November 15, 2018

YouTube SEO: Top Factors to Invest In – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfishIf you have an audience on YouTube, are you doing everything you can to reach them? Inspired by a large-scale study from Justin Briggs, Rand covers the top factors to invest in when it comes to YouTube SEO in this week's episode of Wh...
November 13, 2018

What Do You Do When You Lose Organic Traffic to Google SERP Features?

Posted by Emily.Potter

Google’s increasing dominance of their own search engine results pages (SERPs) has kicked up a lot of panic and controversy in the SEO industry. As Barry Adams pointed out on Twitter recently, this move by Google is not exactly new, but it does feel like Google has suddenly placed their foot on the accelerator:

I find it hilarious that SEOs are suddenly annoyed that Google is aggressively taking over some verticals with in-SERP features. They’ve been doing that for years.

What do you think the EU antitrust case is about?! Or do you suddenly care because it affects your clients?
— Barry Adams (@badams) March 15, 2018

Follow that Twitter thread and you’ll see the sort of back-and-forth these changes have started to create. Is this an ethical move by Google? Did you deserve the business they're taking in the first place? Will SEO soon be dead? Or can we do what we’ve always done and adapt our strategies in smart, agile ways?

It’s hard to think positive when Google takes a stab at you like it did with this move on Ookla:

Cool. pic.twitter.com/WClX9oZFNO
— Mike Pantoliano (@MikeCP) April 24, 2018

But regardless of how you feel about what’s happening, local packs, featured snippets, and SERP features from Google, properties like Google News, Images, Flights, Videos, and Maps are riding on a train that has no plans on stopping.

To give you an idea of how rapid these changes are occurring, the image below is what the SERP rankings looked like in November 2016 for one of our client’s key head terms:

And this image is the SERP for the same keyword by early December 2017 (our client is in green):

Check out MozCast’s Feature Graph if you want to see the percentage of queries specific features are appearing on.

Who is this blog post for?

You're likely reading this blog post because you noticed your organic traffic has dropped and you suspect it could be Google tanking you.

Traffic drops tend to come about from four main causes: a drop in rankings, a decrease in search volume, you are now ranking for fewer keywords, or because SERP features and/or advertising are depressing your CTRs.

If you have not already done a normal traffic drop analysis and ruled out the first three causes, then your time is better spent doing that first. But if you have done a traffic drop analysis and reached the conclusion that you're likely to be suffering from a change in SERP features, then keep reading.

But I’m too lazy to do a full analysis

Aside from ruling everything else out, other strong indications that SERP features are to blame will be a significant drop in clicks (either broadly or especially for specific queries) in Google Search Console where average ranking is static, but a near consistent amount of impressions.

I’ll keep harping on about this point, but make sure that you check clicks vs impressions for both mobile and desktop. Do this both broadly and for specific key head terms.

When you spend most of your day working on a desktop computer, sometimes in this industry we forget how much mobile actually dominates the scene. On desktop, the impact these have on traffic there is not as drastic; but when you go over to a mobile device, it’s not uncommon for it to take around four full scrolls down before organic listings appear.

From there, the steps to dealing with a Google-induced traffic drop are roughly as follows:

  1. Narrow down your traffic drop to the introduction of SERP features or an increase in paid advertising
  2. Figure out what feature(s) you are being hit by
  3. Gain hard evidence from SEO tools and performance graphs
  4. Adapt your SEO strategy accordingly

That covers step one, so let's move on.

Step 2.0: Figure out which feature(s) you are being hit by

For a comprehensive list of all the different enhanced results that appear on Google, Overthink Group has documented them here. To figure out which one is impacting you, follow the below steps.

Step 2.1

Based off of your industry, you probably already have an idea of which features you’re most vulnerable to.

  • Are you an e-commerce website? Google Shopping and paid advertising will be a likely candidate.
  • Do you tend to generate a lot of blog traffic? Look at who owns the featured snippets on your most important queries.
  • Are you a media company? Check and see if you are getting knocked out of top news results.
  • Do you run a listings site? Maybe you're being knocked by sponsored listings or Google Jobs.

