Technical SEO

Navigation: Your Biggest On-Site SEO Asset

A site’s navigational links can help its search engine optimization. Links pass “link popularity,” little votes of value, from the linking page to the destination page. In addition, the link’s anchor text — the visible text portion of the link — passes a relevance signal. Relevance and value, or quality, are the foundation of SEO. A site’s navigation has the power to improve both.

Altering the Anchor Text

For example, if a department store has a clothing category and it’s trying to rank for the extremely competitive keyword “clothing,” optimizing the navigation will help. Let’s say the navigational link currently links like this:

<a href="/apparel">Apparel</a>

In this case, the link will still pass popularity but the relevance signal the anchor text passes is “Apparel,” which is lower for the keyword “clothing” than if it were specifically “Clothing,” as in:

<a href="/apparel">Clothing</a>

Shopping Cart Limitations

The words a site uses in its navigational links are typically tied to prickly issues like content management system limitations, backend database labels, and even print catalog nomenclature. However, if an etailer can force its CMS — a shopping cart, in most instances — to separate the category’s name from the name displayed on the site, a wealth of optimization can occur. URL naming, title tags, meta data and headings are all frequently tied to the category’s name in the CMS.

In addition to optimizing anchor text, optimizing the page being linked to in the navigation is extremely valuable. Let’s say our department store has five categories, and each category has five subcategories. That’s 30 landing pages — 5 category pages plus 25 subcategories — the etailer will want to rank for. When designing the navigation, the etailer has a choice. He can link to his five categories and call it a day, or he can implement rollover menus that enable access to all five subcategories in all five categories. With the rollover option, the etailer is enabling every page on his site to link to all 30 of his most important pages he wants to rank. Each of those 30 pages will be passed a fraction of every page’s link popularity — along with a consistently relevant keyword signal.

Split the Names

Let’s say that one of those subcategories is called “Bed and Bath.” If the etailer really wants to focus on ranking for “bedding” and “bath accessories,” having a conjoined “Bed and Bath” category is going to make reaching his goal harder. Splitting the subcategory into one for “Bedding” and one for “Bath Accessories” gives the etailer two unique landing pages to optimize specifically for the phrases he needs to rank for. Adding them to the navigation passes link popularity and relevance signals to those pages.

The effectiveness of navigational optimization relies entirely on implementing a crawlable navigation, of course. If the navigation uses complex JavaScript, Flash, or other uncrawlable technologies, the links and anchor text in the navigation will have no benefit to the etailer’s SEO. For more on crawlable navigation, see “Try Surfing Like a Search Engine Spider”, my article on that topic.

Run-of-Site Links Help, Too

Navigational optimization alone won’t send a site to the top of the rankings because navigational links are classified as “run-of-site” links. Because they appear on every page of the site, they pass a vote of relevance and value from every page of the site, but they’re also recognized by search engines for what they are: lower-quality run-of-site links. The highest quality links are “editorial” links, which are typically single links in the body of a page. Editorial links are considered more “earned” and therefore more valuable than run-of-site links. Still, SEO is a war of a thousand small battles. Any battle an ecommerce site can fight and scale across the entire site — like navigation optimization — will likely have higher return than one that must be fought page by page.

Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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