when you have a blog on your site, which you control. The quality of that will be less questionable, and you may want those blogposts to rank well.

Redundant categories and tags: Sooner or later you’re going to fall into this trap – I know I have – of having multiple categories on your site/blog, and constantly assigning the same two categories to certain posts. Let’s say you have the “browsers” and “Opera” categories, and Opera is the only browser you write about. Now when you look at the category overview page for the “browsers” category, you will be seeing the exact same content as when you look at the “Opera” category page – the two tags are basically redundant.

When you’re using tags, this happens even more. You’re probably wondering “what’s wrong with that?” Well, let’s say a few people wanted to link to all those posts, because they liked them so much. You’ve just lost control over which category they will link to – the first one might pick the “browsers” category, and the second person might pick the “Opera” category. If this happens multiple times, you’re “throwing away” good links.

Let’s say you have 2 links to your “browsers” category page, and 2 links to your “Opera” category page. A less popular competitor has 3 links to his single “browser category” page, because he doesn’t have a redundant “Opera” category. In a real simple world where every link is equal, your competitor would now rank above you.

It’s very important to make sure you’re not showing the same content on multiple pages, because that’s not helping your rankings. I create a tag optimization tool that can help you solve issues like these.

Internal link structure

If you did it all right with your new site structure, it should look like a pyramid. Now you should consider how you’re going to connect the sections of this pyramid together. Look at those sections as small pyramids inside your larger pyramid. Each page in the top of that pyramid should link to all its sub pages, and the other way around.

Because you’re linking from pages that are closely related to each other content-wise, you’re increasing your site’s possibility to rank. You’re “helping” the search engine out by showing it what’s related and what isn’t.

Take figure 4 as an example.

Link Structure

Figure 4: You also need to consider how the pages link to each other within each section.

You should make sure you keep your links between each page relevant to those pages. For example, if you linked from subpage 3 to plugin 2 all the time, the search engine might think that subpage 3 was related to plugin 2, whereas it’s only related to plugin 4.

From your new site structure to URLs

Once you’ve created your new site structure, you can go forth and create the URLs for this structure. Each page’s URL should describe the content of that page, yet be as short as possible. If you have determined what keywords you want to rank for, you might include the most important ones in your URLs.

Things to keep in mind while implementing your new URLs

  • If you’re using multiple words, separate them with hyphens.
  • Mixed case URLs are an absolute no-no, as Unix and Linux servers are case sensitive. Having mixed case URLs drastically increases the
    possibility of typos – have you ever tried remember a URL that /LoOks/LiKe/ThiS/ ?
  • Numbers might be easy for your CMS, but not for your users. Remembering a URL with a number in it is hard, so the chance people will remember
    it and link to it is smaller – don’t use numbers in URLs.
  • Make URLs guessable if you can. If people can remember your URLs they can also talk about it with their friends more easily.
  • Make sure you redirect all your old pages to their new equivalents using 301 redirects. A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect, and this way
    search engines will move all the link value from the old URL to the new one.
  • Make sure content is available under one URL and one URL only, for example by implementing print stylesheets on your pages. There’s no valid reason anymore to have a different page for printing purposes because all major browsers support print stylesheets.

For more info on URLs and the problems they can cause, see my article on duplicate content.

Conclusion: work on your site structure

A good site structure is a requirement for Search Engine Optimization. It allows both your users and search engines to find content within your site more easily. A good structure is well categorized, and pages within it only link to other pages on the same topic.

Using the right URLs for the pages within that site structure increases the chance that people will remember and link to your URL, and heavily increases your ability to rank in the search engines as well.

Note: I originally wrote this article in October 2007 for dev.opera.com. When I came to the conclusion I needed an article on the topic, I found this old one. Nothing has changed since it’s appearance, so other than adding a a few reference links here and there, I’ve not changed a thing.