Step 2.2

From there, sanity check this by spot-checking the SERPs for a couple of the keywords you're concerned about to get a sense for what changed. If you roughly know what you’re looking for when you dig into the data, it will be easier to spot. This works well for SERP features, but determining a change in the amount of paid advertising will be harder to spot this way.

Once again, be sure to do this on both mobile and desktop. What may look insignificant from your office computer screen could be showing you a whole different story on your mobile device.

Step 3.0: Gain hard evidence from SEO tools and performance graphs

Once you have a top level idea of what has changed, you need to confirm it with SEO tools. If you have access to one, a historical rank tracking tool will be the most efficient way to dig into how your SERPs are evolving. I most frequently use STAT, but other great tools for this are Moz’s SERP features report, SEOmonitor, and SEMRush.

Using one of these tools, look back at historical data (either broadly or for specific important keywords) and find the date the SERP feature appeared if you can. Once you have this date, line it up with a dip in your organic traffic or other performance metric. If there’s a match, you can be pretty confident that’s to blame.

For example, here’s what this analysis looked like for one of our clients on a keyword with a regional search volume of 49,500. They got hit hard on mobile-first by the appearance of a local pack, then an events snippet 10 days later.

This was the clicks and impression data for the head term on mobile from Google Search Console:

As this case demonstrates, here's another strong reminder that when you're analyzing these changes, you must check both mobile and desktop. Features like knowledge panels are much more intrusive on mobile devices than they are on desktop, so while you may not be seeing a dramatic change in your desktop traffic, you may on mobile.

For this client we improved their structured data so that they showed up in the event snippet instead, and were able to recover a good portion of the lost traffic.

How to adapt your SEO strategy

You may not be able to fully recover, but here are some different strategies you can use depending on the SERP feature. Use these links to jump to a specific section:

Have you tried bidding to beat Google?

I cover what to do if you're specifically losing out on organic traffic due to paid advertising (spoiler alert: you’re probably gonna have to pay), but paid advertising can also be used as a tactic to subvert Google SERP features.

For example, Sky Scanner has done this by bidding on the query “flights” so they appear above the Google Flights widget:

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)

AMP is a project sponsored by Google to improve the speed of mobile pages. For a lot of these challenges, implementing AMP may be a way to improve your rankings as Google SERPs continue to change.

If you've noticed a number of websites with AMP implemented are ranking on the first page of SERPs you care about, it’s likely worth investigating.

If you are a news website, implementing AMP is absolutely a must.

Featured snippets and PAA boxes

If you’re losing traffic because one of your competitors owns the featured snippets on your SERPs, then you need to optimize your content to win featured snippets. I’ve already written a blog post for our Distilled blog on tactics to steal them before, which you can read here.

In summary, though, you have a chance to win a featured snippet if:

  • The ones you’re targeting are pretty volatile or frequently changing hands, as that's a good indication the owner doesn’t have a strong hold on it
  • If you rank higher than the current owner, as this indicates Google prefers your page; the structure of your content simply needs some tweaking to win the snippet

If you've identified some featured snippets you have a good chance of stealing, compare what the current owner has done with their content that you haven’t. Typically it’s things like the text heading the block of content and the format of the content that differentiates a featured snippet owner from your content.

Local packs

At SearchLove London 2018, Rob Bucci shared data from STAT on local packs and search intent. Local SEO is a big area that I can’t cover fully here, but if you’re losing traffic because a local pack has appeared that you're not being featured in, then you need to try and optimize your Google My Business listing for the local pack if you can. For a more in depth instruction on how you can get featured in a local pack, read here.

Unfortunately, it may just not be possible for you to be featured, but if it’s a query you have a chance at appearing in local pack for, you first need to get set up on Google My Business with a link to your website.

Once you have Google My Business set up, make sure the contact and address information is correct.

Reviews are incredibly important for anyone competing within a local pack, and not just high reviews but also the number of reviews you've received is important. You should also consider creating Google Posts. In a lot of spaces this feature is yet to have been taken advantage of, which means you could be able to get a jumpstart on your competitors.

Paid advertising

More queries are seeing paid advertisements now, and there are also more ads appearing per query, as told in this Moz post.

