How Navigation Labels Improve SEO

If you think of your website as a map, navigation labels name the streets, features, shopping districts, and even major buildings like libraries and community centers. Does that description sound too expansive for something so humble? Maybe you need to rethink your definition of navigation labels.

As Shari Thurow explains on Search Engine Land, most people think of the text placed on a navigation button as a navigation label. Keep in mind, however, that most site visitors and searchers use multiple cues to orient themselves, and to make sure they ended up where they intended to go. Thurow’s list of navigation labels includes the common definition I described, plus titles; headings and subheadings; breadcrumbs; embedded text links (in context); and URLs.

What is the point of expanding this definition? It gets you thinking about all of these different page elements at the same time. If you can see what they have in common, and think of them as belonging to the same group, you’ll give them a more consistent structure.

Consistency helps anyone trying to navigate anywhere; it creates and fulfills expectations, and enables visitors to predict what they’ll find when they click through or read something just by looking at the navigation label. Or as Thurow puts it, “When navigation labels contain keywords and are used consistently throughout a website, they effectively communicate aboutness of both page and site content, as well as provide a clear information scent to content that is not available on the web page.”

So now you understand how treating these very important page elements as aids to navigation can make your human visitors happy. They can also make the search engines happy. When spiders crawl your web pages, if they see a consistent structure to your navigation labels, with a predictable usage of keywords, you’ve made it easier for them to figure out your site’s relevant topics. To put it bluntly, using navigation labels correctly can help your site’s SEO.

The key point, however, is to use navigation labels correctly. This goes beyond simply putting keywords in your URLs. Fortunately, there are a number of prevailing conventions on the Internet for structuring your navigation labels.

You’ve probably noticed that nearly every business website online includes certain kinds of pages, such as an About Us page. The usual URL for such a page resembles the form http://www.yoursite.com/about.html. Likewise, a page that shows visitors how to contact the business might use the URL http://www.yoursite.com/contact.html.

Nesting your pages can also be pretty straightforward. Say you include press releases on your site. You could set up a category page for press releases: http://www.yoursite.com/press-releases.html. Under that category, you might list a URL like http://www.yoursite.com/press-releases/2009/ABC-releases-whereami-app/, which links to a press release published in 2009 that details your company’s release of an application that always tells the user exactly where they are.

As Thurow explains, “URL naming conventions should at least be partially based on how people locate, discover, and label desired content.” This can be difficult if you’re using a CMS that doesn’t let you rewrite or customize your URLs easily. In fact, I’d suggest you avoid those; if you don’t, you’ll be stuck making awful, expensive workarounds.

Sometimes building a workaround, or a better URL, is necessary. As you’ve probably noticed from my description, good websites feature a hierarchical structure. Take the fictitious press release URL, for example. It indicates that on www.yoursite.com, there is a category page named “Press Releases” with a subcategory page for the year 2009, on which there is a press release about the company releasing a new application. That’s not as bad as some URLs, but it’s already getting a little long.

Now take a look at an example Thurow gives, that one might find on a real estate web site: http://www.domain.com/vacation-rentals/usa/states/new-york/cities/new-york-city/neighborhoods/chelsea/chelsea-apartment-1525474.html. It’s easy enough to break that down if you’re a human searcher. The content concerns vacation rentals in the United States, in the state and city of New York, in the Chelsea neighborhood – and it specifically covers apartments in that area. But it’s 132 characters long! What human is going to remember that? And what spider is going to crawl through all those levels to find that page?

Thurow suggests a different URL structure: http://www.domain.com/vacation-rentals/ny/chelsea-1525474.html. This is much shorter, easier to remember, and better for both your human visitors and the search engines. It keeps your most important keywords, which also helps your site’s SEO. The only problem is that it does not reflect the site’s primary hierarchical structure – but in some cases, where doing so would lead to particularly long URLs, this may not be avoidable. “URL names do not have to be long and unwieldy in order for both searchers and search engines to comprehend them,” Thurow notes.

Sometimes, with a big site, you simply need to balance issues of length, navigation, and keywords. Take this recent URL from Microsoft’s website: http://www.microsoft.com/Presspass/press/2011/may11/05-10WebcastMA.mspx. It tells you that it’s from their section aimed at the press; that it’s a press release; the year and date; and, to some extent, what it concerns (in this case, a webcast relating to Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype).

Does the lack of certain keywords in the URL mean Microsoft’s SEO will suffer? Not likely. The item’s actual headline reads “Microsoft to Host Financial Community Webcast to Recap Skype Acquisition.” This is another reason you should consider all of your navigation labels at the same time; doing so lets you strike a balance, so if you need to pull back on keywords in one, you can supply them in another.

Now that you’ve seen how navigation labels can work, you may look at your website with new eyes. Move slowly; if your website is performing well, you don’t want to make changes that might have a negative effect on your standing in the SERPs. But if it’s already difficult to manage, you may need to build a structure that’s easier to navigate, easier to maintain, and easier to rank. Good luck!

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