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SEO 411: Do parent menu items without a link hurt your SEO?

It’s not uncommon for the main navigation menu of a website to include child items via a dropdown or maybe even a <shudder>mega menu</shudder> where the parent menu item isn’t itself like as it has no connected page.

But does this have any impact on your SEO?

The answer’s actually a tad complicated, but let’s walk through it.

Addressing the ranking issue

When your child menu items don’t have an existing parent page, the SEO question is usually about page ranking.

If we visualize this for a moment, we’re talking about a menu item with no content page to be taken to, yet its child pages all link to their own respective page:

screenshot of a sample nav menu with child links

…or, for a deeper perspective under the hood:

<nav>
  <ul>
    <li><a href="#">Parent Page</a>
      <ul>
        <li><a href="/page">Child Page</a></li>
        <li><a href="/page">Child Page</a></li>
        <li><a href="/page">Child Page</a></li>
      </ul>
    </li>
    <li><a href="/page">Page</a></li>
    <li><a href="/page">Page</a></li>
    <li><a href="/page">Page</a></li>
  </ul>
</nav>

Child pages are meant to be both meaningful and contextual in relation to its parent page.

Yet, in this example there is no parent, so you’d assume that search engines may be unsure as to the value between that parent and its children, since the parent lacks a URL of its own.

In terms of pure link structure, search engines will make the relationship connection and as such you shouldn’t expect this practice to necessarily hurt your rankings for those child pages.

But this does create a sizeable gap in both SEO potential and user experience.

Let’s look at some reasons why.

Why omitting a parent page is a bad idea

While not having a parent page at all isn’t going to actively hurt your SEO, it’s still a decision that comes with problems that can hurt your SEO in the long run.

The effect this can have includes:

For content marketers, this creates some dead ends when it comes to executing a thorough product marketing and conversion strategy.

shut up robin meme parents dead seo

You lose an opportunity for new customer acquisition

If your site’s goal includes converting visitors into customers through a variety of services or products, every page has value and a purpose.

Also, if you have pages of individual services but no, actual Services landing page, there ends up being an unnecessary disconnect and that missing content can be valuable to users when making a decision to spend their money on you or your competition.

Your parent page is also valuable as a landing page for email blasts, marketing campaigns, and social media posts.

Having only individual product pages doesn’t do much in terms of giving you the flexibility to promote and convert other than on a product by product basis.

You lose potential for internal link building

Look at it this way: your parent page is an opportunity to bring your child pages together, which creates added value for the parent page as well as its child pages.

The connection is made not just through the URL structure but also through internal linking on the pages themselves.

Users make the connection and so do search engines.

A parent page with links to its child pages helps increase the value and thus the rankings of those child pages.

Don’t forget about backlinks

Just as internal links are necessary in SEO, so are backlinks.

Having an existing parent page opens up the potential for backlinks to that page.

If your Services section has no parent page, that’s one less page related to your business that can’t be linked to from third party websites.

Another gap that can be easily remedied with an actual page to go to.

New users may think your menu is broken

If you’re not linking a parent page in your navigation menu, users will get used to it but it can be initially awkward for first-time visitors.

Not to mention how this can confuse users who rely on screen readers.

You may say, “Well, my primary competitors do this, too, so it must be OK!”.

If your competition is serving an incomplete experience and not taking full advantage of the SEO potential of having that parent page, why would you not want to outdo them?

Your breadcrumbs and URL structure will break

Breadcrumbs are a pretty important feature on a website, both for users and search engines.

This is especially true for sitemaps that goes two or more levels deep.

One of the pitfalls of having non-linked parents is the damage it does to the user experience and it effect on your link building efforts.

Breadcrumbs gives users a clear indication of where they are in relation to the flow of the section of the site they’re on.

The following is a typical representation at the markup level:

<div class="breadcrumbs">
  <ul>
    <li><a href="/">Home</a></li>
    <li><a href="#">Services</a></li>
    <li><a href="/services/cleaning">Cleaning</a></li>
    <li class="current-page">Chimney Sweeping</li>
  </ul>
</div>

In his example, the URL to the page is set up as https://domain.com/services/cleaning/chimney-sweeping.

But if the user were to select the Services link in the breadcrumb chain, the page is hashed so it won’t lead to anywhere, although the assumption is that it does.

A more determined user may get frustrated with the breadcrumb link to the parent page not working and scrub the URL in the address bar down to https://domain.com/services then hit Enter thinking that should take them to the parent page.

If they do this, they end up with a 404 page.

In terms of user experience, this creates a disconnect that essentially breaks the breadcrumb chain, thus making the breadcrumbs less useful.

When it comes to SEO this doesn’t help either, as breadcrumbs are a pretty important part of how search engines build relationships and value with linked pages in a section.

Sure, the structure may be there, but the lack of content to fully capture that connection makes those pages less valuable than they could otherwise be.

Why not just create a redirect?

Sure, you could address these issues by writing a redirect for anyone selecting the parent page in the breadcrumb or going directly to that page via the address bar.

But where would you redirect them to? Users would be expecting a Services landing page.

If there isn’t such a page to go to or you’re redirecting the parent to some other page that creates a contextual disconnect with its child pages, that could keep your pages from ranking as well as they otherwise would.

You also risk throwing the user onto a fork in the road that could lead to them getting frustrated and going to your competition’s website.

Summary

It’s pretty clear that the potential loss of not having parent menu items linked to actual pages can end up being pretty costly, not just to your SEO but also your bottom line.

Avoiding, or at least minimizing the risks to your SEO and UX by serving an existing parent page in the first place could very well end up being less costly and time consuming in the long run.

If content marketing and user experience is a priority, all menu items should have a page.

If you still choose to leave out that parent page in your menu, do so with caution.

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