Site Structure: What it is and why you (really) need to know

Imagine this: you put time and money into a beautiful website only to have a high bounce rate and a painfully low conversion rate. Your site structure may be to blame. You can’t open your business without having a fundamental blueprint about how your business works. Likewise, you need a fundamental blueprint for your website. Enter: the site structure. The structure of your website is an essential element of your marketing plan, and it should be planned out before you start creating your website or any written or media content. So, the question is: what is site structure, why is it so important, and what do you need to know about it? We’ve got you covered. 

What is site structure? 

Site structure is perhaps the most important fundamental part of your website. Let’s say you walk into a shopping mall, looking for a particular shop. You’re certain the shop is there, but there isn’t a map in sight and the building itself isn’t designed in any sort of logical fashion. Sure, you see a bunch of stores on your way, but finding the specific one you want feels overwhelming at best. Frustrated with the lack of signage and guideposts, you decide you’re better off buying whatever it is you wanted elsewhere. You leave the mall, and that shop loses your business. 

Without carefully planning your site structure, you risk losing your potential customers in the same way. Essentially, site structure is the logical map of your site that takes people on the journey from the Point of Entry to Point of Sale. 

What is included in site structure planning? 

When you plan your site structure, there are a few essential elements you need to pay special attention to. If someone has to stop and think, you’ve lost an opportunity with them. Therefore, you need to make sure your website is simple and intuitive. So, what goes into developing a simple-to-use, intuitive website? 

  • Homepage
  • Navigation 
  • Link strategy
  • Fundamental understanding of your end goals 

Homepage

Think of your homepage like your greatest hits album, or, to continue with our example of the shopping mall, your homepage is going to be a collection of large outdoor signs for various big department stores like Nordstrom, The Container Store, Crate & Barrel, you know, the big-ticket shops that draw the crowds. Your home page should be a large “Here’s what we’ve got! You know you want it.”

Navigation

Your navigation needs to be simple and intuitive. Basically, your navigation is that big map that was missing from the ill-planned shopping mall. Users need to land on your home page, or your parking lot, know what you’ve got to offer, and know, intuitively, where to go in order to get it. 

Link strategy

Think of your link strategy like really effective signposting. An effective link strategy should clearly, logically, and painlessly guide users to the information they want or need. Better yet, you should guide them there and they should still know exactly how to get to your end-goal point. 

Fundamental understanding of your website goals

This might be one of the most important parts of your planning process. We’ll get deeper into this a little later, but suffice it to say, you need to know what the purpose of your website is–make a sale, offer information, get a phone call, etc.–you can’t create a map guiding anyone anywhere if you don’t know where people are supposed to end up. 

Why site structure matters for usability and experience

You know exactly why you would have left that ill-fated, poorly-planned shopping mall. It would have been a terrible, frustrating experience and the usability of the mall would have been marginal. You never actually made it to your intended shop, so, really, it was useless. If your website offers a cumbersome experience and limited usability, users will leave. 

In today’s online world, you can find anything you want or need with a few clicks. To be competitive, you need an intuitive and highly-functional website to succeed. This means you need a well-planned blueprint and an easy-to-read map. 

When customers come to your parking lot, your home page, they need to see the big-ticket stores that are going to draw them in. And they need to know exactly, without a thought, where to go to get to that store’s doors. Once they’ve entered and get into the mall, they need to be greeted with an easy-to-read map, or navigation. An effective site structure allows you to effectively communicate who you are and what you do while simultaneously allowing the customer to find the information they are looking for without searching through the pages of your website for it.

Why site structure matters for SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) is vitally important to your website, but it is often the part of the website that is least understood. Search engines can only index what they understand. Therefore, your website needs to be easily understandable. Not even the most advanced search engine could figure the ill-planned, ill-fated shopping mall we abandoned earlier. So, here’s what you need to know for SEO and site structure: 

  1. What keywords do you want to target? 
  2. How can you be sure to avoid keyword cannibalization?
  3. How are these keywords going to direct people to your site? 
  4. What is your competition doing and how are they succeeding? 

Ideally, you should have the structure of your site planned prior to the creation of any content. This way the content fits the narrative of your site, and you are not adapting structure to match your content. Basically, you need to know what stores you want in your mall (especially your staple, anchor department stores), the space they’ll take up, where they best fit in a layout (you probably don’t want to put a specialty kitchen wares shop right next to Williams Sonoma), and how to best and most logically drive foot traffic deeper into the mall. 

Keywords

You need to do keyword research. It’s difficult to market cast iron skillets to people who are looking for non-stick ceramic pans. Not doing keyword research means you may be putting your hard work selling cast iron in front of people looking to buy ceramic. You likely won’t be selling many skillets without properly targeting your keywords. You need to understand what people looking for cast iron skillets are searching for in order to present them with your product. 

