March 22, 2017 | Sarah Danks
And What Does it Have to do With SEO?
What we call “website architecture” here at ThinkSEM others might refer to as “information architecture.” And that’s okay (because I say it is).
Before I launch into my diatribe let me clarify something. When I talk about website architecture I’m referring not only to a) how a website’s content is organized (sitemap, URL structure, flow), but also b) how it’s laid out visually (design, UX).
In this post I’m going to do the following:
- Define website architecture
- Outline how a website’s architecture affects SEO
- Tell you how to best go about creating a solid architecture for any site
Basically, the main things to focus on with architecture is how the content’s organized and how accessible it is to your users.
1) What IS Information/Website Architecture?
So, what is this information/web architecture of which I speak?
You could go directly to the Information Architecture Institute; its definition is a tad too general for my tastes. Instead, I think Search Engine Journal defines it well:
“The way and means by which content on a web site is organized and presented for users and the search engines to be able to easily digest and gain the most value from.”
Hmm — that sounds suspiciously like navigation. So, I’m talking about website navigation, right?
…no! I mean, yes, a site’s navigation is obviously a factor of website architecture, but it isn’t the be-all-end-all.
Over at UX Matters, Nathaniel Davis likens website architecture to an iceberg, with navigation at the tip (what you, the user, actually can SEE), supported from below the surface by an entire host of organization, planning and strategy.
Nielsen Norman Group puts it well:
“When designing a new site, can designers ignore the IA and focus only on the navigation? The answer is no: it’s inefficient and even dangerous to do so. Navigation that does not adequately accommodate the full scope of content and functionality of a site can be very costly.”
But don’t make the mistake of treating website architecture like it’s merely the site navigation, please.
Nor is the architecture merely design elements, although that’s an important aspect, too, according to UXBooth:
“Information architecture focuses on the organization and structure of content in a manner in which a user can navigate through it.”
And it’s not just how the URLs are structured (though from my research into this topic, some seem to think that’s all it is!). Or how the content flows (best practice is broad > narrow).
No, rather, a site’s architecture is all of those things. It’s the building block upon which you’re constructing your foundation; it’s the bones of the operation. And how those bones connect with one another can bring about a beautifully made creation…
…or make it fit for Darwinism.
And, last but not least: with the entire online marketing community dabbling in search optimization, we can’t leave out the SEO piece of the puzzle.
2) How Site Architecture Affects SEO
As search marketers we all know how to “do SEO.” Of course, optimization has drastically changed over the years, but at its core it has the same goal: ensuring a website performs well in search engines. Great. So what does website structure have to do with that?
A lot, actually.
See, the way site architecture is configured determines how individual web pages are found, linked to, accessed, etc. And that’s a big part of search engine optimization. Another aspect of SEO that many people don’t think we search marketers care about?
Usability. That’s right, I said it.
Search Engine Journal says information architects “determine the overall interlinking structure with the goal of creating confidence for both search engines and site visitors by establishing hierarchy and orientation via navigation.”
(There’s that pesky navigation word again.) That’s a fancy way of saying that, done properly, site architecture makes a website’s content easy to find — and navigate — for users AND search engines. Best of both worlds!
And there’s no reason why the people determining site structure and the SEOs (if indeed they’re separate) can’t get along or know best practices in each other’s profession.
It grieves me when I read things like, “Information Architects Are From Venus, SEOs Are From Mars,” because it’s
2015 2016 2017 and search optimization has advanced beyond mere keyword research and link building. I don’t know how many times I’ve said to a web team in the past, “We need a sitemap before we can do ANYTHING else on this website project!”
And, sure, a sitemap isn’t the site’s architecture, but it’s a big part of it. You can’t build a house by sheet rocking before you put up the stud walls; why would you attempt to build a website without having your site architecture laid out first?
(Think that’s a stupid comment? Believe me. I’ve seen it happen oh so many times…)
But I digress.
Site architecture determines a LOT…
Over at WordStream they say site architecture is paramount to SERP performance because it affects important aspects of your website, including:
- Performance in search engines — Setting up proper architecture on your site ensures search engines can find, index and — *sigh* as much as I detest this word — rank your pages.
- Usability — Having a user-friendly site is oh-so-important. If users have a good experience, search engines will also have a good experience. Hashtag winning!
- Conversions — Let’s be honest. The entire point of a website is to convert your users; get them to take some type of action. A site that’s planned, designed, organized and accessible all with the goal of leading users down a conversion path is a site everyone loves (including search engines).
And I entirely agree. If users can’t USE your site, they’re going to be hunting for information…
…and when they can’t find it, they’ll be navigating to ye ole back button.
As search marketers we all know Google’s bots/spiders/crawly thingies love to “emulate human behavior.” I.e., when they get to a site, they move through the content as a human would. Well, if the search spiders can easily access your content, Google assumes ipso facto real humans can easily access your content.
