Site Architecture: How to Beat High-Authority Sites with Fewer Links Using Silo Structure

I want to show you something that on the surface defies logic.

Let’s look at the keyword “best tasting protein powder.” A good keyword with solid search volume.

Ahrefs Keyword Overview

It would take a bit of effort, especially since higher-volume keywords tend to be slightly tougher to rank for, but the KD range makes it definitely doable.

…which is why this might be a surprise…

Serp Ahrefs Toolbar

While the domain rank isn’t super powerful, there are 500+ referring domains that we can see and the backlink report does reveal what looks like some legitimate link building effort.

I also want to look at another example of this phenomenon.

Let’s search for “best espresso machines,” a good, juicy keyword. Look at the #2 and #3 results (please note that SERP results do change over time and may not be the same when you read this).

Serp Search

…and they’re beating it with fewer links.

The Strategist, of course is one of the biggest and most well-known review-style sites out there and was introduced as a section of The New York Magazine, now accounting for about 25% (4.5 million monthly visitors) of its traffic.

The crazy doesn’t stop there. Check out how small the winning sites actually are.

Here’s the roastycoffee.com:

Drippedcoffee Pages Serp Results

And here’s drippedcoffee.com:

Drippedcoffee Pages Serp Results

Roasty Coffee isn’t large but neither tiny. But consider how small Dripped Coffee and what is its authority:

Drippedcoffee Ahrefs DR

If you’ve spent any time at all as an SEO, that probably seems very low in the context the sites it’s beating.

So how is this possible?

How are these small sites with lower authority kicking that much more ass than sites with a higher authority?

The Power Of Relevance

This is the power of relevance.

In particular, it’s the power of thematic relevance: relevance within the themes created by the content of a site.

Yes; link building is absolutely essential. Yes; links are still hugely important in Google’s ranking algorithm. But the links are only a part of the larger context.

I’ve been gathering data to support this claim: relevance often beats authority, especially when few page-level links are present (i.e. with low-KD keywords).

Relevance > Authority

…sometimes…

Of course, this isn’t a new concept. But there is a lack of good data.

More importantly, there aren’t many people in our world of independent site builders really talk about wielding the immense power of relevance to make more money with our authority sites.

Here’s an example I used from a previous blog post.

These are the heatmaps from Ahrefs showing the density of rankings for a site, and I think they’re the best way to roughly judge relevance.

The orange represents an organic SERP where the bulk of the traffic comes from. As you can see above, organic positions are distributed across many ranks.

Here’s a website with high relevance, bjjheroes.com:

High Relevance Site Serp Positions

To be clear, relevance is not the only way to achieve that kind of heatmap. Sometimes, sites with loads of authority can do it, too. But for small to medium-sized sites, relevance seems to be the only way to do it.

After looking at a bunch of examples like this in a bunch of different niches, I’ve come to the conclusion that understanding and leveraging relevance might be one of the most underrated techniques in SEO.

Let’s talk about how to do it.

The Two Ways To Create Relevance

Method #1: Narrowly Focused Niche Sites

The first way to create relevance is by simply creating sites that are extremely focused on one thing.

With this kind of site, technical SEO almost doesn’t matter because there’s only one theme on the whole site.

Here are some examples of small sites with super-high relevance.

A crossbow hunting website, pickabow.com

Pickabow Ahrefs Traffic

The above-mentioned example, drippedcoffee.com

A Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu news blog, bjj-world.com:

Bjj World Ahrefs Traffic

These are essentially micro-niche sites: sites about just one type of product. But, clearly, relevance is playing a big role in their success.

But that’s also the problem.

If your site is about one product only, there is very limited room to grow. We prefer to build sites with much higher ceilings. That’s why big companies typically create relevance a different way…

Method #2: Silos

Silos replicate the relevance of focused niche sites within larger sites by isolating groups of related content (don’t worry; we’ll talk more about the theory and execution below).

Plenty of big sites silo heavily.

But there’s a shockingly small number of small sites that do it. When they do execute it properly, it has some pretty powerful results.

Here’s the heatmap from thegearhunt.com

Gearhunt Ahrefs Traffic

Here’s another one thespruce.com

So this one is a bigger example with a very solid domain rank. According to SimilarWeb, it gets 99.96% organic traffic, 85% coming from search.

Clear thin orange stripe at the top of the chart. I had to use the last month’s stats to have it visible.

Alright, siloing is awesome and helps you manufacture real relevance while also maintaining a site’s upward mobility.

A Small Concession

In almost all cases I’ve found, siloed sites “break” the silo in some way or another. For example, the articles occasionally link to others in different categories (though rarely from what I can tell).

This seems to indicate that while siloing seems to work well, it’s not as necessary to be as strict as it used to be (or as once thought).

