Prior to 2015, keywords were king in SEO. But today, searches have become more specific and contextual. The vast majority of searchers today type in long search phrases: According to Ahrefs, 64% of search queries contain four or more words. Google rationalizes that if searchers are using such detailed search terms, the content served up in the search engine results pages should probably also be detailed as well.
Additionally, many searchers don't even use a keyword in their search! This is in large part due to the popularity of voice search devices such as Siri and Alexa. If you've ever asked your phone, "Siri, where should I eat dinner tonight?", congratulations – you're part of this change.
Fortunately, Google has updated its algorithm several times over the past few years, and search engines today are smart enough to know the intent behind your search is really the keyword phrase "restaurant near me".
Take these two factors together — the tendency for searchers to use more detailed queries and questions that may or may not include a keyword — and it becomes clear that thin content and keyword-focused SEO strategies aren't up to the task of meeting the needs of searchers today.
Imagine going to the grocery store. Would you rather shop here…
No contest, right? Google agrees. That’s why search engines reward content that is organized by topic, not keywords.
A topic is a broad umbrella concept, while a keyword represents a component of that concept. It's very similar to the way a grocery store groups relevant food items into aisles. In our example above, "produce", "meat", and "dairy" are the topics. Within each topic are a handful of subtopics (for example, "fruit" and "vegetables" are subtopics within the main topic of "produce."). Within the subtopics, "apples" and "bananas" are the keywords.
Similarly, a well-designed website uses topics to categorize keywords.
Here’s an example of topics and keywords from HubSpot, a marketing software company. Without topics to provide categories, their keyword strategy is a jumbled mess:
But once we introduce topics into the mix, the keywords become neat and organized, and the entire SEO strategy makes much more sense:
Organizing your content with a topic-first approach means organizing your content into topic clusters, which consist of pillar pages and clusters of topic-related content interconnected by hyperlinks.
This topic-first approach has big benefits:
A topic cluster is a collection of interlinked articles and website pages centered around one umbrella topic.
Creating a topic cluster allows you to dive deeper into a core topic while creating an efficient site architecture in the process. Building a solid architecture on your website is important because it helps enable search engine spiders more easily find your content, which in turn improves your search engine rankings across the broad topic you choose.
Unlike the grocery store from our previous example, websites don’t have physical aisles. You need a different way to distinguish one topic cluster from another. That’s where structure comes in.
A topic cluster is built around a central "pillar" page that links to more specialized articles within that topic (i.e., the cluster content).
Google uses the links between the pillar page and the cluster content to group these separate articles into one topic.
This specific structure – having one central pillar page linking to multiple specialized articles – tells search engines that your website covers this topic broadly and in-depth. Algorithms like Google's RankBrain will see your website as an authority on the topic at hand and rank it accordingly.
A pillar page is a website page that provides a comprehensive overview on a topic. A pillar page (also called pillar content or content pillars) should cover every aspect of a topic generally, but link to separate articles on your website for more detail.
Pillar pages should be both broad and comprehensive. They should touch on almost every question a user might have around a subject, but not answer them too in-depth. Think of pillar pages as a "everything-you-need-to-know" or an "A-to-Z" guide to a topic that ranges from 5,000 to 10,000 words.
A gym chain that wants to gain authority around the topic "workout routines" might have a topic cluster that looks like this:
In this example, the gym has one primary pillar page that provides in-depth content on the broad topic "workout routines." The pillar page links to a cluster of blog posts that each focus on a specific keyword (e.g., "workout routines without weights"). Each of those cluster posts also links back to the main pillar page, using the same anchor text in the link: "workout routines". These internal links will help Google associate the pillar page with that specific keyword phrase.
With this approach, visitors will be able to find this content using many different long-tail keyword combinations involving "workout routines". They'll also be able to easily access both a broad overview of "workout routines" as well as details on specific aspects of "workout routines". And search engines will now see the website as an authority on anything related to "workout routines". Win win!
