If you need to move the needle on website traffic and conversions, Site Architecture is often one of the most effective SEO levers available in your toolkit.
And yet, very few SEOs leverage it to its full advantage.
Below is a large, established website where we recently made simple tweaks to the site architecture using only 2-3 of the principles outlined in this post. Traffic and conversions grew an amazing 175% in a matter of months. For under-optimized sites with potential, it can be like opening the floodgates.
In this post, we’ll cover not only the same tactics used above, but many more to bring your site to its full potential.
What is Site Architecture?
Site architecture, at its simplest, is how your website pages are organized and navigable. Architecture is built through navigation and links, but also relates to other elements such as URLs, breadcrumbs, category pages, sitemaps, and more. A good site architecture helps users and search engines find what they are looking for.
Site architecture also helps define both the relevance and importance of your content. It can direct users and bots to your most critical pages, and provide signals as to what your content is about.
In short, site architecture aims to make your site as easy to use and understand as possible.
Site architecture, when done right, has many positive SEO benefits:
- Better indexing of pages (especially for large sites)
- Higher rankings & traffic
- Improved user engagement
When you nail your site architecture it’s magical to see traffic improve, visitors engage, and conversions increase.
1. Golden Rule: Satisfy User Intent
When choosing how to link and organize your website, there are 3 primary questions to consider:
- What are people looking for?
- What’s important?
- How do the pages relate to one another?
A good site architecture gives visitors what they want and need as clearly and quickly as possible. Consider this example from REI, a huge site which manages all 3 masterfully.
Examine everything at work on this page:
- The links and anchor text help people navigate quickly.
- Content is organized around themes and types.
- Other important pages are highlighted outside of the navigation.
User intent is satisfied, and in many cases exceeded. And because the relationship between pages is clearly organized, search engines can better understand and rank each page.
By using analytics and search data, you can easily find what pages on your site people:
- Visit most often
- Search for, and
- Best engage with
Pages near the top of these performance metrics should be made prominent, while pages near the bottom can be given less visibility. Example: is that “About Us” link in your header the most important link in your navigation, when almost nobody uses it? (It very well could be, if data shows high conversions, for example.)
The point is: make deliberate decisions based on data.
In short, navigation that provides solutions is often the quickest shortcut to improved site architecture and engagement.
2. Flatten Your Architecture (but not too much)
A “flat” website architecture is one where important pages aren’t too far from the homepage, meaning it takes fewer clicks to navigate.
Many SEOs refer to the “3-Click Rule” – which means no important page should be more than 3 clicks away from your homepage (or possibly another high authority page.)
The illustration below shows how it works. Imagine your homepage links to 100 pages, and each of those pages links to another 100 pages, and so on. This means that a visitor landing on your homepage can visit any one of up to 1,000,000 pages within 3 clicks.
If each page contained more than 100 links, the number of possible pages within 3 clicks grows exponentially:
- 200 links per page yield 8,000,000 pages
- 500 links per page yield 125,000,000 pages
- 1000 links per page yield 1 billion pages within 3 clicks
Fewer clicks mean pages are easier to find, and “closeness” to important pages such as a homepage can indicate the importance of the page itself.
Note: This is more of a guiding principle than a rule. There are many situations where a 3-click architecture doesn’t make sense. That said, it’s a good idea to keep important pages close to authority pages.
You might ask: Why not use a completely flat architecture, and link EVERYTHING from the homepage? At first glance, it may sound like a good idea, but there are a couple of very serious reasons why you shouldn’t do this.
- Too many links on a page have its own set of disadvantages
- A completely flat architecture robs you of the opportunity to organize and define a contextual hierarchy within your content – something that is vital for search engines to understand. (we’ll cover both of these below)
How to Audit Click Depth
Unless your website has only a few pages, examining click depth by hand is not something easy to do. Fortunately, most modern SEO auditing software reports click depth (including Screaming Frog, Ryte, Moz, SEMrush, and more. OnCrawl has a particularly impressive internal links report.) That said, most calculate depth starting from the homepage, which can make it hard to see your overall architecture.
To really understand your structure, it often helps to see it with your eyes. Two of the most popular visualization tools are WebSite Auditor and Sitebulb, which can make easy-to-understand visualizations of your link structure, such as the one shown here from Sitebulb.
3. Leverage Hub Pages
A Hub Page is an important overview page introducing a broad topic or category, which connects to child categories and more specific topics.
