Theme Pyramids: An SEO Friendly Site Architecture

by Canonical SEO on December 27, 2009

Pyramid Themes and SEO

If you are considering building a new web site or redesigning a web site with SEO in mind so that your site will rank well at search engines (especially Google), you might want to consider organizing your site around theme pyramids.  While this is not a new site architectural concept, theme pyramids are very effective for certain types of sites from a search engine optimization (SEO) perspective.

What are theme pyramids?

The basic concept behind theme pyramids is that your site is one big pyramid about a particular topic.  It is divided into smaller sub-pyramids about more specific topics related to the parent topic.  Each sub-pyramid is further subdivided into more sub pyramids about the same topic, only more specific.

The following illustration demonstrates how a site with three theme pyramids might be organized:

Example of Pyramid Theme Site Architecture

Example of Pyramid Theme Site Architecture

I’m not suggesting that you limit your site to only three theme pyramids.  Nor am I suggesting that you limit your site to only 3 levels deep below the home page LOL. That is simply the most I could get into the image and it still be readable.

In this type of site architecture, the home page and level 1 pages target the head terms.  The deeper you link into the site’s pyramids, the more long tail the targeted keyword phrases become.

Theme pyramid navigational structures

Simply organizing folders and pages on your file server into theme pyramids does not improve the site from an SEO perspective.  Okay, maybe it helps a bit with SEO to whatever extent a keyword rich URL structure plays in rankings.  But it is the navigational structure used to implement the theme pyramids that can drastically affect how the site is optimized for search engines.  It is here where theme pyramids shine.

The main idea with navigational links for theme pyramids is that each page on the site should primarily link up to its ancestors and down to its descendants within their respective pyramids.  In other words, pages within a pyramid should link up to their parent, grandparent, etc. pages and down to their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc. pages.  Cross-linking between pyramids and/or sub-pyramids (both from within the navigational structures and the content) should be kept to an absolute minimum.

There are varying degrees to which a site might adhere to the “link up and down only” rule within its navigational links.  In its most extreme implementation, any given page might only link up to its immediate parent and down to its immediate children.  I prefer an implementation that links up to all ancestors (parent, grandparent, etc.) and down only to its immediate children.  But there are lots of variations that can be used on sites using theme pyramids.

The flow of relevance within theme pyramids

If you stop for a moment to consider the above linking structures, you will see how linking up and down within a theme pyramid distributes page rank/link juice optimally around the site.  The pages targeting the most competitive keywords get the most “juice”.

It should be obvious that this also means any page on the site links primarily to other pages that are 100% relevant to that page.  Every page’s parent is about the same theme only more general.  Every page’s child is about the same theme only more specific.  This promotes what I like to call “the flow of relevance” around the site.  And it is this “flow of relevance” which I believe helps sites based on theme pyramid rank so well at Google.

The inverted “L” navigation structure

Coming up with a navigation structure that supports the above interlinking requirements might seem difficult at first glance.  But an inverted “L” navigation structure works nicely for theme pyramid-based sites.  By inverted “L” I mean using a common global navigation across the top of all pages on the site in combination with a context sensitive left navigation. 

Basically, the top navigation allows the user to switch to a different high level pyramid. Though this violates the “link only up and down within a pyramid” rule, it is important from a usability perspective to provide the user with a global navigation IMO.  And I did say keep cross-linking to a minimum, NOT eliminate it completely.

The purpose of the left navigation is to allow users to move up and down within the pyramid which they are currently browsing.  It is the left navigation (and any contextual links within the content) that controls the flow of relevance and link juice up and down the pyramid.

Theme pyramids with breadcrumbs plus invert “L”

Another variation of the above linking structure is to use breadcrumbs on each page to link to all ancestor pages (parent, grandparent, etc.)  This is, after all, what breadcrumbs typically do.  Then the left navigation might contain ONLY links to immediate child pages.  The leaf nodes at the deepest points in your site will not have a left navigation because they have no children.

A theme pyramid example

The best way to learn about theme pyramids is to see them in action.  So I’ll throw out an example using home loans.