Topic clusters and pillar pages are just as much about content organization as content creation. To adopt a topic-driven approach to content, you’ll need to take the following steps:
The process can be complex. It involves buyer persona and keyword research, content mapping, content writing, content audits, and cleaning up internal links. Luckily, our handy guide walks you through everything you need to know. And you can contact us for help at any step of the way.
The first step of a topic-driven approach is ... defining your topics! This process involves four steps:
To help illustrate this process, we’ll use a fictional accounting software company called Book Balancers as an example.
SEO is driven by people. Good SEO strategy begins with examining user behavior. Think about it: Keyword research is just understanding what terms people are searching for. Whenever Google makes an algorithm change, it's simply a reaction to new trends in user behavior.
Topic clusters are no different. To understand what topics your website’s content strategy should center around, you first need to look at your audience. And the best way to understand your audience is by using buyer personas.
A buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer. Based on market research and interviews, buyer personas help marketers understand their audience and then map out a buyer journey. To easily plan each step of the buyer's journey, use our buyer's journey template to get started.
If you don’t already have buyer personas for your business, you can use our sample buyer persona template to start the process. Ask your best customers these buyer persona interview questions to make sure that your assumptions about your audience are actually true.
Take a closer look at your buyer personas. Ask yourself: What problems do they have? What are their pain points? Try to find five to ten core problems that a buyer relies on your company to solve. Not sure where to start? Read our strategy on how to find your customers’ pain points.
Next, ask yourself: Can these problems be consolidated into a few core issues? If so, congratulations! These core problems form the seeds of your topic clusters.
Let’s take our accounting software example. Assume you're the Marketing Director at Book Balancers, and you primarily sell to freelancers and small firms or agencies. You’ve created two personas for these audiences: Freelance Fiona and Agency Andrew. Here's what you know about how Fiona and Andrew primarily use accounting software:
Buyer Persona Accounting Software Activity
|Freelance Fiona||Agency Andrew|
|Creating invoices for clients||Automating recurring invoices|
|Accepting online payments||Automating payment reminders|
|Tracking hours for project estimates and invoicing||Paying contractors|
|Processing payments from clients|
While reviewing these buyer personas, a few topics start to emerge. For Freelance Fiona, you might explore building a topic cluster around invoicing. For Agency Andrew, automation and payment processing are a good place to start grouping.
Now that you have your list of core buyer problems, it’s time to turn them into a topic cluster. Later on, this will also help you write a pillar page.
Here’s an example of a topic cluster on "freelance invoicing" for our Book Balancers example.
To build a map like this, you’ll need to do keyword research.
Use this research to do two things: refine your topic phrase and map out your cluster content.
A topic phrase is the umbrella term that describes your topic. In this example, the topic phrase is "freelance invoicing" from our list of buyer persona problems.
Why is the topic phrase important?
Use keyword research to make sure your topic phrase matches what your customers are actually searching for. For example, if your buyers search with the word "freelance" but internally your company uses the phrase "self-employed," guess which term you should use in your content? Of course you should use "freelance".
To avoid potential snafus like this, let your keyword research validate your choice and enable you to make sure there aren’t better alternatives to the phrase you're thinking of using.
Once you’ve settled on a topic phrase, it’s time to map out your cluster content. Identify all the areas of your topic that a potential buyer might want to know. Strive for at least eight to 22 specific keyword phrases that are each meaty enough to support a blog post.
A good place to start is to brainstorm all the potential phrases or keywords that you know are related to your topic. Just ask yourself: What information would be useful in an A-to-Z guide in this topic?
Don’t limit yourself! And don’t worry if your list includes topics you’ve already written about. Your goal here is to build a good list. As we mentioned earlier, this exercise will come in handy when writing your pillar page.
Once you have your list, use keyword research to identify any areas that you might have missed:
To ensure you're painting the fullest picture possible, you should have a good mix of short- and long-tail keywords.
