Everything You Need To Know About SEO Web Structure & Internal Links

Website structure and internal linking is one of the most inconsistent topics within search engine optimization. Not only are SEO practitioners frequently at odds among ourselves, we must compete with the often conflicting goals of designers, usability experts, and marketing or sales teams. There is a lot of disagreement out there.

Look for yourself. Pick five websites from among your favorite SEO companies or experts. Compare their navigation structures on the homepage, category pages, topic pages and content pages. I am confident you will find noticeable  differences.

  • Does the top navigation use dropdown links?
  • Do sidebar or top navigation links cross sub-categories and topics?
  • What type of navigation links do you find in the footers?

What are we to do?

Google says, “Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links” and, “Keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number.”

Google used to suggest limiting the number of links on a page to 100 or less. As Matt Cutts explained, this assists usability and to prevents web pages from dividing PageRank too thinly.

At any rate, you’re dividing the PageRank of that page between hundreds of links, so each link is only going to pass along a minuscule amount of PageRank anyway. Users often dislike link-heavy pages too, so before you go overboard putting a ton of links on a page, ask yourself what the purpose of the page is and whether it works well for the user experience.

Matt Cutts, March 9, 2009

Both are good points; however I suggest that using 100 links as a benchmark does not work well. Websites with high PageRank can be more liberal with links and content than sites with low authority.

If your website has a lot of authority, say a Blekko Host Rank of 1,500 your pages can easily link to 100 other pages. But if your Host Rank is 50 you probably want your pages to link to only your homepage, category pages and a few important SEO keyword optimized target pages. The more raw ranking strength a website possesses, the more liberties it can take with internal linking.

How Should You Structure Your Website?

The following graphic shows the most typical ways website content gets organized. Structuring with categories, topics and sub-topics provides horizontal and vertical hierarchy.

While you can extend this infinitely, the accepted best practice is for pages to be four clicks or fewer from the homepage.

SEO Website Structure

These are my preferred Strict Navigation Rules for a 0–4 depth website:

  • The Homepage links to all Category Pages (down)
  • Category Pages
    • Each Category page links to the Homepage (up)
    • Each Category page links to all Category pages (across)
    • Each Category page link to its own Topic pages (down)
  • Topic Pages
    • Each Topic page links to the Homepage (up)
    • Each Topic page links to all Category pages (up)
    • Each Topic page links to the all Topic pages within its Category (across)
    • Each Topic page links to its own Sub-topic pages (down)
  • Sub-topic Pages
    • Each Sub-topic page links to the Homepage (up)
    • Each Sub-topic page links to all Category pages (up)
    • Each Sub-topic page links to all Topic pages within its own Category (up)
    • Each Sub-topic page links to all Sub-topic pages within its own Topic (across)
    • Each Sub-topic links to its own Content pages (down)
  • Content Pages
    • Each Content page links to the Homepage (up)
    • Each Content page links to all Category pages (up)
    • Each Content page links to all Topic pages within its own Category (up)
    • Each Content page links to all Sub-topic pages within its own Topic (up)
    • Each Content page links to all Content pages within its own Sub-topic (across)

 SEO Internal Linking

As you grok this internal linking structure, keep in mind two things are happening here.

First, we are pushing PageRank down into the site. What may not be obvious is you are pushing PageRank back upwards. PageRank is a renewable resource.

After search engines measure a webpage’s raw ranking strength, they reuse some that authority by dividing it among the outbound links on the page and sending it along. Since every page links back to the homepage and category pages, this navigational structure gives those pages the most PageRank.

At this point you may be asking, But Tom, if the homepage and category pages are getting all that authority how do I make my content pages rank?

After all, the content pages are where you optimize for most keywords, right? This is where search engine optimization gets interesting. Your site architecture and internal link structure create the framework within which you optimize, but there is much more to SEO.

Taking Site Structure To The Next Level

Beginning with the top of your website, seasoned optimizers dislike generic categories such as products or solutions. Why waste all that ranking authority on generic pages when employing keywords as categories makes for a far stronger SEO strategy.

Can your turn your product lines into categories?

For example: Wedding Gowns, Bridesmaid Dresses, and Flower Girl Dresses are ideal categories for a bridal shop. Look at how www.amazon.com and www.zappos.com sets-up their categories. Try to emulate this.

Exceptions create high ranking opportunities. Cross-link to create SEO hub-pages. Send extra PageRank to important SEO pages.

If you have a Gasoline Powered Chainsaws page, each time you mention this, link to that page. Use sidebars or content windows to feature and link to your chainsaw page. Write multiple pages or supporting content that can link naturally to it, for example a tutorial on chainsaw safety or guide to properly cutting down trees or article called How to Survive the Upcoming Zombie Apocalypse will all work well.