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56 Responses

  1. Franklin in TNBy Franklin in TN on 9 February, 2011

    Great post on site structure! The visuals you included helped alot in understanding the proper overall setup and flow. I posts as if I get smarter every time I read your posts. Keep up the great work, thanks Joost!

    • Rob @ Atlanta Real EstateBy Rob @ Atlanta Real Estate on 18 February, 2011

      What are your thoughts on directory depths?

      For example, home/code/tool-1/ do you fel tool-1 being that deep makes it harder to get ranked by google?

      I do.

  2. AndorBy Andor on 9 February, 2011

    Thanks for that highly informative article.
    Site Structure is really an important topic and should received attention from the beginning.
    Thanks for the examples.

  3. BronsonBy Bronson on 9 February, 2011

    Great advice.

    A little planning upfront can not only help you nail a site structure that’s easy to navigate and makes seo sense, but can make the site a lot easier to manage as well.

    This is one part of site building which I find is often overlooked – the content heirarchy.

  4. Jerry MacnamaraBy Jerry Macnamara on 9 February, 2011

    Excellent work. If you don’t have access to Visio, we like to use Freemind (open source=free) to do our site structures. We are also able to keep track of the keywords we are targeting at the same time with each content piece we write. This provides us with excellent clarity for cross-linking and for link building consistency. You have to be careful of over-optimizing, but it works for us.

    And, you’re right: having a visual representation of the “heft” associated with each section ensures that you have a logical and valid site structure (without duplication issues to split links). A great help!

    Thanks, Joost!

    Cheers-
    -jmac

  5. AmorBy Amor on 10 February, 2011

    Great structure of contents. Thank you for incorporating the graphs, they have been of great help

  6. Wasim IsmailBy Wasim Ismail on 10 February, 2011

    Good structure will not just help in SEO, but also it will assist your visitors to easily get around your site, and also for you as an admin, it will make your life much easier when you come to update sections of your site, modules, and other elements…etc If you get the foundation right everything else will be much easier.

  7. Jeff McNeillBy Jeff McNeill on 10 February, 2011

    Thanks Yoast. Good old information architecture is still valid. Glad to hear it and thanks for the helpful reminder.

  8. Ronen BekermanBy Ronen Bekerman on 10 February, 2011

    Great article!

    I been pondering a re-structure for some time now and this comes at the right time :-)

    You posted sometime ago about converting blog posts into pages… I wonder how does that work with the site structure you showcase here.

    If i have a post category like tutorials and gathered a large amount of them and they are popular – is it best to make them as pages under a section named “Tutorials” rather then keep the as single post in a wordpress category?

    Or a section could be a page or a category and that will be the same thing SEOwize?

    Keep up the good work :-)

    • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 10 February, 2011

      Creating a Tutorials section could indeed be a pretty good idea, the advantage of making pages out of these things is that you have the option to remove the comments and make the page a bit more targetted towards certain keywords.

      • Ronen BekermanBy Ronen Bekerman on 10 February, 2011

        Cool. What will I do with the comments though? Most of them are very informative and add value to the tutorial itself.

        • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 10 February, 2011

          Work them into the tutorial, linking back to the commenter. The process can also be:

          - make a new tutorial page
          - move content from post to tutorial page
          - update old post to say “find tutorial here” and keep the comments

          Optional step:
          - make new tutorial page use old tutorial post URL

  9. Kishore MylavarapuBy Kishore Mylavarapu on 10 February, 2011

    This is a new and great article.

  10. michaelBy michael on 10 February, 2011

    while the pages and subpages might seem cleanly ‘ isolated ‘ in the diagram – they are all still connected to the other parts via a typically sidebar or header menu. Do I just live with that ? or do you incorporate different sidebars into the different sections of the site ?

  11. CatBy Cat on 10 February, 2011

    Really Good Article! Thanks also for showing some cool graphics !

  12. AlexisBy Alexis on 10 February, 2011

    The website structure is indeed crucial. For newbies it may be less relevant untill they get stuck.
    Thanks.

