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Step 5: Sitemapping

In SEO we talk a lot about the word “sitemap.” In most SEO contexts, however, we mean the sitemap.xml file that needs to be submitted to the search engines on a regular basis to aid the robots in crawling the site after it’s built. We’ll discuss this in Chapter 4. In this case, we’re discussing the information architecture aspect of sitemapping. The IA act of designing the sitemap involves identifying web goals, existing content, web properties, and web traffic (and, hopefully, SEO and keyword input) to achieve a completed website according to objectives.

What is IA and where/when does it apply? As we’ve mentioned, IA stands for information architecture—the process of strategically identifying how your site can best be constructed with navigation, third-party tools, and so on. Early on in the process, I start discussions with clients about a new website with a standard, basic sitemap layout in Excel—although Microsoft’s Visio is a more common IA and UI package for these purposes, and PowerPoint is another poor man’s alternative. We discuss, and the client takes and adapts for further discussion. After the client approves page count, basic layout, and architecture, we proceed to web design and/or if necessary, wireframes. For large clients and websites, this can be an elaborate, time-consuming process and even involve professional IA personnel. But for small business WordPress websites, this should be included as part of the price and standard web design process.

What makes the SEO unique here is that a good optimizer can direct the website architecture for easy crawlability. And a website should not be architected without SEO in mind. Why design and build a website that the spiders can’t crawl? For example, it may be tempting to build a website with deeper and deeper pages, getting further into more detail about a specific topic. In fact, theoretically this idea sounds good for SEO as well—why not dive fully into your niche content? The problem is, all these deeper layers can inhibit spiders. Some SEOs will argue that if cleanly architected and linked, these deeper pages are very valid for SEO. Maybe so, but the closer to the surface of your domain, the quicker the crawlers can find it. What we’re discussing here is a shallow architecture. For most WordPress websites (which have fewer pages than large corporate Fortune 1000 sites) this can be the best approach.

Another SEO opportunity in the sitemap design is to assign SEO-friendly menu page labels. This has to be a delicate maneuver, because the longer the menu labels, the more it can visually break the menu (especially when web visitors zoom in on their browser). So the web developer will want menu labels as short as possible (and rightfully so), while for the SEO, the more keywords integrated, the better. Again, there must be compromise. Regardless of the top menu, the SEO should have his way on the footer menu. Strategic footer menus are great for SEO, and I recommend fleshing those out with full keywords in the pages’ listings (even if they don’t exist on the top menu). Often you will see gray-hat SEOs abuse the footer with links such as these:

  • SmallTown lawyer | MainStreet pain attorney | BigCity attorney

Not only are these much heavier SEO tricks and less for usability (and don’t fit the top menu at all), but they also often link off the site to SEO landing pages. These are the kinds of things search engines are cracking down on.

Here’s an example of the Excel spreadsheet I consult with clients on. In this case it is very keyword friendly (see Figure 3.7).

Figure 3.7

Figure 3.7 Simple Microsoft Excel drawn sitemap.

For either scenario, you’re still finding the balance of page-level URL length. You want to maximize the keywords in URLs for SEO, but at the same time the URL can’t have an unlimited length (even in the age of URL shorteners). You’ll assign the page-level URLs in SEO page form, but a good guide is not to exceed 115 characters, and also not to use “stop” words in your URL, such as “the,” “of,” “and,” “to,” “with,” and the like. Remember not to duplicate your keywords, or do keyword-stuffing, within a page URL. And longer URLs can dilute a specific keyword. However you go, you definitely don’t want dynamic URLs (a rarity in WordPress) or default WordPress permalinks. For more on URL length, here is a great post: http://moz.com/blog/should-i-change-my-urls-for-seo.

Although shallow sites are a good SEO goal, you still want the site’s content, on a page-to-deeper-page basis, to venture from light, intro, and marketing “fluff” copy on surface pages to in-depth content on the deepest page. For example, I always highly recommend that a site should have sectional landing pages or navigational pages. These are intro pages to a section and listings of its page contents and URLs. Although the links are already accessible via the menu, these navigational pages provide good bytes of info for those unsure of where they’re going—and they’ve become a web standard. So if your site has a section on “zoo reptiles,” that sectional intro page, accessible as the top-level navigation item, can tell you about the pages within it on snakes versus lizards versus turtles (good things to know!).

Set sitemap/customer journey goals: If you’re redoing your website, chances are you also need to redo your sitemap. Navigation trends change. For example, it used to be popular for jump menus to allow users to select their preference of what type of content to visit next (outside of the menu navigation). And breadcrumbs are not used nearly as much these days as they once were. Remember? That list at the top of your page showing you started at Home, then went to About, then went to Foot Corns Services, to Foot Corns Induction and down the yellow-brick road to Oz, and all of that was how you got to where you are now? From a web usability standpoint, if you already have good menu navigation (and for larger sites, both top-level navigation and section-level side navigation), a detailed footer menu, as well as a call-to-action or list of relevant links within your current page content—well, how many menu navigation options do you need? Is your site that confusing? And what about the added consumption of real estate? Some SEOs feel that breadcrumbs are another good opportunity for valuable anchor text.