And you get a gold star for the day, congrats you’re on our Love List and oh, by the way, your website has a great chance of showing up well in the SERPs for relevant queries.
So. Now that we’re all in agreement about site architecture and its role in search optimization, how do we go about ensuring each and every site we build has optimal structure?
Well, I’ll tell you.
3) How to Create Stellar Site Architecture
From the way you organize your site content, to the way you build out URLs, to the navigation you use and the design used to display it all, website architecture plays a major role not only in usability, but also in the way search engines index and then display your content (read: whether or not you show up in the SERPs).
But how to go about crafting said architecture? Easy!
Step 1: Theme
First and foremost, you need to know what your website is about overall. It’s about books? Great. Next step.
Step 2: Categories
Organize all the content into categories. At a bookstore you wouldn’t expect to see an autobiography shelved right next to a cookbook that was adjacent to a coffee table book, right? Psh.
Nope. You want to organize the content on your website just like a bookstore — put like with like on the book cases. Okay, for sake of the web argument we’ll call them categories.
And, while you’re doing this, keep in mind which of your book cases — I mean categories — are the most important. Which ones do you want your visitors to see right away when they come to the site? Figure out which ones count the most (i.e., your highest-ROI products, your strongest services, etc.).
Step 3: Sub-categories
Got your categories laid out? Great. Now, from there, each category can be split into sub-categories to further hone each “book case” into the most specific content possible. I.e., on your poetry book case you’ll of course want to group all the sonnets, haikus, ballads and limericks together on the shelves.
Within THAT grouping you’ll want to put all the sonnets by the same author together, and so forth.
Kinda like this:
(By the by, this is just a visual representation of what the sitemap will look like; this has nothing to do with design, universal navigation, etc. Although, it can help!)
Step 4: Navigation
(To shorten this process into site structure-only, I’m going to assume you’ve already talked to your client about website design elements (or yourself if it’s your own website. ha.).
After you’ve got your sitemap organization laid out, you need to now translate it into a navigation that ensures all pages are accessible in the fewest amount of clicks as possible. Now, don’t link every single page on your site from the home page, but don’t bury content beneath 6, 7, 8, etc. clicks, either.
Why’s that important? Because the more steps — read: clicks — you create to access content, the less important those pages seem to search engines. And, naturally, the harder your web visitors have to work to see that content.
(A good little video on this comes from one of Rand’s Whiteboard Fridays on information architecture and SEO.)
You’ll want to design a universal navigation that displays the most important content prominently, yet still gives access to all pages easily.
You can use a primary nav in conjunction with a secondary nav; top-of-the-page navigation along with a left-hand nav; whatever works the best for your audience (of course, you could test that to be sure you’ve got it right).
The goal of ANY website content — regardless of business goals, whether it’s a lead-generation or ecommerce site, etc. — is to put together a navigation wherein ANY page on the site is accessible with the fewest amount of clicks from any page on the website. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the home page or SERP entry page; you want pages easily accessible from all pages of a site.
Step 5: Internal Links
Remember those categories you denoted as the most important? Well, once your site’s designed and the content’s all written and it’s got all its bells and whistles, you’re going to want to be sure you inter-link related content.
Your universal navigation should ensure you don’t have any self-contained content, but inter-linking between pages just creates a better hierarchy and relationship for related content.
“But, but…if the navigation and site architecture are such that everything’s accessible, why do I need to create links within the page content?” (You whine while pounding your sippy cup on the table.)
Well, because there’ll be content on your site that’s interrelated at some level. So even if a visitor comes in from a search engine query of “the best limericks in the history of ever” and lands on your limericks page, don’t you think said visitor might also be interested in other forms of poetry?
My guess is, yes — believe me, I’ve got some poetry-lover friends and they are NUTS about that stuff — so why not link back to some of the other pages on your site that are related? Visitors like that…
…as do search engines. (And really — isn’t that the entire point?!)
I mean, Google’s own mission statement is:
“…to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible…”
It therefore stands to reason they want all webmasters to grant the same courtesy on each and every website they build. (And, because if The Google says to do it — and you care at all about your site’s performance in the SERPs — then hop to it!)
Website Architecture Recap
One more time, for the cheap seats!
So, to recap, the steps you need to take in order to create a good website architecture are:
- Determine the focus of your website
- Organize all the content into categories
- Within said categories, further break down the content into related sub-categories, sub sub-categories, etc.
- Create a universal navigation that ensures all pages — especially the most important — are easily accessible from any web page
- Inter-link related pages
And don’t forget, the more steps it takes to get to content, the less important that content appears to search engines (and, frankly, visitors).
Easier to remember is: more clicks = less importance.
When people come to a website, they’re looking for information. How do we ensure they can find — and easily access — it all? Ideally all the elements of a site work together to bring design, UX and of course search-ability together. The hinge? Site architecture, of course — the building block of the web.
What’s your process to ensure your site architecture is optimized for SEO?