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Web site file base structure

Before you begin on designing your website, you may need to resort to pen and paper or a whiteboard for the planning stages. Even if your site is already launched, it's not too late to make changes that may be beneficial to you in the long run - not only from a maintenance viewpoint, but in improving your search engine ranking. 

Web sites grow rapidly

Web sites have a tendency to expand beyond the original idea, "growing" pages at approximately the same rate that rabbits breed! Taming the Beast was originally 4 pages back in the late 90's. It now contains thousands.

By drawing a map of your intended website, in the same format as the Windows Explorer layout, (folders, subfolders and files) it helps you to visually plan and categorize current and future development of your online project.

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I have observed many site owners believing that they would be easily able to "sort things out" after their site was finished, but this invariably leads to confusion, broken hyperlinks and placeholders where images should appear in the finished product. Just as damaging is the impact a poorly thought out file base can have on search engine rankings.

File naming considerations

The root directory of your site should only contain one file wherever possible, your home page plus whatever files your server puts in there once it is published. It should be named either index.htm/asp/php etc. or default.htm/asp/php etc. - and in lowercase.

The reason for this naming convention is that most Web Servers are configured to serve particular documents by default. When you type www.tamingthebeast.net, the server is configured to automatically look for the appropriate files called index or default. This saves the user having to type www.tamingthebeast.net/index.htm. 

If I had named the homepage file, homepage.htm, it would not have been displayed when a user typed in www.tamingthebeast.net. A HTTP 404 error - File Not Found would have been displayed. 

You should check with your host as to what the home page file should be named, but sticking with index.htm, html etc. is usually the safest bet; especially if you change web hosts in the years ahead.

To play it safe, you should always name your home page - and all other pages for that matter - in lowercase letters. For example:


are viewed as different files by some servers. Even if your current hosting service sees them both as being the same, what if you have to move your site and the new server doesn't? Save yourself some potential headaches by thinking ahead.


All images in your site are best off in one folder, called images (how about that!) This central location makes it easy to manage your image files, and considering that some images are often repeated on a site, it is a good deal easier to locate them during the design process.

The basic guideline for anything in terms of structure is this:

Relevant files should be given relevant names and stored in relevant folders.

Make your file/folder names relevant

Relevant filenames are very important. Give your files a name that relates to the content of the document. If you name your files, for example, 001.htm, troubleshooting in your rapidly expanding site can be a real headache as you will have no visual cue to remind you of the contents of that page. 

Do not use spaces when naming your file. To create the illusion of a space, use_the_underscore_key or-dash-key, but use it sparingly - I recommend 4 hyphenations maximum. Do not use &,% etc. This can cause error messages in publishing, display and retrieval.

Name your folders in much the same way. For example a small business website might contains folders such as admin, contact, images, product, order and about.

Folder level depth

My recommendation is to try and keep a fairly flat folder structure if possible, with the exception of image folders that *may* need an additional level if your site is heavily reliant on images. 



The reason for keeping a flat structure is to try and reduce the length of a URL. Long URL's have a habit of being broken when sent via email and too many levels of folders can make web site maintenance as confusing as having no folders at all.

Following these simple guidelines will cut many hours of troubleshooting from your web development time.

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Folder/file names & search engine optimization

A very important aspect of adhering to the relevant names for files and folders rule of thumb is as a part of basic search engine optimization. Search engines do tend to give a boost to pages whereby the file, folder and even embedded image names are relevant to the keyword. For example if your online business sells flombles and pink flombles are a popular item, then a folder/file naming structure such as the following is a good idea:


If your site is a mess..

If you do find that your site is becoming a nightmare in terms of file base structure and naming problems, before you start moving, deleting or changing file/folder names ensure you have a strategy in place for preserving search engine rankings and seamlessly redirecting visitors to the modified pages. The best method is to use a 301 redirect. 

Related learning resources

Creating custom error pages
Basic ecommerce web site design

The importance of anchor text

301 redirect tutorial - saving search engine rankings

Search engine optimization tips

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
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