Keyword cannibalization

Keyword cannibalization can be a dangerous game. Let’s look at our mall. If we put a specialty kitchen wares store next to a Williams Sonoma and across the aisle from Crate & Barrel, odds are that you’re going to get flustered, visit the stores, look at the items you want, and… did you actually buy what you went to the mall for? 

Google risks encountering the same problem. If you have too many pages on the same topic, Google will choose which single page to showcase, not showcase all of your hard work. Basically, it’s like putting all of our specialty kitchen stores right next to each other and only putting the Williams Sonoma sign above the row of shops. How are passersby supposed to know about the other shops? Likely, they won’t. 

Understanding user behavior & your competition

This is essential for SEO and usability. Why? Because you need to understand how users expect to get from your homepage to your point of conversion. Likewise, Google needs to be able to figure how you’re directing people. If Google can’t understand your map and your map doesn’t make logical sense, it’s not going to suggest your site to potential users. 

Your structure also needs to match user intent, and if it doesn’t, you’ll miss opportunities with users. When you walk into a shopping mall, you expect to be able to find a map. You expect to be able to enter into a big department store and be clearly ushered deeper into the mall on the other end.  The same is true with your site. Let’s say you’re selling skillets. If people can’t easily find the skillets, put them in their cart, and check out, they probably won’t complete the transaction, and you’ve lost a sale. 

So, what is the ideal site structure?

This is an interesting question. It’s a simple answer that lives in the “gray area.” Your site structure should look like a pyramid. It’s that simple. However, it will vary greatly based on the purpose of your site. There is no “plug and chug” equation that you can use, but there are some basic rules to follow. If we think about our shopping mall, you should structure your site as follows: 

  • Homepage: Big-ticket stores with large “can’t-miss” signs outside. These are your main attraction shops. When users land on your homepage, or, again, your parking lot, they need to know where to go to get to the stores or entrances they want. 
  • Secondary pages: Core products or services. Sure, you’ve got your big Nordstrom and Crate & Barrel, but you’ve also got your mall staples: Lids, Zumiez, Hot Topic, Cinnabon, The Disney Store and, of course, the ever-present tourist trap shops. These are the stores you expect to see in a shopping mall. 
  • Support pages: These are the pages that are more niche, like, say, a speciality spice shop. These are pages reserved for long-tail keywords and niche topics that should support your core products and services. 

Essentially, you need to showcase your anchor stores first: what are your main attractions? Then, your navigation should serve as a directory: what other shops or services do you offer that users can learn more about and how can they get there? From there, you’ll provide deeper information on topics they’re specifically interested in. In our mall metaphor, these can be the departments inside your department stores or the restaurants within your food court. Every layer of content you provide supports the one above it and progresses logically and intuitively. Remember: if someone has to stop and think about where to go, you’ve lost an opportunity. 

How to plan your site structure

Since there isn’t a single ideal structure, your website will require thoughtful planning. You’ve put a lot into understanding how your business works. Because of how vital your site structure is, this is not the place to decide to sit back and let your product or service speak for itself. Planning your website structure is step one. You wouldn’t start construction on a shopping mall without a complete blueprint. As such, you shouldn’t start constructing your site without a site blueprint. So, where do you start? 

Your site structure will depend heavily upon your industry or niche, but there are few basic things to keep in mind when starting to plan your site structure. There are two primary things to remember throughout the planning process: 

  1. Your structure must be logical and intuitive
  2. Your structure must match user intent

Bearing these things in mind, you need to move on to the actual planning. It will be helpful to step back and look at some essential functions your website needs to perform. If you don’t have a crystal clear understanding about what your website needs to do, you risk your site not actually doing what it needs to do. Things to know when planning your site structure: 

  • What is your competition doing? 
  • What do your customers expect to experience? 
  • Who exactly is your audience? 
  • What is your user intent? 

You need to know all of these things because you need to know how best to achieve your goals. You can’t sell shoes if your site is only set up to inform people about shoes. 

Include internal linking in your site structure plan 

You’re not going to build a mall without maps, and smaller shops aren’t going to stay tucked away hoping passersby notice them on their way to the food court. Your maps and directories are vital for all of your smaller shops, especially the specialty shops.

Providing working on-page links in the web copy is key, linking both up and down through your sites structure, customers should be able to naturally navigate through the information they need to make a decision. The goal of internal linking is to provide the information to form a foundation and support that you’ve established yourself to be on the homepage. Keeping in mind that the information provided to support what you have established at the top of the pyramid should aim to convert traffic from your website into revenue for your business.

When it’s time to reevaluate your site structure

Given all of this information, the idea of site structure can start to feel overwhelming. On one hand, it should. You should not underestimate the power of your site structure. In essence, it really is the crux of your digital marketing strategy. However, you don’t have to get it right the first time, and if you don’t, your business probably won’t fail. 

Fortunately, in this aspect, your website is very much not like a shopping mall. You can change your blueprint and reconstruct at any point. In fact, you should. But, the question remains: how do you know when your site structure has gone awry? Carefully watching your metrics will give you the information you need to know about whether or not you’ve gotten it right. 

