Site navigation seems like something you shouldn’t have to think about, but its importance to search engine optimization (SEO) is often underestimated. Your main goal is to present certain information to your customers, so it’s easy to get lost in thinking that it doesn’t matter how you structure that information. However, your site navigation plays a number of different roles in providing data to search engine crawlers and ensuring usability, therefore making it a crucial element for development in your SEO strategy.
The term “site navigation” can actually refer to multiple components of a site. First, it usually refers to the main navigation bar on a given website, often found running across the top of the screen. It can also refer to the overall sitemap of the domain, including links not found in that header bar. Confusing things even further, “site navigation” can even refer to how easily a user can travel throughout your site and find the information he/she is seeking.
To simplify things, in this article we’ll refer to site navigation as the overall structure and navigability of your website.
To understand the mechanics that dictate why site navigation is important, we first have to understand crawlers. If you’ve been working in SEO for more than a month, you’re probably at least fleetingly aware that crawlers are automated indexing units that scour the web for data. Google, in particular, has several invisible crawlers constantly discovering new information on the Internet.
In order to generate the most relevant search results, search engines need to have a vast store of accurate, up-to-date information about the pages on the web. Crawlers ensure the legitimacy of this data, so if you stop crawlers from being able to do their job, you run the risk of having your pages left out of this massive store of information. On the other hand, if you can help crawlers do their job, you’ll maximize the number of pages they’re able to see on your site, and will thus maximize your presence in search engine indexes.
Building an XML sitemap is a must if you want crawlers to read your site in full. There are many free tools available that can help you build an XML sitemap, such as XML-Sitemaps.com, but it’s better if you put it in the hands of an experienced web developer. Once complete, you can upload your sitemap to Google Webmaster Tools and place the file on your site, directly off the root. Having a properly formatted XML sitemap, in addition to maintaining a crawlable site, will ensure your pages are fully indexed.
The depth of your site is also an important factor for navigation. If you’re engaging in a content marketing strategy, “depth” might seem like a good thing. After all, the deeper your content goes, the more likely it is that you will be seen as an expert and that you’ll attract a wider audience as a result. However, “depth,” as it applies to websites, is actually a bad thing.
The depth of a website is related to the complexity of links that lead to a certain point. For example, let’s say your website has 50 pages. The home page and nine other pages are immediately available on the top header. However, in order to access the remaining 40 pages, you need to click into one of those initial 10. Some of those pages actually require a specific clicking order (such as Home > Products > Tables > Wooden Tables) in order to be reached. This is considered a “deep” site.
Shallow sites, on the other hand, offer multiple pathways to each page. Instead of mandating a directional flow like the example above, a shallow site would have many pages pointing to each page in the hierarchy (Products, Wooden Tables, etc.). Shallow sites make it easier for users to find what they are looking for, and as a result, shallow sites get a small boost in page rank. Restructuring your site to avoid unnecessary depth can give you more authority and more ranking power.
The structure of each individual URL in your website is also important for SEO. While most modern SEO strategies steer away from optimizing for specific keywords in the body content of web pages, including pages with relevant keywords in the URL is a sound strategy that won’t run the risk of being flagged for keyword stuffing. Make sure your pages are specifically described in your URLs (such as “marketing services” instead of just “services”) to maximize your searchability. As a rule of thumb, the more descriptive and accurate your URL is, the better.
Structuring your URLs in a way that caters to search engines is relatively easy, especially if your website is built in a content management system (CMS) like WordPress. WordPress and other major platforms have special settings that keep your URLs optimized automatically. For example, under Settings > Permalinks, you’ll be able to automatically include your post titles as the URL of the post. Otherwise, your URL might come out as a series of random numbers and letters.
Site speed is another important factor that affects your rank. While it currently affects only one percent of all search queries, it is likely that Google will place a heavier emphasis on this quality in the future. The faster a site is able to download, the faster the user can acquire information and navigate to other pages within the site. There are many ways to improve the speed of your site, including building your site in an acceptable modern format, reducing the size of your images, and adjusting your caching settings.
The bottom line for your site navigation is this: your users need to be able to easily and quickly find whatever it is they are looking for. Optimizing your site for this will help you improve in search engine rankings, because Google’s primary objective is to improve the overall web experience of its users.
I mentioned a lot of backend structural changes that are necessary for SEO, but the aesthetics are just as important for user experience. Organize your information as logically as possible by breaking things out into intuitive categories and sub-categories. Make sure your navigation bar is prominent and easy to use. Make it easy for users to find what they’re looking for—whether that means adding a search bar or helping to point users in the right direction with an interactive feature. Whatever you do, your first goal should be making your users happy.
If your users are happy navigating your site, they’re going to stick around. You’ll have lower bounce rates, which will be a ranking signal to Google, and they’ll be more likely to tell their friends about the site. After all, getting more interested buyers to your site is the most important goal for your bottom line, and improving your site navigation can do that.