User Experience (UX) is a crucial component of any ecommerce strategy. How eye-catching and clean your store’s design is makes a great impression on users, as does its responsiveness on mobile, and many other factors. UX also includes how easy your store is to navigate and interact with - going from the homepage to product pages and back again. When a menu is just detailed enough to direct you to the right place, or when a product page has all the right links to the information you need before placing an order, it makes the whole experience better. Navigation and linking are part of website architecture, and it’s not only important to the user experience but also to your store’s SEO.
What is site architecture, and why is it important?
Put simply, site architecture is how the pages on your store are organized and how they link together. It’s how users navigate through your store, and what search engines use to crawl and index your site. Below are the main components of an ideal structure in order of hierarchy:
A clear, focussed page from which users can navigate to the rest of your site. It acts as a sort of navigational anchor.
Content is sorted into some top level/important categories. These should define the main topic clusters of your store. E.g. on an apparel site you might have Men, Women, Children, About Us, FAQ.
These go a level deeper into categories, and are more defined. E.g. on the same apparel site you might have Men as a category with subcategories for t-shirts, sweaters, jeans etc.
4. Individual Pages
Finally you have individual pages, for example these might be product pages, blog articles, etc.
This structure is beneficial for a few reasons related to the user experience, SEO, and to internal organization.
User Experience (UX)
First and foremost having a straightforward and well organized site architecture is of great benefit to the usability of your store for users. It helps users to guide themselves to the content they’re looking for quickly, making the experience easy for them. They should be able to find the information they’re looking for without having to dig too deep, as if they struggle then they’re more likely to simply leave the site. The easier they find it to navigate, the longer they’ll stay on your store, and this sends positive signals to search engines.
Your SEO strategy relies on website architecture, because it’s how search engine bots crawl and index your site. A clear navigational structure helps search engines to understand your site, and makes it clear for them to see which pages are most important, and their topical relationship and hierarchy relative to other pages on your store. If you have pages that take several clicks to reach, or aren’t linked anywhere else (orphan pages) then they’ll be harder to index and will be missed by search engine crawlers. Essentially, your website architecture acts as a navigational guide not just for users but for bots also.
When you first launch your store, you may only have a few products and pages to keep track of. However, over time you add new products, publish blog articles, create new pages, and eventually you’ll be left with hundreds or even thousands of pages which can get difficult to keep track of. By having a clear website architecture you’re making it easier for your team to understand different website categories, how new pages fit into those categories, and ensure that your site is kept clean and clear for users and search engines.
Bonus: Shopify and Site Architecture
If you're a Shopify merchant, you're in luck - Shopify handles most of the work for you. Many of the best practices involved in optimizing your site architecture for SEO are automatically applied to your Shopify store, such as content following logical hierarchies, and URLs using standard characters and a simple, readable structure. This takes a lot of the effort out of optimization, and allows you to focus on other aspects such as navigation and internal links.
Best practices for SEO-friendly site architecture
Consistent, simple navigational structure
There are few ways you can ensure your store has a consistent navigational structure. The first is by keeping it simple - decide on your basic site structure and stick to it over time. Decide what categories make the most sense, and how different subcategories and individual pages fit into this. Make sure it flows well from the perspective of the user as this will ultimately affect how bots crawl the pages also. For example if you sold coffee and coffee making equipment, you’d most likely want to have categories such as “Coffee Beans”, “Equipment”, “Mugs & Accessories”, rather than having a top level category for “Whole Coffee Beans”, “Ground Coffee”, “Filter Coffee” etc.
Maintaining this structure is important over time - if you add a new page, figure out how it will fit into that structure. If you have lots of new pages to add, decide whether or not they warrant their own category or subcategory.
Another best practice is to consider how many clicks it will take to reach each page on your site before you add it. You want it to take as few clicks as possible for a user to navigate to any page on your store, if they can reach a page in 4 clicks or less this is often called a “flat” architecture.
The benefits of this is that it provides the user with a better experience as they don’t have to dig through all different pages and links to find what they are looking for. You want to make it so that users find it easy to navigate to anywhere on your site regardless of what page they land on. It also helps to share link authority throughout your site, as it will flow from pages that typically receive more backlinks such as your homepage as each page is more closely linked to it.
Smart internal linking
Internal links are simply links that lead from one page to another on your store. Ideally they should show search engines how pages are connected to each other, and make sense to users when they see internal links being used.
This relationship between linked pages is important for both navigational links and links within content. For example, navigational links would be linking from a category link to its corresponding catalog page, and then linking from the catalog to a corresponding product page. Linking within content on pages should be relevant, informative, and add something to the user experience, e.g. product pages linking to shipping and returns information, linking to another blog article about a related topic, or linking to a product mentioned in a blog article.
Internal linking boosts the ease with which search engines crawl your store, and gives them greater topical context between pages and how they relate to one another. This also helps with passing authority between pages. The user experience is also improved, as users can follow links relevant to the page they were on to find out more useful information. If you start internal linking for the sake of it, things become confusing for both search engines and users. For example if a navigational link for a t-shirt catalog page instead leads to a page about jeans, or if a link on a product page that implies it leads to shipping info instead leads to a different part of your FAQ. You can see how that would lead to a poor experience and difficulty crawling/indexing pages.
Clear, robust sitemaps
A sitemap is an additional tool that users can utilize to find what they’re looking for. Sitemaps also help search engine bots find and navigate your store for indexing, but in a slightly different way.
Search engine crawlers make use of XML sitemaps, whereas users will be interacting with an HTML sitemap. XML sitemaps detail a site’s URLs as a complete map, allowing them to prioritize important pages. If your store is properly linked, then there’s a good chance that Google’s crawlers will find all your content anyway and therefore they aren’t strictly necessary. However it does improve how bots crawl and index your site, and gives you an additional way to ensure they find all your most important content.
HTML sitemaps are a list of clickable links to different pages hosted on your site.
Often at the bottom of a page, it might detail different categories and subcategories to your main menu navigation but gives them slightly easier access to different pages. An example might be that you have “Shipping & Handling Info” linked in your sitemap, but not as its own navigation link in your store’s menu. It gives users an extra place to find what they need quicker than they’d be able to by navigating to other pages from your primary categories and subcategories.
Optimizing your store’s website architecture can drive value not just for the user experience, but it can also help to drive more traffic. By making your architecture easy to understand and therefore easy to crawl and index by search engines, you can improve your store’s ranking with search engines making sure even more potential customers see and experience your store.