Why Your Website’s Structure Matters, and What You Can Do to Optimize It
Website structure is important for creating an incredible user experience. A well structured website makes users feel like the business is reading their mind. When they have a question or want to learn more about a service or offer, a great site is right there with the answers and additional information that they need.
But the structure of the website also has an important behind-the-scenes function. A website’s structure determines how search engines sort through and organize the data on a site, and this in turn determines how a site is ranked in searches. Ranking on the first page of search results is critical for a small business’s success, so implementing a search engine-friendly structure is incredibly important.
I’ll share more about why structure matters for both users and search engines, and what you can do to create the most effective site possible.
What Do I Mean By Structure?
When I talk about a website’s structure, I mean the nuts and bolts that go into its layout and creation. This is about more than fonts, images, and color scheme—this is the framework upon which the pretty design elements are laid.
How Do You Approach Structuring Your Site?
Humans and machines alike crave logic. Think about how you feel when you’re visiting a business’s site for the first time. Your top priority is determining if the business in question can solve the problem that you’re having. Once you have a sense that they might be the right people for the job, then you want to get more detailed information: how they do it, how much it costs, what the timeline is.
Similarly, when search engines crawl sites, looking to determine if they’re relevant to a given user’s search, they are looking for logic as well. Do your pages have consistent information? Do they give this machine a sense that what you do is something that could help the searcher with their problem?
Start With a Site Map
The first step in laying out the logical progression for your site is creating a site map. This process doesn’t need to be overly-complex, and in fact since you want your site’s structure to be simple and logical, there’s really no need to go overboard with planning it out. Of course the site map for, say, an Amazon or Nike will be complex, but for the average small business owner, a few layers of pages are all you need.
Start with the homepage. There are a few elements that I consider must-haves on a homepage, but in the most basic terms you want it to be something that educates visitors about what you do, offers them a promise about how you can help them, and works to build trust.
From there, you’ll have a handful of categories that address the “what next?” questions that users will have after visiting your homepage and deciding that, so far, they like what they see. These categories should be broad and might include an overview of the services you provide, more information about your business or team, and a way to see additional resources you offer.
Depending on what you settle on for categories, you might need an additional layer of subcategories after that. For example, an overview of your services might necessitate another layer of pages that go deeper into the various specific offerings, or you might have a number of resources like your blog, webinars, and podcast. Unless you’re running a giant, multinational company’s website, there’s really no need for many more layers of your site.
A site map that’s been thoughtfully put together will help to guide site visitors in a logical way that enhances their customer journey. Not only that, it lays the groundwork for you to add additional elements that will increase your site’s SEO.
Build Your Site in HTML
One of the top reasons that sites have difficulty ranking with search engines is that the information-rich content about what they do is hidden in non-text elements, like Java or Flash, on their website.
When search engines crawl sites looking for keywords and information that are relevant to their user’s search query, the machines can only read certain kinds of information—namely, information that’s in HTML text. While sites that just have your company name up at the top and then a bunch of flashy design elements underneath might look cool for human visitors, this tactic hides substantive information for the search engines crawling your site.
When this information is inaccessible to search engines, the machines can’t see that what your business does might be relevant to their user’s query. You could, in fact, be the business that is best suited to serve the searcher’s needs, but you’ll never show up in their Google search results because Google can’t determine what it is that you do based on the information they’re able to crawl.
Incorporate Search Engine-Friendly Structural Elements
Before you begin building the site, you’ll want to think about how everything will be labeled. This is not only important for your visitors, but it gives search engines valuable information that they’ll sift through as they determine where to rank your site in a given search query.
First, you’ll want to make sure that every element reinforces the hierarchical structure you already laid out on paper. The URL structure that you have for your website should reflect the order in which pages appear (for example: www.example.com/services/details-on-service-a). This not only indicates the hierarchy for visitors, making it easier for them to see how they got to a given page, but it can also play a role in SEO if a keyword is contained in the URL.
Second, you’ll want to be sure that you’re creating meta descriptions for each of your pages. This is the little blurb that shows up on a search engine under the title of the page and the URL itself. It should be a succinct, clear, accurate description of what a user can expect to find on the page if they click the link.
Finally, you’ll want to make sure that the keywords you want to be ranking for (more on best practices for keyword research here) are everywhere on your pages: in the aforementioned URL and meta description, in the page title, and in the body copy on the page itself. Again, including the keyword is helpful for both man and machine. It gives prospects a good sense of what they can expect to find on a given page, and it allows your site to rank in search results for the given keyword.
What If You Already Have a Website?
In today’s day and age, it’s likely that you already have a website, but perhaps it’s not as effective as you’d like it to be. While considering a redesign is daunting, it’s also an exciting opportunity to find out what you already have that’s effective and to say goodbye to everything that’s not.
I’ve shared a checklist for website redesign in the past, and I encourage you to check that out for specifics. But the most critical things to consider in a redesign, generally, are:
1. How do I keep what’s already working? If you have individual pages that already have awesome content that are generating results, great! There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, but what you may want to consider is the way each individual page fits into the larger scheme. This means that you may end up shifting existing pages around when revisiting your site map.
2. How do you fix what’s not working? A service like Screaming Frog allows you to do an audit of your existing assets so that you can see where your issues lie. You can find broken links and crawl issues and fix them now. The redesign process is also a great time to reconsider keywords. Look at Google Analytics and see how your current keywords are doing; if you don’t like the results or feel like your old keywords don’t accurately line up with your latest business strategy, now is the time to change them!
3. How do you fix the problems a redesign might create? If you’re going to be changing your URL structure, you need to have a plan in place to manage 301 redirects. If you’re going to be dramatically shifting your hierarchy or eliminating existing pages, you might want to send your already loyal customers an email addressing the changes and giving them a head’s up about where they can find the information that they’re used to finding in a specific place on your old site.
When designing your website, the needs of your customer should always be front and center. However, there is fortunately a great deal of intersection between what your customers want and what a search engine requires when it comes to structuring your site. Establishing a logical system for housing your company’s information on your website is the way to ensure that search engines will find you and customers will understand what you do.
If you liked this post, check out our Small Business Guide to Website Design.