In this article, I explain what website architecture is, why it is important, and how to create one that is good for users and your SEO efforts.
You’ll learn how to design the perfect structure for your website.
If you are in the process of creating a new website, optimizing or redesigning an existing one, this article will help you keep an eye on what is important.
What is website architecture?
Website architecture is the way information is arranged on your website. It comprises organizing your content so that your users can quickly find what they are looking for. The term “website architecture” is derived from information architecture, a broader field of study relevant to websites and various types of information systems like intranets, document management systems, or user manuals.
Website architecture focuses on how different pages are linked together and how the content is displayed for optimal user experience.
There are 2 important things to remember:
- Good website architecture serves both people and machines. It sounds techy, but I will lay it down for you in a way you will surely grasp.
- Good website architecture makes browsing intuitive. It does the thinking for your users.
Why should you care about good website architecture?
Good website architecture helps users sift through the growing amount of information on the internet.
It isn’t just important for your users, though. It also helps search engines better surface your website’s content where it’s relevant.
Sticking to a logical and consistent architecture on your site can help you:
- achieve the goals you have for the specific pages on your website, and
- deliver a great user experience to your website’s visitors.
Good vs. bad website architecture
Bad website architecture is non-intuitive. It makes it hard for people to use your website and impossible for search engines to understand it. Both humans and bots get lost when information is poorly organized.
On the other hand, good website architecture makes finding information easy, intuitive and does not require users to think too much.
Importantly, it is also readable by search engines that can subsequently present it to users.
As acutely pointed in Donna Spencer’s Practical Guide to Information Architecture, there are a few catches to creating good architecture:
- There is always more than one way of organizing content.
- People have different needs.
- People have different ideas of what goes together and what does not.
- Some people may know a lot about a topic while others may know nothing, and you have to consider both perspectives.
- Technology that people use to access websites keeps on changing.
- Search engines that organize most of the information keep evolving as well.
This might seem intimidating, so let’s go through the whole process of creating a great website architecture together to make it easier on you.
How to create the perfect website architecture
Do your research
When sitting down to create website architecture, you should reflect on your current situation.
Are you creating a website from scratch, optimizing, or redesigning an existing one?
If you’re optimizing or redesigning something that’s already live, you should have clear goals for why you want to change things and what you expect to achieve.
There will be different sources of information in each case, but the workflow is quite similar:
Look at your competitors and learn from them
Your competitors are websites within your niche that are targeting the same users as you are.
Unless you have an incredibly unique product, there is a chance that you have plenty of resources to inspire you.
Walk a mile in your user’s shoes, browse for products and services similar to yours, and see what you find.
Now comes the crucial part: take notes of what you like and what you don’t like as a user browsing your competitors’ websites.
Consider what you would like to find on your own website. Pay attention to details: the what, the why, the where, the how, the when:
- What information do your competitors provide? What language do they use?
- Why do you think they decided to include this particular information? Why is it useful for users?
- Where (on the website) do they provide specific types of information? Can you think of a better place for this information?
- How do they provide information: images, text, video? A mix of all? How was it sorted? How does it help users?
- When do users encounter a particular element within their journey through the website?
Go back to your vision and mission
Now that you know what your competitors are up to, go back to the vision and mission of your site. Remind yourself what makes you… you.
It will help you define what is important for your business and set the priorities for your website architecture.
Write down your unique selling point and how you think it should be presented on your website.
Remember that you can have as many pages as you like as long as you organize them intelligently and in a way that allows users to flow through the content naturally.
Define the most important pages
The most important pages are usually those that have the potential to generate the most value.
Value could be understood in many different ways. Commonly, very important pages (VIPs) are a combination of pages that generate the most revenue or the most traffic, or both.
When starting with website architecture, it is useful to write your VIPs down to make sure you give them priority at the later stages.
Make your website architecture SEO-friendly
Conduct thorough keyword research
Keyword research is an analysis of queries typed or voiced into search engines that helps understand how users look for information in your niche. It is most useful when prepared with the help of a keyword research tool.
External tools bring an objective perspective to the table. They also help differentiate the keywords based on metrics like popularity that prove useful when assessing the value of queries and pages.
Keyword research analysis helps to understand how users flow through topics by exploring the types of information users look for. This knowledge, in turn, is invaluable in designing an intuitive website architecture.
Once you have your keyword research ready and understand what your users talk about in relation to your niche, organize your findings.
Create topical silos to support the VIP pages
In a website context, topical silos are thematically related groups of pages.
