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Site Architecture Design Principles

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  MaryO's Photo
Posted Nov 02 2009 11:13 AM

The principles guiding site architecture design found in this excerpt from The Art of SEO can help you develop an optimal information architecture.


In conducting website planning, remember that nearly every user will initially be confused about where to go, what to do, and how to find what he wants. An architecture that recognizes this difficulty and leverages familiar standards of usability with an intuitive link structure will have the best chance of making a visit to the site a positive experience. A well-organized site architecture helps solve these problems and provides semantic and usability benefits to both users and search engines.

In Figure 6.6, a recipes website can use intelligent architecture to fulfill visitors’ expectations about content and create a positive browsing experience. This structure not only helps humans navigate a site more easily, but also helps the search engines to see that your content fits into logical concept groups. You can use this approach to help you rank for applications of your product in addition to attributes of your product.

Figure 6.6. Structured site architecture

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Although site architecture accounts for a small part of the algorithms, the engines do make use of relationships between subjects and give value to content that has been organized in a sensible fashion. For example, if in Figure 6.6, you were to randomly jumble the subpages into incorrect categories, your rankings could suffer. Search engines, through their massive experience with crawling the Web, recognize patterns in subject architecture and reward sites that embrace an intuitive content flow.

Designing site architecture

Although site architecture—the creation structure and flow in a website’s topical hierarchy—is typically the territory of information architects or is created without assistance from a company’s internal content team, its impact on search engine rankings, particularly in the long run, is substantial, thus making it wise to follow basic guidelines of search friendliness. The process itself should not be overly arduous, if you follow this simple protocol:

  1. List all of the requisite content pages (blog posts, articles, product detail pages, etc.).

  2. Create top-level navigation that can comfortably hold all of the unique types of detailed content for the site.

  3. Reverse the traditional top-down process by starting with the detailed content and working your way up to an organizational structure capable of holding each page.

  4. Once you understand the bottom, fill in the middle. Build out a structure for subnavigation to sensibly connect top-level pages with detailed content. In small sites, there may be no need for this level, whereas in larger sites, two or even three levels of subnavigation may be required.

  5. Include secondary pages such as copyright, contact information, and other non-essentials.

  6. Build a visual hierarchy that shows (to at least the last level of subnavigation) each page on the site.

Figure 6.7, shows an example of a structured site architecture.

Figure 6.7. Second example of structured site architecture

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Category structuring

As search engines crawl the Web, they collect an incredible amount of data (millions of gigabytes) on the structure of language, subject matter, and relationships between content. Though not technically an attempt at artificial intelligence, the engines have built a repository capable of making sophisticated determinations based on common patterns. As shown in Figure 6.8, search engine spiders can learn semantic relationships as they crawl thousands of pages that cover a related topic (in this case, dogs).

Figure 6.8. Spiders learning semantic relationships

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Although content need not always be structured along the most predictable patterns, particularly when a different method of sorting can provide value or interest to a visitor, organizing subjects logically assists both humans (who will find your site easier to use) and engines (which will award you with greater rankings based on increased subject relevance).

Creating broad→narrow topical relevance

Naturally, this pattern of relevance-based scoring extends from single relationships between documents to the entire category structure of a website. Site creators can take advantage of this best by building hierarchies that flow from broad, encompassing subject matter down to more detailed, specific content. Obviously, in any categorization system, there’s a natural level of subjectivity. Don’t get too hung up on perfecting what the engines want here—instead, think first of your visitors and use these guidelines to ensure that your creativity doesn’t overwhelm the project.

Taxonomy and ontology

In designing a website, you should also consider the taxonomy and ontology of the website. Taxonomy is essentially a two-dimensional hierarchical model of the architecture of the site. You can think of ontology as mapping the way the human mind thinks about a topic area. It can be much more complex than taxonomy, because a larger number of relationship types can be involved.

One effective technique for coming up with an ontology is called card sorting. This is a user-testing technique whereby users are asked to group items together so that you can organize your site as intuitively as possible. Card sorting can help identify not only the most logical paths through your site, but also ambiguous or cryptic terminology that should be reworded.

With card sorting, you write all the major concepts onto a set of cards that are large enough for participants to read, manipulate, and organize. Your test group assembles the cards in the order they believe provides the most logical flow, as well as into groups that seem to fit together.

By itself, building an ontology is not part of SEO, but when you do it properly it will impact your site architecture, and therefore it interacts with SEO. Coming up with the right site architecture should involve both disciplines.

The Art of SEO

Learn more about this topic from The Art of SEO.

Four acknowledged experts in search engine optimization share guidelines and innovative techniques that will help you plan and execute a comprehensive SEO strategy. This second edition brings you up to date on recent changes in search engine behavior—such as new ranking methods involving user engagement and social media—with an array of effective tactics, from basic to advanced.

See what you'll learn


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