The Ultimate Guide To Site Architecture
How to beat high authority sites with fewer links using silo structure
Perrin Carrell - February 28th 2017
I want to show you something that on the surface defies logic.
Let’s look at the keyword “christian mingle reviews,” a good keyword with solid search volume.
Definitely in the “doable” KD range, but would take a bit of effort, especially since higher-volume keywords tend to be slightly tougher to rank for.
...which is why this might be a surprise…
Of course, there are plenty of people who use hidden PBNs and the like to rank for these kinds of keywords, but I don’t think that’s the case here.
While the domain isn’t super powerful, there are 90 referring domains that we can, and the backlink report does reveal what looks like some (albeit small) 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).
...and they’re beating it with fewer links.
TheSweetHome, of course is one of the biggest and most well-known review-style sites out there and was was sold to the New York Times as a half of a two-site package worth $30 million.
The crazy doesn’t stop there. Check out how small the two winning sites really are.
And here’s TheEdgeCoffee:
TheEdgeCoffee actually has some pretty decent authority (DR52, according to Ahrefs), but look at the authority of CofeeMakerPicks:
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 a small sites with lower authority kicking that much more ass than sites with 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 still essential. Yes; links are still hugely important in Google’s ranking algorithm. But links are only one 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).
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.
Site with Low Relevance
Site with High Relevance
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.
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 10bestonline.com (our example from above).
This is especially awesome because Tung and I were really digging into the nitty-gritty of siloing around the same time, and I know he consulting a number of technical SEO experts. Looks like it worked!
Here’s one more: vixendaily.com
They also have a strong social presence, but according to SimilarWeb, 90% of that traffic comes from search.
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. In the case of ThankYourSkin, the silo is broken with the “Recent Posts” sidebar widget. In the case of VixenDaily, 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).
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 organised site structures and good search rankings. But correlation may not be causation, who knows.
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.
- 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 an 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 = putting content into tightly related categories.
- Isolation = 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.
- Groups = clusters related content.
These will be our silos.
Technically, we want content in groups to be semantically related, but since there’s not 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:
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.
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.
- 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 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.
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 better picture this, we need to talk about structure, and to do that, we need to quickly get some terminology out of the way.
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, hierarchal 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 keeping in mind the link rules from above.
The basic structure is: Home > Silo Page > Post
Blog posts for this structure might look like the following:
With subcategories, your structure might look like this (this is only one top-level silo): Home > Silo Page > Sub-Silo Page > Post
This would yield pages like the following:
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.
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 wikis like this one. Wikis are usually organized into subtopics:
Already, I’m getting some ideas for possible silos. Based only on these categories, easy ones might be:
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):
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.
I found some good ideas for product-driven affiliate articles (although I’d be adding “best” to these).
And I found some great questions readers want answered.
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
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:
In WorkFlowy, it would look like this:
And in MindMeister, it looks like this:
If your site has sub-silos, the organization might look a bit more like this:
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).
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
As mentioned above, to preserve relevance, we need our sidebars to link only to other posts in the current silo.
If you’re a ThriveThemes user, the default “Thrive Posts” widget has a “Related Posts” option, which does exactly this. Just be aware that your posts need to be in only one category for it to work.
If you don’t use ThriveThemes, there are lots of other plugins you can use, but I prefer Ultimate Posts Widget.
Just search for it in the plugin finder in WordPress.
Find it in your widgets and move it into your sidebar.
In the options, just tick this one box (and don’t worry about any of the other stuff).
Now for the more annoying part…
Custom Category Pages
To really do silos, you need silo pages.
And these are important. You could use the default category archives pages, however...
...because they are at the “top” of the silo, and because every other page in the silo should link “up” to them, they will be among the most powerful pages on the site. In other words, they potentially have the most ranking power of all pages, so you don’t want to put actual content here.
To do that, you need custom category pages you can actually edit.
WordPress will let you add content to pages by default…
The problem is that it mostly just slaps text on top of your category archives, which looks really weird for most themes. Instead, we want to edit these like a traditional page and we want to suppress the archives.
If you use ThriveThemes, they make this easy, too.
You need to create both a category and a page with the same URL. Then, while editing the category, find the corresponding page here.
If you don’t use ThriveThemes, Gael found a pretty good hack to get you 90% of the way there using redirects, so you don’t have to hire a developer. Careful though, it's dirty.
To do this, simply add the redirection plugin to your WordPress site, then go in tools > redirection
Grab the URL of your category
Create your custom category page and grab its URL
And simply create the redirect inside redirection
That setup us not perfect but with 301 redirect there is no loss of “juice” and both to the user and Google, the navigation around your site is coherent.
Now that we know how to setup custom pages for category pages, what should custom category--or, silo pages--actually look like and do?
Basically, they need two things:
- Content that targets a common-sense, broad keyword for that silo
- Links to all the articles (or at least the most important) in the silo
Even though it’s a bit ugly, 10bestonline.com does this well:
We do it on HealthAmbition’s Juicing silo, too.
Navigation & Internal Links
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.
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 only link 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 links 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!