Let’s say that you want to know about website architecture. You will most likely want to know what it is, what it consists of, what it looks like, how to design it, etc. All of these queries fall into a topical silo called “website architecture.”
People naturally look for information by exploring topics. A good website architecture divides these topics into smaller chunks – individual pages, but keeps them all “at hand.” In the context of websites, that means just a few clicks away, so users can access any additional content as soon as they want.
Organizing content in topical silos simply allows for all related information to be easily findable on a website.
Divide topics and queries into pages based on search/user intent
Once you have the topics, the next step is dividing the information into consumable chunks – pages, based on search intent.
Search intent is the primary goal a user has in mind when searching using a search engine.
That means that when a user communicates something to Google, they have a certain expectation they want to be met.
Your pages should ideally answer these expectations hidden behind queries.
How to assess user intent in practice?
- Take all queries that you gathered in your topical silo and think about what intent lies behind them. What would you like to see after typing them into the search engine? What would help you?
- When in doubt, type the queries into the search engine. If you see similar results for two queries, it suggests that the intent is similar. You can target them on one page to avoid cannibalization.
- The queries that can be answered with similar content can fit into one page. It is totally fine to target multiple queries with one page. Just remember about a clear website structure.
By following these steps, you will assign queries to your pages. Even though this might seem like a lot of work, you will notice patterns much faster than you think, and you will be able to build chunks of website architecture without checking every keyword in your database separately.
Review keywords targeted on your most value-creating pages
This is a reminder to check that the most valuable pages you listed earlier have clearly defined intent and relevant, popular queries assigned to them. These pages should also be linked from all other pages within the topical silo.
Add a Call-To-Action that aligns with the purpose of each page
Now that you have assigned queries to intent and intent to pages, set a purpose for each page.
- Product listing page on an eCommerce site: to showcase the inventory and encourage users to explore particular products.
- A blog article on a news site: to describe a topic and encourage users to explore more content and subscribe.
- Careers page: to engage with potential new candidates and encourage them to get in touch.
All this might sound obvious. However, defining the purpose and assigning pages call-to-action can help clear the vision and adjust the content and labels.
Use your findings and use the right keywords
Now that you know how your users look for information use the words your keyword research identified in the key elements of a given page.
You should use the primary keywords associated with your page in all the crucial elements, like the meta title, headers, and navigation elements that point to that page.
The more everyday language you have on those labels, the easier it will be to find information.
For example, if you decide to have a blog, make sure to call it a blog unless you have an excellent reason not to do so.
Don’t be too creative, as you may accidentally confuse your readers.
Optimize your on-page structure
By now, you should have your intent and queries clearly assigned to pages. Then, it is time to decide what to put on each page and structure the findings intuitively.
This is where on-page structure with clearly defined headings and subheadings comes in handy.
Ideally, the user should be able to determine if the content is relevant to them or not by simply reading the headings.
Be consistent. Keep a similar structure for pages with similar purposes.
Use flat website structure for better SEO
A flat website structure is one in which the most important pages are just a few clicks away from the homepage. Search engine bots are unlikely to crawl pages buried deep in the structure.
It also helps spread PageRank more effectively.
Include all pages in your architecture
Apart from being flat, an SEO-friendly website structure should incorporate all pages. Meaning there is no orphaned content. Orphaned pages are those that do not have any incoming links. If all pages are well defined and have a purpose, they all need to be linked to each other.
This linking structure should be simple and predictable to ease user navigation. When interacting with the website, the relationship between related pages should be clear and intuitive.
Messy structures can cause crawling issues and users to lose patience and leave your website.
Arrange your topics into popular site architecture elements
The internet has been with us for a while, so when creating your structure, make sure not to reinvent the wheel and work with predictable elements.
The main navigation bar is accessible across the website, so both users and search engines will treat pages included there as important.
Keep it simple – don’t overdo it.
Too many links will water down the importance of pages and make the navigation bar less intuitive.
Sidebar navigation usually provides additional segmentation of content.
If designed intelligently, it can serve both bots and users.
Faceted navigation is where all your filters are. When you have thousands of subpages (e.g., products), users should be able to narrow down the choices to more digestible chunks.
To make Google’s life easier, you should prevent it from indexing the filtered results. You don’t want to waste your crawl budget on unimportant URLs like those generated by user activity.
The footer, just like the main navigation bar, is an element of a website architecture that appears on every page, so it potentially indicates that all links that are included there are more important than others.
