If you’re a content, inbound, or SEO veteran, you know all about the hub and spoke design. If you don’t, pay very close attention! It’s been written about before, many times, in many places. Still, I’m not convinced those write-ups do a great job at explaining and illustrating the concept for those new to the field, or to writers who aren’t nearly as technical as SEOs but who are trying to stay afloat in this rapidly changing field. I’ve also recently come across a great example of the design that is so blatantly obvious, yet so damn effective, that I simply can’t get over how awesome it is.
If you don’t care to read about the theory and just want to go straight to the how-to, click here and skip my academic ramblings.
What Is Hub-And-Spoke Content Design?
The hub and spoke approach to content design is one that’s been in use in various forms since very early in the web’s days. The basic premise is deceptively simple – content is organized into hierarchical levels from broadest to most specific. So, for example, your top level (blue) page might be something like “Animals”. The next level (orange) will have several documents/pieces of content that are a little more specific: “Mammals”, “Reptiles”, “Amphibians”, etc. The next level under each category (purple) is even more specific, so under “Mammals” you can have “Marine Mammals”, “Bipeds”, “Quadrapeds”, and so on.
So far, this should be nothing new to anyone who has ever built a web page. In fact, this is the most basic way of structuring things on the web. In fact, it’s hard to think of another way to build a website that makes sense. So why this blog post? Because things can get more interesting from there. The spoke and hub owes a lot of its strategy to the old concept of “webrings”. For those that don’t remember webrings, they were a construct of the early web – the gist is that websites that were related would join a webring that would link all of the sites together, both through a central hub (vertically) and directly from one page to another (horizontally).
Applying this to our site architecture, not only is each level linked to the document above it (yellow and green lines), it is also linked to the document next to it in the same subcategory (grey lines). So each orange document is linked to the blue document, but is also linked to an orange document on either side. Similarly, each purple document is linked to the orange document above it, but also to a purple document on either side.
Why Bother With The Horizontal Linking?
It’s a good question. From a traditional SEO perspective, you want to keep your internal links tightly controlled to shape the way link juice flows. Traditionally, this meant limiting the number and type of links that appear on any given page, and only linking to specific pages that you want to rank better. This process, called link shaping, would pass along the biggest SEO benefits to the pages that you had determined are your most important or most valuable pages via carefully controlled linking (red lines).
Which is great and all, but it comes with three big caveats:
- Are you sure that those are your most valuable pages?
- Are those really the pages that users care about?
- Is the linked-to content even relevant to the content where the link originates?
This is where modern content marketing deviates from classical SEO – the latter is concerned with forced, highly-planned, top-down decisions based on your estimates of page value. The former, however, is about providing as much value to your visitor as possible – killing them with kindness instead of razor-sharp tactics, and letting the end user (your customer) decide what’s important to them. It also emphasizes relevancy of information – instead of arbitrarily linking to pages that are valuable, whether they are at all related to the page where the link is placed or not, you instead link to pages that are highly topical and relevant to the content the user was just reading. The theory is that by creating a chain of relevancy, you increase pages per visit and time on site, and in the process, increase site revenue. Visitors are more likely to keep browsing if they see a link to something close to, but not exactly the same, as what they just read.
Relevancy, and Why It’s Important
Classical SEO can best be described as a big game of 20 questions. You, the SEO/Web Designer/Content Manager/Etc. spend hours researching incomplete information to try and guess what your customers are interested in. What do I mean by incomplete information? Sources like the Google Keyword Tool, Ubersuggest, your own analytics, Alexa, etc. can provide a basic framework of what users are looking for, but they are notoriously bad at giving you insights into why users are looking for those things, who is looking for what, what the intent behind each click is, etc. This missing information is the key to producing valuable content – the goal is to find the users who are ready to buy your product or service, then identify how they search for information right before making the decision to purchase.
For the last decade or so of SEO, classical SEO as I like to call it, we were fixated on finding a strategy that would give us that missing puzzle piece. We’ve gone to great lengths and used some very dubious analysis and some questionable tactics to try to get there. At the end of the day, though, SEOs make an educated guess and hope that if they’re wrong, they can react quickly enough to redirect users towards a better guess.