If you're losing traffic because a competitor has set up a PPC campaign and started to bid on keywords you're ranking well for, then you may need to consider overbidding on these queries if they're important to you.

Unfortunately, there’s no real secret here: either you gotta pay or you're going to have to shift your focus to other target queries.

You should have already done so, but if you haven't already included structured data on your website you need to, as it will help you stand out on SERPs with lots of advertising. Wrapped into this is the need to get good reviews for your brand and for your products.

Google Shopping

Similar to paid advertising, if the appearance of Google Shopping sponsored ads has taken over your SERPs, you should consider whether it's worth you building your own Google Shopping campaign.

Again, structured data will be an important tactic to employ here as well. If you’re competing with Google Shopping ads, you’re competing with product listings that have images, prices, and reviews directly in the SERP results to draw in users. You should have the same.

Look into getting your pages implemented in Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), which is sponsored by Google. Not only has Google shown it favors pages that are in AMP, better site speed will lead to better conversion rates for your site.

To see if implementing AMP may be beneficial to your business, you can read some case studies of other businesses that have done so here.

Knowledge panels and carousels

Knowledge panels such as the one below appear for broad informational searches, and rarely on highly converting keywords. While they are arguably the most imposing of all the SERP features, unless you're a content site or CelebrityNetWorth.com, they probably steal some of your less valuable traffic.

If you’re losing clicks due to knowledge panels, it’s likely happening on queries that typically can be satisfied by quick answers and therefore are by users who might have bounced from your site anyway. You won’t be able to beat a knowledge panel for quick answers, but you can optimize your content to satisfy affiliated longer-tail queries that users will still scroll to organic listings to find.

Create in-depth content that answers these questions and make sure that you have strong title tags and meta descriptions for these pages so you can have a better chance of standing out in the SERP.

In some cases, knowledge panels may be something you can exploit for your branded search queries. There's no guaranteed way to get your content featured in a knowledge panel, and the information presented in them does not come from your site, so they can’t be “won” in the same way as a featured snippet.

To get into a knowledge panel, you can try using structured data markup or try to get your brand on Wikipedia if you haven’t already. The Knowledge Graph relies heavily on existing databases like Wikipedia that users directly contribute to, so developing more Wikipedia articles for your brand and any personal brands associated with it can be one avenue to explore.

Search Engine Journal has some tips on how to implement both of these strategies and more in their blog post here.

Google Jobs

Google Jobs has taken up huge amounts of organic real estate from listing sites. It will be tough to compete, but there are strategies you can employ, especially if you run a niche job boards site.

Shifting your digital strategy to integrate more paid advertising so you can sit above Google and to generating content in other areas, like on news websites and advice boards, can help you.

For more details on how to employ some of these strategies, you can read Search Engine Journal’s Google Jobs survival tips.

To conclude

Look, I’d be lying to you if I said this was good news for us SEOs. It’s not. Organic is going to get more and more difficult. But it’s not all doom and gloom. As Rand Fishkin noted in his BrightonSEO speech this September, if we create intelligent SEO strategies with an eye towards the future, then we have the opportunity to be ahead of the curve when the real disruption hits.

We also need to start integrating our SEO strategies with other mediums; we need to be educated on optimizing for social media, paid advertising, and other tactics for raising brand awareness. The more adaptable and diverse your online marketing strategies are, the better.

Google will always be getting smarter, which just means we have to get smarter too.

To quote Jayson DeMers,

“If you define SEO as the ability to manipulate your way to the top of search rankings, then SEO will die. But if you define SEO as the practice of improving a website’s visibility in search results, then SEO will never die; it will only continue to evolve.”

Search, like nearly every other industry today, will continue to come against dramatic unanticipated changes in the future. Yet search will also only continue to grow in importance. It may become increasingly more difficult to manipulate your way to the top of search results, but there will always be a need to try, and Google will continue to reward content that serves its users well.


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November 12, 2018

The Advanced Guide to Keyword Clustering

Posted by tomcasano

If your goal is to grow your organic traffic, you have to think about SEO in terms of “product/market fit.”

