On December 5th, 2008 wrote on the subject of Organic Search Marketing.

Footer links vs Breadcrumb Navigation.

I read an interesting post over at SEOmoz regarding footer link optimisation last week, and after stewing it over for a few days (and finally getting the time to) I’ve decided to share my thoughts on footer link navigation, and more importantly- how you can improve the internal link structure of your site (and hopefully see the results in search engines!)

For those who don’t know, footer links are a common method for linking pages to other pages within a site. Placed at the bottom of the page, footer links link to some of the popular pages of a site- like this fine example from ebay

ebay footer links

The advantage is search engines will potentially crawl these links more often as they will come across them more often, thereby noticing any changes made to these pages and follow the links on these category pages to pages deeper within the site.

This in principal is a great idea- take a category page for example, which lists all of the products within that category. If you add a product to that category and place a link to the product on the category page, if that category page is linked from other pages in the footer links, chances are search engines will crawl the category page and follow the link to the new product page (in principal anyway).

The problem is search engines do not have as high a regard for footer links (or any links towards the bottom of the page) as they do to links towards the top of the page. Because of this, footer links are no longer as effective as they once were (but this doesn’t mean they are redundant, yet).

My thoughts are how long is it before footer links become worthless? In my opinion, footer links do little for visitor navigation anyway- when was the last time you scrolled to the bottom of the page to find out where in the site you are, or to find other pages which might be of interest?

My take on this is this- in time, footer navigation will have little effect to the internal link structure of a website in the eyes of search engines. Enter breadcrumb navigation!

For those who have no idea what it is, breadcrumb navigation is a form of navigation placed towards the top of a website (either in a vertical or horizontal format) which uses hyperlinks to show the depth of the current page within the site, allowing easier navigation to previous (higher level) pages. Here’s a great example from The Financial Times.

Financial Times breadcrumb link navigation

Users and search engines can easily identify related pages and can work backwards to higher level sub-category and category pages.

The beauty of breadcrumb navigation over footer links for SEO purposes is breadcrumb navigation is at the top of the page, therefore having a higher regard than footer links in the eyes of the search engines, as well as being useful for site usability (a visitor is more likely to click a breadcrumb link than scrolling to the bottom of the page and clicking a footer link).

Breadcrumb navigation is also better for larger sites with hundreds of pages, as dynamically generating breadcrumb links is relatively easy to achieve (remember to avoid doing this in JavaScript- search engines have difficulty in indexing JavaScript). By using keyword rich anchor text for breadcrumb links, search engines will be able to get a better understanding of the pages content, as well as being able to traverse links up and down the site, improving the accessibility for search engine spiders.

I’m not suggesting everyone rushes out and does away with footer links- footer links are still an effective method of internal linking. However I am suggesting you look into implementing breadcrumb navigation in your site if you haven’t already done so, especially dynamic sites with 100+ pages. Having the two is not likely to hurt your rankings (although this is dependent on the number of links already on the page) and you are likely to find an improvement in the number of indexed pages over time by implementing breadcrumb navigation.

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