Using SEO Silos to Win in the Hummingbird Era

What is a SEO Silo?

A SEO silo refers to a type of information architecture that groups pages in websites according to topical relevance. It’s an advanced on-page optimization technique that seeks to improve search visibility as well as overall user experience.

Creating quality content is an integral part of SEO in Google’s Hummingbird era. The substance, authority and breadth of the content in a site weighs a lot in how Google perceives the relevance of its pages to queries. After the Hummingbird rollout of August 2013, SEOs have come to realize how critical content is and a lot of us have increased our focus on creating great material that our users gravitate to.

The thing is, there’s a lot more to SEO than content quality. How sites organize their content into topically related clusters helps Google decipher what a website is about and how relevant it is to the intent of queries. For this reason, a site’s information architecture, content strategy and internal linking structure are vital (but underrated) elements of a winning SEO program.

A good blanket strategy to optimize your site on all these fronts is SEO siloing. In a nutshell, it’s the practice of creating and arranging pages in a tight manner so that closely related topics are grouped together. It makes use of a site’s file directory and internal links to help search engines easily understand which body of knowledge your content represents

What is a SEO Silo?

Clay refers to SEO siloing as the “concept of grouping related information into distinct sections within a website.” Essentially, it’s the discipline of identifying subjects within your site’s body of knowledge, classifying them under topic buckets and arranging them in a way that helps humans and search engines make sense of what your site is all about.

Similar to how books are arranged by topics and genres in a library, a siloed website neatly arranges closely related pages together using directory paths, categories and internal links. In such a setup, navigation becomes easier for humans and search engine bots are able to quickly  identify semantic relationships.

An easier way to put it would be to think of your site as a zoo. People come to the zoo expecting to go around a place where they can see wild animals in a safe and orderly manner. However, imagine walking into a zoo and seeing every beast in one big cage:

Zoo with mixed animals

The experience would be chaotic and most likely unpleasant unless you’ve always wanted to see an  animal battle royale. Most people would walk away and look for a normal zoo where animals are housed with or near other animals that they’re more closely related to.

Organized zoo

The same is true about websites, content and search engines. The more streamlined and siloed the content in the webpages, the easier it will be to figure out what a site is trying to get across. With proper siloing, Clay says that dominant rankings are more likely to be achieved. He should know; he’s been doing SEO since 1996 and his site is one of the highest-ranked ones in the ultra-competitive SEO industry.

The Fall of Keywords, the Rise of Topics

One of the most important changes that we’re seeing with how Google works in the Hummingbird era is its apparent favor of sites that cover entire topics comprehensively over sites that just optimize for keywords. In the 2014 SearchMetrics Ranking Factors Study, we’ve seen sites that have deep content libraries consistently outperform sites which focus more on optimizing singular pages. The data suggests that it’s not just the content in a page and the links that point to it that count heavily when the SERPs are calculated. How your pages interrelate in your site’s content ecosystem is starting to matter more than it ever has.

Siloing is a perfect way to take advantage of this scenario. By determining what your site is about and what topics it should cover, you’ll find yourself building a site that’s more complete and better organized. Doing so puts you in a position of strength in how Google is going to assess relevance moving forward. There’s more to SEO than content and silos, but following the principles of siloing certainly builds a solid foundation for all your optimization efforts.

Setting Up the Silos

Optimizing a site is easier if it was built with silos in mind. Of course, the reality for most of us is that we have to optimize existing sites with long-established information architectures. Regardless if you’re siloing a site prior to its launch or if you’re trying to do it for an old one, there are five main steps that need to be followed.

This process is based on how Clay taught it in this guide. I recommend reading it from start to finish because it’s that rich in juicy details. My iteration is more of a refresh and a simplified variant of how other SEOs do it. Let’s begin:

Step 1: Identify Your Site’s Core Theme

When you’re involved in the day to day operations of a website, it’s easy to think you know what it’s about. Being exposed to the same site every day can make you overly familiar with the topics it covers. However, your perception of what your site is about doesn’t necessarily reflect what search engines and human readers perceive it to be. Their interpretation is based on which topics are covered most emphatically in your pages. You may think your site is about one thing, but if your technical setup can’t prove it, you’ll have limited success in ranking for your most desired keywords.

Avoiding this conflict of marketer and search engine perception is crucial to siloing a site properly. The first thing you’ll want to do is to get in a meeting with the site’s main stakeholders to determine the site’s core theme. Ask them what the site is about, what its goals are and what the value proposition to the audience is. Getting straightforward answers to these questions will get everyone on the same page about what the site’s main theme is.

That may seem basic, but for corporations that have several business lines spanning different niches, things can get very complicated. The answer to the question “what does your company do?” isn’t as clear cut for billion dollar enterprises as it would be for SMEs. If the digital marketing team isn’t properly informed about which content clusters belong together, the company’s site architecture and taxonomy could get muddled up real fast.

