Your site needs to have a defined structure, because without it, it’ll just be a random collection of pages and blog posts. Your users need this structure to navigate on your site, to click from one page to another. Google also uses the structure of your site to determine what content is important and what is less relevant. This guide tells you everything you need to know about site structure.
Why is your site structure important?
Structuring your website is crucial for both its usability and findability. Many sites lack a sound structure to guide visitors to the information they’re looking for. Having a clear site structure also leads to a better understanding of your site by Google, so it’s incredibly important for your SEO. Let’s take a closer look at how this works.
Importance for usability
The structure of your website has a significant impact on the experience for your visitors (UX). If visitors can’t find the products and information they’re looking for, it’s not very likely they’ll become regular visitors or customers. In other words, you should help them navigate your site. A good site structure will help with this.
Navigating should be easy. You need to categorize and link your posts and products so they are easy to find. New visitors should be able to instantly grasp what you’re writing about or selling.
Importance for SEO
A solid site structure vastly improves your chances of ranking in search engines. There are three main reasons for this:
a. It helps Google ‘understand’ your site
The way you structure your site will give Google vital clues about where to find the most valuable content on your site. It helps search engines understand what your site mainly is about or what you’re selling. A decent site structure also enables search engines to find and index content quickly. A good structure should, therefore, lead to a higher ranking in Google.
b. It prevents you from competing with yourself
On your site, you might have blog posts that are quite similar. If, for example, you write a lot about SEO, you could have multiple blog posts about site structure, each covering a different aspect. Consequently, Google won’t be able to tell which of these pages is the most important, so you’ll be competing with your own content for a high ranking in Google. You should let Google know which page you think is most important. You need a good internal linking and taxonomy structure to do this, so all those pages can work for you, instead of against you.
c. It deals with changes on your website
The products you sell in your shop likely evolve over time. So does the content you’re writing. You probably add new product lines as old stock sells out. Or you write new articles that make old ones redundant. You don’t want Google to show outdated products or deleted blog posts, so you need to deal with these kinds of changes in the structure of your site.
How to set up the structure of your site
So, how do you construct a solid site structure? First, we’ll look at an ideal site structure; then we’ll explain how to achieve this for your own site.
Ideal site structure
Let’s start by looking at an ideal situation: if you’re starting from scratch, how should you organize your site? We think a well-organized website looks like a pyramid with a number of levels:
2. Categories (or sections)
3. Subcategories (only for larger sites)
4. Individual pages and posts
The homepage should be all the way at the top. Then, you have some sections or category pages beneath it. You should be able to file all of your content under one of these categories. If your site is larger, you can divide these sections or categories into subcategories as well. Beneath your categories or subcategories are your individual pages and posts.
On top of the pyramid is the homepage. Your homepage should act as a navigation hub for your visitors. This means, amongst others, that you should link to your most important pages from your homepage. By doing this:
1. Your visitors are more likely to end up on the pages you want them to end up on;
2. You show Google that these pages are important.
Further down this article, we’ll help you determine which of your pages are essential to your business.
Beware not to try to link to too many pages from your homepage, because that will cause clutter. And a cluttered homepage doesn’t guide your visitors anywhere. If you want to optimize your homepage further, there are a lot of other things you can do.
In addition to having a well-structured homepage, it’s also important to create a clear navigation path on your site. Your site-wide navigation consists of two main elements: the menu and the breadcrumbs.
First, let’s take a look at the menu. The website menu is the most common aid for navigation on your website and you want to make the best possible use of it. Visitors use your menu to find things on your website. It helps them understand the structure of your website. That’s why the main categories on your site should all have a place in the menu on your homepage.
Furthermore, it’s not always necessary to put everything in just one menu. If you have a big site with lots of categories, this may clutter your website and makes your main menu a poor reflection of the rest of your site. Where it makes sense, it’s perfectly fine to create a second menu.
For instance, eBay has one menu at the top of the page – also called the top bar menu – and in addition to that, a main menu. This top bar menu links to important pages that aren’t categories in the shop, like pages that have to do with the visitor’s personal account on the site. The main menu reflects the most important product categories on eBay.
Finally, just like on your homepage, you shouldn’t add too many links to your menu. If you do, they will become less valuable, both for your users and for search engines.
You can make your site’s structure even clearer by adding breadcrumbs to your pages. Breadcrumbs are clickable links that are usually visible at the top of a page or post. Breadcrumbs reflect the structure of your site. They help visitors determine where they are on your site. They improve both the user experience as well as the SEO of your site, as you can read in Edwin’s guide on breadcrumbs.
