SEO - BUILDING ALGORITHMIC IMMUNE ARCHITECTURE


Think about your site and data architecture first.


ANYONE WHO HAS READ my previous articles knows I am a proponent of a balanced approach to SEO. Where many SEOs will focus on a single area (usually link building) or announce with misplaced conviction that 'content is king', my approach is a little more like the story of the three little pigs; you better know what you're building your house out of or Google will come and blow it down. If you look at the recent Farmer/Panda (Farmer - I will still call it this... Panda just doesn't sit right with me) update that affected so many thin content sites (farms), part of their issue has simply been the fact that these sites are terrible with data architecture. Thin content aside, better architecture could have helped with this serious issue.

Despite the architecture of your site forming the foundation of everything else you do, there is precious little information available on what forms good site architecture or, indeed, even why it is so important. Good site architecture is about more than navigation; it's about ensuring that search engines can crawl your site in such a way that they make the right associations between pages, and helping users to navigate through your site to get to the conversion point you want.

Organisation

The first thing to think about is how your data is going to be stored, organised and, finally, presented on the website. In an ideal world, this should be done before the site is built, and a good developer and database admin will help you to organise your pages in such a way that your site naturally forms silos of information and creates a natural path for the user. However, all too often this is overlooked or, in many cases, the original structure of your site is lost as new sections and pages are added. Before you can make any changes to the architecture of your site you need to really understand how you want the information to be organised. Often, there are a number of possible ways that a user could approach looking for information on your site.

Let's take a bingo comparison site, for example. Some customers may be looking to find sites based on the sign-up bonus offered (or other incentive) so your first instinct may be to create top level categories based on that, which is fine if that were the only thing people were looking for. But what about the people who are looking for a site based on the level of community interaction, or the highest level of payout? And what about users who want to be able to play a variety of games on one site?

Arranging the information on your site in such a way that it allows for all of these scenarios and more, takes a little more thought than targeting a single approach but in doing so, you will create a more robust platform for your site. Creating multiple silos provides a basis for a higher volume of search terms, as well as a more robust conversion platform. Exactly how you chose to architect this will be very dependent on just how many content silos you have and which are most profitable (in the example above, for instance, there may be many more people whose primary concern is the amount of sign up bonus they can get, and then, how active the community is).

If you are struggling to determine exactly how your silos work and interact. I suggest using Post-it notes to move the different pages on your site into groups, allowing you to move them around and determine exactly which pages work best together; this will often make a hierarchy more apparent. It's also worth asking a few other people to complete this exercise, ensuring that your logic is also easy for your potential customers to understand and navigate.

Once you understand how your site architecture should work, it's important to present this correctly to both users and the search engines. For this, I am going to focus on how to present your architecture for the search engines, because in this instance (contrary to popular wisdom regarding content), if your architecture works well for the search engines, it will likely work very well for users too.

Directory structuring and URL naming

While this doesn't have a huge SEO benefit, there are a lot of advantages to getting your URL and directory structure in a cascading format. It helps to ensure that everyone contributing to your site can see the hierarchical structure that you are using. Having said that, try to ensure that you are not delving into the realms of having a dozen folders in each URL:

www.example.com/widgets/green/big/green/product

The above is not a good experience for anyone and is way too deep for the search engines with unnecessary directories that simply look like keyword stuffing. You also want to make sure that when a low level page falls into two or more silos, that you don't force it into one or the other. In this instance, a product may fall into both sign-up bonuses and communities as silos. Here, you can either have a page within each and use canonical to target the correct version, or you can put all of your pages at this level into a non-silo folder (this method will have an impact on your breadcrumb navigation).

Main navigation

Getting your primary navigation to be just the right balance of usability, functionality, aesthetics and SEO, is like trying to cross quicksand; there is no right answer and there is no easy way to ensure it does everything without becoming a laundry list of every page on your site. So, remember to always test - if you are not testing, you are NOT doing your job!

You can, however, help to make sure that it takes both your users and the search engines on the correct journey through your site. As I mentioned earlier, there are many different angles a potential customer could take when assessing your products or services for conversion.

Your main navigation should be the start of each of these journeys for them. While the on-page links may take them directly to specific pages, your main navigation should take them on the start of a journey. Following on from the earlier example of the bingo site, their main navigation might include:

• Bingo sign-up incentives
• Bingo communities
• High payout bingo
• Bingo and other games

From those categories, you can help users further refine what they're looking for, until you direct them (and the search engines) to the exact page they need.

Breadcrumb navigation

Your breadcrumb navigation is often what ties your silos together; it has huge user benefit in allowing people to easily navigate through the levels of your site, but it also ties the entire silo together for the search engines, allowing you to demonstrate, in a clear and logical way, how all of your content relates and helps you become a 'subject matter expert' in their eyes. This is a very simple feature to implement and, quite frankly, should not be optional.

The only note here is that if you have a single page that is accessible from a number of different silos, you need to ensure that your breadcrumb navigation is dynamic, to ensure customers are not confused about where they have come from on your site.

Contextual linking

This is the final piece of the site architecture puzzle that I will be discussing, and it is probably one of the most important, and the one that can potentially have the biggest impact on your site's ranking. Contextual linking (linking from within your pages rather than within the navigation) is what allows customers and Google to skip steps on your site. You want users and search engines to be able to jump straight from your home page to your best or most popular offerings. Contextual linking can allow that to happen and demonstrates the high importance of that page not only to the users, but to the search engines as well. You may want users to be able to jump from widgets to widget repair kits, even though they're in different silos, because those are great purchases to make together. Allowing users and search engines to see all of these other connections strengthens the bonds between all of the areas of your site, ultimately, making the whole entity stronger and better performing.

Joining the dots

All of the elements I've mentioned combine to create a solid structure for your site that should withstand both changes in the algorithm, and any future expansion of your site (I like to call this 'Algorithmic Immune'). It's also important, however, that these elements combine with all of the other elements of your SEO campaign to create a unified approach. A well defined architecture should make it very clear where keyword-rich links should go, and what content should sit where within your site. If you have blue widgets sitting within a silo but then have content about pink widgets and links for red widgets, you will create confusion in the search engines as to what that site section is really about (remember: as smart as they are - they really aren't.

Make it easy for the search engines to figure out what your site is about). Your architecture should be built in such a way that for anyone wanting to link to you, your content and internal links intuitively point to the same place.
 
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