Enter relevancy, and it’s practical cousin: semantic search. The idea behind semantic search is that if you group similar concepts together, users will find exactly what they are looking for, even if it was not on the first page they saw. Using a semantic spoke and hub approach allows the reader to organically explore your site in a way that makes sense to them, and gives an incentive to stay on the site longer.
In short, instead of trying to guess what the reader is looking for and optimizing your site to get them to that specific page as quickly as possible, you build your site to make it as useful to the reader as it can be, counting on the reader to determine what’s valuable content to them. In a sense, it opens your site up to a process called “mass customization”- the browsing experience feels like it’s custom tailored to each individual reader. Instead of having to guess what page provides value to your business, you let each visitor decide what provides value to THEM.
The How To
Building an effective semantic spoke and hub site design is a little bit (but not much) more complicated than it may seem. The process involves doing good keyword research and organization before you begin creating content, arranging your content in a way that proximity of ideas is easy to visualize and build out, and then creating web pages that are concise, relevant, and linked appropriately. We’ll go through step by step and look at examples as we go along.
Keyword Research for Semantic Spoke and Hub
Keyword research for a semantic spoke and hub site differs a little from classical SEO. With classical SEO keyword research, the goal is usually to drill down to the most concise, niche, limited keywords available and build a page for each one. You identify the keywords you’re most likely to rank for, evaluate their value, and then place an emphasis on those where the ratio of value to rankability is highest.
Classical SEO Keyword Priority = (How much value will this keyword bring in) / (How hard is it to rank for this keyword)
Since this is a topic that has been beaten to death, I won’t go into specifics. Take a look at the SEOMoz (now just MOZ) blog for some good articles.
Semantic spoke and hub, on the other hand, places emphasis on the organic flow of keywords. You begin by identifying your top level concept. Say, “Hot Tubs”. Then you look for ideas that are closely related to and are subsets of the idea of a hot tub. Hot tub maintenance, for example, and hot tub prices. Then you go one step lower, and then another. Continue to follow the trail of related sub-keywords until you get to a natural stopping point. So under hot tub prices, for example, you can go:
hot tub -> hot tub prices -> luxury hot tub prices -> Kenmore Super Hot Tub 5000 XL price.
Once you get to the bottom, and you’ll know it’s the bottom because it won’t make any more sense to go any deeper, you end that particular string and go on to another. Each level can have only one top level, but multiple sublevels. Each keyword on one level should be very similar to, but distinct, from every other page on that level. In that way, you end up with something like the illustration that I’ve been using throughout this article.
The advantage of the semantic spoke and hub method over classical SEO lies in the number of keywords that you can hit, the amount of content you have to produce, and the ease of expanding content.
- Number of Potential Keywords: Because you begin at the top and work down, you can work in more broad keywords than with a site that is geared around niche keywords with a high priority. It might be a little slower to rank at first, but it gives you a much wider net to cast.
- Amount of Content Necessary: Classical SEO emphasizes that all of your niche keywords immediately have a page. If you’re looking to rank for as many long-tail terms as possible that aren’t closely grouped, you need to create content for each keyword from the get go, or lose the ability to rank for that keyword. Because semantic spoke and hub emphasizes starting broad and then working into narrow, you can rank for long-tail searches without necessarily having a page for it.
- Expandability: A semantic spoke and hub site is easier to add to and expand than a classical site largely because you know where every new piece needs to go, and can fit it in when you have the resources available. By starting broad, you have the option of adding levels and interlinking them whenever a new concept presents itself, with the advantage of the new content being able to seamlessly fit into an existing optimization structure that immediately begins to give it SEO benefits.
Arranging Keywords and Content
Once you have your keyword list, it’s time to begin thinking about how it should be arranged and what concepts should be next to each other. This is where a white-board comes in extremely handy. Work on one spoke, and one hub on that spoke at a time. Start by writing out all the keywords on that level, leaving plenty of room between them (for later arrow drawing). Identify keywords that are too similar, and think about if they can be merged together. Remember, you’re dealing in CONCEPTS now, not keywords. So whittle your list down to similar but distinct concepts. Similarly, make sure that all of the concepts on that level belong on that level, and move any that don’t belong either up or down, depending on where they should go.
