SEO is relatively simple: if your content is findable, usable, relevant, and helpful to your users, you improve your chances of getting traction and higher rankings on the search engines. But if there’s one aspect that can significantly increase those chances, it’s your site’s content architecture.
I’ve often talked about creating good content as a foundational SEO strategy (i.e., it’s relevant and helpful). But creating good content is not enough. That’s why I’ve also stressed that creating a good user experience in consuming that content is just as important (i.e., it’s findable and usable).
In fact, a hot topic in SEO is the upcoming Google update. This May, Google will start looking at — and ranking pages according to — specific user experience signals. These signals, called Core Web Vitals, include load speed, interactivity, and stability. Other vitals include safety, security, and accessibility.
However, those are primarily technical and design-related, and only a tiny piece of the UX pie, let alone the SEO pie. Content structure is another, and it’s one that many SEO experts ignore, forget, or pass off as less important.
When I conduct plastic surgery SEO audits, I often find that the site’s content is disjointed, with no apparent theme or structure. It’s also hard to navigate, and finding information can be challenging.
Most plastic surgeons have websites that describe their surgical services. But these services are listed randomly and linked in no particular order. Sometimes, pages are tucked away and easy to miss.
Also, some of those sites contain unrelated content, such as the clinic manager’s personal blog, pictures from the nurses’ birthday parties, non-surgical alternatives (like dermal fillers and injectables), and the doctor’s research papers published in peer-reviewed medical journals.
All these things, in and of themselves, are not bad. The issue is that the content is all over the place. There’s no clear organization of ideas, or the navigation impedes the user journey, making it hard for the user to find the information they want. Here are some examples:
- The navigation menu is large and overwhelming with countless links;
- The menu contains just a few links, missing key sections or pages; or,
- Navigation is fragmented across the page, forcing users to search.
Sometimes, the content architecture isn’t to blame. The issue is poor navigation. Other times (and it’s most of the time), the issue is the lack of structure.
Organizing your content architecture is foundational to improving your site’s user experience and SEO — both independently and interdependently.
Not only does an organized website offer a pleasant user experience, which sends good SEO signals, but it also creates topical relationships, makes related topics easier to identify, and provides meaningful context, all of which boost those signals considerably.
To explain how content architecture works in helping SEO, let’s take a look at the most common ones. There are essentially five types of content architecture:
- Flat (single tier) architecture;
- Tunnel (sequential) architecture;
- Pyramid (hierarchical) architecture;
- Silo (topical/thematic) architecture;
- Any combination of the above.
A flat architecture is where all the pages reside on the main level. All the pages seem to be on one single tier under the root domain. Depending on the situation, this allows for shorter URLs and can be an effective SEO practice.
It looks something like this:
domain.com/page1/ domain.com/page2/ domain.com/page3/
A tunnel architecture is where there’s a home page, and all subpages are only accessible in sequence. Many membership sites, ecommerce sites, graduated learning portals, and applications use this type of linear architecture.
It’s also called “strict hierarchy” because there’s only one way to access subpages, and that’s from the main page. For example:
domain.com/page1/ domain.com/page1/page2/ domain.com/page1/page2/page3/
The pyramid architecture is the one that’s the most common and the one Google has publicly stated it prefers on several occasions. (Although, the “silo” structure is related to the pyramid and better for SEO.) This structure uses a multilayered organization of ideas with multiple tiers like a pyramid.
domain.com/tier1/ domain.com/tier1/page1/ domain.com/tier1/page2/ domain.com/tier1/page3/ domain.com/tier1/tier2/ domain.com/tier1/tier2/page1/ domain.com/tier1/tier2/page2/ domain.com/tier1/tier2/page3/
The silo architecture is the one SEOs recommend, including me. The goal is to group content according to themes or topics. You can do this either physically (i.e., using folders and subfolders) or virtually (i.e., the structure is flat, but pages are grouped using breadcrumbs, navigation menus, and internal links).
Each silo represents a topical cluster (i.e., at the top is the head topic and child pages are subtopics), and each silo can have its own pyramid. For example:
domain.com/silo1/ domain.com/silo1/page1/ domain.com/silo1/page2/ domain.com/silo1/page3/ domain.com/silo2/ domain.com/silo2/page1/ domain.com/silo2/page2/ domain.com/silo2/page3/
Using the silo architecture, you can easily create content relationships that:
- Make it easier for users to find information;
- Make it easier for Google to crawl information; and
- Give topics more context, weight, and relevance.
More importantly, silos make navigation more logical and orderly, and they reduce the time it takes for visitors to learn how to navigate the site. Either you group navigation menu items together according to silos, or you can direct people to pillar pages that drill down into more specific content.
If you have a small website (up to 100 pages), this will be fairly simple, depending on your content management system (CMS). For example, I’ve described the process of how to create a simple silo structure in WordPress.
But if your site is large (100 pages or more) or you plan on growing it, or if you need to carry out extensive redesign work to implement the changes, then hire an SEO expert to properly roadmap the switch and oversee its implementation.
Either way, changing your site’s architecture is a process that requires careful planning and execution. Regardless of size, follow these important steps:
- Research the important topics of interest to your audience for which they are actively searching. (Creating silos willy-nilly defeats the purpose and will work against you from an SEO perspective.)
- Define the pillar pages and supporting pages (i.e., head topics and subtopics, or hub-and-spoke content, if you will) based on that research. (At this point, you may have a good idea of pages you need to create.)
- Create an inventory of your current pages, audit the keywords for which each one is currently ranking, and define their relevance according to the topical map you’ve just created — i.e., do they fit within the clusters you’ve defined, or do they need to be updated, consolidated, or removed?
- Connect the pages accordingly and in a way that makes sense to your users’ journey (e.g., tiered folders, internal links, breadcrumb menus, navigation menus, landing/entrance pages, and so on).
