Optimizing a website for search engine results pages (SERPs) has traditionally focused on keyword density, backlink accumulation, and content. All of those things are important, but there are other things that can be done to make a site rank well. Perhaps the most neglected aspect of search engine optimization (SEO) is website structure. Structure is neglected, in part, because many websites are constructed using pre-built templates. That said, most people aren’t even aware that a website has structure, let alone that that structure affects search rank.

For a website, structure refers to how one part of a site links to or connects with another part. In a well-organized website, users are never more than two clicks from the homepage and the homepage is never more than two clicks away from all content. This is called the 3-tier website structure and it dictates not just how content is organized, but also how links and keywords are handled.

Why Three Tiers?

The whole point of this website structure is to make navigation easy for users and for search engine spiders. You don’t want either to get lost in a maze of links or find it difficult to get back to a familiar point. By keeping your hierarchy just three tiers deep, you ensure that your website can accommodate all of the content you want to throw at it without becoming unmanageable for users.

3-Tier Website Structure

To understand how the 3-tier link structure works, consider the topic that the website covers and the keywords related to that topic. The major “site-concept” keyword is the first layer or tier. The next layer is made up of 10-15 keywords, and then the final layer will have about 10 keywords for every keyword in layer 2, which is a total of 100 to 150 keywords in tier 3 for most sites. These keywords become the topics or themes for various sections of a website.

An example of a 3-tier website might be one that covers luxury cars. The first tier would be called “luxury cars.” Tier 2 might then consist of all of the luxury car brands, like Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Rolls Royce, and so forth. Tier 3 would then cover the models for each brand. For BMW, Tier 3 would consist of topics like 7-Series, 5-Series, 3-Series, and so forth. Note that everything on the home page is just two clicks away from anything in the third tier and that anything in the third tier is just two clicks away from the homepage.

Internal Linking

The key to a good 3-tier site is how the internal links work. To start, your homepage should only link to pages on the second tier and never to pages on the third tier. By the same logic, all second tier pages should link back to the homepage and forward to pages on tier three. Tier 3 pages should never link to anything other than their parent pages on the second tier. You have to think of the structure like a hierarchy, where things always follow a chain of command and where no content link ever circumvents the tier system.

Link Types

You may have noticed that, in the paragraph above, it says “no content link ever circumvents that tier system.” The emphasis on content links is deliberate. Some links should not be a part of the tier structure because they will break it. Links that fall into this category include social bookmarks and directory links.

The reason you don’t want social or directory links in your tier structure is that they aren’t contextual links. In other words, they aren’t links that help users (and spiders) navigate through the content on a website. Non-contextual links should be removed from the tier structure and instead be side links (sometimes referred to as secondary links) that don’t affect navigation. Use these links to build authority or drive traffic, but keep them out of the navigation scheme of the website.

Use Nofollow Appropriately

Nofollow links are great for keeping SEO juice on your site, but don’t let them invade your tier structure. This is generally not a problem if you are hand-coding a site, but becomes a huge problem with certain software packages. Use nofollow links on non-contextual links only.

The Benefits of the 3-Tier System

Using tiered links is a great way to improve your SERP ranking, but it may not be clear why. The following are the major benefits of the tier system, which the first benefit being that it gives you (or your webmaster) a nice way to organize the content on your site. If you stick to the structure, maintaining and editing your site will be much easier in the future.

More important than ease-of-use, however, is search engine ranking. Your first tier is your primary tier and the one that search engines will pay the most attention to. It is the one you want to spend the most time on and make the most appealing to users. Tiers 2 and 3 can be thought of as backlink tiers, they send both users and web spiders back to your first tier. In essence, what you are creating is a funnel that keeps a web spider returning to your first tier, which helps the spider to recognized how important that tier is and thus boost that tier’s PageRank.

The more you grow tiers 2 and 3, the more authoritative your site will become. Because your structure is so well laid out, it is easy to continue adding content to tier 3, which will continue to boost traffic to tiers 1 and 2. Over time, your website accumulates a great deal of authority simply because its structure funneled everything into one location.

Black Hat or White Hat

Building tiered websites is a white hat SEO strategy. That said, you can get into black hat territory if you use the same approach, but build multiple sites rather than a single authoritative site. It can be tempting to use multiple sites because the backlink juice is appealing, but you should avoid it. As always, focus on quality and content and you should be fine.

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