Are You Missing the Boat on Silo Architecture?

When other SEOs ask me about my most powerful ranking strategies, I usually reply “Silo Architecture”. The general response I get is bewilderment and a blank stare. Only 1 SEO I’ve spoken to has even heard about Silos. What’s more incredible is that Silos aren’t a “State Secret”. There’s been plenty written about Siloing, starting with the God of SEO Architecture himself, Bruce Clay. BruceClay.com is still siloed, and they use some pretty slick tricks with their navigation. Whenever I want to learn something new, I reverse engineer Bruce’s site. Bruce is the world’s premiere SEO architect, and if he’s using Silos, who am I to argue? (In case you haven’t figured it out, I have a man crush on Bruce Clay).

Note: This website is not Siloed. :

  1. I don’t have a prayer of getting any of these pages ranked without some serious link building,
  2. I don’t have the time.
  3. I don’t care – this is a vanity blog
  4. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay around…

What the Hell is Silo Architecture?

A lot of SEOs try to make this more complicated than it really is. Here’s a synopsis:

  1. Silo architecture is a minimalist approach to internal linking. Gone are the mega-menus in the top navigation. Silo Architecture navigation provides only the bare minimum navigation to get visitors around your site.
  2. Any pages that aren’t relevant for rankings are consolidated as much as possible and placed in the footer, which doesn’t push much link juice.
  3. Your website needs to be divided into tight themes. For a Digital Marketing website, your Silos could be SEO, PPC, Social Marketing, and Web Design. These would be the only links in your top navigation. These are known as “Category Pages”, “Silo Pages” or “Parent Pages”.
  4. Each Parent Page will have unique sidebar navigation that only links to tightly themed pages related to the parent. The subordinate pages are known as “Children Pages”.
  5. The Children Pages will have the same unique sidebar navigation as the Parent that links to all of the other children pages in that silo.
  6. For extra effect, your taxonomy should be: http://www.your-domain.com/parent-1/child-1a/
  7. Having extensive dropdown menus in the top navigation for your silos does not work. A link is a link whether it’s in a dropdown or not. If it’s a link in the dropdown, it’s another silo. I’ve seen rankings disintegrate when children pages are added to the dropdown. For some reason, people think that dropdown links don’t count. Sorry for the rant, it’s a pet peeve.
  8. The only way to navigate to a Child is to first navigate to the parent.
  9. The best Home Page link is an image with Alt Text with your primary home page keyword. If you want to have a link in the top nav that says “Home”, it’s not a deal killer.
  10. Trying to sculpt link juice with “nofollow” is a disaster. Don’t do it.

Here’s a link to a sample website that uses silos: www.credit-help-info.com. It doesn’t rank for anything – it’s a demo. I’m pretty sure it was created by Sue Bell. Sue is a pretty smart cookie, and a big proponent of silos. She has some pretty cool training at www.networkempire.com.

Silo Architecture is all about your navigation. Here are the rules in a nutshell:

  • The only links on the home page (outside of footer links) are in the top navigation, and these only point at your Parent Pages. You can put links in dropdowns, but these only point at other parent pages. Putting children pages in the top navigation is verboten.
  • The only links on parent pages are the links in the top navigation, and custom sidebar menus to Children Pages exclusively themed to the parent.
  • Children pages have identical menus to the parent page.

How simple is that?

How Effective is Silo Architecture?

Very, very effective. It’s my first choice when I design a website. There have been many articles and case studies written on how effective it is at ranking websites with fewer links. Google loves Silos. Matt Cutts talks about it in his video here:

Yes, the video is 5 years old. This is one of the few parts of Google’s algorithm that hasn’t changed much. Normally, I don’t trust SEO information older than 12 months.

Why is Silo Architecture So Effective?

Good Question. I haven’t seen any definitive proof as to why it’s so powerful, but there are a number of theories (I personally believe that they all influence rankings).

What really blows my mind is how effective Silos are, and how few SEOs know anything about them. If I was teaching a course on SEO, Silos would be on the 2nd day of SEO 101.  This isn’t rocket science.

