9 Effective Site Architecture Tips for SEO
Search engines tend to ignore sites that don't include great content. There's a difference between getting noticed and not getting ignored. Smart Search Engine Optimization (SEO) means designing your site so that crawlers find and index your best and most relevant content consistently.
Say you own a retail store. Well-designed and well-placed advertising might bring a crowd to your door, but they'll turn and leave if your space is so disorganized that it's impossible to find anything worth buying. Think of your website architecture in the same way. Here are nine SEO-boosting architectural strategies that can help you increase sales.
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1. Use robots.txt
When search engines "crawl" your site, they'll go everywhere that's not restricted. Altering the robots.txt file allows you to guide their journey. Say you want to block Google from indexing your private, members-only page. Adding this sort of content to your robots.txt file should do the trick:
You can also take a more fine-grained approach using Robots Exclusion Protocol tags, or REP tags. Adding attributes such as "no index" (i.e., don't index this page) or "no follow" (i.e., don't follow links on this page for ranking purposes) to a page Uniform Resource Identifier directs search engines to take or avoid certain actions. Use this power carefully and accurately and you'll be able to lead better search engines to the content you want them to see.
2. Create a simple, consistent URL structure
Help search engines understand context with a website architecture where pages are logically grouped in a standard hierarchy.
Say you've created a website for your chain of retail stores for selling water shoes. A simple-to-understand design might include pages for different types of activities that require water shoes, such as snorkeling or surfing. You could then create distinct URLs for products on those pages, making them easy for crawlers to find, like this:
Failing to organize properly your URLs may not torpedo your rankings -- a traditional product can do wonders for an otherwise bad site -- but you do run the risk of getting ignored by search engines that prefer the path of least resistance.
3. Support secure browsing
Security has been an issue since the dawn of the web, but with high-profile hacks of big-name sites making headlines, it's even more critical today. Google is doing its part to discourage breaches by giving an SEO ranking boost to sites that support secure browsing using HTTPS and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). Adding support isn't difficult; generally, you only need purchase an SSL certificate from a certified provider. Make it your website host and they'll take the extra step of routing traffic through an HTTPS server to ensure that data transmitted to and from your site remains encrypted.
4. Create a sitemap
While the robots.txt file tells Google and other search engines what not to look at -- a sentry -- a sitemap is the tour guide that explains the organizational structure of your website. Crawlers look at these files to get a better sense of what's where and then use the data to highlight a site's key elements.
Sitemaps also allow you to include metadata that describes the contents of one or more pages. Say you want a page to show videos of the various water shoes you have for sale. Create a video sitemap that includes metadata such as category and running time for your uploads and search engines will highlight them in results.
5. Leave "breadcrumbs."
If your site has many pages and even more layers, then it's probably worthwhile to use breadcrumbs as a secondary navigation system. In simple terms, "breadcrumbs" allow visitors to see how far they are down the rabbit hole. Here's a good example from Amazon.com:
The highlighted categories represent breadcrumbs that are also live links. Clicking on any of them will immediately take the user to a page with results relevant to that category.
6. Add a custom search engine
Sometimes the best way to boost the search ranking of your site is to allow visitors to use a popular crawler to search your site content. Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo all provide mechanisms for creating embedded search engines, and at least in Google's case, setup isn't much more difficult than is depicted in this introductory video.
How does this help your SEO? Use Google Analytics to track popular internal search terms and then update your site to better highlight what visitors say they want. You can match internal search with external search engine keywords to find the best queries for you website. Use breadcrumbs if you can and update your sitemap to reflect any changes.
7. Optimize for mobile devices
When Google made mobile-friendly websites more visible in searches from mobile devices, it sent an important signal: optimize for the tens of millions of smartphones out there, or risk losing customers who find you while on the go.
Fortunately, the job isn't as difficult as you might think. Designing for the proper screen size and avoiding pop-ups and Flash fixes most issues. Brevity in writing titles and meta descriptions can also help since smartphone search results are abbreviated due to limited screen space. The more you can say in a few words, the better crawlers will rank your mobile site.
Finally, don't forget to add local flavor. Adding the name, address and phone numbers of your chain of water shoe stores to the metadata of your mobile site will make it easier for shoppers to find you when searching nearby.
8. Define canonical links
Sometimes you'll have multiple copies of the same content floating around the Internet. Publishers face this problem more than most; syndicate a story and the title and corresponding URL will go with it. Other times you'll have multiple links on the same page on your site. The canonical attribute allows webmasters to specify the preferred link when crawlers index your site. There are a few ways to execute it.
For example, if you've built a sitemap, you can set preferred URLs for the various content you've "mapped" for search engines. Those who want more control can add the rel="canonical" link element directly in HTML.
To see how to do this, let's revisit the site for your water shoes store. Say you have breadcrumbs that allow users to find water shoes based not only on activity but also on size, gender, and brand. As a result, a single pair may be found under several different URLs, like this:
Say you want the "speedo" page to show up most often since you earn an affiliate fee whenever a shopper buys from the Speedo page at your store. Pull up the HTML for your site and add the element with the attribute rel="canonical" to the section of every page where there's duplication. You should end up with something that looks like this:
9. Design for a global audience
You’re doing well in the U.S., but what if you also want to reach surfers in Latin America? Brazil and Peru draw plenty of big breakers, after all. With the "hreflang" attribute, you let search engines find the different localized versions of your site for different languages and locations. Here's a quick tutorial video.
Add value first, and then show the bots where to find it.
Attempting to trick or manipulate search engines is a high-risk, low-return strategy. Keyword stuffing is out; useful, long-form posts are in. Guide your visitors to the latter with a website architecture that points consistently to your best and most relevant content, and the crawlers will gladly deliver it to a wide audience.
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