Gael

Gael’s Note

Yep, there is more than one way to do well online, many successful sites completely ignore site structure and silo principles and still do alright but there seems to be a high correlation between organized site structures and good search rankings. But correlation may not be causation, who knows.

Why Site Architecture Matters?

Before we dive into all the details of siloing, let’s remind ourselves why is your site architecture important for SEO.

There’s a bunch of reasons, but a few key ones we should keep in mind. First, structured, organized websites provide a better user experience.

And great user experience means more page views, people will stay longer on the website, more pageviews, share and link to it.

Then, it makes the site more easy to crawl for the search engines and provides site links that help you dominate SERPs.

Now there’s a bunch of ways to structure your site. Whichever theory you go with, you should keep the above in mind as your primary objective.

Siloing Theory

So I like siloing because it not only works, it’s also logical and creates easier navigation and user experience.

But before I give you my take on it, let me point you to two of the cornerstone articles on siloing:

I want to concede that Bruce Clay’s article is old, and some of the advice in there I consider to be outdated (e.g. using nofollow links to “shape” PR).

I also have a slightly different take on silos than Bruce does, and we execute slightly differently than the Scratch99 article.

Still, it’s good to understand the framework on which the theory was developed.

I also want to go over some terminology that will give the rest of this conversation some context.

Terminology

  • Silo page: The “top” page of your silo that links “down” to child pages below it. In WordPress, these are usually pages. Often, but not always, they replace category archives.
  • Post: Most literature on silos will call these “children.” I think that’s stupid, so I call them posts because on a WordPress site, that’s what they are: the actual blog posts that make up your silo.

My Take On Silo Theory

There are two parts to siloing: grouping and isolation.

  • Grouping is putting content into tightly related categories.
  • Isolation means creating closed ecosystems for groups and ensuring content only interacts with content from the same category.

You create both grouping and isolation with both site structure and internal link structure.

The whole idea, though, is to create closed ecosystems: groups of tightly related content that exist in one place on your site and interact mostly with each other.

Site Silo Ecosystem

1. Grouping

Groups = clusters related content.

These will be our silos.

Technically, we want content in groups to be semantically related, but since there aren’t many reliable ways to tell which of your articles are semantically related to one another, I usually fall back on good old fashioned common sense.

A fitness site might create the following groups, for example:

Here’s the tricky part…

You can break your content into as many groups and subgroups as you like, but you need to retain your user experience.

So a major decision for sites creating silos will be: how many and how deep?

Generally, you want to keep your groups as relevant as possible and between 10-100 articles each.

For all intents and purposes (and assuming we’re using WordPress), we’ll group our content into categories. Each category will be in a folder on our site, and that will be reflected in the URL structure. For example:

  • fitnesssite.com/fat-loss/
  • fitnesssite.com/muscle/
  • fitnesssite.com/nutrition/

Bruce Clay would tell you these are “physical silos,” or silos created in the file structure of your website, and that they can do the job on their own. Gael would argue that you don’t need physical silos anymore and that schema markup can hint the structure of your site to Google so you can keep short urls AND use silos.

AH URL structure

I do prefer to use the URL structure above, and I think it adds relevance to your pages (e.g. Google can more easily see everything here is about fitness); however, I’ve seen plenty of sites work without it.

2. Isolation

Isolation = ensuring content in a given silo only interacts with other content from that silo.

This is how we really build relevance.

When Google crawls our site, we want it to land in a silo and think, “Oh wow… everything here is about weight loss” (or whatever).

We do this with the internal link structure.
Link structure is the single most important thing in silos.

To properly isolate, all internal links stay in the silo. Weight loss articles only link to weight loss articles. Muscle building articles only link to muscle building articles. And so on.

In strict silo theory, internal links cross silos leak relevance.

Site Silo Interlinking

And we want to take into account all internal links:

  • In-content links
  • Sidebar links
  • Footer links
  • Anything else

In other words, these are the rules for internal links:

  • Silo pages can link down to their OWN posts
  • Posts can link to other posts in the same silo
  • Posts CAN link up to other silo pages.
  • Footers should ONLY link to low-value pages (e.g. contact pages)
  • Navigation should ONLY link to top silo pages

Here’s what that might a post in a silo might look like, then:

To be fair and cover my bases, link structure is one of the areas that I think is disputed, and I found plenty of counterexamples of sites with “leaks” that still perform really well. Some folks, like Gael, think you should still link to other silos if you absolutely need to.

That said, even if you don’t follow strict silo theory, you still want to minimize cross-silo linking.

To better picture this, we need to talk about structure, and to do that, we need to quickly get some terminology out of the way.

Silo Structure

There are lots and lots of theoretical silo structures out there. Some of them stray into the ridiculous.

We try to make it simpler.