Conversely, sites that silo their content tightly tend to perform better in search results. A good example of a site that’s consistently aware of its identity is Zappos. In its early years, Zappos identified itself as a shoe and clothing vendor that ships everything for free. Even as it expanded its range of products, it has stayed true to that identity of “we sell shoes and bags, then there’s everything else.”

Zappos title tag

Their site’s content architecture reflects that core theme. How their home page title tag mentions shoes and clothing while leaving out bags, beauty and accessories. This gives users and search engines an inkling on what the site specializes on and which bodies of content they can see more of when they enter the site.

Zappos Nav menu

Going into the site further reinforces that promise. Notice how shoes and clothing are the first two items on the main navigation menu. English language readers read from right to left, top to bottom. That means these are the first things that readers see, further reinforcing the emphasis on these bodies of knowledge. When you hover over these menu items, you’ll see that they also have more subcategories and product pages under them. That’s another testament to how the site’s core theme revolves around shoes and clothing.

Step 2: Identify Your Main Topics

Your site’s theme can be broken down into several distinct but interrelated topics. Topics are points of discussion that will serve as the basis for all your content creation efforts moving forward. Identifying what your site’s topics are will help you establish, organize and prioritize your site’s content groupings.

Determining your topics should start organically. Sit down with the subject matter experts of your site and ask the following questions:

  • What are our main moneymaking product lines?
  • What bodies of knowledge are strongly related to these product lines?
  • Why do people need/want these products?
  • What kind of people want/need these products?
  • What value proposition sets us apart from competitors?
  • What are the problems that these products solve?
  • If the products don’t solve problems, what pleasures do they give the customer?
  • What do people usually talk about regarding these products?

Based on the answers you get, you can identify which topics will be broad enough to become the basis for categories. Smaller topics and issues can be used to form subcategory and page content ideas which you will later prioritize and map using a site hierarchy (discussed in Step 3).

Theme-topic diagram
Your site’s theme can be broken down into several topics that will be the basis of your content

Of course, subject matter experts don’t know everything and you’ll have to do a little bit of digging yourself. You can get a better grip of topics to cover based on your main theme using:

  • Keyword Research – Keyword research is the easiest way to get insights on what topics to cover. List down all your broad search terms that your audience might use to find your content and products. Now, go to the Google AdWords Keyword Planner and click on the option to search for keyword and ad group ideas.” Fill up the field that says “enter your product or service” and submit the entries. You should receive hundreds of keyword ideas that are nicely clustered together in ad groups.

Adwords Keyword Tool

 

Download the results as an Excel spreadsheet and choose the keywords that make sense to represent topics and subtopics. Broader keywords can be considered for use in categories while longer, more specific keywords can be used for subtopics that can be fully covered in one subcategory or article.

  • PPC Keywords – If you have PPC campaigns running, you’ll also want to take a look at the data from those. See which ones get the most clicks and which ones give you the most conversions. This gives you clues on which keywords (and topics) pull in the kind of searchers who bring immediate business value for you. Needless to say, you’ll want to create and optimize content that will help you rank for those terms organically.
  • Google Webmaster Tools/Analytics Query Data – Sure, Google Analytics has shut down access to keyword traffic data for the most part, but there are workarounds to still get some visibility on which search terms you’re already ranking for. Check out the Search Traffic>Search Queries section of GWT and you’ll see data on which words Google searchers are finding you for the most. These keywords yield more clues on which topics Google already sees your site being relevant for and which ones need more work.

GWT Search Queries

  • Webmaster Tools Content Keywords – Staying with GWT, you can see which keywords your site is already using the most under Google Index>Content Keywords. It also gives important clues on what Google sees as your site’s main topics. If keywords that you want to rank for aren’t showing too prominently on this list, you’ll want to consider creating more content related to those keywords and organizing them in silos.

GWT Content keywords

  • Forum discussions – A great way to get the organic pulse of your audience on important and fresh topics are forum threads. Forums allow you to see questions, complaints and debates in your industry. Getting into threads allows you to see the community’s general perspective on important matters and allows you to figure out what kind of content you can create to contribute to the state of knowledge about key topics.

Step 3: Map the Site Hierarchy

Once you’ve decided on the main topics that your site will cover and you’ve ranked them according to priority, it’s time to visualize the site’s hierarchy. This can be done with simple flowchart apps or even MS Office with the use of SmartArt.

As discussed earlier, the home page should represent the main theme of your site and your primary categories should embody the bigger topics. Subcategories and pages will then cover very specific subject ideas.