If you use a WordPress site, you can use one of the many breadcrumb plugins that are available.
WordPress uses so-called taxonomies to group content (other CMSs often have similar systems). The word ‘taxonomy’ is basically a fancy term for a group of things – website pages, in this case – that have something in common. This is convenient because people looking for more information on the same topic will be able to find similar articles more easily. You can group content in different ways. The default taxonomies in WordPress are categories and tags.
You should divide the blog posts or products on your site into a number of categories. If these categories grow too big, you should divide these categories into subcategories, to clear things up again. For example, if you have a clothing store and you sell shoes, you can decide to divide this category into a number of subcategories: ‘boots’, ‘heels’, and ‘flats’. All of these subcategories contain products, in this case shoes, of that specific type.
Adding this hierarchy and categorizing to your pages helps your user and Google make sense of every single page you write. When implementing your category structure, make sure to add your main categories to the main menu of your site.
Your site’s structure will also benefit from adding tags. The difference between a category and a tag mostly has to do with structure. Categories are hierarchical: you can have subcategories and even sub-subcategories. Tags, however, don’t have that hierarchy. Tags just say: “Hey, this article or product has a certain property that might be interesting for a visitor.” Think of it like this: categories are the table of contents of your website, and tags are the index. A tag for the online clothing store mentioned above could be a brand, for instance, Timberlands.
Try not to create too many tags. If you add a new unique tag to every post or article, you’re not structuring anything. Make sure each tag is used at least twice, and that your tags group articles that genuinely belong together.
Some WordPress themes display tags with each post, but some don’t. Make sure your tags are available to your visitors somewhere, preferably at the bottom of your article or in the sidebar. Google isn’t the only one that likes tags: they are useful for your visitors too, who may want to read more about the same topic.
Contextual internal linking
Site structure is all about grouping and linking the content on your site. Until now, we mostly discussed so-called classifying links: links on your homepage, in your navigation and taxonomies. Contextual links, on the other hand, are internal links within the copy on your pages that refer to other pages within your site. For a link to be contextual, the page you link to should be relevant for someone reading the current page. If you look at the previous paragraph, for instance, we link to a post about tagging, so people can learn more about it if they’re interested.
Your most important pages are probably often very relevant to mention on several pages across your site, so you’ll link to them most often. Just remember that not only the page you’re linking to is relevant, the context of the link is important as well.
Google uses the context of your links to gather information about the page you’re linking to. It always used the anchor text (or link text) to understand what the page you’re linking to is about. But the anchor text isn’t the only thing Google looks at. Nowadays, it also considers the content around the link to gather extra information. Google is becoming better at recognizing related words and concepts. Adding links from a meaningful context allows Google to properly value and rank your pages.
Contextual linking for blogs
For blogs you should write extensively on the topics you’d like to rank for. You should write some main articles (your cornerstone articles) and write various posts about subtopics of that topic. Then link from these related posts to your cornerstone articles, and from the cornerstone articles back to related posts. In this way, you’ll make sure that your most important pages have both the most links and the most relevant links.
The following metaphor might help you understand this principle: Imagine you’re looking at a map of a state or country. You’ll probably see many small towns and some bigger cities. All towns and cities will be interconnected somehow. You’ll notice that small towns often have roads leading to the big cities. Those cities are your cornerstones, receiving the most links. The small towns are your posts on more specific topics. There are some roads (links) leading to these smaller towns, but not as much as to the big cities.
Contextual linking opportunities for online shops
Contextual internal linking works differently on an online shop with very few to no pages that are exclusively meant to inform. You don’t explore a specific topic on your product pages: you’re selling a product. Therefore, on product pages, you mostly want to keep people on a page and convince them to buy the product. Consequently, contextual linking is far less prominent in this context. You generally shouldn’t add contextual links to your product descriptions, because it could lead to people clicking away from the page.
There are just a couple of meaningful ways of adding contextual links to your product pages:
1. link from a product bundle page to the individual products
2. a ‘related items’ or ‘compare with similar items’ section
3. a ‘customers also bought’ section
4. a ‘product bundles’ or ‘frequently bought together’ section.
Landing pages are the pages you want your audience to find when they search for specific keywords you’ve optimized for. For instance, we want people who search for ‘free SEO training’ to end up on the page about our free training called ‘SEO for beginners’. You need to approach the content of your most important landing pages differently than your other, regular pages.
Here, we’ll discuss two types of landing pages: cornerstone pages and product landing pages. They’re both pages you’d like people to land on from the search engines, but they require quite a different approach. But first, we’ll shortly go into search intent, because you have to know what your audience is really looking for.