Assume you’re designing a site named example.com about home loans.  You might decide the site should be organized with 3 level 1 pyramids:

  • mortgage loans
  • refinance loans
  • home equity loans

with the following corresponding URLs:

example.com/mortgage/
example.com/refinance/
example.com/home-equity/

Each level 1 pyramid might then be subdivided into several level 2 sub-pyramids:

  • Loan request
  • Calculators
  • Rates
  • Articles

with the following corresponding URLs:

example.com/mortgage/loan-request/
example.com/mortgage/calculators/
example.com/mortgage/rates/
example.com/mortgage/articles/
example.com/refinance/loan-request/
example.com/refinance/calculators/
example.com/refinance/rates/
example.com/refinance/articles/
example.com/home-equity/loan-request/
example.com/home-equity/calculators/
example.com/home-equity/rates/
example.com/home-equity/articles/

Each level 2 calculator sub-pyramid might be further subdivided into multiple level 3 theme specific calculators.  For example the /mortgage/calculators/ pyramid might contain multiple calculators like:

  • rent vs. buy calculator
  • mortgage payment calculator
  • discount points calculator

with the following corresponding URLs:

example.com/mortgage/calculators/rent-vs-by-calculator/
example.com/mortgage/calculators/mortgage-payment-calculator/
example.com/mortgage/calculators/discount-point-calculator/

Each level 2 rates sub-pyramid might be further subdivided into multiple level 3 state specific rates pages.  Each state’s page could have content on it specific to rates in that state. 

For example, the California mortgage rates page might include information about jumbo rates since the majority of loans in that state are likely jumbo or non-conforming loans.  Also, the page might mention state specific assistance programs.  These pages might have URLs like:

example.com/mortgage/rates/alabama/
example.com/mortgage/rates/alaska/
example.com/mortgage/rates/california/
example.com/mortgage/rates/north-carolina/
example.com/mortgage/rates/new-york/

Each level 3 state rates sub-pyramid might be further subdivided into multiple level 4 city specific rates pages. 

For example, the city pages under the California rates page might have URLs like:

example.com/mortgage/rates/california/los-angeles/
example.com/mortgage/rates/california/san-diego/
example.com/mortgage/rates/california/san-francisco/

I’ll leave it as an exercise for you to “blow out” the rest of the theme pyramids and sub-pyramids.

Targeted keywords for the theme pyramids and sub-pyramids

Let me explain how the various pages in a pyramid theme example above might target more and more specific keyword phrases as you stick deeper and deeper into the theme pyramid.  Take the example.com/mortgage/rates/california/san-francisco/ rates page mentioned above as an example.  The various pages in that pyramid path might target the following keyword phrases:

URL Targeted Keyword Phrases
example.com/ loans
home loans
example.com/mortgage/ mortgage
mortgage loans
example.com/mortgage/rates/ mortgage rates
mortgage interest rates
current mortgage rates
example.com/mortgage/rates/california/ california mortgage rates
california mortgage interest rates
current california mortgage rates
example.com/mortgage/rates/california/san-francisco/ san francisco mortgage rates
san francisco california mortgage rates
san francisco mortgage interest rates
san francisco california mortgage interest rates
current san francisco mortgage rates
current san francisco california mortgage rates

As you can see by the above table of targeted keyword phrases, the head terms for the site are targeted by the home page and level 1 page.  The deeper you click into the site, the longer tail the targeted keyword phrases become.

Summary of theme pyramids

In summary, using theme pyramids for your site architecture is a great way to build an SEO friendly site assuming your content lends itself to creating pyramids.  Sites based on theme pyramids do very well in the SERPs (especially at Google), and lead to a lot more indented double listings than other site architectures.

Experiment with theme pyramids… especially with the navigational structures used to enforce the “link up and down within the pyramid” rule and let me know how things work out for your site!  Good luck.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

jillkocher January 27, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Do you define “head terms” by number of words in the phrase, or by potential keyword volume from a keyword research tool?

Canonical SEO January 29, 2010 at 9:59 am

I think of longtail keyword phrases as those that have small search query volumes for a particular niche/vertical and head terms as those with high search volumes. Search query volume is generally proportional to how competitive the keyword/keyword phrase is… But not always.

