Web Hierarchy is for Chumps - Here’s My Website Hierarchy

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 06/28/2012

Who is Mike Levin? I’m trying to answer that a bit better, because I feel that highly developed personal brands are simply the future of SEO—because social signals will EVENTUALLY displace the link graph, and those Likes, +1’s and Tweets will EVENTUALLY become qualitative in nature. Long-running social profiles in Gmail, Facebook Twitter become gold—maybe even more-so than long-running websites, the way it is today. You can click on the diagram below to zoom-in. It’s a spoiler.

Mike Levin Website Hierarchy

Okay yes, other people own your data on the social media sites, but they are quite simply the new kingmakers, and if you wanna be king, you’ll play the game with your data living in their silos. The good news is that your own personal site still plays a MAJOR role, because all those nifty little social counters are driving up the numbers on URLs on websites that are registered to YOU, and which can be with you as assets and currency for your entire life. And few decisions are more important with personal brand than your master set of URLs, how you arrange them, and their impact on what you become known for.

And so, this blog post will ramble on about defining “who I am” via site hierarchy, the difficulty of doing so in WordPress, the futility of hierarchies on the Web in general, but ultimately the necessity of it as it pertains to your personal brand, if nothing else then as a an exercise in clear thinking. However, if done well, it could be directly usable as site navigation.

With blogging platforms like WordPress, you just sort of dump your content in reverse chronological order, then try to superimpose a sort of order through a combination of Categories, Tags and Menus. In WordPress parlance, Categories are the main grouping mechanism of blog posts that produce “category pages” that make for very nice top-level pages in a site hierarchy. But they aren’t really exposed that way until you start linking into them with menus. And even when they are exposed, category pages have pretty poor URLs and are not easy to individually design. Plus, you can also use Tags for this top-level-page purpose, and you can put posts into multiple categories and tags, which although flexible, creates a duplicate content and a circular referential mess. It’s not good at all for thinking through “who you are”. Hierarchies are much better, with the one caveat that…

Hierarchy is for chumps. Yahoo learned that when Google threw all the auto-discovered “entities” from its massive web-crawls into a pot, stirred it up, and let algorithms tease out the shape, presenting it in an ad hoc fashion at the moment of search. This was the only way to keep pace with the explosive growth of the Web.

The problem with such ad hoc willy-nilly relationships is that the human brain craves order. It craves sorting things into a hierarchy, taxonomy, ontology, or whatever you want to call the process of classifying, categorizing stuff into trees. We want it so bad, but the human-edited attempts to do this keeping pace with the Web, such as the Yahoo directory, busted under the stress, as did The Open Directory Project (DMOZ). Automated net-organizing sites like Vivisimo’s Clusty and Yippy were never quite up to the task. The closest thing to success might be the massively crowd-sourcing out to thousands of people in the form of Wikipedia, but even that is just one giant flat namespace, only subdivided by language. Case in point, if you Google Wikipedia hierarchy, you’re going to get Wikipedia’s page on hierarchical organization, and not anything on Wikipedia’s own hierarchy. That’s because ALL Wikipedia entries go into one “directory”, and only search and cross-linking gives it structure.

The take-away of all this? There’s few tasks as tedious and meaningless, while simultaneously desired by people, as imposing order. But at the Web-scale, it’s nigh impossible. Even with normal everyday life, it’s hard because life just doesn’t work with neat hierarchical organization. Everything is on a continuous spectrum, with the exception to the rule being the rule itself. But the brain still lumps things together and labels them, pigeon-holes, symbolizes, abstracts, call-it-what-you-will, but it’s the brain’s trick to simplify the world around it so it doesn’t freeze at its actual complexity. Even what we see and hear is just symbolic abstractions through our sensing organs. If we actually had the “god-view” of what was going on in our immediate surroundings, we’d probably crumple to the ground in psychosis.

And so the conundrum of life: we MUST simplify and organize, however doing so excessively leaves you vulnerable to competition who has a slightly better grasp of what’s going on, has adjusted their world-view accordingly, and is preparing to disintermediate and disrupt your ass.

Everyone and their cousin is trying to figure out how to disrupt and disintermediate Google’s ass, and they know it. Google’s short-term answer change the game and distract us from the fact they are not Twitter and Facebook, and don’t have a social graph with enough data to reach critical mass. Instead, they’ll put a shiny new object in front of us that simplifies and organizes our world just like the brain wants, and just so happens to keep you on the Google site while doing so. It’s a “knowledge graph” seeded by Wikipedia. The problem is that this is a band aid. It doesn’t stem the tide of social and mobile. PageRank is losing relevance, and here’s why.

