How to Create a Kick Ass SEO Friendly Site Structure Using Card Sorting

Have you ever looked at your site and thought, “Shit, this things a mess. I’ve got pages everywhere!”

This can often be the case, when you don’t think ahead and plan out your site structure.

You may have found yourself in this position because –

a) You didn’t plan your web build, or
b) You “kind of” planned, but then things got messy as your site grew, or evolved and you just dumped pages here, there and everywhere
c) You just didn’t think it mattered

Listen, I know this isn’t the sexiest subject to talk about, but it is important – especially for SEO. Infact, I rate site structure as one of THE most important factors of SEO.

Building a website, is much like building a house.

You’ve got to have a solid framework, FIRST, before you start concerning yourself over carpets and curtains. But most importantly, it has to MAKE SENSE.

You don’t have the toilet in the kitchen, or a swimming pool in your lounge room.

However a lot of site owners get this backwards.

They’ll start the development of a new site and fuss over the trivial stuff – logos, colours and other nonsense, and completely overlook what really matters – site structure.

Infact, I see this with almost every client I help.

They’ll come to me and say “John, our website isnt performing in Google, can you please help?”, and in almost every case, they’ve overlooked the most basic fundamental rule.

They’ve done everything backwards.

They’ve built their website, THEN they’ve considered SEO.

This is again like building a house, but building it first, then seeking an architect to draw up plans.

It’s totally backwards.

You should ALWAYS have your SEO guy plan out your site structure FIRST, then site development should begin.

What happens when you screw it up

I’ll be honest, it won’t be the end of the world if your site structure isn’t great, but if you get it wrong, and you’re expecting great results in Google, then you’re going to find yourself on Struggle Street.

Here’s some possible likelihoods if you screw this up.

You’ll waste or lose link equity

Link equity is often referred to as “link juice”. Search Engine Watch provide a great explanation of what link equity is. Have a look below.

Link equity is the concept of the influence of links on a pages ability to rank for particular search queries. Link equity takes into account things like relevance, authority and trust, link placement and accessibility, the positive value of relevant outbound links, and the like.

In other words, link juice “flows”, and is passed between pages. When your site structure sucks, the “flow” is negatively impacted. I guess if you think about the way in which a complex plumbing system works. If that plumbing system is full of bent, broken or leaky pipes, or TOO MANY pipes, then there’s a good chance that you’ll lose water pressure or be stuck having a cold shower.

Nobody wants that.

To better explain, if you imagine water being “poured in” from the top down, and with each broken link, or incorrectly set redirect, or incorrectly linked page (or lack of links) you can see how the “link juice” is slowly lost. In a way it’s like a cascading effect.

User experience is negatively impacted

Let’s face it, nobody likes to be clicking around all over the place trying to find stuff on any website.

If you’ve got a poor site structure, then this is going to affect user experience, which means people are going to be pissed off and likely leave. And if that’s not bad enough, this then can impact your UX signals, which can result in a loss in rankings.

In laymens terms, user behaviour tells Google, “hey, this site sucks because engagement times are down, and a lot of people are bouncing back to the search results”. Of course this isnt always this sraight forward, but in any case, you dont want to be upsetting visitors to your site with confusing navigation.

Keep your site structure simple.

You lose sales, and customer enquiries

This should be pretty obvious.

If users cant find anything on your site, then it’s less than likely they’re going to buy anything or send an enquiry.

Your crawl rates suck

This is probably something might site owners don’t know about, or probably don’t really care about – but your crawl rates can be horribly affected if your sites structure is all over the place. Now when I say “crawl rates”, Im talking about how long it takes for say, Googlebot to crawl your site, and index it accordingly.

If your site structure sucks, then Google can get “stuck” in never ending loops, or hitting “dead ends”, or crawling the same pages multiple times.

Actually, Google is pretty good at detecting sites with crappy structures, and will typically “abandon” the crawl completely. So it pays to ensure your site is structured in an efficient manner.

Here’s a screen shot of a relateively healthy crawl rate.

This is actually a screenshot taken of SEO Point, not too long after a total site rebuild, which explains why things got a “little” high around December, however you can see it’s all settled down nicely.

And here’s the crawl rates taken from a site that was an absolute mess. You can see the crawl rates are actually 9 times higher on average.

Be mindful that high crawl rates can be caused by other issues as well, such as crappy hosting and poor coding etc. But they can definitely be affected by poor site structure too.

What causes poor site structure?

Lack of knowledge

I’ll admit, most site owners are clueless when it comes to site structure. Most either don’t understand it, or simply don’t know about it. They just build their new website and shove pages anywhere, which leads to everything going pear shaped over time.

Pages dumped directly off the root

This is essentially where no site structure planning has been taken into consideration at all, and everything just gets chucked straight off the root . So you end up with all of your pages hanging off the main URL.

Like this for example –

  • www.yourdomain.com.au/some-page-here
  • www.yourdomain.com.au/another-page-here
  • www.yourdomain.com.au/another-page-dumped-here.

This is quite possibly the worst way to build any site, because it becomes completely unorganised and hard to manage – especially as your site grows and expands.

Duplicate categories, or near duplicate categories

This is where there has been some consideration given to site structure, but not enough. Duplicate, or near duplicate categories end up looking something like this –

  • www.yourdomain.com.au/redwidget/
  • www.yourdomain.com.au/redwidgets/
  • www.yourdomain.com.au/red-widgets/

As you can see, they’re all basically the same, so trying to manage this becomes a nightmare. Not to mention visitors to the website that are trying to make sense of it.