  13. ralph bredahlBy ralph bredahl on 10 February, 2011

    As a newbie to wordpress I feel overwhelmed at times and do not always grasp the concepts. But at the same time there is always something that I can pickup from every one of your posts. Thanks

  14. John AllenBy John Allen on 10 February, 2011

    Joost, excellent post, I feel having a good site structure is essential for anyone trying to compete for terms on the web.

  15. Marc SaxeBy Marc Saxe on 10 February, 2011

    Joost,

    You keep doing it…coming up with great, intelligent, succinct information. You’re making it hard to ignore your newsletter. I find it useful every issue. This post is so clearly explanatory about site architecture, where few even touch it as a topic.

    Thanks again,

    ms

  16. Marc SaxeBy Marc Saxe on 10 February, 2011

    Hi again Joost,

    Your article describes a “deep site” architecture as opposed to a “flat site” architecture. Rand Fisher at SEOmoz interviewed Danny Sullivan about various SEO issues here at http://bit.ly/eRrDZ8, including “flat” vs. “deep” sites (item #10). I know this was awhile ago.

    But, just wondering what’s changed? Or, do you come down on a different side of this? I’m right in the middle of site design and this topic is VERY relevant.

    BTW, that page has a link back to your firefox plug-in.

  17. JasonBy Jason on 10 February, 2011

    I like it! Really easy to follow. I think a lot of the time it’s hard to plan your site out as you first start. It’s good to take a look at it every once and a while. Reorganize if necessary.

  18. David RadovanovicBy David Radovanovic on 10 February, 2011

    Joost, thanks for your insight. This may be irrelevant though I thought I’d ask anyway. Regarding pages, posts, categories, links, link categories: does your logic apply to all? In other words, does it matter which is being used since all have dynamic content? Does each (posts, pages, etc.) appear different to search engines, especially if you’re using permalinks and search engines can’t tell the difference?

  19. Stephen WilliamsBy Stephen Williams on 11 February, 2011

    Excellent post Joost. Very helpful indeed.

  20. Colin PowerBy Colin Power on 11 February, 2011

    This was just so spot on for me at the moment…

    I was looking at launching new products / sites and only yesterday was working on the structure (feeling like I was chasing my tail).

    Thanks for clearing the fog.

  21. Bradley DavisBy Bradley Davis on 11 February, 2011

    It is also a good idea to show your map to the client, that way they not only learn about what you do, but also have a visual presentation of the current and future state of their site.

  22. Jacob CarvidgeBy Jacob Carvidge on 12 February, 2011

    This is why I subscribe to your blog, Joost. What I’d like to understand more in depth is how to use SEO titles. Should the name of the blog be included in the title for category pages? What about tags and archives?

  23. swarnimaBy swarnima on 12 February, 2011

    this is really good information, Though we know it but rarely do practices it. Thanks again for this writeup

  24. kerryBy kerry on 12 February, 2011

    hot topic on seo but definitely useful to every blogers who wish a high rank website.

  25. Rich KentBy Rich Kent on 13 February, 2011

    Good stuff as always Joost. I’ll have to rethink the way my site is put together – based on your image it could use work!

  26. Haseeb JamalBy Haseeb Jamal on 13 February, 2011

    Before reading this article i thought linking to every page from every page was a good idea for more of the content pages to be indexed…..:-(

  27. Engineering EncyclopediaBy Engineering Encyclopedia on 13 February, 2011

    Surely a great article with so illustrated examples. SEO site structure can be sooo simple, i couldnt even imagine. I thought otherwise

  28. Freddy @ In Marketing We TrustBy Freddy @ In Marketing We Trust on 14 February, 2011

    Thanks for the Post Joost.