Keyword research is the “market” (what users are actually searching for) and content is the “product” (what users are consuming). The “fit” is optimization.

To grow your organic traffic, you need your content to mirror the reality of what users are actually searching for. Your content planning and creation, keyword mapping, and optimization should all align with the market. This is one of the best ways to grow your organic traffic.

Why bother with keyword grouping?

One web page can rank for multiple keywords. So why aren’t we hyper-focused on planning and optimizing content that targets dozens of similar and related keywords?

Why target only one keyword with one piece of content when you can target 20?

The impact of keyword clustering to acquire more organic traffic is not only underrated, it is largely ignored. In this guide, I'll share with you our proprietary process we’ve pioneered for keyword grouping so you can not only do it yourself, but you can maximize the number of keywords your amazing content can rank for.

Here’s a real-world example of a handful of the top keywords that this piece of content is ranking for. The full list is over 1,000 keywords.

17 different keywords one page is ranking for

Why should you care?

It’d be foolish to focus on only one keyword, as you’d lose out on 90%+ of the opportunity.

Here's one of my favorite examples of all of the keywords that one piece of content could potentially target:

List of ~100 keywords one page ranks for

Let’s dive in!

Part 1: Keyword collection

Before we start grouping keywords into clusters, we first need our dataset of keywords from which to group from.

In essence, our job in this initial phase is to find every possible keyword. In the process of doing so, we'll also be inadvertently getting many irrelevant keywords (thank you, Keyword Planner). However, it's better to have many relevant and long-tail keywords (and the ability to filter out the irrelevant ones) than to only have a limited pool of keywords to target.

For any client project, I typically say that we'll collect anywhere from 1,000 to 6,000 keywords. But truth be told, we've sometimes found 10,000+ keywords, and sometimes (in the instance of a local, niche client), we've found less than 1,000.

I recommend collecting keywords from about 8–12 different sources. These sources are:

  1. Your competitors
  2. Third-party data tools (Moz, Ahrefs, SEMrush, AnswerThePublic, etc.)
  3. Your existing data in Google Search Console/Google Analytics
  4. Brainstorming your own ideas and checking against them
  5. Mashing up keyword combinations
  6. Autocomplete suggestions and “Searches related to” from Google

There's no shortage of sources for keyword collection, and more keyword research tools exist now than ever did before. Our goal here is to be so extensive that we never have to go back and “find more keywords” in the future — unless, of course, there's a new topic we are targeting.

The prequel to this guide will expand upon keyword collection in depth. For now, let’s assume that you’ve spent a few hours collecting a long list of keywords, you have removed the duplicates, and you have semi-reliable search volume data.

Part 2: Term analysis

Now that you have an unmanageable list of 1,000+ keywords, let’s turn it into something useful.

We begin with term analysis. What the heck does that mean?

We break each keyword apart into its component terms that comprise the keyword, so we can see which terms are the most frequently occurring.

For example, the keyword: “best natural protein powder” is comprised of 4 terms: “best,” “natural,” “protein,” and “powder.” Once we break apart all of the keywords into their component parts, we can more readily analyze and understand which terms (as subcomponents of the keywords) are recurring the most in our keyword dataset.

Here’s a sampling of 3 keywords:

  • best natural protein powder
  • most powerful natural anti inflammatory
  • how to make natural deodorant

Take a closer look, and you’ll notice that the term “natural” occurs in all three of these keywords. If this term is occurring very frequently throughout our long list of keywords, it’ll be highly important when we start grouping our keywords.

You will need a word frequency counter to give you this insight. The ultimate free tool for this is Write Words’ Word Frequency Counter. It’s magical.

Paste in your list of keywords, click submit, and you'll get something like this:

List of keywords and how frequently they occur

Copy and paste your list of recurring terms into a spreadsheet. You can obviously remove prepositions and terms like “is,” “for,” and “to.”

You don’t always get the most value by just looking at individual terms. Sometimes a two-word or three-word phrase gives you insights you wouldn’t have otherwise. In this example, you see the terms “milk” and “almond” appearing, but it turns out that this is actually part of the phrase “almond milk.”