Nonsensical page names

This becomes problematic when you’ve got numerous page names that are again, very similar like this –

  • www.yourdomain.com.au/really-cool-pages
  • www.yourdomain.com.au/really-cool-page
  • www.yourdomain.com.au/really-cool-page2

When you start naming pages like this, over time your head is going to explode trying to make sense of it, and manage it.

Planning out site structure can be hard

If you’ve ever sat down at your computer and thought, “Right, I’m going to clean this mess up and put everything where it belongs”, then you’ll already have a pretty good idea of just how confusing this task can become.

It’s easy for what might be considered as a 5 minute job to turn out taking hours.

The problem often comes about because you’re sitting at the computer, and you’re actively trying to make changes to a live website.

This means you might be –

  • Adding, removing or updating exsiting categories
  • Adding, removing or changing page names

In my experience, one of the worst things you can do, is try to sort out your site structure by actively “working on it”.

Its like trying to iron your shirt while you’re wearing it.

A better way

Okay, let’s now move on to the good stuff.

I don’t know about you, but I work best when I can “visualise” a set plan.

I need to see it in front of me, so that I know it makes sense, BEFORE I begin.

This is why I’m a fan of a simple method known as “card sorting”.

Have a look at the image below.

card sorting site structure

Looks pretty simple right?

That’s because it is.

This is a technique known as “card sorting“, whereby you use small pieces of paper or cards to visually plan out the structure of your website. I first heard of this technique over at Peep Lajar’s Conversion XL website, and it’s a method that I highly recommend.

In this instance, (as I didn’t have any cards) I simply cut up a few sheets of A4 paper of approximate size, wrote on them with a pen, and used those. I then took into account the existing structure of the website I was working on, and figured out roughly how I wanted it to look. As you can see, each parent card (at the top) is the main category, then underneath each one are the pages that go under that category.

This image here might make it a bit easier to understand.

website structure simplified

What makes this method really cool is that, instead of trying to plan out your site by creating pages and categories and whatever else on your computer – you simply use cards to see it visually in front of you. It’s super powerful because you can shift stuff around, screw up and bin cards that don’t make sense, and make changes VERY QUICKLY.

Unlike trying to do the same on your computer, where there’s usually a lot of mucking around, and it can be hard to visualise, card sorting is much more efficient.

It looks easy

I’ll be honest, when I first attempted this, I thought I would knock it over pretty quickly. However, the overall process took me a bit longer than expected, and I’ll explain why.

The website I was working on had numerous categories and over 800 pages, and was a total mess – so card sorting seemed like the best way to get it fixed quickly. After about an hour or so, I found myself sitting at the desk, completely confused and frustrated – writing new cards, removing cards, putting them back, taking them out, rewriting cards – and screwing many of them up. This problem came about simply because I HAD TOO MANY CATEGORIES – or categories that were basically too similar to other categories.

I managed to solve this problem by CONSOLIDATING.

That’s right – I threw a whole bunch of them OUT, and worked towards having FEWER categories.

The problem I discovered, is that it can be really easy to think ..”Yes we need this, and yes we need that as well”, and on and on it goes. Once you move away from the whole “more” thing, and get your head into the LESS space, things get much much easier.

Once I did that, it simply fell into place.

A few pointers to get you started

As I said, I highly recommend you give this a go if you’re doing any sort of site restructuring. It really does make things easier.

Here’s a few key points that I’ll share with you before you get started.

Try your hardest to get it right from the very beginning

By this I mean, try to get your site structure right from the get go. This is super important because there’s nothing worse than trying to “fix” a website that has 10,000 pages, or hundreds of categories that has become a total disaster. If you think ahead and plan it out from the very beginning, your site will grow in the direction you want it to.

Think long term

Another important point – think long term. This is because it makes no sense to put a framework together that might only make sense for the next 6 months. Think long term and “over engineer” your site structure so that it can handle anything you might throw at it down the track.

Expect changes

Look, change is inevitable, regardless. Expect that things are most likely going to change, but at least be mindful of that before you get started. Again, this revisits thinking long term.

Avoid perfection

As much as you’d like to think ….achieving perfection with this will do your head in. Chances are you won’t get it perfect from the beginning, but at least try and get it right. If you try to make it absolutely perfect, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time.

Fewer categories make it MUCH easier

I started this method below and had to GET RID of a lot of stuff in order to consolidate it down and make it work. The best advice I can give you when using this method is – LESS is better.

Write down your intended site structure and URL paths

This is something I did in addition to sorting cards – was that I actually typed out the intended URL structure in notepad – just so that I could a) see how it looked visually and b) to make sure it wasn’t too long. This DEFINITELY helped.

Conclusion

Card sorting is an effective technique that can help you figure out your sites structure – visually.

Rather than scribbling down notes or trying to “conceptualize” it in your head, or doing it in a confusing Excel spreadsheet, card sorting allows you to quickly and easily move categories and pages around on the fly. It’s the simplicity of this method that makes it work.

I’ve tried countless different methods and this one is by far one of my favourites.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you tried card sorting? Do you think you’ll give it a go?

Post up a comment below, and I’ll reply.

 

5 comments on “How to Create a Kick Ass SEO Friendly Site Structure Using Card Sorting

    • John Romaine on

      Gday Paul.
      Yeah whatever you’re comfortable with. I prefer the “card” system because you can easily shuffle and move stuff around. I find when I scribble stuff down I end up with a sheet of paper that looks like a chicken wearing ice skates ran over it.

      Reply
  1. Debbie Scholem on

    Card sorting is a bit like working out the seating plan at a wedding function. Get it right and everyone’s happy. Get it wrong (e.g. putting family members that don’t talk to each other – next to each other) and you’ll hear about it later.

    Reply

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