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In the world of SEO, external backlinks get about 100 times the news coverage as their counterpart – the internal links that make up the navigation structure of a website. In fact, if the web were the Brady Bunch, external backlinks would be the uber-popular Marcia and internal links would be the under-appreciated and often-overlooked Jan.
But don't think that means that you can ignore these connections – from both a usability and a search engine optimization standpoint, internal link structures matter. They can increase your opportunities to use keyword-rich anchor links, as well as funnel link juice and PageRank to the most important pages on your site. But perhaps best of all, they're one of the few things you can actually control when it comes to SEO.
The variability of SEO can be frustrating for website owners. You can't make your website age any faster, and while you can actively create backlinks, you can't control what links Google and the other search engines will value one day and slap the next. However, you are in complete control of the internal linking structure of your site and by setting it up correctly from the beginning, you can ensure the maximum possible SEO benefit.
The following are a few of the elements that contribute to a well-built website navigation structure:
Link Depth: Go Wide, not Deep
When we talk about link depth, we're talking about the number of clicks it will take to reach any given page on a website from the homepage. In general, it's better to have a wider, flatter internal linking structure than a deep navigation structure in terms of search engine optimization. To understand what this looks like in practice, consider the following examples:
Deep linking structure:
In this example, it will take six separate clicks to reach the pages on the bottom of the website. In terms of usability, it's unlikely that many visitors will dig deep enough to reach these sub-pages. And from an SEO standpoint, this site structure is lacking in terms of the number of internal links it's able to utilize.
For a better option, consider the following shallow linking architecture:
In this diagram, a website visitor can reach any page of the site within three clicks, which makes it much more effective in terms of usability. However, this structure isn't just great for web visitors. Because this site has more page connections, it's able to take advantage of a greater number of links and more keyword-rich anchor text than the deep link structure pictured above.
Need more evidence on how important link depth is? Check out the following quote by Matt Cutts, who is widely considered to be the best source of “straight from the mouth” information on Google's preferences:
“Well, this is not SEO advice, this is just behavioral advice…If you have stuff within fewer number of clicks from the root page, visitors are more likely to find it…If someone has to click 8 times to register for your conference compared to register on right home root page, fewer people are going to find it, if it is that many clicks away…” Matt Cutts
If your current website navigation structure looks more like the top image than the bottom one, consider adding more items to your main menu, more layers to your drop down menus and more text links within your web content that connect various sub-pages on your site.
Breadcrumbs: Help Users (& Spiders) Navigate Your Site
Now, despite the benefits of the shallow navigation structure pictured above, it's highly unlikely that you're going to have every single sub-page linked to from within the main navigation structure. Once your site reaches a certain size, the number of drop-down menus it would take to accomplish this would simply be unmanageable.
This is where breadcrumb navigation comes in handy. Breadcrumbs are the “path finder” navigation tags that appear on the top of many web pages, tracing the specific course of pages between the home page and the active sub-page. For example, in the shallow navigation structure above, a breadcrumb might appear on the top of a page in the third tier like this:
Home > Tier One Page > Tier Two Page > Tier Three Sub-Page
Within this structure, the phrases “Tier One Page”, “Tier Two Page” and “Tier Three Sub-Page” would all link back to the respective sub-pages on the levels above them, using the title of the pages in place of our sample text.
Consider the following tips for implementing breadcrumbs effectively:
- Be consistent – If you're going to include breadcrumbs on one page, include them – in the same place, using the same stylization – on every page. This gives you the maximum possible number of links, while maintaining a consistent atmosphere for readers.
- Use the appropriate link structure – For each element of the breadcrumb path, the title of the referenced page should be used as the anchor text, enabling users to quickly jump between tiers of pages on your site.
- Exclude the current page – Breadcrumb navigation should only include links to pages in the tiers above the active page. It isn't necessary and would, in fact, be confusing to add a link to the current page within the breadcrumb.
For more information on the correct way to structure breadcrumbs, be sure to check out Matt Cutts' presentation on canonical link elements.
If your site is built on WordPress, adding breadcrumb navigations can be as simple as installing a plugin and making a few tweaks to your theme code. It's a little more complicated if you need to install these links on an HTML site, but it's well worth the effort to develop this internal linking structure when it comes to your site's SEO.
More advanced SEO strategists and website owners may want to set some of these links to be “no-follow” links in order to prevent PageRank from flowing out through these internal links to pages that aren't as important to your website. Although a complete discussion of this “PageRank sculpting” is beyond the scope of this article, a good place to start would be to add the “rel=nofollow” or “rel=”canonical” attribute to internal links pointing to shopping carts, login pages or other unimportant pages.
Names: As Important for Your Pages as They Are for Your Children
The key to getting the most out of internal linking and breadcrumb navigation structures is choosing good page names in the first place. These page names (and, consequently, your title and h1 tags) should be based on the specific keywords you're targeting with your website. Consider the following example, from the website Mia and Maggie:
In addition to making the site easier for visitors to navigate backward and forward between separate sub-sections, the breadcrumbs serve an important SEO purpose as well. Each section of the blue breadcrumb navigation enables the site owners to include strong internal links with their target keyword phrases (in this case, “dog bowls” and “urban dog dish”) serving as the anchor text. When this breadcrumb navigation scheme is used across all pages on the site, the number of internal links grows dramatically.
To choose the right keyword-rich page names for your breadcrumb navigation and your internal links in general, you'll need to research the relative search volume and competition for related keyword phrases. Once you've explored several options and generated a list of good target keywords, you can begin to implement the strategies described above in order to get the most possible SEO benefit from your internal linking strategies.