When starting a new Search Engine Optimization project, any half-way decent SEO would focus on keyword research, link building strategies, Title Tags, Copy, XML Sitemaps and all the other basics that have to get done. It's all important stuff and it's all effective in generating more traffic from search engines. But an often overlooked facet of Search Engine Optimization is the site architecture - in other words, the way the website is laid out and how the pages connect to each other. I would argue it's the single most underrated area of SEO.
When Google crawls a website, all it's really doing is following a set of links, reading the content at each URL and then moving on to the next link. Google uses the link structure of a website as one signal to understand how important each page is within the overall site architecture. The more important Google finds a page to be, the more likely that page is to rank well in search engines, all other factors being equal.
There are two main schools of thought on the best way to organize a site for SEO. You could place all your web pages in relevant directories, sub-pages in sub directories, and sub-sub pages in sub-sub directories etc. This gives Google a good idea of which pages fall into which relevance buckets and makes for a logical navigation for users. The second school of thought is to put every web page as close to the home page as possible so a user can click to any page on the site from one central place. This means less clicks for users and tells Google that all of your pages are important enough to be linked directly from the home page. Obviously for big sites, you can't link to every page of the site from your home page. But you can still link to as many important pages as possible - say 50 to 100 max. Either way, after trying both approaches over the years, I am firmly in camp #2.
Let's take a look at two scenarios for a site about goats:
In the bucket structure everything is neatly organized into directories and sub-directories. Now let's take a look at the Flat Structure:
In this scenario everything is just 1 level from the home page. Every site is different and the bucket structure may very well be right for your site. But as a general rule of thumb, I recommend the flat structure for SEO.
In general, the home page of your site is going to have the most authority because it's going to have the most inbound links and the best quality of inbound links. Authority (or link juice) flows throughout a website from high authority pages to low authority pages through links. For every step away a web page is from the home page, the less and less of that total authority is going to be passed to it. All other factors being equal, the further away the page is from the home page, the worse it will rank. So though the Goat Life page is probably less relevant to most searchers than the more specific Reproduction or Diet pages, that Goat Life page is going to rank better in Google. But after moving to a flat structure you might find the Goat Life page isn't even worth including in your site at all. This means less fluff for users and search engines and more relevant useful content.
I've seen cases of high authority web pages being buried deep in site architecture and losing rankings overnight. I've also seen the reverse where web pages move closer to the home page and suddenly jump several spots in Google. Ultimately you want to create your website structure so it is easy and intuitive to navigate for users. Luckily, the flat structure often satisfies that requirement and will help you get more of those users to your site through search engines.
Evan Lagasse, Consultant, eBoost Consulting
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