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Here be dragons: make your site easier to navigate

January 20th, 2009 by mdmcginnis

If human visitors can easily find their way around your site, search engine spiders can too. Since they are not human, they depend on your navigation and site structure to help them understand your site. What information is most important? What pages are related to each other? In other words, which keywords on your site should be given the most weight? You want search engines to put a lot of weight on what you say, don’t you? How you set up your navigation speaks powerfully about the priorities of your website.

  1. Organize your site in a hierarchy and make it simple to follow. Your goal is for visitors to reach their desired content in as few clicks as possible. Like Hansel and Gretel, breadcrumb navigation (Department > Professor > Class) helps lost travelers know where they are now, and to find their way back easily.
  2. Consider alternative ways that visitors might want to navigate your site. Not everybody thinks like you, unfortunately. Not everyone has the same goals. Many sites, including the main TAMU site, group their menu items functionally, with different navigation pages for current students, future students, former students, faculty and staff. That means we don’t need drop-down menus, which are actually a liability for accessibility – they’re difficult to use for those who lack a steady hand.
  3. Limit the number of links to choose from. Limit your navigation menu to your main sections and the pages that are most relevant to the current page. Don’t link to your whole site from every page. Every page should link to your home page, however. Visitors expect to reach the home page by clicking on the site name or logo in the upper left corner.
  4. Navigate by text. That doesn’t mean you can’t let visitors click on an image or icon to move around your site. It means you shouldn’t force them to. Text links can be understood on any device, with no need for browser plugins. Search engines still find them easier to follow and understand. The word “Admissions” needs no interpretation – I challenge you to design an Admissions icon that doesn’t. That’s one reason why all images need alt attributes.
  5. Create a sitemap page that lists all your pages. Organize the links into categories, and keep them updated. Actually, when visitors uses your sitemap, it often means they have given up on using your navigation – they couldn’t find what they were looking for. Don’t depend on your sitemap as your main navigation tool. Still, no site architecture is perfect, and adding a sitemap can prevent some visitors from falling through the cracks. A different kind of sitemap, in XML format, helps the major search engines not to miss any of your pages.
  6. Be prepared for visitors to manipulate your URLs. For example, if a news story is called tamu.edu/news/2008/12/Pirate_Attacks_To_Continue, it’s reasonable to expect that tamu.edu/news/2008/12/ will give me a list of all December 2008 news stories, and that tamu.edu/news/ will be an archive of all news stories. It’s also reasonable that tamu.edu/news/2008/11/ will give me a list of all November 2008 news stories. You can’t predict everything, but at the very least, visitors expect each folder to have its own home page. On many servers, if the folder has no index.html, visitors will be able to peer at every file in the folder.
  7. Have a useful 404 Page Not Found page. It should fit your site design, link back to your home page, offer suggestions on how to find what the visitor is looking for, and send an actual 404 server code so that search engines won’t try to keep indexing it.

Next in our search engine optimization series: what’s in a name, and how many do you need?

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 Search
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3 Comments to Here be dragons: make your site easier to navigate

  1. […] in our series on search engine optimization: how to create better Web addresses   addthis_url = ‘http%3A%2F%2Fwebmaster.tamu.edu%2F%3Fp%3D398’; addthis_title = […]

  2. Better Web URLs - moving to an upscale address | Aggie Webmasters on January 20th, 2009
  3. Another thought, maybe a subsection of #2 – Never assume that your visitors came in the front door of your site and plan your navigation and contextual clues accordingly. Most sites receive a significant amount of their traffic via search engines, E-newsletters, RSS, deep-linking, email from a friend, etc.

    Anayltics are vital to helping you follow the paths your visitors take and what navigation you may need to add or drop to meet their needs.

  4. Matthew Crawley on January 21st, 2009
  5. […] Here be dragons: make your site easier to navigate […]

  6. Wayne State Web Communications Blog » Blog Archive » [Friday Links] The New President Edition on January 24th, 2009

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