For our purposes as authority site builders with blog-style sites, we essentially want a short, hierarchical structure in which our home page links to our top silo pages, and our silo pages link to posts in that silo.

Of course, we create these while keeping in mind the link rules from above.

The basic structure is: Home > Silo Page > Post

Site Architecture Visual

Blog posts for this structure might look like the following:

  • fitnesssite.com/muscle/deadlifts/
  • fitnesssite.com/muscle/bench-press/
  • fitnesssite.com/nutrition/keto-diet/

With subcategories, your structure might look like this (this is only one top-level silo): Home > Silo Page > Sub-Silo Page > Post

Silo Site Architecture

This would yield pages like the following:

  • fitnesssite.com/nutrition/keto/high-fat-snacks/
  • fitnesssite.com/nutrition/paleo/easy-paleo-recipes/

Now, you could go even deeper. Something along the lines of:

Home > Silo Page > Sub-Silo Page > Sub-Sub-Silo Page > Post

But at that point, you start to sacrifice two things:

  • User experience
  • Page depth (the number of clicks it takes to get to a page)

So, generally, it’s not recommended.

What we usually recommend is to model after the top players in your niche.
If they use deep silo structure with long urls, consider doing it.
If they just use WordPress categories and virtual silos, do the same.

Execution: How To Create Silos For SEO

In this section, We’re going to focus on building silos from the ground up for a new site. We’re doing that because:

  1. building them from the ground up is the best way to understand the whole process and
  2. silos really are something that’s best planned from the beginning.

I’m also going to assume we’re all using WordPress (because who isn’t these days?).

Of course, many of you have existing sites you might want to silo. That’s a very different process with different considerations, so I’m going to cover that separately below.

Step #1: Take A Silo-Based Approach To Keyword Research

Silos are not something you can plan as you go (well you can, but it’s an order of magnitude more difficult).

That means you’ll have to structure keyword research around silos.

Rather than simply typing “cats” into Ahrefs and taking all the lowest KD keywords, you’ll need to brainstorm silos and test them to see if there are enough profitable-looking keywords to make them work.

Let’s do this for a hypothetical fitness site.

We’ll start by brainstorming possible silos. If you’re at all familiar with a niche–or if you already have an idea of what you want your site to look like–you might be able to do this off the top of your head.

If you don’t, one good place to start is places that list subtopics for the niche. My favorite are the wikis like this one. Wikis are usually organized into subtopics:

Wiki Links

Already, I’m getting some ideas for possible silos. Based only on these categories, easy ones might be:

  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Endurance
  • Dieting

However, I might note that these might be a bit too broad. “Endurance training,” for example, could encompass anything from cycling to jogging to doing burpees in your basement, so it might be tough to keep content in the silo semantically related.

If I’m still feeling lost, I might visit some successful sites in the niche and see how they break down their categories/silos. Here’s the basic structure of Muscleforlife.com (one of my favorite fitness websites):

Muscleforlife Menu Categories

I know that I can’t start a site as big as this one. I’m just making ideas for what might be good silos.

I particularly like the idea of adding a supplements silo, since there are probably some nice affiliate commissions floating around in there.

Then start plugging your silo ideas into Ahrefs and see which have the best combination of low-competition keywords that are also tightly related.

This isn’t a keyword research tutorial, so I’m just going to show one quick example. I just typed in a few core keywords and set a max KD to see what I could find.

Keywords Kd Filtering

I found some good ideas for product-driven affiliate articles (although I’d be adding “best” to these).

Protein Ahrefs Keywords

And I found some great questions readers want to have answered.

Question Muscle Keywords Ahrefs

In general, I like this idea for a silo. Keywords are low-competition, and, more importantly, tightly related, and it seems like it’d be a very sensible silo to have on a fitness site.

There would, of course, be a lot of ways to go about it, but if I were really starting a fitness site, I’d probably land on the following silos:

  • Fat loss
  • Muscling building
  • Nutrition
  • Supplements

Step #2: Plan Your Silos On Paper

Planning your silos on “paper” is crucial.

If you don’t lay them out beforehand–if you don’t know what your site will look like in the future–siloing, and therefore manufacturing relevance, becomes much more difficult.

To do this, I use one of three tools:

It doesn’t much matter which you choose; it’s just important that whatever tool you’re using let’s you create and organize different levels of information.

My favorite is probably a good old fashioned Google Sheet since it’s easy to record KD, search volume, etc. Here’s how it looks for me:

Gdocs Keyword List

In Dynalist, it would look like this:

Silo Structure In Dynalist

And in MindMeister, it looks like this:

If your site has sub-silos, the organization might look a bit more like this:

Gdocs Subsilos

Step #3: Start With Your Biggest Silo (And Probably ONLY That One)

In my view, this is one of the most foolproof ways to make sure you have real relevance right off the bat: don’t even mess with multiple silos. Just create one silo to begin with.