After you’ve added all the keywords you can think of, further refine and validate your list with a tool like Google’s Keyword Planner.
Let’s be honest: Auditing the content on your website isn't exactly fun times, particularly if your company has been blogging for a number of years. But before you can start writing new content, you need to know what content you already have and what content you’re missing. And that requires a content audit.
In the context of pillar pages and topic clusters, here's how to approach the audit:
To help you keep track of existing content and any eventual links within a topic cluster, we recommend using a shared Excel or Google spreadsheet like this one:
For each content piece, list the following items:
As you go through your existing content, ask yourself the following questions:
Identifying and removing content that is no longer valuable to your website can be a positive SEO move, particularly if poor-quality content is competing against stronger content for the same keywords on a SERP.
As you revisit older articles, make a mental note of any particularly strong paragraphs, definitions, metaphors, or examples. You may want to re-use these good bits when you write your pillar page on the topic.
While it can be tedious to go through all your existing content, the process is invaluable for developing a comprehensive topic cluster plan. Additionally, after your pillar page and topic clusters have been built but before you submit your website to be re-crawled by Google, use this audit to clean up your internal links between the cluster content and the pillar page.
Once you have completed your content audit, compare your spreadsheet to the topic map from Step 2. You might find a bit of an imbalance. It's possible you've covered one niche of your topic very in-depth, and yet completely missed another longer keyword phrase. Notice these gaps. You can use turn them into new cluster content later as part of your ongoing maintenance on your pillar page.
Now that you have a map of your topic cluster strategy, it’s time to write the most important piece: your pillar page. Remember that a pillar page is a web page that acts as a total and comprehensive overview to your topic. Think of it as a jumping-off point to more specialized articles – an "A-to-Z" guide to your topic that provides links to additional resources.
In this chapter, we’ll cover how to plan, outline, write, and design your pillar page.
These are some of the most common questions we receive around pillar page planning:
While traditional blog posts can be anywhere from 500 to 2,000+ words depending on your goals, pillar pages typically clock in around 5,000 to 10,000 words.
A pillar page is more than just an extra-long blog post. You will need to budget time for topic identification, keyword research, content auditing, internal link clean-up, and web design in addition to the actual writing and planning part. Gulp.
Let’s say it takes your content writer two to four hours to write 2,000 words. In our experience, a time estimate for a pillar page might look something like this.
Based on this estimate, you'll need to allocate at least 20 to 25 hours for a 5,000 word pillar page. If you don’t have that kind of time, contact us for help at any stage of the process.
Because a pillar page is such an investment, you don’t want to enter into it lightly.
When considering whether a certain topic is right for a pillar page, ask yourself a few questions:
You should only make a pillar page if the answer to each of these questions is "yes."
When making your decision, walk yourself through this decision tree.
After you’ve walked yourself through this process, you’re ready to pull the trigger!
Remember your topic map from Chapter 2? The one that looked something like this?
You can use this map to outline your pillar page. There are three benefits to using a keyword-driven topic cluster map to guide your pillar page outline:
If you didn’t make one earlier, here’s how to make a topic cluster map.
After you finish your outline, keep these tips in mind as you write your pillar page:
At 5,000 - 10,000 words, your pillar page is going to be on the long side. Make sure your pillar page is as easy as possible to skim. Embrace chapters, section headers and even a table of contents. Remember that majority of your audience is likely to have arrived at your website through a longer search query. Your job is to make it as easy as possible for them to find exactly what they are looking for. Don’t be afraid to add navigation tools to your page’s web design.
As you’re writing your pillar page, don’t be afraid to use question-and-answer style formatting. Questions are chock-full of long-tail keywords and make it easier for your reader to skim. Plus, questions and answers are a great way to optimize for Google Featured Snippets.
As you can see below, a Google Featured Snippet is a short excerpt from an article that appears on the search engine results page above the search engine results.
