Content is a hot topic these days. If you read or listen to any number of experts, you’ll hear that content is what drives search, leads, and sales. Content is important, but as with anything, building a good foundation on which your content rests is key.

This month Jill Whalen, CEO of High Rankings, and one of the top SEO experts, explains the importance of site architecture and navigation.

Dianna Huff: Jill, what do you mean by “site architecture” and why is it important?

Jill Whalen: Site architecture is how every page is linked to every other page within a website. It’s essentially how a person or a search engine navigates through your website. It’s important for both people and search engines as well. The way your pages are linked together is part its overall “usability.” That is, the ease or difficulty your website visitors have when it comes to finding what they’re looking for.

It works the same way for search engines. Pages that are easy for search engines to find, for instance, those linked to in the navigational menu that’s at the top of every page, will be given more weight by them. This is because those pages have more “internal link popularity” within your site.

You may already know about the importance of “link popularity” – that is, other sites linking to yours, and how that provides value. Internal linking is just as important. With the right site architecture in place, you have the ability to tell Google which pages of your site are important by how you link to them.

The way you create your site architecture is key when it comes to B2B sites – especially with regard to getting found for “short-tail” keywords.

DH: Explain the difference between long- and short-tail.

JW: Short-tail keywords would be those that are highly competitive, that is, lots of people are typing them into Google and lots of websites are trying to optimize for them. Where long-tail keywords are those which are not searched on very often at Google, but which when added together can create a nice flow of website visitors.

Many people mistakenly believe that long-tail and short-tail keywords are named that way due to the number of words they contain. They assume that a phrase that contains only two or three words must be a short-tail keyword phrase and one that contains four or five words must be a long-tail phrase.

While this is often the case, it doesn’t have to be. For instance, you could put any two words together and make up your own keyword phrase. Let’s say “banana pickle.” Even though it’s only two words, it would still be considered a long-tail phrase as it’s dependent upon how many people search for it. (I didn’t do any keyword research, but I have a feeling that banana pickle isn’t being typed into Google very often!)

So in terms of a B2B website, a short-tail keyword phrase would perhaps be a general service that you offer, say “content writing.” And a long-tail keyword phrase might be something much more specific, say, “B2B website content writing.” These are just off the top of my head, of course. You’d want to use keyword research tools to know for sure which phrases get lots of searches and which don’t.

It might be that “B2B website content writing” isn’t long-tail at all, but more of what I call a “keyword gem.” Those are phrases that do get a good amount of searches, but aren’t quite as competitive as short-tail keywords. Keyword gems are actually the ones you want to focus most of your efforts on. (See my keyword research articles for more information on researching and choosing keywords.)

A lot of people focus on developing articles (or blog posts) for a site because this type of content naturally drives long-tail searches. That is, the words that you naturally use within your content will often be phrases that people happen to be searching on at Google. Because it’s more difficult, many people, unfortunately, neglect to optimize the top level pages of their website for the keyword gem phrases which are often the keywords people use when they’re in the decision-making phase of the buying cycle.

DH: So why are keyword gems important to site architecture?

JW: This is a good question. Since search engines give extra weight to pages that are easy to find and have lots of links within your site, you have a better chance of ranking them for the more sought after phrases.

On the other hand, blog posts and articles are rarely linked to from every page of your site. They often have just one link and that can be short-lived when newer blog posts get published. So unless lots of other sites link any specific blog post, it is likely to only be found for the less searched upon, long-tail phrases.

The cool thing is that you, as the site owner, get to tell search engines (and people) which pages of your site are the most important (so they get the most weight) by how and where you put them within your site architecture.

For instance, most B2B companies would like to have people coming to their site from Google who are looking for their specific products or services. So the idea is to make sure you have a products or services page that is linked to from your main navigation menu prominently featured on every page. That top-level products/services page would then describe your main categories of products/services with a short summary of each of them, and link to the deeper pages that provide more information.