Personally, I place emphasis on the aforementioned anchor text locations that you already have and have strategic control over. Additional links might dilute the more strategic anchor text, such as in your page text calls-to-action. At times you may need to consider such elements because of other SEO barriers. Perhaps you have a corporate site founded on an ERP, or an IT-heavy hosting platform template that is SEO prohibitive. In these cases, you need all the help you can get. So if, for example, you are not able to rename dynamic URLs, such as http://www.example.com/7=fekl?12#$J90n, but are able to use breadcrumbs, that might help your overall SEO.

Regardless, a goal for your new sitemap should be clean, simple navigation (and shallow navigation is a good SEO goal as discussed). But gauge your other IA and web marketing goals to help drive your new sitemap along with your SEO goals. Do you want to get visitors to the shopping cart more easily? Does the nav not do justice to the library of content resources customers are asking for?

A common IA upfront approach is to survey; customers, company representatives, or those completely unfamiliar with your site can all have valuable input. From this research you can glean priorities of content and functionality. But this is also the time to do your keyword research. Do the survey results suggest keywords and desirable web content in line with the keyword phrases being searched online? If not, why do you think there’s a difference?

The last thing I’ll say on this point is to serve your target audience. Your existing customers and staff know what they expect from your website, but this should be very different from that of a prospect visiting your site for the first time. Past visitors will know what they want from your site, where (roughly) to find it, where to find your contact info, and so on. Unique visitors (first-time visitors to your site) will not. So how can you attract them, incentivize them, and move them through your site to achieve the objective? Let your website plan identify and prioritize these aspects.

A common web marketing motif is the funnel; I like to discuss the digital marketing funnel with clients and how it applies to their website. Namely, your website goal is the bottom of the funnel. The primary start, when Google users search and see your listing and click through to the home page, is the top or mouth of the funnel. From there, what is the optimal journey to filter visitors down to the spout or goal? What was the typical journey on your previous site? How can it be better? Keep in mind that this is also how to think like Google Analytics, which provides a funnel as part of its reports (which we’ll dive into in Chapter 7), showing the most common paths web users took and how they aligned with your desired paths to the goal.

Don’t look at those lost along the way as failures. Your website needs to serve those as well, and if it’s any good, it already does. This is why I discuss having light, marketing intro copy to sectional entry pages, and deep industry copy deeper into the site. You will have web visitors who are not yet ready to purchase or call you; they have to think about it. Maybe they’re new to your industry or the sales cycle and they need to learn more on their way up. Maybe they’re reviewing info information from a number of different vendors to rate and compare before purchase. How are you serving these prospects? Do you have the web content to give them now and keep them coming back later? You always want to keep your funnel full, hence serve prospects at all levels. Take this conceptual figure to heart and into content and page planning for your new site (see Figure 3.8).

Figure 3.8

Figure 3.8 The Customer journey and website goals.

After you have objectives nailed down, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of the sitemap design itself and all its fun issues. One issue with redoing your sitemap and site content is that typically the page-level URLs change as well. Again, this is a good thing; you have probably altered SEO keywords since your last website build. Your new page-level URLs should reflect these new keyword phrases, and you should have all this in your updated SEO strategic planning. You just have to ensure that you have set up the new pages and their URLs with 301-redirects from your old website’s indexed pages. 3-oh-what-what-whats? Relax. We’ll get into implementing 301 redirects in Chapter 4.

The point here is that you want to be very clear about what existing pages you have coming up in Google for what keywords and what reader content. You’ll want to know where to direct search engine bots, and your web visitors, to go instead. All this should be represented in your new sitemap documentation and SEO page forms. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what exactly this site you’re creating is supposed to achieve.

Suppose you’re a small business in B-to-B (business-to-business, in contrast to retail business-to-consumer) and you want your website to facilitate lead generation. How can a website serve you leads? By capturing web visitor contact info for follow-up or by inciting customers to contact you. One way to incentivize info capture is to offer industry-specific, valuable content that requires login registration. So if a business sells high-end display monitors, it might have a video demo on the future of 3D monitor technology for business or a whitepaper on rating and comparing functionality of monitors for video conferencing (which could require registration/login to view). A real customer would find this information valuable enough to provide contact information in order to access.

As smart as this lead-capture approach is, however, it doesn’t help SEO. Spiders can’t crawl to the other side of lead-generation forms, leaving valuable content out of the SEO and SERP spectrum. From an SEO perspective, you want your best, most demanded content optimized. But again this shows the balancing act of SEO when presented with alternative web roles, goals, and personnel.

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