David Mihm Explains Flat Site Architecture

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo,

This is just a quick pointer to David Mihm’s post about the importance of flat website architecture. The folks at SEOmoz liked it so much, they moved it onto the front of their blog – a big, and deserved, compliment.

The basic premise is such an important one for web business owners to grasp and applies especially to anyone who owns a small website. The fewer links you make a Googlebot follow in order to find a page on your site, the higher your chances are of that page being found, indexed and highly valued. When you are dealing with a small number of pages, say 20-50, chances are, your best bet will be to put a link on the homepage of your site to every single one of those pages. This sends a signal to the bots that each of these pages is important to you and worth being crawled. When you start burying pages 2, 3, or 4 links deep into the site, Googlebot appears to view those pages as less important to crawl and value highly.

Flat site architecture basically means keeping links to your pages at a top level rather than burying them deeper within the site.

I remember that this was the belief back when we first started doing SEO. If we built a 200 page website, we’d put a top level link to every single one of those pages in the main nav menu on the homepage. This technique absolutely worked, though I do recall it appearing to us that it would take Google awhile to work its way down the long menu. For example, one day, Google would index the first 10 links. A few days later it would pick up the next 20. It would take some weeks for Google to actually get to the bottom of the list, but eventually, all of the pages on the site would be indexed.

A couple of things happened that began to change the way a lot of us design websites. I can think of two big ones.

1) We caught wind of the 100 rule. Don’t put more than 100 links on any given page or it will look like spam to the Googlebot. It will also send homepage pagerank in too many different directions.

2) It is confusing for people to look through 200 links. Breaking them down into smaller categories (a process known as siloing) makes a site more usable. Categorizing and siloing makes the site less cluttered.

These two factors are essential knowledge these days, especially for large websites with hundreds or thousands of pages. No way is someone going to build a menu with 5000 links in it. But David’s post focuses on the small site, and I have to say, my heart is with him on what he is saying. We do silo quite a bit on our clients e-commerce sites these days. 4 years ago, we wouldn’t have done this. We would have said, “no, we want a link to every product on the homepage nav.” Design trends and new thoughts have made us move away from this workhorse approach, and maybe that’s a mistake if indexing is our primary goal…particularly if one is dealing with a brand new website.

Well, I think I’ll have to say it’s a toss-up between the need for quick crawling of a new site and the need for best usability practices. I’m a fan of the old workhorse site, before design became a bit cleaner and fancier as it is now. I remember well how perfectly flat site architecture worked for those clients back then. We struggle more with the concept of usability and conversions these days.

I guess it all boils down to appropriateness. We advocate keeping things as flat as one possibly can, and believe that the navigation is the whole spine and nerve center of any website. No question, on a site with less than, say, 30 pages, we’d want a link to every page to be at that top level. But once you start getting beyond that, the need to categorize and silo starts to kick in, at least in my experience. Read David’s article and tell me what you think, please. I really enjoyed what he wrote and found myself cheering him on!

2 Responses to “David Mihm Explains Flat Site Architecture”

  1. on 14 Nov 2007 at 7:56 am David Mihm

    Miriam, thanks for your feedback and compliments!

    I absolutely want to emphasize, as you did in this follow-up, that this kind of architecture really IS only intended for sites with fewer than about 60-70 pages. Obviously there is always a balance between making something user-friendly and bot-friendly, but chances are that with a well-designed homepage you can achieve both at the same time.

  2. on 14 Nov 2007 at 2:02 pm admin

    Hi David,
    I really enjoyed your post. I’m glad you threw a number around here in your comment. Yes, I think 60-70 would be manageable, if you used subheadings above the categories (7 categories of 10 links, or some such thing). We used to build them even bigger than that, but haven’t done so in a couple of years, I’d say.

    Where things get really fun is when you are dealing with hundreds of pages. Navigation becomes very complex. I do like working on smaller sites, I must say, as there is such a great opportunity to make one all-encompassing menu. Love that!

    Such a great post, David. I so enjoy reading your writing.
    Miriam

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