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Desire paths, internal linking and letting consumers do what they want

One of the problems with a long running website is that the journey can be lost in the tall grass, yet it’s important not only for navigation but for the flow of Domain Authority

When you (or your web dev) initially built your site, there would have been a fairly strict hierarchy in place – through your main nav menu, for example, and through category and other pages that have been stocked with well researched copy, are keyword targeted and which point to all appropriate pages. However, over time – no matter how careful we are – this structure will begin to fray at the edges and, if left unchecked, the whole thing can unravel altogether.

For this reason, it’s vital that part of your organic search (SEO) strategy is a periodic assessment of your internal linking. This is not to say all pages need to lead to all other pages – just that as a site expands (and if you’re successful, they almost all do), it is important to nurture the consumer journey and allow for Domain Authority (DA) and Page Authority (PA) to flow through the site well.

Site structure diagram

Top level view of the Click Consult site

Where to start

If you still have your initial plan, then this can be an ideal place to start. If however, like 90% of website owners, you never had one or it is long lost, then you would be best to start with an overview (like the one above). For this you can generally skip the nav menu (which should, hopefully, have been updated as you go) and leave yourself with the marginally less daunting task of on-page links.

By starting here, you can follow the initial part of most journeys – from the homepage to various product or service pages, and auditing these links will allow you to spot potential gaps between where the journey takes you and where you would like potential consumers to go. While doing this, you can then look to keep track of the links you’re missing, potential new pages which you can record simply (as below from the latest review of the Click site) in a flat table.

Once you have these links in place, you can move on and do the same from sub-pages – in Click’s case, the next step is to approach the service pages, resource pages and main blog page separately in a similar manner.

What to do next

While you may have your own ideas about how the consumer journey should progress, they may have other ideas – and if they’re not catered to, it can lead to a hefty drop off rate and number of one page sessions (while these are not too bad for regularly updated blogs, if it doesn’t correlate with a healthy returning visitor rate, you can safely assume you’re not doing all you can).

This is where desire paths come in. Desire paths are best represented by the image below – they’re the well-trodden short-cuts that link to more organised pathways and, as the saying goes, represent the difference between user experience (UX) and design.

Desire paths at Michigan University

Desire paths at Michigan University – who decided to pave their desire paths, formalising them.

Unfortunately, for a website, there is no way for the consumer to form these paths and so they must be inferred from the data available – this can be sought out in Google Analytics in the ‘Behaviour>Site Search>Search Term’ and ‘Behaviour>Site Search>Search Term’ menu options and in the behaviour flow diagrams under ‘Behaviour>Behaviour Flow’.

With the behaviour flow diagrams you can see where consumers are entering your site, and where they drop out, giving you the opportunity to take a closer look at the links on these pages and the possibility of improving their access to other parts of the site.

A behaviour report from Google Analytics

A behaviour report from Google Analytics

The search terms and pages will offer insight in to where consumers are when they feel the need to search your site through the search bar – and for what they’re searching when they do.

Using this information, it is possible to get at least an initial impression of the direction your consumers want to travel. You can also add search term as a secondary dimension to the search page for ease of visibility of exactly what was searched where – if you don’t have what they were looking for, add it to your content plan, and if you do, then make it accessible without the search.

Search terms and start pages report

Search terms and start pages report.

Going with the flow

While the above will help you with the first efforts to cater to consumer intent (don’t forget that consistent testing is the foundation of any search marketing strategy), but it leaves out the related endeavour of structuring your pages to encourage the flow of DA and PA.

The easiest way to do this is to begin with your site diagrams and then move on to a content report from one of the many search marketing tools that offer link reports (Search Console, Ahrefs, SearchMetrics etcetera). These pages will often give you a report which details the most linked to pages on your site and, from here, you can begin to plot out which pages can be linked to organically from the pages’ content.

 A link report from Ahrefs with the URL and title hidden

A link report from Ahrefs with the URL and title hidden

By arranging your content report descending by links (or, in Ahrefs, by URL rating), you’ll be able to see at a glance where your linking exercises need to stem from. While it would be preferable to go through your content in its entirety, it is less time intensive to select your top performing 20 pages for your first run through.

This is not an exercise in simply linking to wherever you need a boost, however – internal linking should be as organic as your standard link building exercises, focusing on relevance. You can safely think about trying to have a link to one up the chain and one down (content permitting) so your sub-services could link to your, main service page and perhaps a related resource or similar , before looking at opportunities to link to appropriate relevant content elsewhere in the site.

When to stop

The short answer is: ‘never’. Obviously it is a fairly labour intensive project, but for the flow of DA and PA should be a constant optimisation effort, and a full audit should occur once a year to ensure you don’t drift too far.

The more regularly such website hygiene activities are carried out, the less time they take and the better your site will perform in search engine optimisation pages (SERPs). So the answer is to ensure that all new content is fully optimised for the consumer journey and authority flow, and for the overarching process to be added to the annual marketing plan.

For more information and actionable insights on SEO and PPC, why not try our resource section or subscribe to our blog. For anything else, why not see what the UK’s Digital Agency of the Year 2017 can do for you? Contact us today.

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