    Just implemented some interlinking for one of my client site. Big work, lot of pages, I ran into a dilema as to where should i cut the interlinking. How deep should you start? And what if some cat correspond to multiple themes:

    Theme1 | Theme 2 | Theme 3
    Cat1| Cat2| Cat3| Cat4| Cat5|

  29. SethBy Seth on 14 February, 2011

    Yoast, if a site has many pages, but they are being utilized that much, but would be more suitable as blog posts, would you recommend rebranding them as posts instead of pages?

  30. Jennifer AlmeeBy Jennifer Almee on 14 February, 2011

    This post gives the light in which we can observe the reality. this is very nice one and gives indepth information. thanks for sharing this nice article

  31. Jake EatonBy Jake Eaton on 15 February, 2011

    awesome post. I never relised how navigation affects the users and search engines.

  32. Vlad RascanuBy Vlad Rascanu on 15 February, 2011

    Great post, but I would also like to add something if I may. Site structure is really important for Search Engine crawlers and so it is best to try and not make the site structure too deep to allow the crawlers to go trough all the content and make sure they index all the pages. If the crawler has to go past 3 lawyers and the pages are not linked properly, the crawler may eventually stop indexing your pages.

  33. David RadovanovicBy David Radovanovic on 15 February, 2011

    Vlad, good point. I’ve been debating for several years to buy a very impressive suite from PowerMapper Software. I finally did it! I purchased the SortSite and PowerMapper Bundle. It’s a bit pricey though worth it. Unlike Visio which is also a great piece of software, theses two apps are easy to understand with a very small learning curve. — BTW, I do not work for these folks nor have any affiliation.

  34. Tammy LenskiBy Tammy Lenski on 15 February, 2011

    Joost, this was incredibly helpful to my thinking. I just went through the exercise you described and it left me with some new clarity.

    The only thing I did a bit differently from what you described is add a little facilitator’s tool from my own toolbox instead of doing it the computer the first time through: I used sticky notes and a blank wall to arrange and rearrange them. For some learners and thinking, the tangible sticky note and the ability to move around in the space can help creative thinking.

  35. Deborah CarraroBy Deborah Carraro on 15 February, 2011

    Site structure is a key area to look at when designing your sites and blogs. And it’s never too late to restructure if you’ve not given thought to it before. The visuals really help!

  36. DerekBy Derek on 16 February, 2011

    Great post. I feel like a lot of this information is stuff I’ve known, but it’s easy to forget / ignore it.

    This is a great reminder to go back and fix the simple stuff for huge returns down the road.

    Love the graphics by the way, very well done.

  37. MarcBy Marc on 16 February, 2011

    Here’s the critical counter-intuitive:

    While you’ve got to structure your site logically like this, you have to actually build it in reverse.

    The sub-pages end up being the ones you write first in larger quantities to give ‘rank’ and importance to the ‘higher’ level pages.

    As Google sees more pages linking to these ‘secondary’ higher pages, it’ll think “oh hey, those are more important because so many pages/posts on the site link back to them.

    Finally, the secondary pages link back to your primary home page for a proper tree structure.

    From the outside looking in, it starts at the home page.

    From Google’s perspective it looks at the ‘roots’ of the tree, that is, your tertiary pages to determine which ‘branches’ or secondary pages are most important on your tree.

    Bottom-Line:
    Build strong and plentiful ‘roots’ for your website to have a strong foundation.

  38. DavidBy David on 17 February, 2011

    Excellent post. We often forget the basics and this is the first step in developing a site.

  39. charles van eedenBy charles van eeden on 17 February, 2011

    Information valuable, thanking you. Please assist me with plugins on this page. which plugin do you use for: our sponsers AND Yoast on facebook. I have searched worpress plugins but I could not find ones to do those displays

    regards
    charles

  40. MarkBy Mark on 18 February, 2011

    Great post Yoast. The graphs definitely help to get the message across.

  41. SEO DallasBy SEO Dallas on 22 February, 2011

    Thanks for that highly informative article.
    Site Structure is really an important topic and should received attention from the beginning.
    Thanks for the examples.

