Understanding Flat Site Architecture

Along the last months I've heard quite a lot about the concept of Flat Site Architecture and when discussing it I see some misunderstandings in jeopardy to cause more harm than god, so I would like to help you get some concepts really crystal clear.

I found this interesting video from @randfish, let's go through it:

At the beginning of the video he uses two site architecture schemes, one in the antipodes of the other what could help to blur some ideas.

Second, Rand is associating more the idea of 'flat site' with the internal link structure as he continues talking about 'linkujice' between pages.

Third, from an usability perspective, he talks about 'one click distance' from home to all the pages you may potentially need access. In sum, he defines flatness as 'few layers of click as possible' to reach the content 'keeping the depth to a reasonable number' Bastian Grimm adds wisely in his article.

I guess any SEO agrees with those ideas and sitemaps have done the trick since the beginning of the Html era, specially for sites where navigation is based more in an internal search box as classifieds sites with tons of pages.

What else helps users and search engines to understand the structure of content? Bread crumbs are a good resource but tags, tag clouds, calendars and similar secondary alternatives to a categorized structure, are usually adding confusion to organized information unless you make a clever use of canonical tag or even better the right multi categories website structure.

@richardbaxter's article explains better the idea of horizontal cross linking to solve somehow the lack of relevancy at pages down the hierarchy.

Page organization, click distance, relevancy distribution... great but where the mentioned Information Architecture thing fits here? Not clear at none of the two articles and video mentioned.

Taxonomy and URLs are best friends

No matter how simple or huge a site can be, for sure the content must be organized under different concepts. Here it comes, taxonomy, the practise and science of classification.

Sooner or later this ethereal organization of content will have to be materialized in URLs and let me remind you that URLs are the authentic ID of pages inside the vast internet so not only they identify a page but also can tell in advance what the content is going to be about.

Question, which one defines better the kind of copywriting 'company.com' offers?

http://company.com/copywriting-services.html
http://company.com/internet-marketing-seo-copywriting-services.html
http://company.com/internet-marketing/seo/copywriting-services.html

No meed to discuss that first is the worst one but what about the second and the third if both have the same words?

A flat site architecture does not mean at all that you have to get rid of directories in URLs and these are my two cents to those articles. On the contrary, it is something to add to the click distance + relevancy distribution equation.

Directories in ULR structures, please

First of all, worth mention, directories constitute a standard being there since the first days of Html, for technical issues first, and since the invention of directory-level configuration files (.htaccess and similar) for IA reasons too.

The directory thing presents advantages, it helps to:

  • structure content in silos, related at top levels but independent at the lower ones, achieving the right granularity where needed
  • disambiguate concepts creating better semantic relations between them
  • create more room to allocate content and keywords going from generic and competitive to long tail ones
  • have a more scalable content strategy, important if a wide diversity of subjects appears in the horizont
  • extra hint: helps a lot with the analytics tasks, pathing, content drilldown reports and so, reducing drastically the sometimes required regex (and extra headaches)

What makes non sense at all, and seen a lot lately, is having directories in URLs but remove them from URLs when the page level is reached, for example:

http://professionalseo.ca/vancouver-consultants/
directory of SEOs by city
http://professionalseo.ca/ani-lopez.html
consultant page

that is totally incongruent, this is the right one:

http://professionalseo.ca/vancouver-consultants/
directory of SEOs by city
http://professionalseo.ca/vancouver-consultants/ani-lopez.html
consultant page placed right under directory

Worried about the length of the URL including directories and subdirectories? As long as they look pretty natural and not ridiculous long I would not care.

Even @maileohye, Google Developer Programs Tech Lead, preached recently in favour of trailing slashes at the end of directories to make them look like what they are although from a pure Google perspective they handle / and no-/ the same.

Hard to isolate the impact in traffic of changing to well structured URLs as those changes don't usually come alone, they are part of a bigger plan of optimization. Content structure is a pretty invisible task in any SEO project but absolutely fundamental. I have always seen positive consequences anyway.

In short, directories in URL make search engines understand better all the concepts under the umbrella of your site the way you want, not leaving this task for them to guess. As an obvious consequence, if done properly your site gets better organic traffic.

You may not agree with me but don't take the wrong decisions just because you didn't dig deep enough this particular and important aspect of SEO.

Is it better to have directories in the URL path?

(Update Aug. 25th) Today @mattcutts talked about that in one of his videos at GoogleWebmasterHelp Youtube channel.

Seems quite clear that directory structured URLs or just flat ones are not going to make a big difference in your rankings per se but the advantages, in top of the ones assumed by Matt, the can add to your SEO strategy are going to add more (indirect) benefit to it for sure, I should say.

Aug 13, 2010
Written by:
Filed under: Content






20 comments
Aug 26, 2010
Posted by:
Andy Nattan #1

Great post. I'm still not convinced by the "flat site" concept - it just doesn't seem natural to me. And un-natural things tend to end up being penalised by Google.