The problem with creating cross-links to hub-pages is if you create too many links to too many pages, you eat away at your internal linking structure. Avoid this by limiting which hub-pages to cross-link to from your home, category and topic pages. Keep supporting content on the same level or lower in your website organization.

Make category, topic and sub-topic pages content rich. If your category pages are nothing more than links to sub-pages you waste ranking authority. Target these pages to keywords and fill them up with relevant content.

It always seems to come back to creating link-worthy content and having a strong link building and social media program to get off-site links, mentions and shares. The last thing you want is for all your off-site links to point to your homepage.

Yes, PageRank gets reused. But search engines limit or dampen the amount of authority with each re-pass. Having off-site links to many different pages not only sends ranking authority to the target pages, it extends the amount of PageRank which gets passed throughout your website.

Besides that, links to many pages is a basic signal of website quality, it increases a website’s search spider crawl budget, and extends the number of pages the search engines will index and include in their rankings.

Final Thought

Using internal linking to create a vertical site architecture is like setting-up a Monopoly board for game play. You still need to buy properties and add houses and hotels to have a chance at winning.

However, if you never open the box, put the game pieces on Go, lay out the Chance and Community Chest cards or set-up the bank, you cannot play the game.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO | SEO: General

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About The Author: operates Schmitz Marketing, an Internet Marketing consultancy helping brands succeed at Inbound Marketing, Social Media and SEO. You can read more from Tom at Hitchhiker's Guide to Traffic.

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  • James Clark

    Nice article but can I clarify if the internal links should be anchor text? Would it not be sufficient to have a hieratical navigation menu?

  • Tom Schmitz

    I assume you mean hierarchical and that you are not trying to use priestly powers for seo. My apologies, I could not resist. :D

    Top links, including the top navigation are among the more influential links on your website. If you mean drop down menus with multiple levels, you are still linking to all of those pages from every page, totally flattening your website.

    If you mean using generic keywords in the top navigation, SEO keywords are always preferable to generic text in the anchor text. That said, sometimes you are scrunched for space, and not every page has to be an SEO hub page. Some SEOs are less concerned than I about this because anchor text from external links is much more influential than from internal links.

    However, if you are really serious about SEO and creating an awesome smart website instead of using plug-n-play convention or doing it like every website does, take the time and effort to make a website that communicates exactly what you have and how awesome you are in descript, non-generic terms. Sometimes this is really difficult, but if you can do it along with a great design and usability your website will have a huge advantage.

  • James Clark

    Oops ;D. Got it, thanks Tom!

  • http://www.growtap.com G.T.

    “First, we are pushing PageRank down into the site. What may not be obvious is you are pushing PageRank back upwards. PageRank is a renewable resource.”

    I think this is really the key. It’s not a one way river, which is how most people talk about it.

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    Hi all-

    Oh my gosh…with all due respect, I am a regular reader of your column, Tom, and normally a fan. But I think you missed the boat on this one.

    I think everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE, needs to throw away the concept of PageRank when coming up with a site’s information architecture and corresponding navigation scheme(s). You build an information architecture first and foremost for users…then you accommodate search engines.

    SEOs need to stop thinking of DHTML menus as an SEO “solution” when users do not complete tasks efficiently with them or just don’t use them at all. (Or, more likely, swear and give the “WTF” facial expression during usability tests and field studies.) Or a keyword stuffed fat footer.

    Site navigation often becomes a usability issue when PageRank becomes part of the discussion.

    The “key” isn’t PageRank. The key is users/searchers. I always encourage people to sign up for an information architecture class or 2 or 3. Read the good books about the topic (Peter Morville and Donna Spencer are good authors). The tough pill to swallow? If you don’t have the aptitude for information architecture (IA), then hire a qualified information architect, someone with that aptitude.

    I don’t have the aptitude for all aspects of SEO. I’m not embarrassed or ashamed to admit when I don’t have an aptitude.

    I have the same point of view for navigation design. SEOs still can’t get past the fact that text links and drop-down DHTML menus are not necessarily the best navigation/technical architecture choice. Hire a professional navigation designer if this is not an aptitude. Or become an expert.

    Deciding the number of links per page should be a human choice, not a PageRank choice. Some pages by their very nature will have and should have a lot of links ( a site index for example). Some pages will not.

    Wish I could agree with the article and comments. I can’t. I’ve been doing search-engine friendly design and architecture since 1995. I am amazed that these misconceptions and attitudes toward searcher-friendly navigation still exist.

  • http://www.site-seeker.com Levi Spires

    I agree with Shari, somewhat.

    It seems like more often I’m spending more time debating who comes first, Google or the user. The user always wins! However, we shouldn’t downplay Google’s sovereign rulership over the Internet.

