Saturday 14 July 2007

Website Navigation

Website Navigation


The Web site Navigation or Internal Navigation is the way pages interact with each other within the same domain. The main and category specific options presented to the users on the pages, the links used to create a menu of items within the web site. Like cross-domain references ( inbound links ), these too carry characteristics that the Google index translates as parameters when judging the relevancy, importance and trust of a given page. The consistency of site navigation is the most important aspect of any domain next to the actual content presented, as in it allows users to browse through the pages and find the resources, services or products they are looking for. The system by which Google calculates the rankings on search results pages is closely tied to simulating user experience, thus while a properly set up list of menu items may not boost a web site's position as much as many off-site refereneces to it, a faulty, inconsistent, irrelevant or inaccessible navigation will definately hinder its efforts. Both for providing a good user experience, and being found in the Google Index.

Known issues

Case 1,
The weight, or importance of a page ( even within the same domain ) , is mainly calculated by the number of links that reference it, and also the importance of the pages it receives these references from. Sometimes pages that the designers and webmasters would like to be an important part of the web site do not gain the kind of parameters that would indicate this in the Google Index, and also in cases when more than a single page would be relevant for a query ( within the same domain ) not the most relevant one is presented on the search result pages. In most of these cases PageRank does not "flow" through the navigation in the way the intended, the pages' weight is unbalanced, and thus the positions of the URLs presented through the Google index suffer from a wide variety of inconsistencies.

+ Resolution: Make sure that the intended importance of resources is communicated to visitors and thus to Google as well, by making the most prominent pages accessible from all sections. In case there are too many items in each subsection or category, you may limit the navigation to the most important main areas and the references that are within the actual area of interest to keep the pages comprehensive. Make sure to bring pages that you believe to be of same level of importance to the same level of the link hierarchy, by allowing access in an equal number of "clicks" from the home page, and referencing them in an equal or near equal number of times from the relevant pages. ( But also, do not link to the same resource from a page more than once, unuless it is necessary ). Lay out a plan of tier 1, 2, and 3 pages to predict the PageRank and weight that would be aquired by the subsections from the home page, and simulate navigational funnels to test whether the pages are as "far" or "close" from the home page as their importance would indicate. Some great tools are available to check the levels and linking hierarchy ( an example is XENU Link Sleuth ), and for established sites registering and validating a domain in Google Webmaster Tools will allow access to internal link data, which will show the number of references to the pages within the same domain.

Case 2,
While the internal navigation may be planned well on a site, in case there are accessibility problems with the display of the menu and links, users and Googlebot may have some problems following the otherwise properly laid out structure. Such issues include the use of flash, javascript, and other non anchor text link navigation. These methods, while widespread and accessible for most users, still pose difficulties for certain browsers, computers and people with special needs when browsing the internet. Even if Googlebot follows the items of the navigation menu, in some cases the system may not be able to determine the amount and kind of parameters to pass with these links, and thus the consistency of the navigation will be virtually seen as broken.

+ Resolution: To address accessibility issues, you may need to create a navigation that makes use of anchor text links, either by replacing the current or as an additional set of menu items. This way all browsers, computers, and special programs will be able to comprehend and follow the navigation ( and occasionally translate the references using special programs, for example, to speech, other languages, or even relevancy signals towards Google ). Image links need to have proper ALT attributes set describing the resource that they point to. Javascript and flash based navigation will in most cases not pass any parameters to the target pages, neither PageRank, nor TrustRank nor Relevancy, rendering most of the internal sections virtually "unimportant" and "less relevant". Image links pass a certain amount of all parameters, but less than an anchor text link. In the case of internal pages not being able to receive any "votes" from the home page, you should check not only the layout but also the accessibility of the navigation links. A significantly lower or nonexistent PageRank even for high level pages may indicate the problem of using a technology that is not yet the standard.

Case 3,
Structures that might work well for visitors, in some cases may send different signals towards the ranking system, also, structures that may be the translation of other media ( brochures, slide shows, presentations ) could end up defying the purpose of web sites at the very base of their structure. A useful online resource always is to the point, and allows options for visitors to follow up on its references and topic. The Google algorithm too is meant to simulate user experience when deciding on the importance of a page ( or web site ).

+ Resolution: Keep in mind that PageRank is a parameter that is not passed in its whole, and with every step in the navigation, the votes carry less and less significance. A page that has been voted a certain level of importance may not pass the same amount with its links. In a controlled environment a home page with a PageRank of 3 may pass on its importance to ten subpages, and render them all PageRank 2, if these resources are linked to in the same manner and amount. These subpages may then link to other ( in this example "innermost" ) sections, passing them the parameters to have a PageRank score of 1. ( In this example there are already dozens of pages with a visible PageRank present on the web site ). If the home page linked to but a single page, the passed parameter would still only allow the target ( the tier 2 page ) to have a PageRank score of 2. And from then on, every other subsequent link would carry even less imporance, creating a redundant step in the navigation ( a "splash page", "intro" or language selection page ) that basically now has set the entire site one level lower in significance. Also, in the case of linear navigation ( home page links to second page, second page links to third page, third page links to fourth, and so on ... ) the PageRank parameter erodes with every step, and in the end only 3 pages will be of any weight on the domain altogether, with the rest probably marked as Supplemental for having no weight, no links from higher level pages. Make sure to plan a well laid out link hierarchy to evade such problems, as it is in your users' interest as well to not need to click through redundant pages, and linear "tunnels" of subsequent steps where there is no other option present but to advance forward.

Case 4,
Relevancy calculations rely on many factors. One of the main parameters are the themes and exact phrases a page is referenced to with anchor text links. Relevance may be narrowed down from a broad theme to subsections, and be used to create categories and subcategories of topics until the user arrives to the page that is of interest. ( Much like PageRank, a web site may use its home page to define its theme in the broadest possible meaning, and describe the different areas on subsequent sections and pages ) However the improper use of Anchor text relevance within a domain may end up breaking this chain, and even if a home page or main section would carry a certain broad theme, the references would not indicate that the subpages are on topic as well. Also, recent additions to the Google ranking system examine not only the relevancy of an anchor text link, but also if it is misused in a way to try and artificially create a new or broader category, mass up different topics on a page that is not perceived as a relevant source, or mass up too many "conflicting" themes, that - by current standards and the site's history - can not be legitimately related to each other within the given section. This sytem was meant to battle off scraper web sites that gather "near relevant" phrases and terms within a single page to create artificial relevance, but may also filter out otherwise well established pages if they're seen as presenting too many widely searched, popular and/or competitive phrases - while not having the status or history to indicate they would be a popular resource for them.

+ Resolution: Relevance calculations aren't necessarily one-way, as in a page about a given specific topic may as well reference another page with a much more generic anchor text link. The web site navigaton may need however to reflect how broadly a given topic is discussed by an individual page, and use wording that would clearly indicate the subject and purpose of the target of the link. It is advised to use the broadest possible description for the main pages, and narrow down the relevance with more and more specific anchor text as the navigation expands. Using the same phrases in an extensive way, or using words in the navigation that are highly competitive may have the effect of breaking the balance on which pages to show for a given query, may trigger an Anchor text related filter, or simply make the otherwise very specific and lower PageRank resources to compete with much broader themes and other, much more significant pages. Use the internal navigation to specify the main topics, narrowing down to specific areas of interest. Read more on Anchor text links.

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