When people talk about website SEO, they often refer to on-page and off-page optimisation to distinguish between on-page factors like keywords, headings and meta tags, and off-page factors like inbound links and domain authority.
But one factor you might have overlooked is your overall site structure, which is generally regarded as an extension of on-page SEO.
It’s a fairly complex topic that includes things like:
- Internal linking
- Click depth
- URL structure
A well-structured website is not too much of a concern for human visitors, as the ability to arrive via a hyperlink means people won’t normally be put off by a long and confusing URL, as long as they don’t have to type it into their address bar manually.
But site structure can be crucial for search engine presence, as an orderly site means the search robots can discover new pages on your website easily and understand where they fit in the overall structure of your site.
In terms of the bullet points listed above:
- Internal linking helps the robots to navigate around your site
- Click depth means the robots can reach all of your pages in just a few steps
- URL structure helps the robots to know where new pages fit into your site
- Taxonomy uses categories and tags to clarify and classify your pages
Some of this has benefits for human users too, for example keeping all of your pages within just a couple of clicks means they are all more easily discoverable by visitors while also delivering benefits in terms of SEO.
Identifying weaknesses in site structure
Now we understand what we’re looking at, how do we know what we’re looking for? Auditing an entire website for site structure weaknesses is a more in-depth task than auditing a single page for on-page factors.
It’s best to carry out a site structure weakness audit periodically – maybe 2-4 times a year – as well as after any major update to your website, relaunch, or if the number of visitors to your site drops abruptly.
A thorough site structure audit will require a web crawler similar to the way the search robots explore your site.
If you have analytics set up on your site, your analytics dashboard may include a tool to crawl your site as a robot would and show you the results.
Alternatively, some of the audit can be carried out manually – for example, looking at the number of internal links on each page – but this is likely to take longer and require more admin resources.
Remember that your internal linking works alongside inbound links from other websites in helping to drive total traffic to your site, even without taking into account your search traffic, so it’s possible to have a site that performs well on these criteria even without a strong search presence.
But improving your site structure as a means of SEO should help you to rank higher, with more pages indexed by the search robots, which should in turn drive your total traffic higher too.
What to do about problem pages
Let’s say you discover a page with too many internal links, or a page that can only be found via a large number of clicks from your homepage. What can you do?
Good site structure is about balance. Distribute your pages into well-structured folders within your URL hierarchy. Organise them with category tags, especially on ecommerce sites and blogs. Make sure everything can be reached within just a few clicks.
As you balance these various considerations, your site should naturally become more optimised. You can refocus internal links to some of those pages that were previously hidden away deeper into your click hierarchy.
Good site structure makes it easier for newly published content to take its place in your hierarchy too, whether that’s alongside, above or below existing pages.
Remember not all content is equal. Some pages might exist purely as landing pages, so you’ll want to prioritise inbound links from search engines and third-party websites over internal linking to these.
Other pages might have a high conversion rate and/or other ways to contact you or generate revenues, so you can make those pages a higher priority for internal link targeting and ease of navigation by giving them a very shallow click depth.
You have the control over which pages you prioritise. The most important – such as your contact page, eCommerce shopping basket or checkout page, and so on – can be linked directly from your top navigation bar or page footer, so they’re available directly from every page of your site.
Why audit site structure again?
You might wonder why to audit site structure several times a year. The answer is simply, websites change, and so does the internet as a whole.
The most well-optimised web page can fall in the search results due to newly published content on competitor sites, changing ranking factors by the search engines, or because your own new content inadvertently competes with it for authority.
If you’ve accidentally published a page deep in your site structure that ranks higher than a well-converting landing page from the past, it’s important to pick up on this so you can adjust your site structure and give the more profitable page more prominence.
You may find this is simply a case of adding a prominent category tag to your most important pages, so the search engines can crawl all of them with a very shallow click depth.
Alternatively, it may be necessary to hide some pages from the search engines altogether – for example, if you have a very large number of product pages without much useful information on them – so that you keep your exposed site structure manageable and high-quality.
In any case, if it is some time since you last audited your website structure, if it has changed or grown in that time, or if your traffic – especially from the search engines – has fallen, a detailed audit of site structure weakness could be a good way to decide what changes to attempt first.