Please also note that I am presenting these concepts below in as simple a way as possible. Google’s algorithms are way more complex than the way I am depicting them below. For example, I am lumping all of the different forms of link equity (Citation, Trust, Relevance, etc.) into 1 bucket which I am calling “Link Juice”.

1. Controlling Link Juice Distribution

As we all know, Link Juice is distributed through your site by internal links. Disregarding Block Level Analysis for a moment, if your home page has 400 points of theoretical Link Juice, and your home page links to 4 Parent Pages, each of those pages gets 100 points of link juice. If you have 10 links on your home page, each Parent Page would get 40 points of link juice. If you put too many links in your top navigation (or for that matter on your home page in general), you are distributing link juice too thinly and nothing gets ranked.

Link Juice PyramidTaking this a step further, your Parent Pages pass on link juice to the  Children Pages they link to. If a parent has 100 points of Link Juice, it can pass that juice on in exactly the same way as the home page. The analogy I like to use is the Champagne Glass Pyramid.

If you design your themes and parents correctly, your parent pages have the most search volume (or are the most valuable commercially) and get the most Link Juice. The children pages, which are less important get less Link Juice.

To Sum Up: Silos allocate Link Juice to the most important pages. Link Juice sculpting is alive and well!

2. Link Juice Conservation

It’s well known that backlinks from other sites in your niche help your site rank more than links from sites that are topically Topically Unrelated Link Juice Lossirrelevant, all things being equal. At the end of the day, Google’s algorithm is a math game. Let’s say that I have an SEO website and I’m lucky enough to get a link from Search Engine Journal. If that link carries 100 points of theoretical link juice, my site gets the full benefit of the 100 points. Good stuff! (Note: There is no such thing as Link Juice Points. It’s a concept. Get over it.) Now let’s say that my SEO site gets a similar link from toefungus.com, and and it also passes 100 points of link juice my way. Since the sites are topically irrelevant, my SEO site may only get the benefit of 10 points of ranking power. What happens to the other 90 points of Link Juice? It gets dumped on the floor, and is gone forever.

Internal linking works in a similar fashion. At any given point in time, your website has a fixed amount of link juice. By passing links between pages that aren’t thematically relevant, your site is spilling link juice on the floor, and your site is throwing away any chance of ranking on Page 1.

To Sum Up: Silos maximize ranking potential by conserving link juice loss.

3. Silos Help Google Understand Your Page’s Theme

Google has admitted repeatedly that it’s biggest struggle is to understand the semantic meaning of Web pages. That’s the reason that Google is pushing webmasters to incorporate Structured Data (www.schema.org) and implemented Hummingbird. Let’s suppose we create a page titled “Barracuda”. Is the page about fish, muscle cars, a vicious lawyer, or a rock song by Heart? By using a structured taxonomy, and implementing silos, we are giving Google a lot of help in determining the semantic relevance of each of our pages.

To Sum Up: Silos help Google help you. (kudos to Jerry Maguire).

 

4. Nodes of Authority – The “Missile Silo Effect”

SEO Missile Silo EffectHere’s the really good stuff. Google’s ranking algorithm doesn’t just look for the best pages to rank. You could create the world’s greatest and most authoritative article on Local SEO, but if that page is on a website about Lawnmowers, it’s not going to rank. Part of Google’s algorithm looks at “neighborhoods” (websites or subsections of websites) and increases rankings for all of the pages in a neighborhood if they are of high quality and thematically relevant. These are known as “Authority Nodes”.  For any niche, there is a content tipping point where if you have enough high quality, thematically relevant pages, your rankings for all of those pages go on steroids. I call this the “Missile Silo Effect”.

This part of the algorithm makes perfect sense. Pages that are surrounded by high quality pages of thematically relevant content lend authority, but also provide an excellent user experience. Call it “one stop shopping”.

In terms of the quantity of content, every niche has a different threshold, and it is  directly tied to the competitors in that niche. I’ve seen rankings explode with 5 pages of content, and I’ve had sites with 50 pages of outstanding content go nowhere.

To Sum Up: Great content structured in Silos puts your rankings on steroids.