  42. BrittaBy Britta on 22 February, 2011

    Hi Joost. I cant remember how I stumbled upon your new SEO plugin. But caught my attention right away and here I am learning even more great stuff. I am very impressed and want to thank you for that essential advice. I have no idea why in which ever SEO media you look nobody would help you think about the structure of your site. I am learning the heard way. I recently changed my sites structure and dropped from 3rd place on page one to nowhere in Google. I have 1730 Google-indexed links! And I know they are do to with having a home page (now) and my main content listed on a separate page (now). And I still have no idea who to change everything. But, I will follow your advice and try to re-structure my stuff. I might come back for more advice if necessary–help appreciated! Thanks again.

  43. MonicaBy Monica on 23 February, 2011

    Great post on site architecture – been researching this for a while now and I like Fig4 Internal Link Structure I’ve seen so many instances of this going wrong so this visualisation will really help. Thanks

  44. Paul WrightBy Paul Wright on 25 February, 2011

    Nice article I really like the diagrams you used it makes it easy to see how to lay out a website.

  45. Alberto RodriguezBy Alberto Rodriguez on 26 February, 2011

    Hi,

    I just found your site and let me tell you it is impressive. Even more is the knowledge you share!

    I’ve been working into improve my SEO skills and this has come to me extremely handy. Also, I know some friends who might get some insight from this post and thats wy I took the initiative to translate it to spanish. Don’t worry, I linked you back.

    If you consider this to be too much of a problem or maybe there are some copyright infringemente, just let me know. In any case, the translation was posted on my personal blog (URL: http://www.artifexweb.com/albertor/2011/02/25/estructura-inteligente-para-un-mejor-seo/)

    I hope there is so much I can learn from people like you.

    Regards/AR

  46. MikeBy Mike on 26 February, 2011

    Hi,

    Thanks for the structured formatting advice – funny that ages ago when I started designing with Frontpage, the navigation structure looked very much like what you present now – have sorta missed that over the years – back to basics I guess.

  47. NikunjBy Nikunj on 27 February, 2011

    really great post Joost, I was really getting confused about structuring my links on my upcoming blog, this article has made many things clear, now I will be more focused, to create a proper site structure using your advice.

    Thanks :)

  48. divhaxBy divhax on 3 March, 2011

    a good site structure building is a must in developing a website, nice post Joost! with a great graphics too :D

  49. RaviBy Ravi on 4 March, 2011

    Hi Joost, thanks for the useful article.

    WordPress codex advised on using a number in the URL structure for better performance when the site grows.

    “For performance reasons, it is not a good idea to start your permalink structure with the category, tag, author, or postname fields.”

    http://codex.wordpress.org/Using_Permalinks

    What’s your take?

  50. Marc SaxeBy Marc Saxe on 9 March, 2011

    Hi Joost,

    Interesting article in Website Magazine, at http://bit.ly/dXydx9 called “SEO and Directory Depth Factors” that studied both Google and Bing search results. They were measuring the directory level compared to search results.

    You might want to check it out.

    MS

    • Marc SaxeBy Marc Saxe on 9 March, 2011

      Here’s a little more info from the article:

      “What we are ultimately trying to find out in a current analysis of depth in relation to SEO is whether it is best to place optimized pages higher in the site architecture or lower and within subdirectories (which obviously provides opportunities to present relevance cues to both search engines and users in the form of keywords).”

      My conclusion is that their numbers show that your optimized page is more likely to get higher results placement if it is within the root directory.

      They don’t come out and specifically say it. You’ll want to read it yourself to verify my conclusion.

  51. ElegantCoderBy ElegantCoder on 9 March, 2011

    Thank you for the great posting!
    I translated this post into Korean. The translation is posted on my blog.

    You may see it here:
    http://elco.tistory.com/entry/site-structure-seo

    If you mind, i’ll remove the translation. Please reply me. Thank you.