When setting up your site structure, you need to think about search intent. It’s about what you think people are looking for when they enter a query into a search engine. What do people want to find? And: what do they expect to find?
Take the time to think about different possibilities in search intent, as you might want to cater to different types on your site. Are people just looking for an answer to a question or a definition? Are they comparing products before purchase? Or, are they intending to buy something right away? This is often reflected in the type of query they make. You can also use the search results pages to create intent-based content.
When you have idea of the search intent it’s essential to make sure your landing page fits the search intent of your audience. Pages can answer more than one search intent, but you need a clear view for at least your most important pages.
Cornerstone content pages
Cornerstone articles are the most important informational articles on your website. Their focus is to provide the best and most complete information on a particular topic, their main goal is not to sell products.
Because of this focus, we usually think of blogs when talking about cornerstone content. Of course, that doesn’t mean it can only be a blog post. All different kinds of websites have cornerstone articles! Rule of thumb: if an article brings everything you know about a broad topic together, it’s a cornerstone content article.
Product landing pages
Product landing pages significantly differ from cornerstone articles. The latter are lengthy, where product landing pages shouldn’t be that long. Rather than complete articles, they should be focused. These pages only need to show what your visitors need to know to be convinced. They don’t need to hold all the information.
You obviously want to rank with these pages though, and that means they need content. Enough content for Google to understand what the page is about and what keyword it should rank for. Where cornerstone articles could be made up by thousands of words, a couple of hundreds could be enough for product landing pages. The main focus of the content should be on your products.
Maintaining your site structure
Structuring or restructuring your content doesn’t always have high priority within everything you have to do. Especially when you blog a lot, or add other content regularly, it might feel like a chore. Although it isn’t always fun, you have to do it, or your website might become a mess. To prevent that from happening, you need to not only fix your site structure but keep an eye on it while adding new content. Site structure should definitely be part of your long-term SEO strategy.
Evaluate your menu
When your business goal or website changes, your menu also needs to change. When you start thinking about restructuring your site, planning things visually will pay off. Make a flowchart.
Start with your new menu one or two levels deep and see if you can fit in more of the pages you have created over the years. You’ll find that some pages are still valid, but don’t seem relevant for your menu anymore. No problem, just be sure to link to them on related pages and in your sitemaps, so that Google and your visitors can still find these pages. The flowchart will also show you any gaps in the site structure.
Rethink your taxonomy
Creating an overview of your categories, subcategories and products or posts will also help you to rethink your site’s taxonomy. This could be a simple spreadsheet, but you can use more visual tools like LucidChart or MindNode too.
Do your product categories and subcategories still provide a logical overview of your product range or your posts and pages? Perhaps you’ve noticed somewhere down the line that one category has been far more successful than others, or maybe you wrote a lot of blog posts on one subject and very few on others.
If one category grows much larger than others, your site’s pyramid could be thrown off balance. Think about splitting this category into different categories. But, if some product lines end up much smaller than others, you might want to merge them. Don’t forget to redirect the ones you delete.
In the unlikely event you have built your HTML sitemap manually, update that sitemap after changing your site structure. In the far more likely event you have an XML sitemap, re-submit it to Google Search Console.
Clean up outdated content
Some outdated articles you might be able to update and republish, to make them relevant again. If an article is outdated but no one reads it anyway, you might opt for getting rid of it altogether. This could clean up your site nicely.
What you should know in that case, is that you should never just delete a page or article. If Google cannot find the page it serves your user a 404 error page. Both the search engine and your visitor will see this error message saying the page doesn’t exist, and that is a bad experience and thus, bad for your SEO.
Be smart about this! You need to properly redirect the URL of the page you’re deleting, so your user (and Google) lands on a different page that is relevant to them. That could even improve your SEO!
Avoid keyword cannibalization
Your website is about a specific topic, which could be quite broad or rather specific. While adding content, you should be aware of keyword cannibalization. If you’re optimizing your articles for keywords that are all too similar, you’ll be devouring your own chances of ranking in Google. If you optimize different articles for similar key terms, you’ll be competing with yourself, and it’ll make both pages rank lower.
If you suffer from keyword cannibilization you’ll have some work to do. In short, you should research the performance of your content, and probably merge and redirect some of it.
Site structure: in short
As we have seen, there are several reasons why site structure is important. Good site structure helps both your visitors and Google navigate your site. It makes it easier to implement changes and prevents competing with your own content. So use the tips and pointers in this guide to check and improve your site structure. That way, you’ll stay on top of things and keep your website from growing out of control!