Want to Understand Website Structure? Meet Melvil Dewey.

Brad Yale
Brad Yale
Dec 19, 2019 · 3 min read

The Decimal Classification introduced the concepts of relative location and relative index which allow new books to be added to a library in their appropriate location based on subject. Libraries previously had given books permanent shelf locations that were related to the order of acquisition rather than topic.”

Understanding website architecture is understanding the categorization of topics, likewise topics, and supporting topics. It is the process of understanding where topics live and how content relates to it from a navigational, linking, and structural perspective. It is, at essence, an exercise in understanding Melvil Dewey and his Decimal System.

The Dewy Decimal System.

In 1873, Melvil Dewey was hired by Amherst College to manage the Amherst library, specifically to reclassify its growing collection. Instead of utilizing the standard methods of the time, Dewey set out to revamp how texts were categorized.

Over the course of three years, Dewey developed and put his decimal system into practice. Yet it wasn’t until 1876 that Dewey published, “A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library”.

The adoption of the decimal system didn’t begin until 1885 and wasn’t completed until 1942. It took nearly 70 years for the system to be unified across all libraries. The system is currently used in over 200,000 libraries spanning at least 135 countries.

So, why should we, in the website making business, care about Dewey and his decimal system? The answer is simple: relative location and relative index

If you think about the structure of a website and how content plays into that structure, the terms relative location and relative index mean a lot. Just like Dewey restructuring library content based on content relevancy and topic consistency, websites should ideally be structured in the same fashion.

To ensure the user gets to the content he/she wants, pieces of content within a website should be structured to represent the relative location (proximity to similar content) and relative index (proximity between topics and their parent topics).

In practice this means the following:

  • When building a website, content themes should be thought of in silo structures (as pictured above).
  • Homepage theme content should give way to a secondary level of more specific thematically relevant content.
  • Secondary level content should lead to tertiary levels, containing more detailed content.
  • As all content supports each other within a silo, it’s naturally linked for content relevancy and navigation.

By utilizing the basic underlying principles Dewey set out to establish in the late 1800s, the websites we create should be structured to allow for:

  • Easy user navigation
  • Bot indexing
  • Linear content growth that does not overly complicate site structure
It’s also called a website SEO silo structure. The SEO silo structure is a website architecture which rewards categorization based on parent and child level relational topics. Silo content falls under the larger umbrella of the website yet is broken into related categories and topics, much as you would find searching in a library. The silo structure utilizes on-page contextual linking to link to relative and supporting content with the aim of connecting onsite topics while also driving traffic to related and supporting points of interest.

So, the next time you are tasked with writing a website or thinking about what type of content should be where within that site, think of Dewey and his decimal system to make sure you create a website with rock solid structure optimized for users and search.

The Decimal System is still as useful today as it was in 1876.

Brad Yale can be reached for comment at brad.yale@ddbhealth.com. He is an active member of his local library and fully believes the world would be a better place if more people read books and got off Instagram.


Brad Yale

Written by

Brad Yale

Nerd at heart. I write about health, tech, data, search and content.



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