From a thematic perspective, a siloed architecture will look like this:

Site theme architecture

Which translates to something like this when you’re laying down your site’s main categories and subcategories:

Site category architecture

A good example of effective siloing would be Bruce Clay’s site itself. They offer SEO and general digital marketing services. If you check out their navigation, you’ll see how SEO, PPC, analytics and other lines of service are segregated into different topics under one umbrella theme:

Bruce Clay Navigation

 

The organizational charts I’ve drawn up above are oversimplified maps of a siloed architecture. You can go as deep as you want with as many topics and subtopics that you need to cover. However, I’d recommend reining your mapping activities to only the things you can realistically create content for. You have to make sure you’re only including topics that are directly relevant to what your site’s main theme is. Clay warns that adding irrelevant topics could dilute your site’s siloes and lead to diminished rankings.

Category depth can go pretty deep in big sites. For optimal results, however, limit things to about two to three categories deep. A flatter site architecture usually ranks better because bots can drill down more easily and link equity isn’t diluted too much when it doesn’t need to trickle too deep.

Step 4: Implement Physical Silos

There are two main ways to implement silos on your site: physical and virtual. Physical silos are easier to set up for sites that have not been launched (or those that are willing to undergo an overhaul). That’s because physical siloing involves grouping strongly related pages together under the same directory folders. This reflects in how your site’s parent pages and child pages fall into place. It also reflects in how your URL structures look.

Going back to the BruceClay.com example, we know that they offer digital marketing services. We’ve also seen how their navigation menus are siloed to separate SEO, PPC, analytics, etc. from each other. Now notice the URLs of the subpages under the SEO section:

  • http://www.bruceclay.com/seo/services.htm
  • http://www.bruceclay.com/seo/training.htm
  • http://www.bruceclay.com/seo/prices.htm

The URLs of their SEO services, pricing and training pages are all grouped under the site’s “/seo” directory. This allows search engines and human readers to figure out relationships between ideas that each page conveys, thus increasing the site’s relevance to the keywords that are inherent in the content.

Think of a site as an online filing cabinet. The folders in it are the topic sections and the individual pages are the documents within the folders. Grouping documents that are strongly related to each other under one folder makes it easy for people looking for files to find everything they need to make sense of what’s written.

Step 5: Set up Virtual Silos

For big and long-established websites, physical silos aren’t always the best way to go. Overhauling the directory addresses of pages can take a lot of work. If the overhaul isn’t done right, the changes can also negatively impact your rankings and usability. For cases like these, the use of virtual silos is a viable alternative.

In a nutshell, virtual silos are created by linking one topic landing page (usually a category page) and five or more support pages that discuss more specific topics. Each support page will link up to the landing page while also linking to other support pages in the virtual silo. The image below shows a simplified diagram of how it’s done:

Virtial Silo Diagram

For instance, if you had a digital marketing site, you’ll probably have a landing page/category page that discusses general keyword research. However., keyword research is a process used in several aspects of digital marketing (SEO, PPC, content marketing) which are already physically siloed with each other. If you want to create a silo for keyword research, you’ll have to do it virtually with internal links.

Suppose you have this keyword research landing page:

And you have these support pages from various parts of the site:

  • www.yoursite.com/seo/choosing-the-right-keywords
  • www.yoursite.com/ppc/identifying-profitable-keywords
  • www.yoursite.com/content-marketing/using-keyword-research-to-optimize-content-assets
  • www.yoursite.com/seo/advanced-keyword-research-techniques
  • www.yoursite.com/ppc/keyword-planner-starter-guide

All the support pages will have to link up to the landing page while also linking to every other support page in the silo. This shows search engines and users that this is a tight content cluster which refers to the landing page as the most important one in the group. Internal link equity flows strongly and relevance is maximized to position the landing page for strong performance in the SERPs.

In the case of virtual silos, the category landing page and the support pages don’t necessarily have to be in the same directory. Relevance is established based on links and the context of the content. You have to make sure, however, that all the pages are strongly related to each other. The landing page has to set the tone for the topics by being the broadest while the support pages have to reinforce the subject matter by being more specific.

The internal links can be created with links in each page’s body content. If this proves difficult or unnatural-looking, you can create a “related topics” pages with links to the other supporting pages in the virtual silo.

Step 6: Create a Comprehensive Set of Content Assets

In the Hummingbird era, it’s not enough to create good content in a silo. Every indication from SearchMetrics data to expert insights suggest that content needs to be comprehensive and diverse. Diversity shouldn’t be limited to covering different issues related to a broad topic. The type and form of content also plays a role in how well the content performs in the SERPs.

Supplement textual content with images and video. These visual assets not only increase diversity, they also serve their fundamental purpose: improving user experience. Make sure to properly label them and use relevant on-page elements such as captions, titles and alt tags to help search engines figure out what they’re showing and award your page with a better relevance score.

That’s just about it for siloing. Have you tried implementing silos in your own sites? Tell me how it worked out in the comments section.