To gather these insights, use the Phrase Frequency Counter from WriteWords and repeat the process for phrases that have two, three, four, five, and six terms in them. Paste all of this data into your spreadsheet too.

A two-word phrase that occurs more frequently than a one-word phrase is an indicator of its significance. To account for this, I use the COUNTA function in Google Sheets to show me the number of terms in a phrase:

=COUNTA(SPLIT(B2," "))

Now we can look at our keyword data with a second dimension: not only the number of times a term or phrase occurs, but also how many words are in that phrase.

Finally, to give more weighting to phrases that recur less frequently but have more terms in them, I put an exponent on the number of terms with a basic formula:

=(C4^2)*A4

In other words, take the number of terms and raise it to a power, and then multiply that by the frequency of its occurrence. All this does is give more weighting to the fact that a two-word phrase that occurs less frequently is still more important than a one-word phrase that might occur more frequently.

As I never know just the right power to raise it to, I test several and keep re-sorting the sheet to try to find the most important terms and phrases in the sheet.

Spreadsheet of keywords and their weighted importance

When you look at this now, you can already see patterns start to emerge and you're already beginning to understand your searchers better.

In this example dataset, we are going from a list of 10k+ keywords to an analysis of terms and phrases to understand what people are really asking. For example, “what is the best” and “where can i buy” are phrases we can absolutely understand searchers using.

I mark off the important terms or phrases. I try to keep this number to under 50 and to a maximum of around 75; otherwise, grouping will get hairy in Part 5.

Part 3: Hot words

What are hot words?

Hot words are the terms or phrases from that last section that we have deemed to be the most important. We've explained hot words in greater depth here.

Why are hot words important?

We explain:

This exercise provides us with a handful of the most relevant and important terms and phrases for traffic and relevancy, which can then be used to create the best content strategies — content that will rank highly and, in turn, help us reap traffic rewards for your site.
When developing your hot words list, we identify the highest frequency and most relevant terms from a large range of keywords used by several of your highest-performing competitors to generate their traffic, and these become “hot words.”

When working with a client (or doing this for yourself), there are generally 3 questions we want answered for each hot word:

  1. Which of these terms are the most important for your business? (0–10)
  2. Which of these terms are negative keywords (we want to ignore or avoid)?
  3. Any other feedback about qualified or high-intent keywords?

We narrow down the list, removing any negative keywords or keywords that are not really important for the website.

Once we have our final list of hot words, we organize them into broad topic groups like this:

Organized spreadsheet of hot words by topic

The different colors have no meaning, but just help to keep it visually organized for when we group them.

One important thing to note is that word stems play an important part here.

For example, consider that all of these words below have the same underlying relevance and meaning:

  • blog
  • blogs
  • blogger
  • bloggers
  • blogging

Therefore, when we're grouping keywords, to consider “blog” and “blogging” and “bloggers” as part of the same cluster, we'll need to use the word stem of “blog” for all of them. Word stems are our best friend when grouping. Synonyms can be organized in a similar way, which are basically two different ways of saying the same thing (and the same user intent) such as “build” and “create” or “search” and “look for.”

Part 4: Preparation for keyword grouping

Now we're going to get ourselves set up for our Herculean task of clustering.

To start, copy your list of hot words and transpose them horizontally across a row.

Screenshot of menu in spreadsheet

List your keywords in the first column.

Screenshot of keyword spreadsheet

Now, the real magic begins.

After much research and noodling around, I discovered the function in Google Sheets that tells us whether a stem or term is in a keyword or not. It uses RegEx:

=IF(RegExMatch(A5,"health"),"YES","NO")

This simply tells us whether this word stem or word is in that keyword or not. You have to individually set the term for each column to get your “YES” or “NO” answer. I then drag this formula down to all of the rows to get all of the YES/NO answers. Google Sheets often takes a minute or so to process all of this data.

Next, we have to “hard code” these formulas so we can remove the NOs and be left with only a YES if that terms exists in that keyword.

Copy all of the data and “Paste values only.”

Screenshot of spreadsheet menu

Now, use “Find and replace” to remove all of the NOs.