So you basically have a variety of levels to your site architecture:

  1. The first level is your home page, which typically has the most link popularity of all pages, which means it can be optimized (and ideally rank) for the most competitive phrases.
  2. The second level is the pages linked to from your main menu, such as your top-level products/services page. This level within your site architecture is your best bet to optimize for fairly competitive keyword gems.
  3. The third level is the individual product or service pages themselves. They should be optimized for the very specific product or service name itself. Depending on what you sell and how specialized it is, these may be somewhat competitive, or maybe not.
  4. The fourth level of your site architecture would be your added-value content such as blog posts, articles, white papers, videos, etc. These help establish your credibility and expertise within your industry, and bring in those visitors using long-tail keywords at Google.

When I work with clients who are developing new sites, I help them determine their main categories or services and base these pages on keyword research, that is, what phrases people are using to find what they offer. These pages then become part of the main navigation.

DH: What are some mistakes you see people making when it comes to their site architecture or with SEO in general?

JW: A biggie — assuming that your competitors know what they’re doing, and copying them! People will look at their competitors’ keyword tags to see which keywords are being used. Nine times out of ten your competitors have no clue what they’re doing, so this isn’t a good way to find the best keywords.

The other huge mistake is that people get hung up on rankings rather than the website traffic they’re getting. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as where you actually rank in Google anymore because everyone sees a different set of results for any keyword phrase they type into the search box.

The search results you see can depend upon a variety of factors such as:

  • Your location
  • If you’re logged in or out of your Google account
  • What people in your social media networks have recommended
  • What you’ve previously searched for

Therefore, rather than trying to figure out where you might rank in Google for the keyword phrases you’ve optimized for, you should be looking at whether or not you’re receiving website visitors who have used those phrases at Google and then clicked through to your site. Web analytic programs such as Google Analytics provide you with all this information and more (and it’s free!).

Another mistake I see a lot is people optimizing for just one or two keyword phrases rather than hundreds or even thousands that relate to what they offer. People search in a variety of ways and there’s no sense getting hung up on a handful of phrases when they may not even be the ones that will drive leads and sales to your website.

I always get calls from marketing people who explain how they were getting thousands of unique visitors for all sorts of keyword phrases but their CEO was mad because the site wasn’t number one for a particular phrase! This is really short-sighted thinking. The best thing to do about this is to educate the CEO, which of course is easier said than done!

DH: It’s hard not to get hung up on rankings because as you say, top placement in Google does get you more traffic. What advice do you have for people on making their sites better so that they do rank well for multiple keywords?

JW: The key to great SEO –- and to making your site the best it can be –- is to first focus on the basics:

  • Make sure your site is designed to be crawled by spiders (don’t use certain JavaScript or Flash menus that are invisible to them).
  • Give each page unique and keyword-rich Title and meta description tags.
  • Be descriptive in your navigation and anchor text links –- instead of the non-descriptive “software,” think about what kind of software you’re actually selling, say “marketing automation software” and use that as the anchor text.
  • Don’t put keywords or copy inside of graphics as spiders can’t read them.

Once the main portion of your site (where you provide information on your products or services) is optimized, then focus on the value-added extra things like articles and social media.

DH: Jill, during this entire interview, I kept thinking that SEOers need to think like marketers as much of what you say relates to marketing. I know that to be an effective marketer, I have had to think like an SEOer.

JW: Yep! Aside from the technical issues, SEO basically IS marketing. That’s why I say, if your website is good for people, then it’s good for search engines. Because ultimately, Google wants to deliver content that people find useful.

DH: Thanks, Jill for this terrific interview.

If your site has technical SEO issues that prevent it from ranking well in the search engines, or if you’re redesigning your website and don’t want to lose your existing search engine traffic, then Jill is the person to contact.

She’s been providing on-page SEO consulting since 1995 and currently offers a slew of SEO consulting and website audit services.Check out her site, High Rankings, for details –- and if you aren’t already a subscriber, be sure to sign up for her High Rankings Advisor newsletter. It’s one of the few newsletters that makes it to my Gmail Priority Inbox.

  • Nice interview. Got some pretty good information and refreshers.

  • gregory smith

    Jill always provides great quality. I love her…