Hub pages serve several purposes:
- They provide a quick overview of the topic
- Answer top questions users may have
- Link to important sub-topics and top products
- Are typically more user-friendly than common category pages
- Help build your topical authority for a subject
The best Hub Pages are ones with lots of relevant links pointing to them, so that they can pass that link authority (PageRank) to all the child topics that it links to.
Category pages often make natural hub pages because they often have lots of natural link authority already. They key is to enhance your category pages with additional information beyond a list of sub-categories or posts/products. Whatever related important pages will help your visitor are always good candidates to link to.
For more, check out these great resources for creating hub pages:
4. Create Content Silos
While Hub Pages are great at connecting closely related topics, the real power emerges when you combine hub pages with Content Silos.
A content silo is a hierarchical organization of your content by theme.
Whereas you can think of hub pages as being at the center of things, you can think of content silos as moving up and down a ladder, where hierarchy is important.
Consider the example above. Each step of the hierarchy is linked to both the step above and below. This helps users to navigate and search engines to better understand the content.
Content silos are typically tightly grouped together by 2-3 things:
- Navigation, including breadcrumbs
- Contextual links
- URL structures
We’ll discuss each of these in turn, but the important thing about content silos is that you are grouping your content by topic, and organizing it up and down—from broad overviews to very specific topics.
So now, you’ve created an architecture that leverages hub pages and organizes content into silos. The next step is what makes them so much more powerful:
Link closely related pages together.
Silos don’t simply need to link up and down, closely related pages can also link across. This tactic happens to be one of the critical steps that led to the traffic increase for site mentioned in the opening of this post.
SEOs approach this differently, but it’s common to link closely related pages together when they share the same parent in a silo. This is most effective when the products/posts/categories are closely related to one another.
Consider this example, where thematically related child hub/category pages link to one another.
To be fair, this isn’t the only way to do it. SEOs continuously debate the best internal linking strategy, and with little agreement. Some SEOs like to minimize cross-linking between hub/category/product pages, others link to everything in sight.
Best advice: if it’s closely related in theme or topic, and a visitor would be interested in clicking, it’s typically both safe and smart to add a link.
If the topics are too disparate (bbq grills and bath towels) then linking them probably isn’t prudent.
If you want to explore good alternative linking strategies, check out these resources:
Now that you’ve created hubs, silos, and cross-links, there’s another area to consider adding links to—your destination pages.
A destination page is any page on your site that is important for your visitors to visit. This could be:
- A sales page that you want to promote from your homepage
- A high-converting page deep in your silo structure
- Generally, any semi-important page that isn’t well linked
A high authority page is any page with lots of link equity that tends to rank well and receive high traffic.
The idea is to transfer link authority (and direct visitors) from your high authority pages to your important destination pages that may be under-linked. Sometimes these are shortcut links, or links not in the navigation that allows you to shortcut from a high authority page to a destination URL.
How do you determine what pages to add links to, and from? There are several methods:
- The Google Search Console Internal Links Report shows you raw internal link counts for your top 1000 URLs. (Pro Tip: If your site is bigger than 1000s URLs, create separate Search Console properties at the directory level for more data and granular detail.)
- Multiple tools including Moz, Ahrefs, and SEMrush can all report authority metrics for each URL. My current favorite is Moz’s Link Explorer. You can use this to find both high authority and under-linked URLs.
- Google Analytics (or any other analytics software) can tell you which pages receive the most traffic, and which pages convert well and would benefit from a boost in traffic. This post explains the process well.
- For the advanced SEO, you can calculate internal PageRank using various methods to find high and low linked URLs.
7. Pagination, View All, & Infinite Scroll Pages
For category pages with 100s or 1000s of listings, 3 techniques which can simultaneously help flatten architecture while establishing thematic relationships are:
- View all pages
- Infinite scroll
The simplest and typically most preferred solution is to break up long category listings via pagination. Implemented properly, pagination can help virtually flatten site architecture by signaling to Google that all your entries are part of the same series.
Most SEOs prefer simple pagination for its ease of use, both by robots and humans.
On the other hand, “view all” pages can also flatten site architecture by linking to all entries from the same page.
Some SEOs like “view all” pages because they believe Google can better crawl all entries when they are linked to from a single page. This works well if you don’t have too many products or posts. The challenge with “view all” pages is that for categories with 100s or 1000s of entries, it can cause slow loading times and poor user experience.