Metrics to watch

Google Analytics and Google Search Console are the best way to evaluate the success of your site structure. Because of the insights you can gain about user behavior from these tools, you can evaluate your strategy in real time to make sure you’re giving users what they want and see exactly where your strategy is falling short. 

  • Exit pages
  • Entry pages
  • New & returning visitor stats
  • Bounce & abandonment rates

This valuable data allows you to uncover trends about what users are coming to your site for and where you’re seeing success or failure in conversion. 

You may consider asking yourself: 

  • Is there information your customers are looking for that I can do a better job communicating to them? 
  • Where am I losing users, and where are they staying on my site the longest?
  • Am I actually earning the trust of users, or is this why they’re not converting? 
  • Does my website structure match the purpose of their visit to it? 
  • Have I told a narrative in my structure, guiding users from the homepage to the point of conversion? 

The goal of an effective site structure should be to guide customers from an initial point of interest to the point of conversion seamlessly. Remember: they shouldn’t have to think about where to go next; it should be intuitive. 

Maintaining your site structure over time

You need to maintain your website over time. Your product line changes, your services change, you add to your blog, etc. Whatever it is you’re adding to your site, it needs to be added to your structure with intention. Your site structure cannot exist in isolation. Not only do you need to monitor your metrics to ensure your site is actually working, but you also need to make sure that you are maintaining an effective structure as your site and industry trends grow and change. As you continue to add content to your site over time, you have to factor in regular audits of your site structure. Your website can quickly become like a stockroom that no one is really paying attention to. As boxes, or pages, come in, they sometimes just go anywhere there’s space, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with a big mess on your hands. 

You should be regularly monitoring your Google Analytics and Google Search Console to assess how effective your structure is. As you continue to add to your site, as you should do, you will need to maintain your structure in light of the new content. 

Three things to look at when performing site structure maintenance: 

  1. Clean up or remove content that is outdated, not ranking, or no longer applicable. 
  2. Make sure you have no keyword cannibalization and merge any necessary content.
  3. Determine if you need to change your navigation to make it simpler and easier to follow. 

All of these questions will help you keep your structure focused and purposeful. 

Landing pages & site structure

As you’re walking the halls of the mall, you’ll inevitably come across people offering samples outside the shops. Say there’s a special seasonal spice blend, so there will be someone posted outside the specialty spice shop offering samples of this limited-time blend. This person serves a very important purpose: they’re using this one limited-time offer to entice people to dive deeper into the shop and ultimately make their way to the check-out counter–ideally with a basket full of goodies. 

This one shop, particularly this one spice blend in question, has little to do with the attraction of the mall itself. However, it’s important enough to say “come on in!” Your landing pages are much like this salesperson. They fall outside the realm of your actual site structure–there is no map highlighting where samples are being offered on this day–but, nonetheless, they are important for bringing people further in. Landing pages are really useful for conversion, particularly for your long-tail keywords or specific products, like a seasonal spice blend. However, they don’t always fit neatly inside your site structure. You shouldn’t muddy up your structure for a single, specific product, but you surely can (and should) use a targeted ad and a landing page to drive traffic and increase conversion! 

Website pop ups

Website pop ups can be really useful and effective for conversion. However, they can also begin to feel like those pesky mall kiosks that you pass hoping you can scoot past without making eye contact. You need to handle pop ups with care; otherwise, your shop could be one of the ones you passed trying to avoid the relentless kiosk salespeople. 

Site structures and sitemaps 

Your site structure and sitemap are not the same thing. When you submit an XML sitemap to Google, you’re telling Google, “hey, here are all of my pages so you know the deal.” You don’t have to do this, but if you don’t nail your site structure, you’re giving Google access to all of your pages that it may not have found had it simply crawled your site. If your structure is a mess, Google may not find all of your pages or understand why they’re there–much like you never found the shop you were looking for in the poorly-planned shopping mall. Even if the mall is a disaster, you have a map and can likely, even though it will take patience and effort, find the shop you need.

The bottom line about site structure

At the end of the day, site structure can be boiled down to: how do you sell your product, service, or information most effectively? You can’t walk up to someone and haphazardly throw information at them and expect them to buy or call or schedule. You have to have a plan. 

  1. Plan your site structure before you start developing your site or content
  2. Your website structure must be intuitive, logical, and match user intent 
  3. You need to monitor your site structure over time to ensure it continues to work for you. You may not get it right the first time, and that’s okay! 
  4. Get help if you’re struggling. Trial and error is a necessary part of learning about what does and does not work in your local market, but, at the end of the day, there are times when calling in a professional is your best bet. You wouldn’t throw good money at an unqualified architect, and you shouldn’t do it with your website either. 

With quality planning, your website can be simple, intuitive, and a powerhouse of conversion. 

Author avatar
Vincent Schwellenbach

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