Guide to Site Navigation for SEO

When SEOs talk about navigation, we tend to stick to the technical side of things: “Make sure that you have internal links to every page on your site.” “Don’t put too many navigation options on a page because you’ll have too many internal links.” “Load your drop down link content before JavaScript so that search engines can read it.”

Website creators have to put navigation together on their own, gathering bits and pieces from different articles around the web. So, I’ve put all the tidbits together, creating a guide to building site navigation that’s optimal for search engines (and visitors, too, never forget your visitors!).

Universal Navigation

When visitors come to your site, you want them to figure out how to navigate quickly. Most websites have a navigation strip at the top of every page that stays the same, with links to the major sections of the site. (Some sites like Amazon and Smashing Magazine have this on the left.) Distilled’s looks like this:

distilled Universal Navigation

(Alternatively, you could just look at the top of this page.)

To search engines, this looks like every page on your site is linking to those top level pages. Internal linking shows the importance of different pages within your site, so pages in the universal navigation will rank better than pages further down in the navigational structure.

The mistake I see most often is sites building their universal navigation like a table of contents. If they have a site structure like this:

Example Site Hierarchy

They’ll create a universal navigation that looks like this:

Products | Locations | Contact

Remember, every link in the universal navigation will have a backlink from every page on your site. These links should point to your highest level, most important pages. For example, Amazon’s universal navigation links to their top departments:

Amazon's Universal Navigation

How to Build Your Universal Navigation

  1. Identify why visitors come to your site. You probably have a pretty good idea of what people want already, but check your web analytics:
    1. What search terms do visitors use before they get to your site? Keywords used by incoming visitors tell you what your visitors were looking for before they clicked through to your site. Follow up to see which pages they visited - did they find what they were looking for?
    2. If you’re tracking internal site search, what search terms do visitors use once they’re on your site? On average, only 10% of visitors use site search. So, it’s safe to assume that most people only use site search if they have a hard time finding what they want with your navigation. What terms are visitors searching for? Do you have that page? Is it hidden?
    3. What pages on your site get the most traffic? If those are the pages that you want to get the most traffic, keep those in mind as you build your navigational structure to make sure they’re easy for visitors to find. If they aren’t particularly high conversion pages, what’s a similar page that you can steer those visitors to?
    4. What are your top exit pages? If they’re locations or external contact information, that’s probably something a lot of your visitors are looking for. You should include that in your top navigation.
  2. Divide your products/key pages into categories.
    1. Usability experts recommend “card sorting”: put your products on cards, lay them out on a flat surface so you can see them all, and cluster similar items together. There are also a few websites out there that will let you sort cards without taking up so much floor space: http://www.optimalworkshop.com/optimalsort.htm and http://uxpunk.com/websort/
    2. Keep in mind that a product can be in two categories at once.
  3. Come up with names for those categories.
    1. Use Google AdWords Keyword Tool or the keyword tool of your choice and see how popular those categories are
    2. Enable SEOmoz’s toolbar and search for those keywords. Look at your potential competition.
    3. Find the happy medium between keyword popularity and competition: there are your categories.
  4. Put those categories in the universal navigation. If it runs across the top, the rule of thumb is to keep it under seven links. If it’s on the left, you can probably have more, although I wouldn’t go over twenty (Amazon uses 16).

Drop Down Menus – Do or Don’t?

Drop down menus are fairly common around the web, but many websites build them so they’re difficult for search engines or certain visitors to use them. If you choose to use drop downs, keep in mind:
  1. Drop down menus must be in the HTML. Otherwise, search engines probably can’t read them. You can use CSS or JavaScript to hide the drop downs once the page is loaded.
  2. Allow visitors to navigate the site without drop downs. If you don’t, they won’t be accessible for tablet users or anyone trying to get by without their mouse on Windows 8. Or anyone who has a hard time keeping drop downs activated as they move their mouse around.
  3. Don’t list too many links. Remember, everything in the universal navigation is a link off every page on your site. SEOmoz recommends 100 links per page max.
Navigation Pages

Earlier, I told you to choose category pages based on keyword popularity and competition. Navigation pages are the best place to target those broader keywords that you can’t target on an individual product page. To best target a keyword on a navigation page:

  1. Use the keyword in the page title
  2. Use the keyword in the header
  3. Include a 150 – 200 word paragraph at the top, explaining what you’re offering on the page (after all, you’re trying to make this a landing page, right?). Use the keyword in that paragraph.
  4. Use the keyword in links to the actual products/converting pages. (But, only if that doesn’t look too ridiculous. If it does, don’t keyword stuff. Use your best judgment.)

