When you start to build a website, it can be tempting to just jump in and add content right away. Getting started with a website builder is exciting, and you probably can’t wait to begin sharing content with the world. We understand and actually encourage adding content immediately because we know that your motivation feeds off of your initial excitement.
We also know that to make your site successful, it pays to put some time into planning your site structure before you get too far in your journey. Once you’ve added a bit of content, take a step back and think about how your site should be structured.
What Is A Site’s Structure?
Your site’s “structure” refers to how you’ve organized your content and how you’ve set up your navigation menus to help visitors get to that content.
Having a logical, optimized site structure will create a more user-friendly experience for your visitors and it can also help you improve your site’s search engine optimization (SEO).
In this post, we’re going to help you plan your site’s structure by focusing on three key areas:
- Properly using WordPress categories and tags to organize your content.
- Creating an effective main navigation menu to point people to the most important areas on your site.
- Using your site’s footer to provide deeper links to your site’s content.
Let’s get started so that you can create a strong foundation for your site and set it up for long-term success!
Here’s Why Your Site’s Structure Is Important
In a nutshell, the structure is important because it will affect how easy it is for your site’s visitors to find the content that they’re interested in.
- If people can easily find what they’re looking for, they’ll be more likely to stick around and engage with your site. But if they can’t find what they’re looking for, they’ll be more likely to “bounce” and leave your site. Basically, even if your site offers exactly what the person is looking for, they still might leave if your site’s structure doesn’t make it easy for them to discover that content.
- You can also use your site’s structure to highlight key content and nudge your site’s visitors towards the content that you want them to engage with.
- If your goal is to make money with your website, this means that optimizing your site’s structure can help you boost your revenue and other key performance metrics.
- Beyond that, your site’s structure will also help search engine robots like Googlebot understand which parts of your site are the most important, which can affect your site’s SEO.
Now that you know why site structure is important, let’s talk about how to get it right…
Three Key Elements to Plan Your Site Structure
If you want to create an optimal site structure for your WordPress site, you’ll want to focus on three key elements:
- WordPress categories and tags, which organize your site’s content in a logical way for humans and search engines.
- The primary navigation menu in your site’s header, which helps visitors quickly access key areas on your site.
- The navigation links in your site’s footer, which typically link to “deeper” areas on your site.
These are not the only elements that affect your site structure, but they are the most important and they’ll apply to all WordPress sites.
In general, it’s useful to plan out these structural elements before you build a website. While you can always change them later on, it’s better to get them right, from the very start.
WordPress Categories and Tags
WordPress categories and tags help you organize your posts (or other types of content if you’ve created custom post types with the WordPress.com Business plan). You can assign categories and tags to posts when you’re working in the editor:
We’re starting with categories and tags because how you structure them could play a role in how you configure the other navigation areas on your site.
Both categories and tags help you group your content together, but they do so in different ways so it’s important to understand the differences.
What Are WordPress Categories?
WordPress categories are a hierarchical grouping mechanism, which means you can have parent categories and child categories. Think of it kind of like nesting a folder inside another folder on your computer.
For example, if you have a blog about soccer (or football, depending on which side of the pond you’re on), you could have parent categories for the popular leagues, such as:
- Premier League
- La Liga
- Serie A
Then, inside each league’s parent category, you could have child categories for each team.
For example, you could create child categories inside of the Premier League category for Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and so on.
If someone clicked on the Premier League parent category, they would see content from all the teams. Then, if they wanted to filter out content for a specific team, they can select that team’s child category.
Creating these hierarchical categories can be helpful for your site’s visitors because it creates a natural funnel to draw people into your site. For example, someone could land on your homepage, click into the Premier League category to catch up on league-wide news, and then drill down into their favorite team.
- Premier League
- Manchester United
- La Liga
- Serie A
What Are WordPress Tags?
WordPress tags are a non-hierarchical or “flat” grouping mechanism, which means there are no parent/child relationships.
Instead, each tag exists by itself and has no relationship to the other tags or categories. Typically, you’ll use tags to group posts by very specific topics that don’t merit their own category. Your visitors might use tags if they want to dig into a specific topic on your site, but most people will browse your categories.
When to Use WordPress Categories and When to Use WordPress Tags
Now, let’s talk about when you should use categories and tags to organize your content. Generally, you’ll want to use child categories for specific topics that you regularly write about and tags for very narrow topics that aren’t regular features on your site.