As tempting as it might be, refrain from overdoing it and only include links to pages that make sense there.
A footer is a great place for contact information, an About page, newsletter sign-ups, social profiles, etc.
Breadcrumbs, or a breadcrumb trail, indicate the page’s position in the site hierarchy.
It can help users understand and explore a site effectively. A user can navigate all the way up in the site hierarchy, one level at a time, by starting from the last breadcrumb in the breadcrumb trail.
Breadcrumbs are extremely important, and you should always consider using them. They may also improve the way your pages are shown in Google’s search results.
There are certain expected ways in which to link to related content. For example, on eCommerce websites, links to
- recently viewed products,
- you might also like products, or
- relevant sections from the blog,
are all elements that users got used to and expect to see.
With more and more eCommerce websites introducing blog articles, shoppers tend to look for content that helps them choose the right product.
However, search engine bots appreciate links to related content as it gives more context to the pages they crawl.
Follow user experience best practices
Humans are creatures of habit and thrive in repetitive environments. When we know what to expect, we function better.
It’s worth taking that into account when designing your website architecture.
Originality does not necessarily pay off when it comes to website architecture. So unless you really have a good reason, follow what the industry leaders do.
People might get frustrated if you do not stick to website architecture’s well-imprinted paths, especially if they are proven to work.
If people expect to find top categories in the main navigation bar, it makes sense to keep it there. Likewise, with faceted navigation.
The same goes for buttons and labels or expecting that the logo will be linked to the homepage.
Keep everything 4 clicks from the homepage
I have already mentioned that a flat structure is great for SEO.
And there’s actually a rule you can stick to here: every page should be within 4 clicks from the homepage.
If users need to dig deep into your website for more details, they might get bored and leave your site.
On the other hand, search engine bots may depreciate a page or even skip it if it’s buried too deep within your architecture.
Be consistent in your layout
Make sure that the main elements of your website structure remain the same on all pages. That means that the main menu shows the same labels everywhere.
If your buttons are a certain color and your links are blue and underlined – keep them that way consistently not to confuse users.
All category pages should be designed similarly, and all blog posts should follow a similar structure. It makes browsing through the website more predictable.
Review technical aspects
First of all, you need to understand why technical aspects are important.
Search engines, like Google and Bing, are a filter for the information we are looking for. But to serve us information, they need to understand it first.
The technical aspects of website structure are important because they make the content readable and understandable for search engine crawlers.
Do not fall into the trap of creating website architecture for the crawlers. Your priority is still to have it in line with what human users need. The bots are a filter, so you have to make sure that the filtering does not alter the meaning of your content. That is all.
HTML is a markup language readable to all search engines, so all key elements must be written in HTML. What are the key elements?
- Navigation items with links and labels.
- Page titles and headings provide a semantic structure to the contents.
- The text content itself and the alternative text for images and videos.
- Parts of the page structure like menu, sidebar, main content, and footer.
The better search engine bots can understand the content of your page, the easier it will be for them to index and rank it.
Ideally, you should use the semantic HTML5 elements like <section>, <nav>, <figure>, <footer>, and all the other tags that help Google better understand your page.
These elements might need some additional dev work to implement, but it’s advantageous to use them.
Make the crucial content visible in the source code
All your important contents must be visible in the source code, as this is what search engine bots will crawl and evaluate for indexing and ranking purposes.
You can do a quick check by clicking CTRL + U (Cmd + Option + u on Mac) or right-clicking and selecting “View Source.” Then verify:
- if the links appear in the correct <a href=”’> format and if after clicking they take you to the intended page; or
- if the contents of the page are readable in between the code. Can you read the labels? How about headings?
If you can see all the links and content in the source code, you are good to go.
URL structure can suggest to both human and bot users where a page belongs in the website architecture.
It is a good practice to keep the URL structure simple and have it follow a consistent pattern. Again, predictability pays off.
Duplication is when two identical (or near-identical) pages are available under two separate URLs.
It is a prevalent issue related to bad website architecture, especially in eCommerce.
It’s common to have different product variants or products that belong to various categories. Humans understand and value the difference between 0.5l and 0.75l water bottles, but search engines need clearer guidelines.
If you have several pages with the same information, search engine bots may get lost, and eventually, they won’t know which page to show to users.
When planning your website architecture, make sure that you have only 1 URL for 1 piece of content.
In 2016, Google started talking about mobile-first indexing, meaning ranking, crawling, and indexing websites based on their mobile versions.