Long tail keyword phrases generally have more keywords like 3, 4, 5, or more words in the phrase… and head terms are generally one and two word phrases. But I think it’s more correct to base the distinction on search volume.

Thomas October 25, 2010 at 11:02 am

A current project I am working on is taking thousands of URL on a big auto website and organizing them into themes/silos/hub

These are sections of the site that all support a major them on the website.

For instance we are organizing the pages into a green section, new car buying, owning, and so on. This should help identify the major themes of of website for the search engines.

McNallen February 4, 2011 at 2:39 am

Great article, never thought of this, I came across this in a google search for how to seo wordpress archive

Canonical SEO February 4, 2011 at 11:49 am

Glad you found it useful.

Mike February 10, 2011 at 4:25 am

Jim, this is really cool.

I’ve been using ‘Themeing and Siloing” on all of my clients’ sites for 4 years now and still do because it works. Many clients targeting non-super competitive keywords/phrases/niches and conducting the correct market research, realize top 100 rankings very quickly.

If they really dedicate themselves to marketing their sites with long-tail keyword articles, building links, social media campaigns etc, as we outline for them, they jump to the front page.

Here’s the problem: You must know how to build the navigation architecture properly. If not, you can quickly dilute any link juice coming to a page. For example, where internal linking is concerned, I’m not a big fan of linking “down” to children pages from silos as you seem to suggest. Also, when linking “up”, children pages are only linked to the top of silos.

This method of structuring websites just makes sense. Any building must have a strong foundation in order to keep standing. Broadly speaking, (in terms of web development), content linking up to silos that then link up to your main “money keyword” pages are similar to this foundation.

Inbound anchor text links, both internal and external, is one aspect of development that dictates how strong or weak that particular area of the foundation is. This foundation links up to your homepage (which sports content optimized for your “theme/niche” keyword), topping of the roof of the building, its highest point.

Nice work,
Mike.

Canonical SEO February 10, 2011 at 9:45 am

Hey Mike,

Thanks for stopping by. There are lots of ways to build the navigation for these types of sites… I like the linking up and down within silos/pyramids because of 1) usability – it allows the user to navigate the site in an intuitive way rather than having to jump all the way back to the root of the web to go down an adjacent subpyramid and 2) the pages immediately above and below any given page in a silo/pyramid are going to be the most relevant [ages to the current page. It maximizes what I like to call the “flow of relevance”. And Google seems to love this… as “was” indicated with lots of indented listings for a particualr keyward phrase… and is NOW indicated with lots of 2, 3, and 4 part listings with a “+Show more results” type link in the SERPs.

But that’s just “my” preference. As I said there are two extremes (build totally for SEO, build totally for usability), and lots of variations in between when it comes to building silos/pyramids.

Mike February 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Fantastic Jim. I agree, usability is important and I’ve been a fan of it since I was introduced to it many moons ago in my first web dev class. I allow for that by strategically placing various combinations of vertical menus with hyper-linked subpages, text links on my silo pages to all articles under that silo, and breadcrumb menus at the top of all articles.

Now, anyone can navigate to any page on a site within three clicks, overcoming the usability hurdle, and still not compromising my internal linking scheme. In addition, all of my content is visitor optimized, you always know where you are going and what you are going to find there.

I do understand it’s a preference but I don’t believe that the quote:

“And Google seems to love this… as “was” indicated with lots of indented listings for a particualr keyward phrase… and is NOW indicated with lots of 2, 3, and 4 part listings with a “+Show more results” type link in the SERPs”

….is really an indication of that particular preference directly. I’ve noticed the exact same results with some of my clients. One stands out in particular since his site is only 14 months old and he’s ranked for his target keyword (broad match, #19, 20, & 21) and for exact match he’s #10, 11, 12 & 13 + the “show more” link you mentioned. This site only has 3 silos with 3 articles each. NO marketing has been done with it, local or otherwise, not even a Google Places or a Facebook Fan Page.

So, in conclusion, both ways seem to work, I’m not sweating the small stuff, not unless my clients’ visitors (or Google) starts complaining about my usability practices.

Oh, I forgot, Google never complains, they just deindex, banish, relegate to position #10,356 in their SERPs, or give extended timeouts in their supplementary results (“more results” link). It’s good to be the king.

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