Sep 19, 2010
Posted by:
Aleksandar #2

Great you joined Matt, Rand and your analyze, all in one post. It's very clear and useful post this way.
Thanks

Nov 08, 2010
Posted by:
Luqman #3

Using directories in the URL intelligently has been seriously helping those are aware on how to best build website structures, its not just the URLs that matter in Serp rankings, there are number of other things which are interlinked to best URL and site structure and I remember I have really posted my thoughts on that with example URL that has achieved top serp rankings without any submissions or SEO.

@ Andy ? Why spend worth amount of time on Flash sites seo when normal websites may perform way better? I do not suggest flash sites, never did.

Have a great day ahead everyone!

Mar 03, 2011
Posted by:
Matthew Edward #4

It's great that you pointed out the difference between a flat site architecture and URL directory; this is something I know a lot of people get confused about.

This is what I was looking for in the comments on SEOMoz's original post.

Good job!

Fix some of the typos though! ;)

Mar 03, 2011
Posted by:
Ani Lopez #5

Thanks Matthew for your comment
I have to identify those typos first, English is not my mother language and still I struggle to get it acceptable.

Mar 19, 2011
Posted by:
Think Green #6

Hey,
The guide is excellent. great explanation of Flat Architecture and and URL directory.

It really saved a lot of time and effort. Thanks a million.

Jun 25, 2011
Posted by:
hongmenglove #7

I think its not suitable for the ecommerce sites. IF have directories in the URL path, it will very very long url.because some site have subcategries and subsubcategries such as http://www.pickegg.com/wholesale/stylish-lady-watch-bracelet-stainless-steel-quartz-wrist-watch-pink-silver.html although this website don't have directories in the URL it's long. Dear Ani Lopez, how do you think of it?

Jun 26, 2011
Posted by:
Ani Lopez #8

Hi Hongmenglove, thanks for come and comment.
I'll try to explain myself better following your example.
All Pickegg is wholesale,
Category URL /wholesale/radios/
Product URL under this category /wholesale/rechargeable-...-gray.html

I would prefer to have /radios/rechargeable-...-gray.html instead and place "wholesale" as keyword somewhere else (title, meta-description and such) to keep a better content structure coherence. In that case the problem is not the directories structure, it is that the URL for products is coming from it's H1, usually too long and adding extra nonsense words to URL making them not 100% optimized although I understand optimizing close to 146,000 articles you have there is epic.

I did SEO for big wholesale sites and they have particularities specially if articles are uploaded by users what gives to you less control over the optimization.

In general terms I care more about a good content structure also reflected in URLs than their length.

Jun 27, 2011
Posted by:
hongmenglove #9

Dear Ani, thanks for your reply. I agree with you about your opinions. The aim that picked put the "wholesale" to every URL is to improve the "wholesale" relevancy on entire site. Yes, the URL for products is coming from it's H1 but the site have about 40,000 products out there. so have not much effort to write it manually and get rid of the nonsense words one by one. Ani, do you have better solution for this?
The traffic is under "Doing nothing and being lucky" mentioned in your another of your articles.

Jun 28, 2011
Posted by:
hongmenglove #10

Ani Lopez, your site's a couple of pages PR increase yesterday, nice !!! although PR no big impact on rankings

Aug 04, 2011
Posted by:
Robert #11

Wow dude i'm impress, how did you manage to get your blog so high pr, any tips that would help. I like to learn from people that can actually do it, not just talk about it. Great work

Aug 14, 2011
Posted by:
Daniel #12

I totally agree with think green, amazing post that just saved me a lot of time. Thank you very much

Oct 15, 2011
Posted by:
Laure #13

Totally agree with this article and video!
I'm tired of these websites that have hundreds of links and you don't even know where to click. I waste my time each time I decide to stay on the site to look further. It should be limited, and if you have too much content, try making more than one website!

Oct 19, 2011
Posted by:
Object #14

Awesome article on Understanding Flat Site Architecture , I love seomoz and Google engineer Mattcuts.

Nov 11, 2011
Posted by:
Sally #15

I think its not suitable for the ecommerce sites. IF have directories in the URL path, it will very very long url.because some site have subcategries and subsubcategries such as www.sencart.com/Supply-pearl-jewelry-sets_c278 although this website don't have directories in the URL it's long. Dear Ani Lopez, how do you think of it?

Nov 11, 2011
Posted by:
Ani Lopez #16

@Object I'm glad you love them all, it is always a positive feeling.
I have an issue with 'love management', as I don't know them in person I cannot feel something more than sympathy for them.

@Sally, I'm writing now an article about why you should have some directories in your URL structure including e-commerce sites because they are suitable for them too.

Nov 18, 2011
Posted by:
Marc Bitanga #17

Great article Ani! Information architecture and hierarchy isn't an easy topic because it impacts so many things. SEO, User Experience, IT, etc.

Nov 19, 2011
Posted by:
Ani Lopez #18

Thanks Marc

Excellent post, I normally recommed a client to include at least the firts two levels in the URLs so that the user understands the context of the actual page to visit.

Nevertheless it all depends on what type of site you are working on. Ecommerce site products are more likely to need all the directory structure, but an insuranace company might want to have all at root level for marketing reasons

Apr 04, 2012
Posted by:
mkb #20

Hi Ani, good article, thank you. First time that I landed on your site and will be back. menno

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