The optimal time to start consulting with the SEO on a new website is at the very beginning. And, I mean the VERY beginning... when the website is just a sparkle in it's dreamer's eye.

I was recently consulting with a client who brought us on at the very beginning of a new project. It worked beautifully, as we got to work with their wire-frame layouts and help guide them through the important design and architecture aspects before they paid a single cent to a programmer.

Had they brought us in later, much of our advice would have either been discarded because they were beyond the point of no return, or they would have shelled out more money to have the developers re-program the entire site to accommodate good usability and search friendly architecture. Getting us involved when they did not only saved them thousands of dollars, but allowed them to build a strong, search-engine-friendly site from the ground up.

The Problems with Architectural Hierarchy

In our consulting, we spent a good deal of time talking about how to set up the navigation of the site. As an e-commerce site, they were going to have a database of thousands of products and dozens, if not hundreds, of categories and sub-categories. We had to figure out how to create a strong, intuitive navigation that also allowed the link juice to flow through the site properly.

Initially, the idea was to have a pretty flat architecture. They planned to use drop-down menus in the navigation that gave the visitor access to virtually every category and sub-category on the site.

There are a few of flaws with this strategy. First, it creates too many options. People like simplicity. Give them too much to choose from and they often walk away. In some cases it works, but not always.

The second problem is over-use of drop-down and fly-out menus. These becomes cumbersome. With just one little misplaced movement of the mouse, the menus disappear, and you have to start all over again. That's frustrating.

The third problem is it creates a flat architecture. Every page on the site is linked to every category and sub-category page. Since the search engines can't see the navigation layout visually, they have to rely on how pages are linked. If every page is linked to every category page, it becomes difficult for the search engines to decipher which sub-categories and products belong where. How can they be segmented when they are all grouped together?

Your visual navigation may appear like this, where the arrows represent links from and to pages:


But, the search engines pretty much see this:


This isn't a messy navigation by any means, but there is simply no hierarchy. In this form, the search engine views every single category level page as equally important. But, this isn't how the visual navigation depicts it, where the main categories and sub-categories are not (nor should be) equal.

But, at the same time, we don't want to create a link structure that is so vertical (like the first image above) that the pages at the bottom don't get any link juice, or don't get visited because they are too many clicks away. A compromise is in order.

Building a Link Flow Hierarchy

When dealing with sites with lots of category and sub-category pages, it can help to create a slightly overlapping vertical navigation structure. When developers create a vertical navigation structure, top level links to top level and you have to click into the category page to get the pages that belong to that category group. The problem here is that it creates far too many clicks to get down to the lower level pages. Those pages will lack any real link strength for search rankings.

Instead, to help give lower pages additional link juice without affecting the linked categorization structure, you can overlap the categories in the navigation. This means that top level links to top level AND all pages in the level directly below it. The visitor always has the option to skip a category level because the navigation links to two category levels below the current page.


If you have a situation where one category (or sub-category) is more important than the other categories on the same level, then you can simply choose not to overlap the links in the inferior categories, leaving only most important one with the overlapping structure. This will give your preferred category more link juice, siphoning it off from the other categories, without draining it completely.

In all, you will have a navigation structure that is solidly linked, funnels link juice where you want it, and keeps pages from being so far down that they don't get enough juice at all. Your visitors will be given options to drill down, but not too many at a time. They can skip a layer here and there, making getting to the "conversion page" simpler, while not overwhelming them with options galore.

September 20, 2010

Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.


Very interesting article. How would you build the main navigation for this example? Any examples sites we can check that have this structure you are describing?

I've actually not seen this deployed yet but we consulting with a client and provided some recommendations based on how they wanted their navigation to look. I'd recommend using hidden onclick or onmouseover navigation elements that bring out the next layer. This way the nav can be clean yet still provide the additional linking.

Another advantage of having categories and subcategories, using appropriate directory structure, is that it can make diving into your analytics reports much easier.

If you have main directories of products, support, and blog, then subdirectories under each of those -- for example, boats, cars, and planes under products -- you can segment out parts of the website quite easily in Google Analytics when you want to drill down and only look at the visits to your products category, or a specific product.

Or, if you've clicked into 1 category or subcategory, a sidebar widget-looking element could pop up, saying Browse Other Categories, and list those and their subcategories.

Obviously, the more categories and subcategories, the messier it could get. Stoney, would the SEs pick up on "randomly generated categories and subcategories" if the site is too big to always list them all?

You said, "I'd recommend using hidden onclick or onmouseover navigation elements that bring out the next layer."

Do the SEs pick up on hidden onclick? Do you have an example of these elements being used?


Mona, Anything is possible. It's jsut a matter of figuring out the most user frienly way to implement this. Using CSS, the search engines will pick up hidden layers that are activated on mouseover or click.

I see...

I have a question (that doesn't really relate to this topic!!!, but we could argue that it has to do with navigation...):

When you have a site that is not only multilingual but spans multiple locations, what is the best way to geo target? i.e. Different TLDs or a neutral TLD with different sub directories / domains and specify geo target in GWT?

An issue is that we want to redirect people to their geo locations, which is fine if they're in Europe. However, is it possible to redirect people to locations within the USA without "disturbing" the Google bot, since I'm under the impression that he (she, it, whatever!) normally hails from Mtn. View, CA. i.e. If the IP is from Mtn. View, CA will they ever be able to spider the Santa Monica, CA section or will they always get redirected...

However, for the USA, we could just use their IPs to detect location and deliver results based on that information instead of a redirection...

Anyway, sorry if this isn't an appropriate thing to post here!!!

Your post got me thinking though :-D

Mona, I'm not an expert at IP redirection so not sure I'm much help here. But from what I know having a country specific TLD for each language is probably the best route. But you can also use sub-folders and using webmaster tools target each language you want that way.

Thanks for your help Stoney! Have a great weekend!

Great piece.

If every page is linked to every category page, it becomes difficult for the search engines to decipher which sub-categories and products belong where. How can they be segmented when they are all grouped together?

One possible way I can think of subcats being segmented by SEs--and I'm speculating here--is through the semantic value of a nested list in the navigation. Any child list should be considered as a segment of its parent list item. Just maybe? (hopefully!)

Great to see you address the fundamental aspect of site structure and its effect on search visibility.

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Search Engine Guide > Stoney deGeyter > Silos, Architecture, and Linking...Oh My!