Does My Site Need to be Perfectly Siloed?

No. I have yet to see a large site that is perfectly Siloed. User Experience (UX) to a large degree trumps Silo Architecture. Google and Bing both use Click Data as a large part of their rankings algorithm. You can have great content, but if users are frustrated navigating your site and bounce, Google will demote you. There’s another minor detail called conversions. If users are unhappy with your navigation, your conversion rate will be low.

Here’s another factoid – the architectural framework I outlined above is not a perfect silo structure. The top navigation is pervasive. Children pages link up to the wrong Parents via the top nav. To perfectly silo a website, the top navigation would only be present on the home page. Having to backtrack to get to another category or the home page would create a miserable UX.

To Sum Up: Silo Architecture is a model framework. UX is more important than Silos.

A Note on BruceClay.com

Bruce and his staff are absolute geniuses when it comes to building silos and providing a great UX. (the man crush returns). Bruce is the best SEO architect in the world, and if he’s using Silos, you would be foolish not to follow suit. If you go to his site, you will see the dropdowns in his top nav, and you would think that it’s not Siloed. Au Contraire! Bruce’s top navigation is SEO mastery in action. For years, Bruce was building his navigation in Ajax, and then blocking access to the file in robots.txt. Bruce also played games using iFrames. The real silos were text links in the header and H1s (Yes, he uses multiple H1s on his home page). About a year ago (I’m too lazy to look up the date), Google announced that they were able to evaluate pages based on how they rendered vs. just looking at the markup. Google also announced that blocking navigation would have a serious, negative impact on rankings. I got curious, and took another look at bruceclay.com recently, and saw that he indeed stopped blocking navigation to comply with Google.

Bruce is stubborn, so I knew that he had another trick up his sleeve. I downloaded his home page from Google’s cache, and low and behold, there weren’t any dropdowns in the top navigation, even though they were present on his live site. I won’t blow the whistle on how he’s doing it, but it’s pretty slick, and for the moment conforms to Google’s guidelines (Sort of, LOL).

If you really want to learn site architecture, spend some time reverse engineering bruceclay.com. It might even get you a better job – there’s an Easter Egg in his robots.txt.

Implementing Silo Architecture

A question I sometimes get is “Should I use pages or posts to build Silos?”. My answer is “Yes” (Sometimes I can be a real smartass). The principals of silo architecture outlined above don’t change. The choice of pages or posts matters not. The major key is that you need to use a theme that can create custom sidebar menus for pages and/or posts. If you want to use posts, there’s a “Related Posts Widget” that puts your silo posts in the sidebar if your theme doesn’t have one. Here are some ideas:

eCommerce Silos: Pretty simple – product category pages are parents and the products are children. You can also push authority to your categories through your blog.

Professional Services: Pages or posts. You can use major service types as categories and specialties as children.

  • If a major service is “Paving”, your Children Pages could be “Driveway Paving”, “Highway Paving”, and “Commercial Parking Lot Paving”.
  • If you don’t have specialty services, use posts. If you want to rank locally, create posts for each job you do with pictures: “Paving in Bakersfield”, “Paving in Long Beach”, etc.

Limited Keywords: If you only want to rank your parent pages, use posts, and create authoritative articles.

Double Silo: Put your specialty services in pages in the left sidebar, and article posts in the right sidebar. You could also create posts for eCommerce category pages.

Siloing Children Pages: You can create a 4th level to your silo (Home=>Parent=>Children=>Grandchildren=>) by adding posts or sub-specialties (or both) to your children pages.

Freeform Silos: Use posts on some Silos and pages on others. Have a party!

Silo Architecture Options

Silo Architecture is flexible, and can be customized to rank different pages/tiers in the architecture.

  1. Ranking Children Pages: Include contextual links to your children pages on the category page as well as the other sibling pages in the silo. This pushes link juice down.
  2. Ranking Parent Pages: Include contextual links on the children pages to the parent.
  3. Ranking the home page: Include contextual links on children and parents that point back to the parent.

I’ve tended not to mess around with contextual links in my siloed sites. The basic plan seems to work just fine at all levels.