A hybrid approach is “infinite scroll”, in which results load continually into the user’s browser, but is also marked up with traditional paginated results that robots can easily understand. Google has good documentation on a preferred way to implement these infinite scroll pages.
When using pagination, it’s easy to overlook smaller details that can help with usability and SEO:
- Use proper markup, including rel=”next” and rel=”prev” links or headers.
- Don’t neglect the pagination links at the bottom of your page. Because these are actual links—and not just hints—there is strong evidence they send a stronger signal to Google than HTTP header links.
- Keep in mind that pagination links are real links. This means they impact usability and crawling, and can also pass real link signals such as PageRank (though realistically only a tiny amount.)
Instead of laying out pagination links in a standard linear fashion (2, 3, 4, etc.) some smart SEOs have studied the most optimal strategies to link within pagination, including the methods described below by Audisto in their excellent pagination guide.
If optimizing pagination crawl paths interests you, Portent has another great guide on experimenting with how pagination effects click depth.
Faceted Navigation refers to a navigation that allows users to sort, filter, and narrow results based on many features and criteria. Sometimes it’s better to see something to understand it, so here’s an example from Zappos.
Faceted navigation is super helpful to users, but for search engines, it has the potential to create millions of URL combinations – many with duplicate or near duplicate content. From a crawling and indexing perspective, this can present a huge headache.
The key to succeeding with faceted navigation is this: encourage search engines to crawl + index your unique, traffic-driving pages, while simultaneously discouraging them from crawling + indexing low-value URLs.
Once you understand which URLs you want to be indexed and which you don’t, there are many tools at your disposal to control faceted navigation, including:
- Meta Robots
- Search Console Parameter Tool
- Nofollow attributes
For more detail, a few great guides have been written on faceted navigation. I highly recommend reading and digesting the ones here:
- Large Site SEO Basics: Faceted Navigation
- Faceted navigation for SEO best practices
- Faceted navigation best (and 5 of the worst) practices
9. Leverage HTML Sitemaps
Almost everyone understands the importance of XML sitemaps these days. But HTML sitemaps built into web pages are becoming rarer.
Let’s bring them back!
An HTML sitemap lives live on your site (not in an XML file), is readable by humans, and can provide both humans and search robots clues about your website structure and topical relationships.
Consider this masterful HTML sitemap for the New York Times. Not only does it link to nearly every important page on the site, but it’s organized by date, content format, and topic.
HTML sitemaps are often most effective on larger sites where the structure of the site may not be immediately obvious, or crawl paths not perfectly optimized. But even smaller sites can benefit as HTML sitemaps are often helpful to human visitors as well.
Here’s the problem: you publish a new post or product, and it goes nowhere. No visibility, no rankings, and no traffic.
Part of the challenge is that Google has no signals to judge your new content yet. Even if you put it in your sitemap, ping Google, and share on social media, Google simply doesn’t have enough signals to judge it yet.
One easy solution is to simply link to your new content more prominently, often high up on important parts of your website, including your homepage. John Mueller of Google explains:
What also makes a big difference for us is especially of the homepage is really important for your website is that newer content is also linked pretty high within the structure of your website, so maybe even on your homepage.
So what a lot of sites have is this sidebar where it’s like new articles or new products or like products that are on sale or something like that, anything that you want to kind of push a little bit in the search results, that definitely helps us there.
News sites and blog feeds are great at linking to new content prominently. More static websites, and eCommerce sites with lots of products, often struggle.
Linking more “prominently” doesn’t always mean adding links to your homepage – which may not be the best place from a user experience point of view.
Featured sidebars, news pages, and blog feeds are great at linking to new content prominently.
If it would take users a long time to discover new pages, it may take search robots a long time as well. Solve by putting important content in highly visible areas.
This is one of the oldest tricks in the SEO playbook, and it’s amazing how effective this works:
Everytime you publish a new piece of content, try to link to several pieces of your older content, whenever it’s relevant and helpful.
Linking to older content from new content as part of your architecture benefits your site in many ways:
- Automatically builds and helps strengthen your Content Hubs.
- Builds topical relationships between new and established pages
- Gives a freshness + authority boost to older pages
Make it a habit. Wash, rinse, repeat, win.
We’ll keep this simple.
Loads have been written about the importance of breadcrumbs for navigation, user experience, and SEO.
