Site navigation: structure, XML maps, link juice and more…
Navigability is an important part of both the customer journey and crawler indexing, but it is also vital to domain authority and, as a result, to conversion.
Your sitemap is integral to the optimisation of your brand’s site. In addition to impacting the flow of authority, the user experience and the performance of the site in SERPs, it is therefore essential to ensure the map is logical, hierarchical and flows from one end to the other, and to make provision for regular maintenance as and when new content is added to ensure that nothing is masked by redirects or in any other way hidden from site crawling and indexing.
You cannot accompany every consumer on their journey through your brand’s site, but you can make sure it is easily navigated and correctly signposted – and the same goes for site crawlers and robot.txt, if you want your pages to be correctly indexed and your domain authority to extend the full length of your site, then you need to ensure your site is correctly ordered.
The anatomy of a website
In the simplest possible terms, were a website a body, the content (blogs, products etc) would be the flesh and skin, while the sitemap would be the skeleton – the frame upon which all else is built. The easiest way for you to make progress, is necessary for your foot bone to be connected to the ankle bone, ankle bone to leg bone and on and on. The same is true for your brand’s site – its skeleton should be set up in the best possible manner for the journey.
If we think about a simple customer journey (I’m going to use ecommerce here because the goals are easier to define):
As we can see, the customer arrives, identifies a product group, narrows it down, adds their product to the basket and converts. Simple. This, however, has to be replicated for every journey on your site. Any consumer, site crawler or anything else with the intention to do so must be able to make a similarly simple journey through each layer of your site. It is for this reason that XML sitemaps are of paramount important.
Again, we’re going to take a simple visual approach:
Yet, even if we take this most basic approach – with homepage linking to minimal subcategories, which link to very few in turn – we can begin to see how a journey can be impacted by limited in-site navigation. If a consumer enters the site above and wants to look at shirts following trousers, they would have to return to the ‘Men’ subcategory and retrace their steps. It’s a small inconvenience, but an inconvenience nevertheless, and all inconveniences impact conversion to greater or lesser degrees.
It is possible to resolve this, as most sites do, with an ever-present, branded navigation bar featuring drop-downs to make virtually all pages reachable from anywhere on the site which ensures the user journey is simplified.
The issue with this is that it can lead to problems for indexing, and it is therefore vital to ensure that the correct use is made of redirect codes and canonical tags. It is also necessary to ensure that robot.txt directed crawlers are not indexing multiple duplicate pages, or attempting to follow link loops or broken links, and therefore diluting the authority of, or even failing to index pages lower down the sitemap. For information on canonicalisation, http redirects and more, download our Technical On-Page Optimisation Cheat Sheet.
This is where the term link juice comes in to planning – domain authority has the equivalent of a trickledown effect, whereby homepage authority (as well as subpage) is passed to pages lower in the sitemap, but is occasionally blocked by broken links or poorly implemented redirects, meaning that the flow of link juice is halted. The easiest way to think about it is as a wine glass pyramid:
The link juice, as the metaphor always goes, is represented by the wine – it goes in at the top and flows down through the layers to the bottom. A broken link at any level is the equivalent of placing a board between layers, stopping the wine from reaching lower levels and wasting the link juice, diminishing the page authority and sometimes even stopping the lower pages from indexing entirely.
The below is a visualisation of a top level sitemap of and from Wikipedia.
As we can see, even this top level diagram is much more complicated than our original map, though your actual sitemap will, in reality, look more like the below:
Early efforts should be focused on creating logical flowcharts for primary consumer activities if only to simplify the hierarchical structure of the site to make planning not only the user journey, but the preferred journey of site crawlers.
Once you have planned the sitemap
The next step is to create the sitemap for uploading to Google’s Search Console (a guide to uploading can be found here). This can be done manually as in the example above, line by line, or can be completed using an auto-generator such as xml-sitemaps.com. The important thing is to ensure that it follows your logical, hierarchical structure, that all internal links work and that all redirects which are in-place are necessary and serving the purpose for which they’re intended – again, there are tools which will determine whether there are any broken links on-site.