Screenshot of Find and Replace popup

What you're left with is nothing short of a work of art. You now have the most powerful way to group your keywords. Let the grouping begin!

Screenshot of keyword spreadsheet

Part 5: Keyword grouping

At this point, you're now set up for keyword clustering success.

This part is half art, half science. No wait, I take that back. To do this part right, you need:

  • A deep understanding of who you're targeting, why they're important to the business, user intent, and relevance
  • Good judgment to make tradeoffs when breaking keywords apart into groups
  • Good intuition

This is one of the hardest parts for me to train anyone to do. It comes with experience.

At the top of the sheet, I use the COUNTA function to show me how many times this word step has been found in our keyword set:

=COUNTA(C3:C10000)

This is important because as a general rule, it's best to start with the most niche topics that have the least overlap with other topics. If you start too broadly, your keywords will overlap with other keyword groups and you'll have a hard time segmenting them into meaningful groups. Start with the most narrow and specific groups first.

To begin, you want to sort the sheet by word stem.

The word stems that occur only a handful of times won’t have a large amount of overlap. So I start by sorting the sheet by that column, and copying and pasting those keywords into their own new tab.

Now you have your first keyword group!

Here's a first group example: the “matcha” group. This can be its own project in its own right: for instance, if a website was all about matcha tea and there were other tangentially related keywords.

Screenshot of list of matcha-related keywords

As we continue breaking apart one keyword group and then another, by the end we're left with many different keyword groups. If the groups you've arrived at are too broad, you can subdivide them even more into narrower keyword subgroups for more focused content pieces. You can follow the same process for this broad keyword group, and make it a microcosm of the same process of dividing the keywords into smaller groups based on word stems.

We can create an overview of the groups to see the volume and topical opportunities from a high level.

Screenshot of spreadsheet with keyword group overview

We want to not only consider search volume, but ideally also intent, competitiveness, and so forth.

Voilà!

You've successfully taken a list of thousands of keywords and grouped them into relevant keyword groups.

Wait, why did we do all of this hard work again?

Now you can finally attain that “product/market fit” we talked about. It’s magical.

You can take each keyword group and create a piece of optimized content around it, targeting dozens of keywords, exponentially raising your potential to acquire more organic traffic. Boo yah!

All done. Now what?

Now the real fun begins. You can start planning out new content that you never knew you needed to create. Alternatively, you can map your keyword groups (and subgroups) to existing pages on your website and add in keywords and optimizations to the header tags, body text, and so forth for all those long-tail keywords you had ignored.

Keyword grouping is underrated, overlooked, and ignored at large. It creates a massive new opportunity to optimize for terms where none existed. Sometimes it's just adding one phrase or a few sentences targeting a long-tail keyword here and there that will bring in that incremental search traffic for your site. Do this dozens of times and you will keep getting incremental increases in your organic traffic.

What do you think?

Leave a comment below and let me know your take on keyword clustering.

Need a hand? Just give me a shout, I’m happy to help.


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November 8, 2018

The Difference Between URL Structure and Information Architecture – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by willcritchlow

Questions about URL structure and information architecture are easy to get confused, but it's an important distinction to maintain. IA tends to be more impactful than URL decisions alone, but advice given around IA often defaults to suggestions on how to best structure your URLs. In this Whiteboard Friday, Will Critchlow helps us distinguish between the two disparate topics and shares some guiding questions to ask about each.

Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high-resolution version in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Hi, everyone. Welcome to a British Whiteboard Friday. My name is Will Critchlow. I'm one of the founders of Distilled, and I wanted to go back to some basics today. I wanted to cover a little bit of the difference between URL structure and information architecture, because I see these two concepts unfortunately mixed up a little bit too often when people are talking about advice that they want to give.

I'm thinking here particularly from an SEO perspective. So there is a much broader study of information architecture. But here we're thinking really about: What do the search engines care about, and what do users care about when they're searching? So we'll link some basics about things like what is URL structure, but we're essentially talking here about the path, right, the bit that comes after the domain www.example.com/whatever-comes-next.

