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Keywords, Text Links, and Navigation Design

It is common knowledge for many search engine optimizers to put keywords in text links, because, quite simply, search engine representatives have made this recommendation for many years. However, many search engine optimization (SEO) professionals go overboard and put too many keywords in site navigation, making site navigation too difficult to use or scan. And, on the flip side, many professionals outside of the search industry remove important keywords from navigation, frustrating SEO professionals.

What inspired my article today was Julie Joyce’s Should We Stop Focusing On Keyword Driven Anchors article on Search Engine Land. In her article, she stated:

“There’s much more to the general link health of a site than loads of properly keyword-ized text links, and, in fact, we’re occasionally seeing that having too few non-keyword based links can actually be a detriment.”

I understand that her article was referring to external links—links from objective, third party websites to your website. As I read her article, I realized that much of the article was also applicable to a website’s internal links as well.

So what is the best approach to using keywords in site navigation?

Types Of Site Navigation

There are many types of website navigation:

Types of website navigation

  • Utilities navigation usually appears in the upper right corner of a page. Users/searchers expect to see links to home, login or my account, shopping cart, contact us.
  • Primary navigation can appear in the left column or at the top of a web page. Primary navigation represents all of the top-level major groups of information on a website.
  • Secondary navigation can also appear in the left column or at the top of a web page. Secondary navigation offers access to related information within a specific primary category.
  • Locational breadcrumb links communicate to users/searchers the page they are viewing within a hierarchy.
  • Footer navigation is typically global navigation. Footer links can act as redundant, supplemental links so users/searchers do not have to scroll back to the top of a web page to navigate a site. Or they can offer a different way of grouping content.
  • Embedded text links are typically links inside of the main content area. These links often provide the greatest context or information scent from web page to web page.

Should SEOs put keywords in every single navigational element? Not necessarily. When it comes to global navigation elements, such as utilities, primary navigation and footers, you have to consider allocation of screen real estate.

For example, let’s look at Search Engine Land’s primary navigation bar—it contains 12 links. The primary navigation bar contains keywords. What would happen if the word “search” appeared in every navigation label, in an effort to make the site would rank better? Would the primary navigation bar be easy to read and easy to scan? Of course not. Balance is key.

Balancing Website Usability & Findability

Whenever I teach people how to create a usable, search-engine friendly navigation scheme, I use 3 words:

  • Clickable
  • Scannable
  • Distinguishable

As I wrote last month in Clickability and Search-Engine Friendly Web Design, all clickable items on a web page should look clickable, and all unclickable items on a web page should not look clickable to both search engines and users/searchers. The point of putting a link on a page is to encourage users to click on it. So make sure all navigational elements look clickable.

Navigational elements should be easily scanned, and this is an area where many SEO professionals can mess up a website. Distinguishable and unique labels also make site navigation easy to scan. In their efforts to easily add keywords to a page, many SEO professionals decide to put them in footers. But look what happens when labels are confusing, below:

Real estate website's footer with indistinguishable text links
Travel website's footer with indistinguishable text links

What is the difference between “atlanta homes for sale” and “atlanta real estate”? What is the difference between “Kailua vacation rentals” and “Kailua luxury rentals”? Sure, the labels are distinguishable. But which one should a user/searcher click on? Can a user rent a Kailua apartment for a vacation? Can a user find a home to buy in a real estate section? And what is the real difference? Do both sets of pages deliver near duplicate content or truly unique content?

Personally, I have found that users/searchers do not bounce back and forth between pages to understand confusing labels. Instead, they abandon the site.

Where To Put Keyword Links

I often find that embedded text links and locational breadcrumb links are two of the best places to utilize keywords. Embedded text links, such as text links in an article, provide powerful context. In fact, in one of User Interface Engineering’s virtual seminars entitled Designing for Content-Rich Web Sites, usability expert Jared Spool found that the best links contain 7-12 words.

If you are unable to put keywords in anchor text, you can put keywords next to anchor text. For example, many SEO professionals understand that “learn more” is not a very good text link. More about what? A better text link might say, “More about our graphic design services.” But it isn’t always possible to use such a lengthy text link. Another effective way of communicating important keywords might be to have a heading that states “graphic design services” and the “learn more” link directly underneath it.

Also, breadcrumb links can be more descriptive. Suppose your primary navigation label is “Services” because that is the best word to describe a section of a website in a navigation bar with limited screen real estate. In the breadcrumb link, it might say:

Home > Graphic Design Services

The heading can say “graphic design services.” The introductory paragraph can use that keyword phrase as well. Keyword placement has never been a one-size-fits-all process.

I certainly understand that having too few non-keyword based links can actually be a detriment to a website. But SEO professionals should be resourceful. I do not believe it is necessary to sacrifice usability for search engine visibility.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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