Of course, you’d set up the tech to grow into other silos.

But to start, you’d set up just one so that you could be sure you were creating the relevance needed to rank. I’ll steal a diagram I made from our last blog post that illustrates this idea (for context, this would be a hypothetical diet site).

Site Silo Structure Evolution

Of course, this is not mandatory.

You can start a site with multiple silos (I’m doing this right now, in fact), but this is probably the most efficient way to rank quickly while leaving yourself room to grow.

This is also why we recommend people brand large. So they can expand silos without betraying their branding.

Step #4: Set Up The Tech

The technical setup for silos can be slightly annoying.

And it really comes down to two things we need to accomplish that fall outside normal WordPress setup:

  • Sidebars that only link to articles in the current category
  • Custom category pages

a/ Custom Sidebars

For custom sidebars we recommend this tool:

Custom Sidebars Plugin

Simply install it and you can create custom sidebar widgets right away.

Custom Sidebars Get Started

You can create your sidebar in widgets area, then you simply edit right in the editor. Especially coupled together with Elementor PRO which is our next tool.

b/ Custom Category Pages

These days you can edit category pages directly with Elementor PRO which removes the need for complex systems in order to build clean silo structure.

Unfortunately, you can not edit category pages with the free version of Elementor so feel free to try it with the free version, but if you want to build silos using custom archive pages, you will need to buy the pro version for your site.

Finally, you need to edit your URL structure. Well, you don’t need a plugin for that, as the current version of WordPress makes is super easy.

URL Structure Settings

Just navigate to settings > permalink settings and build up your custom URL format.

Here’s how we do it at Authority Hacker.

AH Silo Internal Link Example

Just a quick note here that you don’t need anything special for these. Just make sure they follow the rules:

  • Navigation only links to top-level silo pages
  • Internal links in posts only link to other posts in the same silo
  • Every article in a silo has at least some internal links from other posts in the silo (you can use category-restricted related posts plugins, sidebars, or plugins like WP Post Navigation to make sure the crawler paths go all the way through the silo).

Step #5: Add More Silos

After you’re up, running, and generating some traffic and revenue, it’s just a matter of adding more silos.

If you launched your site with all its silos filled out with content from the beginning, you can simply add more content to those silos.

That’s the basic process for new sites; however, like I mentioned, it’s a bit different and riskier wit existing sites, so let’s discuss that briefly before wrapping up.

Existing Sites

Transitioning an existing un-siloed site to a siloed structure is both difficult and risky, and if you screw it up, you can tank your traffic.

The main problem is usually that some percentage of existing content doesn’t fit neatly into any real categories, especially if the existing categories are overly broad.

So you’re faced with an ultimatum: go for silos and delete irrelevant content, or… don’t.

I had this exact problem with HerePup and ended up just leaving the site as-is because I didn’t want to delete content that was bringing in traffic and earning money.

The other problem, of course, is dealing with existing URL structures. If they would need to change to implement silos, silos become way riskier, since changing the permalinks of an existing site can cause some real damage.

However, if you do think it’s worth it, here is a very basic checklist.

  • Keep URLs the same
  • Organize content into silos off-site (a spreadsheet or something)
  • Create the categories in WordPress and re-assign posts
  • Replace category archives with a silo page while preserving URL
  • Change sidebar to link only to other posts in the silo
  • Change all in-content links to point only to other posts in the silo
  • Move low-value links to the footer
  • Change navigation to link to top-level silo pages

Wrapping It Up

I want to make yet another concession here at the end.

Siloing has been around for a long time, and the evidence I’ve found suggests it can help manufacture relevance. In fact, some of the examples are pretty extreme.

That said, it’s only one model, and there are counterexamples: there are siloed sites that don’t do well, and there are non-siloed sites that see lots of success.

Here’s the other thing: almost all siloed sites I’ve ever found “break” the rules in some way.

And often, the most successful sites are the ones “breaking” the rules the most.

Just look at Wikipedia. Every single article link to dozens–and often hundreds–of articles in other silos. It’s the most egregious, silo-shattering structure imaginable, and they do fine.

Clearly, their massive authority makes up for whatever lost relevance they might incur, but the point is…

…very few are doing it “perfectly,” which suggests silos and relevance exist on a spectrum, and getting 90% of the way there very well might yield 90% of the benefits.

So here’s what matters most: that (1) a logical, user-friendly site architecture can help your rankings and that (2) silos are one way to do that.

I think it’s worth restating that after doing all the research for this article, I do think going for ultra-high relevance is a viable strategy for competing with higher authority pages, making it an attractive option for novice link builders.

Over To You…

What do you think? Have you seen silos work in the same way? Is there data we’re missing?

Do you disagree? Are you using silos yourself?

Let us know in the comments!

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