- Finally, implement the changes while preserving existing rankings:
- Redirect any old pages to their new or consolidated pages;
- Redirect former URLs to the modified URLs or page locations;
- Update broken links and redirects to their new destinations;
- And notify referring websites to update their backlinks.
If you’re a nerd and want to get into the nitty-grittiness of data-driven content architectures, I highly recommend checking out my friend and SEO scientist Jim Thornton whose expertise on this is quite insightful.
Most plastic surgeons will have their content grouped (or divided) into five content areas, or what I call the five “Ps” of plastic surgery:
- People (e.g., doctors, staff, clinic, patients, postop photos)
- Problems (e.g., wrinkles, fat, hairloss, sagging skin, eye bags)
- Procedures (e.g., nose job, facelift, liposuction, breast implants)
- (Body) Parts (e.g., arms, eyelids, stomach, neck, breasts, butt)
- Products (e.g., creams, garments, supplements, injectables)
Silos can be either one or a combination of the above.
Choosing the silos for your specific audience may depend on several factors. For example, a surgeon specializing in facial plastic surgery will have a different approach (let alone audience) than a full-body surgeon who also offers supplemental non-surgical services like Botox® injections.
There’s also the question of personal preference.
For instance, do you prefer attracting an uninformed audience and educating them? Or do you want to go after an informed one who’s shopping around?
Is your ideal patient someone who has had procedures done before (and they want more or want to fix what they had done)? Or is it someone who has never had anything done at all looking to have plastic surgery for the first time?
So choose silos that present content in a way that matches what your users are searching for and delivers it according to their level of awareness.
I created a formula called OATH to remind me of what type of content will best respond to an audience’s search query. OATH is an acronym that stands for oblivious, apathetic, thinking, and hurting. More specifically, OATH means:
- Oblivious: they’re unaware of the problem or its possible solutions.
- Apathetic: they’re aware but uninterested in any specific solution.
- Thinking: they’re interested and considering several solutions.
- Hurting: they’ve decided on a solution and validating their choice.
The oblivious are the hardest ones to go after. They may be unaware of a problem (or the reason they have it), and they don’t know how to fix it. They just started their research and will require the most education. They will be the ones who will take the most time until they’ve decided to approach you.
The hurting ones, on the other hand, are the lowest hanging fruit. They know what they want and how to get it. At this point, they’re looking for information that will confirm their choice or disconfirm alternatives.
In terms of SEO and your choice of silos, the awareness spectrum’s oblivious end will have a more informational search intent. In contrast, the hurting end will be more investigational or transactional, perhaps even navigational.
To give you some examples, let’s take three areas (i.e., hair, eyelids, and abdomen) and the kinds of questions each awareness level will likely ask.
Your content will be primarily educational, answering questions like:
- “Is baldness hereditary?”
- “What causes droopy eyelids?”
- “Does skin shrink after pregnancy?
Your objective is to help them understand the ways to solve their problem.
- “Can I regrow my hair?”
- “Is there a way to fix my droopy eyelids?”
- “How to tighten my sagging tummy skin?”
Your goal is to provide information about the procedure they’re considering.
- “Are hair transplants permanent?”
- “What are the risks of eyelid surgery?”
- “Will I have scars after a tummy tuck?”
Finally, your content aims to help them choose and validate their choice.
- “Best hair transplant doctor in Toronto”
- “Blepharoplasty before and after photos”
- “Dr. Jane Doe abdominoplasty reviews”
Deciding on the best architecture is easier when you know your ideal audience, what information they need, and how you want to approach them.
For instance, say you want patients looking to undergo their first procedure (i.e., they’re aware or apathetic). Your silos may revolve around the problems they’re encountering (e.g., wrinkles) or the body parts you treat (e.g., face).
But let’s say your patients are more sophisticated or have had plastic surgery done before. Your silos, then, may revolve around the procedures you offer (e.g., rhytidectomy) or the people involved (e.g., before-and-after photos).
Sometimes, your silos can be a combination of both. For example, some of my clients have chosen a procedure-based architecture but include a navigation menu that lists the conditions such procedures treat.
Once you’ve made your choice, the next step is to define your silos and group your content around them. So if you choose procedures as your theme and mammoplasty as a topic, then your pages might look like this:
/mammoplasty/ /mammoplasty/breast-augmentation/ /mammoplasty/breast-lift-mastopexy/ /mammoplasty/breast-reduction/ /mammoplasty/risks-and-recovery/ /mammoplasty/costs-and-considerations/ /mammoplasty/questions-and-answers/ /mammoplasty/patient-result-photos/
Keep in mind that, with a typical CMS, you have your main pages and your blog section. You can organize your pages under topical silos, set blog categories as silos for posts, and connect them by crosslinking with each other.
The key is to create contextual relationships between your content where it makes sense. Other than menus, choose select keywords in your content as anchor texts from which to link. Think of Wikipedia, where links go to other articles that delve deeper into particular subtopics.
Following the above example, you might have blog posts under the “breast surgery” category that link to/from the above pages, such as:
/breast-surgery/what-size-implants-are-best-for-me/ /breast-surgery/can-mammoplasty-fix-uneven-breasts/ /breast-surgery/12-breast-surgery-speed-recovery-tips/ /breast-surgery/can-some-breast-implants-cause-cancer/ /breast-surgery/permitted-exercises-after-breast-surgery/ /breast-surgery/breast-reconstruction-after-mastectomy/ /breast-surgery/eight-questions-to-ask-your-surgeon/ /breast-surgery/how-to-prepare-for-breast-surgery/
Ultimately, if you have a website right now and want to improve your visibility, authority, and traffic, and if your content is all over the place with little to no structure, consider organizing your content under silos.