  • http://simplyclicks David

    Tom,
    Slight overclaim in the title but a good discourse on the subject.
    I am currently working on a SEO project where the design brief has completely ignored how Google and current visitors use the site. The client and designers expect SEO to solve their problems. The problem is that the client brief suggests that every page should be reachable from every other page. This has meant the creation of a drop down menu system that crowds the page. As well as diluting pagerank and reducing the focus of each page its aesthetically ugly. On tablets, 6% of users, and mobile phones, 2% of users, the menu looks a mess.

    I’m not a fan of SEO and Google is everything but along with user navigation it should be a core part of any design brief.

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    @Tom

    The client who believes in the 3-click rule or its variations (“every page should be reachable from every other page”) does not understand information architecture, navigation design, and website usability. It’s a gross overgeneralization.

    That belief shows a fundamental lack of understanding of searcher behaviors and findability as well. I understand myths and misconceptions are difficult to overcome. But I wouldn’t back down because the result is a website that doesn’t meet the needs of searchers and search engines.

    If an site is architected properly, then “diluting PageRank” should be the least of your concerns.

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    @Levi-

    People do not always know this about me. I’ve been a web developer since 1995. I have never discounted crawlers as the 3rd browser (as Danny Sullivan has called it for years). I don’t discount Google when I come up with a site’s information architecture and corresponding navigation scheme(s).

    I’ll say it again: I build a site first and foremost for users, and accommodate search engines. I have a difficult time believing that one must be sacrificed for the other most of the time.

    Maybe too many people don’t know what information architecture is (or website usability for that matter) to make a logical conclusion. They keep clinging to stereotypes, myths, and personal beliefs.

    Information architecture by PageRank???? No wonder SEOs continue to have a poor reputation.

  • Tom Schmitz

    This column is written for the SEO perspective.

    I acknowledge there are different interests when it comes to site structure, including design, SEO, and usability. That is what I meant when I wrote:

    “Using internal linking to create a vertical site architecture is like setting-up a Monopoly board for game play. You still need to buy properties and add houses and hotels to have a chance at winning.”

    I also wrote:

    “Your site architecture and internal link structure create the framework within which you optimize, but there is much more to SEO.”

    Perhaps I should have written, “… there is much more to SEO and web design.”

    Design, SEO and usability have to work together to create the best experience possible for both people and search engines. Should the SEO person stand passively back while someone else suggest a drop-down spider navigation that links to every page three or four levels deep? I think not. Should the design lead blindly submit to the SEO request to put keywords in every navigation link when it will make the site difficult to scan or understand? I wouldn’t.

  • Tom Schmitz

    PageRank is such a dirty word, isn’t it?

    We SEOs avoid it like the plague because of the confusion between Toolbar PageRank and Real PageRank. It’s impossible to isolate. PageRank is only part of Google’s 200+ ranking factors. The days when a PR5 page outranked a PR4 or PR3 page are long past us. Because it’s confusing we skirt around it.

    And yet… Sometimes you have to talk about PageRank. Site architecture is one of those times.

    PageRank is raw ranking strength. It’s authority. That’s it. It has nothing to do with relevancy or content or a myriad of other ranking factors. Just plain link juice. As uncomfortable as it is to talk about PageRank, it should not be ignored. Why do we cross-link posts or pages within a website? To send relevancy via anchor text, yes, and also to deliver authority, i.e. PageRank.

  • Tom Schmitz

    Shari, when you wrote about DHTML menus as an SEO solution are you writing about menus that link to every category, topic, and sub-topic page and perhaps more? Because I think these wreck SEO far too often. Except, in my experience with numerous clients, it’s usability run wrong. Designers want to make it easy to find content, yet inevitably, people do not click on those deep-navigation links. All the designers accomplish is to over-flatten websites, to wreck any hierarchy.

    I think you and I agree far more than you think. We’re just approaching it from different directions.

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    Hi Tom-

    I know we agree a lot and have the same approach. It takes a lot to get me to comment. it was actually the comments that inspired me to post.

    PageRank is difficult to isolate from any SEO discussion — completely agree.

    I am just tired of the “SEO mythology” of information architecture by (perceived) PageRank. I hate the quick-fix solutions of mega menus when it really isn’t a solution. I don’t believe people know the definitions of SEO, information architecture, and website usability…or even user experience. So I write about those very things so that we all can have the proper context.

    My comments and feedback will probably lead to an article. Always looking for inspiration…thank you for that.

    :-)

  • http://www.commenti.org/ vijaychauhan007

    Nice going through this post.. I liked the structure thing the most. You have nicely covered many things in a single post. I was just wondering that what does it for a simple to get PR 5+. I have been backlinking to every possible website since a year and a hafl, still my website PR is only 5… Saaddd.. Anyways nice post..

  • innki

    what is the difference between on-site and off-site optimization for example in a clothes online webstore!

 

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