SEO: Breadcrumb Trail Boosts Rankings

Breadcrumb navigation is wonderful for usability and for SEO. This text-based navigation shows where in the site hierarchy the currently viewed web page is located and your location within the site, while providing shortcuts to instantly jump higher up the site hierarchy. A product page for a table lamp may have the breadcrumb navigation of “Home > Home Furnishings > Lighting > Table Lamps.”

If the breadcrumb contains text links with relevant keywords in the anchor text, that is a significant SEO benefit. Take the “phone systems” link in the figure below. The search engines treat that single link as a “vote” for the phone systems category page. More than that, the anchor text (“phone systems”) provides the search engines with an important, contextual clue as to the topic of the linked page. That equates to improved rankings.

Better Than “Click Here”

Contrast that with the use of throwaway phrases like “click here” or “more info” in the anchor text. Such words provide no clues as to the topic of the linked page, for the search engines or your users, because all you’re telling them is that the page to which you are linking is all about “click here.”

One throwaway phrase that’s used almost universally within breadcrumbs is “home.” Try revising that link to something more keyword-rich –– like the “home” link in TriTech’s breadcrumb for example –– to a more search-optimal version of the anchor text with words like “computing” or “IT” or “technology” along with perhaps “store” or “products.”

Amplify the Effect

You should also consider the amplifying effect of breadcrumb navigation. A link in the breadcrumb will be “voted for” more times if that linked page is higher up in the site hierarchy and if there are more pages underneath that page in the hierarchy. A supercategory page receives more internal links than a subcategory page. A category page covering hundreds of products will receive more internal links than one with only a dozen products in the category.

Some sites take the visitor’s clickpath into account when building the breadcrumb, rather than relying totally on the absolute site hierarchy. This can have implications on the site’s search engine friendliness. How? Well, the user’s breadcrumb trail needs to be passed in some way, and it’s often put in the URL rather than a cookie. If in the URL, it will create multiple copies of near-duplicate pages for the search engines, resulting in PageRank dilution.

Several potential workarounds include dropping this breadcrumb trail from the URLs of internal links selectively for searchengine spiders through user-agent detection. Another workaround is to append the parameter containing the breadcrumb trail to the end of the URL using JavaScript. An example of this technique is REI’s “shop by brand” pages, which append a parameter upon clicking on any of the brand links. Either approach will minimize duplication and aggregate PageRank, but neither eliminates the potential for websites deep-linking to you with the breadcrumb trail parameter included (via copy-and-paste of the URL displayed in their browser’s location bar).

Make a “breadcrumb” of sorts for the checkout, too. This gives shoppers a bird’s-eye view of the order process and an indication of how much farther they have to go. Ideally, this feature will allow shoppers to use this nav to jump back to previous steps in the order process, e.g. to change billing or shipping information already supplied. A “breadcrumb” for ordering might look like this: “Cart Contents > Shipping Address > Payment > Confirmation > Finished.” In the nav, you could display all the steps and gray out those steps that aren’t yet completed. Granted, this isn’t for SEO purposes but for usability.

If all this seems too hard for you (or for your IT folks), there’s still a way to reap some SEO benefit by what I call the “poor man’s breadcrumb.” On every page of your online catalog, link to the category that the page falls under with keyword-rich anchor text. This approach worked well for who, at the time, was too swamped with other work to implement breadcrumb navigation.

Having learned probably more than you ever wanted to know about breadcrumb navigation, let’s summarize: incorporate breadcrumbs into your online catalog and your checkout, try to make the anchor text keyword-rich and don’t take a spider’s clickpath into account in your breadcrumb.

Stephan Spencer

Stephan Spencer

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