Summary: Search engine optimization is more than your keywords and content. Your website structure and information architecture impact it as well. Here are three tips to ensure your new website can rank highly on Google.
When you are building a new website for your business, when is the right time to think about SEO?
- When you’re picking out a domain name?
- When you’re installing CMS software?
- When you’re setting up the “about us” page?
- When you start writing blog posts?
The actual correct answer is: before any of those! Even your domain name impacts the success of your SEO strategy. “Chiropractor.com” will get more search hits for “chiropractic clinic” than a domain called “SpinesᴙUs.com.” Most particularly, your website’s information architecture has more impact on your SEO than most people would expect.
We spend a lot of time talking about the “what” of SEO, as in what content to write about or keywords to use, but this time we’re going to talk about “how,” as in “how that content is presented.” Think of it like baking a cake: yes, you could pour your cake batter into a turkey roasting pan and it will bake that way. But you’re better off using a cake pan. You want people to be able to recognize the structure of a cake. It’s usually round, about so high, frosting on top, etc. This isn’t going to change the way the cake tastes, but it will make the cake more convenient to consume because diners won’t have to stop and ask questions first.
There is a reason why things are structured the way they are, as pointed out in The Design of Everyday Things. There is a reason why websites are structured the way they are. Frequently, we run into businesses that produce excellent content but present it on a website that’s downright scary to use. Let’s talk about information architecture and how it supports your SEO strategy:
How Does Information Architecture Impact SEO?
A well-structured website is easy for Google bot-crawlers to navigate and it helps Google understand how to categorize and index your content once it is crawled. It likewise helps users to do business with you and get the information or products they need.
Happy users who can easily navigate your site and find helpful content are more likely to share your website, whether on social or by linking to your website from their own. This signals to Google that your site is useful, and can help increase your rankings. With each passing day, Google is placing more emphasis on a user-friendly web. We’ll go into detail on these points, but let’s first define what a well-structured website is:
- A flat site architecture that’s well linked, so that no pages are more than two to four clicks away from any other page
- Has navigational aids like breadcrumbs, tags, categories, and a menu bar or two
- Fast to load and quick to respond
- Presents the important information clearly and concisely
- Uses headings to designate information hierarchy
- Uses lists to break up information so it’s easily scannable
- Is not too busy and confusing
Having all these aspects in place, a lot of your SEO work is already done for you. In recent years, Google has started placing more emphasis on website structure and user experience (UX), when deciding how to rank a site in search results. Medium content on a site with outstanding structure will fly right over great content on a crummy web dungeon that hasn’t been updated since GeoCities.
Exercise: Mashable has a gallery of snapshots of the front page for Yahoo, from 1996 to 2016. Browse through those and note how the site changed its structure over the years. Yahoo may not be able to get some things right, but over the years, they have paid a lot of attention to structure. Note how its navigation improved over the years, and ask yourself why certain changes appeared. Note when the side menu appears in 2007, and how this swept most of the navigation into a more compact area so the main page can focus on highlighted content.
1. Structure Your Website For the Simplest User
When considering website structure, it’s sometimes helpful to compare it to other ways of storing and retrieving information. Your public library has the Dewey Decimal System so that books are shelved by category. These categories may fill one shelf or a whole section of bookshelves. Then the bookshelves are laid out in sections so that there’s a logical progression through topics. Likewise, there are separate sections for audio CDs, video DVDs, magazines, the Internet center, reference, fiction and non-fiction, and children’s books.
Or think of a file cabinet. It is subdivided into drawers, the drawers are subdivided into sections, the sections are subdivided into folders, and the folders contain organized documents. In the same way, your website’s main page is the “file cabinet,” drawers are replaced by categories and directories. There should be an easy way to hop from one page to another.
Refresh yourself, if need be, on our excellent primer on basic website structure. Even though some of it may seem like basic information, the problem with our path of technology advancement is that everybody assumes you know the basics, but you might not! Thanks to modern content management systems, like WordPress, it is now possible to create an entire website without ever manually typing a single HTML tag. But with that convenience comes this cognitive tax: you don’t know website structure “from the ground up” until you’ve gotten a look at its underlying mechanics.
So, when approaching a new website project or updating your current website, it’s helpful to map out the structure and levels of information. A clean site architecture will help users find information and help search engines crawl and better understand the relation of content on your site.
A simple tiered site structure will help users find information and support your SEO strategy. This structure allows link authority to flow from your popular, well-linked pages to other pages that might not receive as much visibility or links. Think of it as a pyramid with your homepage at the top:
- Your homepage
- Individual pages and posts
Once you really dig into information architecture, it turns out to have a lot more detail and work to it than you’d first imagine. Keep in mind that what makes perfect sense to us high-functioning, veteran web geeks is not so easy to figure out for the average user.
Here is a summary of top tips:
- Use categories and tags for navigation and internal linking / organization
- Be careful to avoid redundant and duplicate content (including from one-post tags or duplicate tags vs. categories in WordPress)
- Use breadcrumbs for category navigation
- Use a menu scheme, such as a numeric pager bar, for large blogs
- Use archives listings for even bigger sites that have been around for a while
- Offer redundant navigation, such as a calendar feature to find content by date, or a “most popular pages” offering in the sidebar
- Provide a site search feature (and make sure it works!)
