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Building Your Universal Navigation

Happy Independence Day, Americans!

On Monday I wrote a post about web design and SEO working together, and I mentioned universal navigation as one of the important elements where the two areas of endeavor intersect. As I was wondering what I was going to blog about, I got an email asking me if I could explain a little bit more about how universal navigation should work. So, ‘essence’ from Olympia, this one is for you.

Why Universal Navigation Is Important
Search engines use your internal linking structure to determine how important each page on your site is. The more links from other pages on your site to a particular page, the more important that page appears. Universal navigation — that ‘strip’ on the top of almost every modern website that links to the pages a surfer will most want to see — essentially guarantees that every single page on your site links to all of those pages, meaning the pages on your Universal Navigation will almost always come across as the most important pages to Google.

Use Universal Navigation To Define Landing Pages
This means that the pages that the Universal Navigation links back to tend to rank higher on the SERPs than your other pages. Which, in turn, means that the pages you intend people to land on should be in your UN. What you should not do is use your UN to put up links to ‘category’ pages that themselves link to actual content pages and don’t have any content of their own. It’s totally good to use content pages (see below), but you should expect to have to populate it with more than just the links to the subpages.

If You Don’t Have Predetermined Landing Pages
There are two statistics you can use to determine which pages people want most from your site: entrance stats and exit stats. In other words, people are most likely to encounter what they want when they first come in from Google (after all, it’s Google’s job to make sure that they do) — but they’re almost most likely to leave your site after they find what they want. For example, if a lot of people leave your store’s website after they reach the page that has your hours and location on it, it’s probably because that’s what they were looking for. In short, you should strongly consider working both your most-entered and most-exited pages into your Universal Navigation.

Track Site Search and Use It
If you have a site search bar (and you probably should), and you track what people search for using it (which you definitely should), take a look at the results. If you see that most people who use it are looking for one of a few pages, you can safely assume that those pages are both desired and hard to find — so add them to your UN.

Using Category Pages Properly
If you have a decent array of products on your site, you can and should create category pages (i.e. ‘Trilbys,” “Porkpies,” “Ascots,” and so on.) The biggest problem people have when they create such pages is that they just list the products within that category, which means your UN is linking to a page that Google won’t ever rank because it doesn’t have any meaningful content. Instead, use the Category page to inform the surfer about the category itself (“Why a Trilby Is More Than Just a Short Fedora,” for example.) Try to keep similar categories near one another on the UN as well.

Drop-down Menus
You can certainly use drop-down menus in your UN if you have a lot of subcategories to sort through — but if you do, make those menus in HTML. The short reason is that not all (or possibly any) spiders understand drop-downs written in CSS or JavaScript — and you want them to follow those links, or you lose the benefits. That said, Moz recommends no more than 100 outgoing links from any given page so as not to dilute the passing of ‘juice’ through those links — so keep it to a minimum.

Mic Check, 1, 2, 1, 2
Whatever you decide to do with your Universal Navigation, test it afterward. Go over to Google Webmaster Tools and look at the indexation of your site, making sure that the spiders can get everywhere they need to get. No matter what any SEO guy tells you, not everything works for every site — always test your changes and make sure they had the desired effect.

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