Once you have a good, concise list, pick one concept, and decide what the next closest concept to it is. Draw a line to it. Continue this process until all the keywords are linked to two other keywords, one “before” it and one “after” it. If you notice a gap where you can’t quite connect two concepts, consider either adding something in, or moving the misfit up or down a level.
Repeat this process for all the concepts you originally outlined, until you have a complete sitemap. Ta Da!
Creating the Content
Now that you have the sitemap, creating the content should be easy! The keys to keep in mind for creating high quality content rests in three ideas:
- Conciseness: The content should be concise, to the point, and strongly focused on the concept that the page represents. Note, this doesn’t mean “short” – the content itself should be as long as necessary. Instead of focusing on word count, instead focus on presenting the idea, and just the idea, that the page is focused on in as short and simple a manner as possible. Try to avoid straying into neighboring concepts, and DEFINITELY avoid going into the category above or below.So, if you’re writing a page about “Hot Tub Prices”, give a general overview of the prices for hot tubs, without going into specifics about prices for certain categories or general hot tub information.
- Relevancy: The content on the page has to be relevant to the concept of the page. That’s a given. What’s more complicated is that the content needs to also be relevant to the page ABOVE it and to the pages BELOW it (if there are any). Think of it as a more in-depth explanation of whatever the previous concept was, and a general summary of the concepts that come after it. This might seem difficult, and it is a hard art to master. Nevertheless, taking the time to get good at this will make you into a much better content producer.
- Appropriate Linking: Not only does the content have to fit into its rung on the spoke and hub ladder, it also needs to be linked appropriately horizontally and vertically. Linking up should be easy – a good breadcrumb system should mostly take care of this, and if necessary, you can add a link near the top to go up a category. Linking down is also fairly easy – adding a series of subcategory links in a clear and concise menu somewhere in the post is trivial. Linking sideways is a little more difficult. You can place the links directly in the content, and you should if they’re appropriate, but that doesn’t always represent the horizontal, “Read more related content” vibe you’re trying to show. An alternative is to place “Previous: Some Content” and “Next: Some Content” links at the bottom of the main content, to keep users interested after the main content is consumed. This will largely depend on how your site is structured, and is a bit of a personal taste thing. Or, if you want to be a radical data scientician, you can set up an experiment to test various horizontal linking mechanisms.
And Now, an Example
I’ve recently had the pleasure of spending a lot of time at the website for the American Diabetes Association. Their site is almost perfectly laid out (with one small exception that I’ll point out shortly). Let’s take a look at one of their content pages and see what they’re doing right:
- The Hub Title and Breadcrumbs: The title of this hub page is clean, clear, and concise. There is also an obvious breadcrumb (slightly covered up) that clearly shows that this is a sub-page of a broader category. The concept being explained here, “Food”, is broad and simple to understand.
- The Side Navigation: The side navigation shows both horizontal categories (“Food” and “Fitness”), but also the underlying sub-categories one level down, and the category one level up. This is a clear, obvious, and very user-friendly menu that tells you exactly where you stand.
- The Content: The content here is actually pulled as excerpts of the sub-categories, arranged by what the web architect thought would be most important to visitors. This is my one complaint about the page. It’s simple and clear, but it would have been nice if there was some category-specific content.
- Sub-Categories: The main sub-categories of this page are clearly linked to, and it is obvious that these are the main sub-categories because they are sized larger than the other links.
- Sub-Sub-Categories: For quicker and easier navigation, the web designer also included a selection of sub-sub-categories, that is hubs that are two levels removed from the main category.
- Specific Call-To-Action: Each page has a specific call to action for something that is directly related to the content. This gives a high amount of relevance to the CTA, and improves click-throughs and conversions dramatically.
- General Call-To-Action: Because the site is built to be navigated at the user’s discretion, every page needs to have a general CTA and conversion point – you can’t and shouldn’t rely on funneling readers to specific conversion pages as you would for a traditional page. This page actually has two general CTA’s that are slightly different and accomplish slightly different goals.
This template is almost perfect for semantic hub and spoke design. Learn it, love it, live it. As you work down the categories, there is always more highly relevant content to get to, and you can follow a train of thought wherever it leads. As a result, readers come away feeling like they found exactly what they were looking for, and there are many places to convert.