“Out of chaos comes order.”
…said no webmaster ever. Actually, it was Friedrich Nietzsche who said it—someone who clearly never designed a website. If he had, he might have reconsidered his statement.
Your website needs to be organized—otherwise, chaos will reign. No matter how eye-catching its visual layout may be, graphics won’t compensate for a back end that’s in utter disarray. It’s not unlike a fancy sports car with a neglected engine: The paint job may be immaculate, but if things are a mess under the hood, it pretty much defeats the purpose. After all, like a vehicle, a website isn’t just there to look nice—it needs to perform, and few factors affect website performance more than organization.
In particular, it’s important to pay attention to your website’s internal structure, which is the foundation of its organization. In this article, we’ll provide an overview of the key aspects of website structure, including:
- Cornerstone content
Understanding website structure
Virtually all websites are structured in a top-down fashion, starting with a homepage and descending into categories, subcategories and individual posts. This hierarchy functions both as the building blocks of a site and a schema by which all its content is organized.
An organized website structure is important for a few reasons. First, it helps the site owner keep track of their content by providing a coherent system of organization. Second, it improves the site’s usability on the front end by allowing users to easily navigate from one page to another. Third, it helps with SEO by enabling search engine crawlers to seamlessly crawl through, evaluate and index the site’s content.
Now, let’s get into the aspects of website structure.
On a typical business website, you’ll see a menu of landing pages with labels like “Products,” “Services” and “Blog.” These are the site’s main categories. Often, these initial menu options will drop down to more specific subcategories, such as the various types of products and services offered. In this way, categories form the backbone of a website’s hierarchical structure.
Besides keeping content organized on the back end, categories help users and search engines make sense of the site. They also bring other SEO benefits, such as preventing individual posts from competing with each other. Let’s say you sell organizational products: if you have 20 posts tagged with the keyword “fireproof file cabinets,” they’re each going to vie for position in search engine results pages (SERPs). To prevent this, you can file these posts under the category of “fireproof file cabinets” and tag each with more specific keywords (such as “4 drawer vertical fireproof file cabinet” or “2 drawer lateral fireproof file cabinet”). Having category pages and individual posts respectively competing for more general and specific terms in this way will create a more dynamic keyword campaign.
Due to the important role categories play in site organization and SEO, you need to be deliberate when creating yours. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Categories should start general (“products”) and get more specific (“file cabinets”) as they descend into subcategories and sub-subcategories.
- Avoid having too many categories. Typically, a site should have between two and seven primary categories. An excess of categories usually means there’s a lack of focus or the site has too broad of a scope.
- Categories should be roughly equivalent in size—that is, one category shouldn’t house 85 percent of your content. If you find that one of your categories is too large, consider dividing into two categories (just make sure you redirect the affected page URLs as needed).
- Optimize your category pages by adding some introductory content and links directing users toward the best related articles or products. This can help reduce bounce rates by encouraging users to stay and see more of your site.
Tags allow you to link posts of various topics together at a more specific level than the categories or subcategories they fall under. The tricky thing about tags is that unlike categories and subcategories, they don’t adhere to a hierarchy, which means if you aren’t careful, they can fall into total anarchy. To prevent this, follow these guidelines when tagging posts:
- Be intentional. People often tag posts with whatever comes to mind in the moment, but a better strategy is to think about them in advance. Be sure to use one or more of your targeted keywords in each post.
- Use tags recurrently. Again, one of the best uses for tags is to group products and content that belong together. If you create a unique tag for each piece, there will be no organization.
- Don’t tag posts with the same word as the category it’s in. For example, tagging a post with “file cabinets” that’s already in your “file cabinets” category is redundant and won’t help with SEO.
- Don’t overdo it. Tagging your post with every term under the sun won’t help your search ranking, it’ll only water down your keyword campaign. Keep it simple and specific, focusing on your target keywords.
- Keep track of your tags, whether by logging them in a spreadsheet or using a WordPress theme that displays them. You should also make your tags visible to users, whether at the top, bottom or side margin of the article, as this will allow them to easily find other articles on similar topics.
In addition to being organized by categories and tags, your site’s content should be shot through with links. You should have links at every level, pointing in all directions, from category pages to subordinate posts and vice versa. A rich internal link structure enhances usability and SEO by creating more avenues for users and search engine crawlers to traverse your site’s content. Consider using a plug-in to help you keep track of your links; by allowing you to see which links are pointing where, it’ll help you identify and address deficiencies in your internal link structure.
When a first-time user visits your site, you want them to see your best content pieces upfront—those which most confidently express your business’ mission and/or field of specialty. This is your cornerstone content. As the pieces you’re trying to rank for in SERPs, your cornerstone content should be situated near the top of your site’s structure, be heavily focused on your competitive keywords and have several internal links pointing toward it. Considering this criteria, category pages often make great cornerstone content, but blog articles can work as well. In general, your site’s cornerstone content should consist of four or five content pieces, so pick your best and get optimizing.
“Slug” is web lingo for the tail end of a webpage’s URL. For example, in the URL organizationalproducts.com/file-cabinets, “file-cabinets” is the slug. Slugs provide yet another way to organize your site’s structure and content. The key is to have them follow your site’s hierarchy. Say the page that displays your fireproof file cabinets has a URL like organizationalproducts.com/file-cabinets/fireproof-file-cabinets. This hierarchical designation allows users and search engine crawlers alike to clearly see where the page sits within your site’s overall structure.
Like any business, yours is liable to change, which means your site structure may need to change as well. That’s why it’s good to periodically revisit your site and make sure it still reflects your goals and focus. If your products no longer fit within your menu or you’re writing about new topics that don’t have a parent category, it’s probably time to update things. Don’t be afraid to alter your categories—just keep in mind that you may need to re-link some of your existing content so users and search engines can still find them. Likewise, don’t hesitate to remove content that has ceased to be relevant (like a discontinued product). If you have valuable links to that page, simply redirect the URL (301), either to the page or product that replaced it or to a related blog post or category page. That way, you’ll keep the benefits of those links without having a bunch of outdated content lying around.
As you can see, organization is a must for website design and management. By establishing order at the outset and maintaining it as you go along, you can curb the chaos and ensure your site performs as well as it looks.
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Read the previous article in our SEO for SMBs series.