Social adds a new mechanism for linking (like, +1, tweets) plus long-standing online reputations that people don’t want to put at risk by spamming from their profiles. That simply carries more credibility and weight than how anonymous invisible-hand webmasters are linking sites to each other. This couples with mobile, that puts that voting ability in your hands at all times in all aspects of life, with sensors like cameras and GPS location. All this starts to compound over time, reaching a sort of critical mass of social knowledge being far beyond better than link graphs as determined through web-crawls.

Of course these social signals represent the “popular vote” and are not always indicative of the best knowledge and information on a topic on the planet—especially when it comes to obscure and specialized knowledge of limited interest outside the field. Social signals take a nosedive in those areas… but that won’t last forever, because social signals are not just a qualitative numbers game. Over time, domain expertise will start to be associated with particular user profiles, and their voting power will weigh more. A few highly qualitative votes will surface niche sites that their own personal research and opinion deems surfacing-worthy. That’s the future. Of course, it’s a lot like PageRank for people.

And people are after all, a much better entity to quantify than companies or websites, which are virtual entities and potentially infinite in number. On the other hand, there’s only about 7 billion human beings—sorta turning human beings as into the gold-standard for social currency. This is why social is ultimately bigger than SEO. Embrace this concept now, and for some brief period of time, social signals will be your new secret weapon for fast SEO rankings. In the long-run, you’ll build up your all-important social profiles. It’s time to be someone and become known for something. Read some Seth Godin, and become the best in the world at something. Or alternatively, develop a great writing voice or become idiosyncratically unique.

We are not in this socially dominant world yet due to one of the biggest ironies of the Internet so far: Google owns search, Facebook owns social, and Twitter owns self-promoting narcissism… but none of them own each other! They resist being bedfellows. Only Microsoft did the forward-thinking courting to get data from 2 of the 3 prom queens: the firehose data deal with Twitter, and a cozy founder-friendship (Zuckerberg/Gates) and early funding with Facebook—but has thus-far not been able to turn it into a Google-killer.

Combine the above incongruity of the Net with Facebook’s botched IPO, and the world simultaneously realizing AdWords is a $40-billion business, while the most relevant banners in the world are still only about $4 billion—not chump-change, but 10x less. In particular, SEO just proved itself as a massively more appealing advertising vehicle than Social due to people finally realizing there is a magic moment of inquiry that exists in search, that has no equivalent in the social streams—in which ads feel more like an invasion of personal space, no matter how relevant. Now consider mobile where the space is so much more personal and so much more scarce… well, you get the picture of the information Facebook wasn’t so happy about revealing.

And so… the bottom line? The world will be turning social… even much more-so even than it is today, but there will be an enormous struggle to make the delivery of paid advertising in social apps anywhere near as profitable as search. This means generic search as we know it today is still the big kingmaker. But the kingmaker’s relevancy signal is becoming irrelevant, and they don’t have a critical mass of the important social relevance signals, which belong to competitors who won’t play. The loop WILL be closed in a meaningful way someday, but it is uncertain how and when.

This results in a sort of dramatic tension and holding pattern, during which time you can build up great potential influence by driving up your social counters on a small but important set of URLs that represent who you are, and will continue to represent who you are for like maybe the next 5 to 20 years. Even though hierarchy is for chumps, I highly recommend going through the exercise of mapping out your true site / career / life hierarchy. You are not Google and Yahoo, and are unlikely to encounter the Web-scale problem on your personal identity. But you WILL discover a lot about who you are and what those master URLs should be. Then start aligning the most important nodes in your tree on which you know you’re going to have content to publish with really good keywords, and by extension, really good URLs.

Then keep plugging away, doing your thing, being interesting, having a lot going on in your life in your chosen field of expertise. Build, build, build. Keep what you build on the same URL you first published on, and throw them into the vat that you can organize with categories, tags and navigations. But now, do it with a much keener sense of the overall “shape” underlying your personal brand. It almost starts to function like a plan, in which everything you do fits somewhere into that tree… and if it doesn’t, you’re off plan, which is fine, but you might have to do a little reinventing yourself. Mike Levin Website Hierarchy