- Make your “404” page useful by including important links
- Provide Google with your sitemap.xml file
- Perform regular SEO audits to keep your site in navigational shape
Put your site to the “grandma test.” This is why we advocate redundant navigation: Sometimes one style of navigation is easier for some people to use over another. You can even take into account handicapped users: impaired in the abilities of vision, hearing, or mobility, or even having ADHD or other mild disorder. Remember that your user might be tired, in a hurry, distracted, stressed out, or even in a panic trying to find some important information right now. Don’t lose a potential sale because a manager with low blood sugar fifteen minutes before lunch gave up trying to find your appointment dialogue.
Exercise: Bring in somebody who has never used your website before, and try them out on goals within your site, such as “find the blog post on this topic” or “find out the pricing structure for our subscription service.” Time them, by stopwatch, and watch what issues they encounter along the way.
2. Overhauling the Website? Have a Migration Strategy!
Website migration does not necessarily apply to just switching to a different domain or web host. It applies whenever you are changing your site structure in deep, fundamental ways. Whenever you move things around, or change something major, that counts as a migration.
One example is if you have not yet changed your site to the “HTTPS” protocol over the old “HTTP,” and have to update all the internal links so they use “HTTPS” too. Another example is porting your site from WordPress to Drupal. Or you’re making a major repair to your UX to bring it up to Core Web Vitals specs (we cover that down there in a minute).
Your migration strategy should look roughly like this:
- Planning: We will change from this thing to this other thing, how do we transition smoothly?
- Pre-launch Prep: Have the new structure loaded up and ready to go before it’s made “live” on the web, so you can check and test for potential problems.
- Navigation Salvage: Have redirects in place to automatically send users (and Google) from old pages to the new pages
- Migration Launch: The big move, with plenty of hands-on deck to make the transition disrupt as little traffic as possible.
- Post-migration Traffic Review: Load up some traffic analysis software and check for red flags, sharp traffic drops, or error reports.
Remember that we serve two entities here, the user base and Google’s search crawlers. Both human and bot have to find their way around. As we mentioned in a previous step, SEO audits are also your friend here.
Exercise: Visit a long-standing website (yours, or something else if your site is young) on the Wayback Machine. Visit both a recent capture and an old capture from months or years ago. Notice the changes to structure that older sites have gone through. Do the links still work? Was the capture crawler able to get the whole website snapshot or did it cut short? How easily could a crawler get lost going from the 2010 version to the 2019 version of the site?
3. Make Your Site Simple and Efficient
As we’ve mentioned before, web practices have changed over the years.
Things we used to do on the web that we don’t do now:
- Auto-play media files on page load
- Navigation with wacky image button schemes
- Animated GIFs
- Adobe Flash (which is finally, officially dead.)
- Static web pages
- Embedded Java
- Complicated CSS designs
- Comic Sans font
- Site hit counters
- Having most of the content in PDF documents
Just typing that list in gave us brain damage. Some of our older web veterans still have PTSD flashbacks about how terrible the web used to look.
The point is that using a website for a personal artistic canvas works great for angsty teenagers discovering themselves on their Tumblr blogs and DeviantArt accounts, but it’s not suited for business. More importantly, the web is now at least 50% mobile users globally, and some websites, such as Facebook, report 90% mobile users. Phones have smaller screens than laptops and desktops, so that makes for far less real estate to show off flashy graphics. Phones and tablets also have lighter hardware specs than their roomier equivalents, while also depending on cellular bandwidth, so heavy websites with big files load too slow on pocket devices.
The bottom line is: if you’re in business, you want boring old minimalist web design. Google’s launch of Core Web Vitals in 2021 makes this even more necessary because Google will start penalizing websites that don’t play nice with mobile.
There’s a number of other reasons why a plain web design in better for SEO:
- Too much multimedia content with too little text gets indexed poorly in search
- Users who are confused or frustrated will bounce right away and signal to Google that your website is not useful
- Too much style and not enough substance is not user-friendly
- Plain text links are the navigation standard that Google expects
- Funky fonts and weird color schemes look like garbage on mobile
- Users have come to expect a minimalist design standard for business websites
Remember that keeping users happy is part of SEO too, because happy users have high dwell times on your site, leave good reviews on Google My Business, share your site on social media, link to your content enthusiastically from their own blogs, and signal to Google with their behavior that your site is good stuff. Refer to our big post on UX design concepts, and our smaller post on UX copywriting. We don’t have much for action items here since this is more about what not to do. If you’re using your CMS software with minimal changes out of the box (some theming and your logo at the top is OK), you’re likely doing it right.
Exercise: Visit the Geocities gallery archive. It’s a museum of personal web pages from the old Geocities site. Marvel at the Area 51 Matrix, cringe at the anime in Tokyo Pagoda and gawp at the chaotic anarchy that was College Park Theater. Appreciate how the modern web looks more composed and useful, not to mention saner. Ask yourself if you would have given any of these people money or trusted them as an authoritative source of information.
While the web may be a less colorful place than it was decades ago, it is also far more useful and efficient. In the complexity of our modern world, with all the distractions and noise, every website we can make efficient and simplified is one more load off everyone’s mind.
When approaching a new web design project, make sure you talk with a design team that understands SEO. Too many web design agencies are all about flashy designs and video and don’t spend nearly enough time on the core site structure and mechanics that will make Google and your users happy.
If you don’t address the structure of your website or have a migration plan in place, you may experience a dip in organic traffic.