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The supermarket guide to SEO

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012 by Steve Masters tagged , ,

Confusing shopOne of the most difficult areas for search engine optimisation (SEO) is content structure. A small website with a few pages on one tier is fairly simple to work with, but if your website has multiple sections, with multiple sub-sections and lots of related content in multiple sections, not only do you have a difficult job in making the whole thing navigable for a user, you also have a tough task in structuring all that for the search engines.

With a wealth of content on your site, you can become an authority in specific areas and rank well for specific phrases, but if your content is not grouped well, you may be confusing the search engine into knowing what you promote. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say you are an auto-repair business. Your website could talk about any number of specific things that a customer might look for – exhaust pipes, replacement exhausts, cheap tyres, panel beating, MOTs, oil changes and so on. Some websites are structured in such a way that every page of the site seems to try to mention everything. This is where the supermarket example comes in.

Imagine you go into a shop and ask, “Do you sell beans?” Then the response is, “Yes we sell beans and bread and wine and water and cheese and toiletries and confectionery and books and cakes and ingredients for cakes … do you want baked beans, green beans, lupini beans, beanbags…”

Have you ever looked at a shop that seems to sell everything and anything and been put off by the sight of a random collection of products with no discernible layout? It’s like when you go to a restaurant and take half an hour to decide what to eat because the menu has so many items on it, a decision is impossible.

Supermarkets present a mass of content in an orderly way

An orderly shopWhen it comes to SEO, we can take inspiration from good supermarkets, which prioritise and categorise well. They let us see they sell a massive array of products but they don’t overwhelm us by making us find what we need in a huge pile. They lead us in and give us sign posts, they group things together in sections so we can home in on what we need.

Take Morrisons, for example (pictured). The company has been going through a redesign programme that brings a much larger fruit and veg section to the entrance of the shop, with displays that make the food look better and more appetising. The whole ethos of the design says, “We sell healthy and fresh food.” The full product range is all there, but the main message the shop wants to promote is the initial focus.

On a website, you can’t blind customers by chucking all your information in their faces right on the home page. You need to focus on the core messages that demonstrate what you do well and what most customers will be looking for.

Trimming your navigation to create an SEO-friendly hierarchy

Now, think of a search engine spider as a supermarket customer and think of your website as a supermarket. Is it sensible to include a huge sitemap in your footer on every page, or to have a navigation bar that drops down links to all your pages, sub-pages and sub-sub-pages? Focus on the things you sell that most of your customers are looking for and create groupings to make your product offering easy to navigate. Keep choices to a minimum. “Do you want cleaning products?” not, “Do you want cleaning powders or cleaning liquids or cleaning utensils?”

A logical way to structure your content, if you can do it this way, is to think about which key pages you want to appear well in search engines. Do you want to be well known for your baked goods? Then have a bakery page. Then within that have sub-pages for different types of baked goods, and perhaps even more pages with articles, recipes etc.

Hierarchically organise your site so that the home page links to your main sections, and perhaps some specially promoted product pages. Then try to make sure sub-sections link internally but not too much between sections. You wouldn’t walk down the soups aisle in Asda and expect to see signs promoting chocolate, TVs and fish fingers.

The more you can group your content into relevant sections without too much dilution from other sections, the better. This way you can build authority to key pages that you want to rank highest for their relevant phrases.

The diagram below shows how such a hierarchical structure might look.

An example of content hierarchy

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About the author

Steve Masters

Steve Masters

Steve is Services Director for Vertical Leap and its sister brands. He started professional life as a magazine journalist, working on music magazines and women's titles before becoming a web editor in 1997, then joining MSN to work purely in online publishing. Since 1999 he has worked for and consulted to a broad range of businesses about their digital marketing. Follow on Google Plus and Twitter