Filters

If you have more than 20 products on a navigation page, it will be difficult for users to read through without a filter, which you should usually put at the top or on the left of the page. The tricky part is building the URLs. Often, developers will attach filter parameters to the URL as visitors use them. That creates duplicate content, as ?size=medium&price=sale will display the same selection of products as ?price=sale&size=medium. You really have two options for how to optimally build filters:
  1. Give filters an order. Say that you set the filter “size” to always display first, then “price.” If someone filters by products on sale first, the URL will change to ?price=sale. Then, if the visitor adds a filter for medium sized clothes, the filter will change to ?size=medium&price=sale.
    1. Pro: Filtered pages will be indexed, and you won’t create duplicate pages.
    2. Con: Depending on how many filters you have, you could be creating thousands of navigation pages, which may display different product selections, but they’ll all have that same intro paragraph.
  2. Don’t index filters. The best way to do that is to put a hashtag (#) before the parameters. Search engines only look at URL text before the hashtag, so any traffic to www.modcloth.com/shop/dresses#?size=M,6,8&price=13,523&sort=newest&page=1 will be seen as pointing to www.modcloth.com/shop/dresses. You can have the same result by disabling these filter parameters in Google and Bing Webmaster Tools.
    1. Pro: Links pointing to the filtered or unfiltered version of the navigation page will count towards the Page Authority of the unfiltered navigation page only, making it more likely to rank.
    2. Con: Your filtered pages won’t be indexed, so they can’t rank. Then again, if you want your filtered pages to rank, you probably should give them their own category page.

Product Pages

Navigation doesn’t stop at category pages. On a product/conversion page, you want your visitors to be able to go back to the navigation page they were on before they got to this product page (vertical linking) and hop around to similar product pages (horizontal linking).

Vertical and Horizontal Linking

Vertical Linking: Breadcrumbs

If the navigational structure on a site is good, breadcrumbs aren’t often used by visitors, since they tend to be tucked away in between the top navigation and the content on a product page. But breadcrumbs are the easiest way to show visitors and search engines where this product page fits into your site architecture as a whole. As a bonus, Google will sometimes display your breadcrumbs rather than your URL, which looks cleaner and gives visitors a peak at your site structure on the search engine results page. (You can learn more about how to mark up your breadcrumbs as breadcrumbs here).

When breadcrumbs are implemented, they’re usually between the top navigation and the product details:Lowes Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs don’t have to look like breadcrumbs, though. Product pages will often reiterate the categories they’re in on the product page: you can turn those in to links to navigation pages for more natural breadcrumbs. For example, Balsam Hill’s Christmas tree pages all list what collection they’re in at the top of the page. The collection is a link to the collection’s navigation page:

Balsam Hill Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs hidden as links like this won’t be seen by search engines as breadcrumbs, but they will increase the backlinks to navigation pages, which will support the site hierarchy.

Horizontal Linking: Links to Related Products

How often has YouTube tempted you to keep watching videos with their related videos sidebar? How many products have you bought because Amazon recommended them? Beyond your ability to upsell, horizontal links allow products to share their Page Authority with other products, rather than pointing all internal links towards your navigation pages.

Whatever You Do, TEST

After following these or other SEO recommendations about navigation, always make sure that you run usability tests to make sure that your visitors can find what they need, and check your site’s indexation in Google Webmaster Tools to make sure that Googlebot can crawl your navigation. We can spout off generalized advice for sites all day, but what really matters is what works for your site, so keep testing!

Any other tips you guys have about navigation? Experiences to share? Comment below!