Suffice it to say, breadcrumbs can play an important part of site architecture by:
- Defining a URL’s relative position in a given silo/hierarchy
- Linking up and down within that hierarchy, and
- Providing a helpful navigation aid to visitors.
With the bonus of Google displaying breadcrumbs in search results as rich snippets—which can positively influence CTR, it’s typically a win-win.
So far, we’ve covered multiple methods to increase linking to important pages. Now it’s time to talk about limiting your links to reduce link bloat.
Why can removing unnecessary links produce positive benefits?
First, consider that each page posses a set amount of link authority (PageRank) to distribute through all of its outbound links. The more links on the page, the less authority for each link.
So a page with only 10 outgoing links theoretically passes more value through each of those links than the same page with 1000 links to share the same authority.
The key is to pass your authority (PageRank) to your most important pages, without wasting it on your unimportant pages.
Second, especially for larger sites, Google will only crawl pages only so often.
When faced with 1000s of links per page, Google needs to prioritize how to crawl those URLs, and this may not always match up with what you desire. Controlling Google’s crawling and prioritization is extremely important and sends signals to Google about the relevance and priority of your URLs.
Let’s take a practical example: If you link to everything in your header (posts, shipping info, about us, social profiles, today’s weather, etc) this means less authority is available for your more important links further below.
Wayfair famously removed 150 from their navigation, including 31 from their footer. They then tested how the new, skinnier site architecture performed in search.
The results were higher conversions, fewer site searchers (because people could find things easier), along with higher traffic and rankings.
Guideline: Topical Relevance + User Intent > Click Depth
Instead of linking to every conceivable page on your site, it’s far more important to link to topically relevant pages that are immediately helpful to user needs.
One method is to use your analytics data, or even heatmap tools like HotJar, to see where people are actually clicking and work to reduce the links that don’t see action.
Other common culprits are ubiquitous footer links, tag clouds, and any other links that are auto-generated by your theme or CMS.
While Google can crawl many links per URL (up to several 1000) that doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea.
Don’t build a moat. Reduce link bloat.
14. Hierarchical URL Structures
When organizing your content, it’s often best practice to use URLs that reflect the structure of the content.
An example would be if you sold rugs in your furniture department, your URL might look like:
The advantages of this system are:
- Users can clearly understand what the URL is about
- Keywords in the URL can help with rankings and click-through rates (CTR)
- Google has been known to use directory level metrics to temporarily judge the importance + relevance of newly discovered URLs
Some webmaster like to “fake” a flat directory structure by limiting folders, or placing all URLs at the root. While this technique may have its merits, what’s much more important to Google is how many “clicks” it takes to reach your content, and not how many slashes the URL has.
15. Use The Right Anchor Text (and Vary It)
Many people don’t think of anchor text as part of your site architecture, but it absolutely is.
When you link to a page as part of your navigation, the anchor text you choose becomes extremely important as that navigation is used throughout your site. This is the anchor text that Google uses to assign relevance to your content, and the anchor text that informs users to click.
The general advice is to be as descriptive + specific as possible in your navigational anchor text.
Examples of better-optimized anchor text:
- Home > Zyppy
- Sheets > Fitted King Sheets
- Tools > Free SEO Tools
Dealing with First Link Priority
When you link to a page from your site-wide navigation, that link becomes your anchor text throughout your entire site. This is true even if you add multiple links to the same page. In this scenario, it’s likely Google only “counts” the first anchor text it finds, as statements from Google and a long history of SEO experiments have confirmed in the past.
This is known as first link priority.
Which means (potentially, because we aren’t 100% certain how Google handles it) that when linking from your sitewide navigation, you may lose the potential to vary your internal anchor text, which can benefit your SEO.
So often, choosing to put a link in your sitewide navigation means a trade-off with your ability to vary the anchor text, along with other link signals. Some SEOs like to leave important pages out of their navigation for this specific reason.
In other cases, for links that aren’t in your navigation, you can choose to link to and vary your anchor text from anywhere in your site. This is often helpful when building out your content hubs.
Getting site architecture right is challenging, but the rewards are often great. Additionally, you can test, measure, and change it over time. It often takes more than one attempt to boost SEO performance, but the principles above should provide you with the tools to make a difference.
Best of luck!
What are your best tips for improving SEO and user experience through site architecture? Let us know in the comments below!