To illustrate this, let’s keep going with our soccer/football example.
All WordPress sites must use categories for posts, but using tags is optional and depends on the structure of your site.
To start, you should set up your main parent categories. Typically, you’ll want to aim for no more than 8-10 parent categories. Nothing bad will happen if you go beyond that, but having 10+ parent categories can be a sign that your parent categories are too narrow.
Once you have your main parent categories, you can decide whether it makes sense to further organize your content with child categories and/or tags.
For example, as we previously discussed, you could create a child category for Manchester United if you regularly cover that team. However, you might want to use tags when you write about specific players on the team because you probably don’t provide dedicated coverage for individual players (though if you do, a child category might fit better). These tags will typically be shown in a post’s metadata or a theme may include a tag cloud widget in a sidebar. If a user clicks a tag, they will be directed to an archive of all posts that also contain that tag.
Remember that you can use categories and tags at the same time. If you write a post about a specific player on Manchester United, you could put that post in the child category for Manchester United while also tagging it with the player’s name. That way, your visitors could use both methods to discover the post.
When and how you use categories and tags is up to you. Some sites just use broad parent categories, which is fine if that’s what makes the most sense for your website. Usually, some parent categories will have child categories, but some parent categories won’t need any subcategories (child categories). Likewise, in many cases, some posts will use tags and some won’t. That works too!
Primary Navigation Menu (Header)
Your primary navigation menu is the menu that appears at the top of your site, typically in the header on most WordPress themes.
You want to use it to direct visitors to the most important parts of your site. You’re not trying to include top-level links to every single piece of content on your site – you’re just telling visitors how they can get to the most important parts.
As a rough rule of thumb, you should normally aim to have around four to eight top-level navigation items, along with options to register or log in if applicable to your site.
For example, the WordPress.com navigation menu has four top-level navigation items (beyond the log in and register links):
These numbers are not a hard rule – you can add more top-level items if needed. But you don’t want to feel like you’re trying to cram in every single link on your site. Remember, you just want to help people quickly access the most important content on your site.
If you do want to provide links to “deeper” content on your site, you can make use of drop-down menus or mega menus that appear when a visitor hovers over one of your top-level navigation items.
For example, SBNation, a popular sports media publication, includes top-level navigation items for all of the sports that SBNation covers. Then, if you hover over a sport, you’ll see a drop-down that lists specific leagues or teams within that sport:
Drop-down menus like this can be really useful for displaying your site’s categories. For example, you could create a top-level menu item that links to your main blog page, but then you could show your primary categories in a drop-down menu so that people can jump straight to the content that they’re interested in.
While you should limit your primary navigation menu to just a few top-level menus, your footer can include a lot more navigation links.
For example, while the WordPress.com header only has four top-level links, the footer includes 27+ visible links, divided into four columns.
Typically, your footer serves two key functions.
Second, you can use it as a “sitemap” to provide direct links to your site’s most important content.
If you browse travel booking sites or real estate listing sites, you can find some excellent examples. For example, look at the footer from Agoda, a popular travel booking site. It includes utility links in the grey section and then a detailed sitemap to popular destinations and guides:
Wirecutter from the New York Times also illustrates this principle. The footer includes both utility links and direct links to all the categories:
On your site, you might break it down into three to four columns like so:
- A list of all your pages.
- A list of all your categories and child categories.
- Direct links to your most popular/important blog posts.
- Utility pages.
Start Planning Your Website’s Structure Today
If you want to create the best experience for your visitors, you should plan out your site structure early in the site-building process.
To begin, plan how you’ll organize your site’s content with categories and tags. Here’s a quick recap:
- Categories are hierarchical (they can have parent/child relationships) while tags are non-hierarchical (each tag is completely separate).
- Use your parent categories for broad topics. For more specific topics, you can consider child categories (aka subcategories) or tags depending on your site’s content.
- You must assign each post to at least one category, but using tags is optional.
Once you know how you’ll organize your content, use your site’s header and footer navigation to make it easy for visitors to access important details. Remember, your header should just have a few top-level items for the most important content on your site, while your footer can include more “deep” links and utility pages.
If figuring out these details for your situation feels overwhelming, you’re not alone. If you want some help creating a great-looking site with an optimized structure, we offer a service to build a website for you. Click here to learn more about our “Built by WordPress.com” service.
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