When creating your website architecture, it is essential to see how users move through the site on mobile devices, where screens are smaller and navigating is done with fingers.
All navigation and labels should be reviewed for mobile-friendliness, for example, using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test.
Avoid the bad practices of website architecture
There are quite a lot of misconceptions that are worth going over in order not to repeat them when building your own website architecture.
Let’s sift through them real quick.
Don’t assume users start on the homepage
Users do not always start their adventure with your website on the homepage.
Aim to build your structure so that all elements are interconnected and allow navigating back and forth between all levels of pages.
Imagine that a user types in a question to the search engine, and your article pops up. Unless you are a news publisher, this article is just part of the customer journey and aims to lead the user to the page that generates value for your organization.
A great website architecture links the article to the product or service to allow users to move from one page to another smoothly.
At the same time, the article should point to other related articles in case more information is needed.
In other words, every page should be linked to the previous and next steps of the customer journey.
Don’t assume everything is equally important
You may think that every single piece of content on your site is vital. But it’s better to accept that it is simply not true, and we need to pick our battles.
Make sure that the most visible information is the one that your users value.
Don’t use carousels
Carousels are boxes with multiple pieces of content that occupy a single space and change without the user’s specific request. They are very popular in today’s web design, but they are not always useful for users or SEO.
Even if, at first glance, they appear visually pleasing, they are distracting.
Especially when placed at the top of the page, the main purpose should be to inform users what the page is all about.
Instead, choose a great hero image and work on explaining what your page is actually about.
Don’t overdo the above-the-fold content
Above-the-fold content is a part of a page visible without scrolling. Without a doubt, it is essential as it gives the first impression of what the page is about.
Just because of that, do not succumb to the temptation of stuffing your above-the-fold view with all the VIP links.
Instead, focus on your human users and design it in a way that will best describe what they will find on the page.
This way, you have better chances of them staying on the page.
An abundance of footer links dilutes PageRank and hurts the user experience.
What is good for users is good for SEO. Your contact information, your About page, etc., all belong in the footer. But all the other pages from your top 100 VIP pages list don’t.
Don’t neglect to update your site
We usually approach website architecture once in a blue moon, meaning every couple of years when we redesign the website.
However, the products, categories, and, most importantly, user needs evolve. Therefore, you must constantly make adjustments.
Categories will be out of date and will have to be replaced. Products will change their features over time. Users will start valuing information that was not so relevant before.
A certain dose of flexibility is essential to stay relevant.
Get to work with these tools & templates
When creating website architecture, you need 2 types of tools:
- Those that gather all keywords in one place, aggregated by type and with a value assigned to them to spot what is most important easily.
- Those that allow you to draw connections between pages in a way that is clear enough for a designer and developer to understand and put into practice.
The good news is that these tools do not have to be sophisticated, and there are plenty of free options.
Spreadsheets for sorting and aggregating your keywords
Whether you use Google Sheets or Excel, the goal is to keep your data arranged clearly so that you can easily spot keyword patterns that, later on, could be grouped into silos and pages and assigned value.
The patterns will be a great indication of how to group content, and the value will tell you where to place it on the website.
For example, if you have an eCommerce site, you want your most-searched-for categories in the main navigation bar to tell both search engines and users that you find them important, and you want to have access to them on every page.
Mind-mapping tools for outlining connections between pages
Diagrams.net is one of the free mind-mapping apps that allows for drawing website architecture.
Since there will be a lot of connections, make sure to start small.
First, simply create labels for all groups and play around with how they fit together. Always go back to thinking about how the user moves through the site. Explore your website’s map and follow the links by moving from one page to another in a similar way a user would.
Draw a diagram with connections (links) for every type of page you plan to have: homepage, category page, product page, blog article, about us, etc.
If, due to the size of your website, drawing links is not possible, try drawing boxes with types of pages you would like to link to, i.e., boxes with links to related blog articles.
This exercise is time-consuming, and you will not get it right the first time. Breathe and ask for feedback over and over again. This is the only way to work it out.
Here are the key elements to consider when creating your own website architecture:
- Good website architecture serves humans and bots and allows both of them to flow through your content.
- Do your research: keyword research, competitor research, your vision & mission research. Just do them all before you start with website architecture design.
- Keep your architecture SEO-friendly. It will pay off in the long term.
- Do not innovate too much and stick to the predictable elements: main, side, and breadcrumb navigation plus a simple footer.
- Review the technical aspects of your website architecture: your links and content deserve to be read by search engine bots, not just users!