There's a couple of main ways of structuring your URL. You can have kind of a subfolder type of structure or a much flatter structure where everything is kind of collapsed into the one level. There are pros and cons of different ways of doing this stuff, and there's a ton of advice. You're generally trading off considerations around, in general, it's better to have shorter URLs than longer URLs, but it's also better, on average, to have your keyword there than not to have your keyword there.

These are in tension. So there's a little bit of art that goes into structuring good URLs. But too often I see people, when they're really trying to give information architecture advice, ending up talking about URL structure, and I want to just kind of tease those things apart so that we know what we're talking about.

So I think the confusion arises because both of them can involve questions around which pages exist on my website and what hierarchies are there between pages and groups of pages.

URL questions

So what pages exist is clearly a URL question at some level. Literally if I go to /shoes/womens, is that a 200 status? Is that a page that returns things on my website? That is, at its basics, a URL question. But zoom out a little bit and say what are the set of pages, what are the groups of pages that exist on my website, and that is an information architecture question, and, in particular, how they're structured and how those hierarchies come together is an information architecture question.

But it's muddied by the fact that there are hierarchy questions in the URL. So when you're thinking about your red women's shoes subcategory page on an e-commerce site, for example, you could structure that in a flat way like this or in a subfolder structure. That's just a pure URL question. But it gets muddied with the information architecture questions, which we'll come on to.

I think probably one of the key ones that comes up is: Where do your detail-level pages sit? So on an e-commerce site, imagine a product page. You could have just /product-slug. Ideally that would have some kind of descriptive keywords in it, rather than just being an anonymous number. But you can have it just in the root like this, or you can put it in a subfolder, the category it lives in.

So if this is a pair of red women's shoes, then you could have it in /shoes/women/red slug, for example. There are pros and cons of both of these. I'm not going to get deep into it, but in general the point is you can make any of these decisions about your URLs independent of your information architecture questions.

Information architecture questions

Let's talk about the information architecture, because these are actually, in general, the more impactful questions for your search performance. So these are things like, as I said at the beginning, it's essentially what pages exist and what are their hierarchies.

  • How many levels of category and subcategory should we have on our website?
  • What do we do in our faceted navigation?
  • Do we go two levels deep?
  • Do we go three levels deep?
  • Do we allow all those pages to be crawled and indexed?
  • How do we link between things?
  • How do we link between the sibling products that are in the same category or subcategory?
  • How do we link back up the structure to the parent subcategory or category?
  • How do we crucially build good link paths out from the big, important pages on our website, so our homepage or major category pages?
  • What's the link path that you can follow by clicking multiple links from there to get to detail level for every product on your website?

Those kind of questions are really impactful. They make a big difference, on an SEO front, both in terms of crawl depth, so literally a search engine spider coming in and saying, "I need to discover all these pages, all these detail-level pages on your website." So what's the click depth and crawl path out from those major pages?

Think about link authority and your link paths

It's also a big factor in a link authority sense. Your internal linking structure is how your PageRank and other link metrics get distributed out around your website, and so it's really critical that you have these great linking paths down into the products, between important products, and between categories and back up the hierarchy. How do we build the best link paths from our important pages down to our detail-level pages and back up?

Make your IA decisions before your URL structure decisions

After you have made whatever IA decisions you like, then you can independently choose your preferred URLs for each page type.

These are SEO information architecture questions, and the critical thing to realize is that you can make all of your information architecture decisions — which pages exist, which subcategories we're going to have indexed, how we link between sibling products, all of this linking stuff — we can make all these decisions, and then we can say, independently of whatever decisions we made, we can choose any of the URL structures we like for what those actual pages' paths are, what the URLs are for those pages.

We need to not get those muddied, and I see that getting muddied too often. People talk about these decisions as if they're information architecture questions, and they make them first, when actually you should be making these decisions first and then picking the best, like I said, it's a bit more art than science sometimes to making the decision between longer URLs, more descriptive URLs, or shorter URL paths.

So I hope that's been a helpful intro to a basic topic. I've written a bunch of this stuff up in a blog post, and we'll link to that. But yeah, I've enjoyed this Whiteboard Friday. I hope you have too. See you soon.

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