Here’s how to use Q&As in your content to optimize for Google snippets:
However, as with all SEO tips, focus first on doing what makes sense for your reader. Don’t use this format if it doesn’t work with the context of your article. If you are looking for examples, see if you can spot the places in this article where we have used this format to optimize for Google snippets!
Pillar pages act as the center of your topic cluster. They are important pieces of content! To make sure your pillar page is comprehensive and clear, enlist an objective and skilled proofreader to provide feedback before you hit "publish."
When you design your pillar page, follow these best practices:
The navigational tools and design elements are important. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and think about how they'll engage with the content.
To improve navigation, consider adding elements such as:
Likewise, no one wants to read a 5,000+ text-only article. To improve readability, consider adding:
Additionally, a surprising amount of people will prefer to download your pillar page as a PDF so they can read the content when it's convenient for them. Therefore, always create a CTA to "download the PDF" version of the pillar page. Make sure to build a landing page with a form that requires an email address to collect lead nurturing information. This becomes a great conversion opportunity!
Your pillar page is written. Your topic clusters are mapped and built. It’s time to start promoting!
The primary goal of any promotion should be to drive traffic to your pillar page. While you may have valuable cluster content, you want to establish your pillar page as the authoritative source on a specific topic.
Before pulling the trigger on any pillar page promotions, you'll need to clean up your internal links and submit your website to Google for re-crawling. Without this step, search engines will not necessarily register your extensive changes – despite all that hard work!
Remember the content audit you did back in Chapter 2? You'll use this to set up your internal links. Key here is to make sure that any links from the cluster content to the pillar page use the exact wording of the topic you want to rank for. All links to the pillar page must use your topic phrase.
For example, our topic map example in Chapter 2 centered around the topic phrase “freelance invoicing.” Each of the topic cluster posts will need to link back to the pillar page with the anchor text “freelance invoicing" in the hyperlink.
Having clean internal links helps search engines understand how to categorize your website content into your chosen topics. This is particularly helpful as you build out multiple topics, and it will help you establish thought leadership in each of these topic categories.
Cleaning up internal links can be a little tedious and time consuming. That’s why we created this checklist to help make the process less painless:
Internal Linking Checklist for Pillar Pages and Topic Clusters
Once you have published your pillar page and cleaned up your internal links, submit your website to Google for recrawling. This step will help make sure Google registers the most up-to-date version of your website for its search results.
After you’ve submitted your website for re-crawling, there are a few more SEO-specific tricks you can use to promote your pillar page and content authority on a specific topic:
Your social media strategy is crucial to promoting and maintaining thought leadership.
To maintain your authority on a specific topic across social channels, consider organizing your content calendars by topic. This will align your website and social strategies and enable you to present a unified image as a thought leader around specific topics.
Here are some social media strategy ideas for promoting your pillar page in the short term:
Yep, you can use content to promote your pillar page too! Maintain your pillar page’s relevance by linking to it whenever you write about the topic.
After your content audit, you should have a list of potential cluster content ideas. These can make great blog posts for the future. Be sure to link back to your pillar page whenever you write anything new about your topic. Also, as you write more about your topic, update your pillar page to ensure that its content remains fresh.
We recommend revisiting your pillar page once a quarter to see if you need to add any new links to relevant cluster content or offers.
For short-term promotions, you can guest post about your topic (and link back to the pillar page) on other websites whenever appropriate.
After such a significant undertaking, it’s important to measure the success of your efforts. But what does success look like? Your metrics might include:
As you add more content to your pillar page or add new cluster content, compare the results against your goals and benchmarks.
However, like most SEO strategies, organizing your content by topic and pillar pages takes time to show results. It may take a few months for your organic traffic to regain momentum. This is why it can be helpful to promote the pillar page to your database and via paid ads to bring in traffic in the short-term.
In addition to measuring your pillar pages individually, also take time to analyze your topics as a whole. Look for answers to questions such as:
This can help you elevate your topic-driven approach to a higher level of results. It can also help you decide how to invest future marketing efforts, whether that's what to write about for next week’s blog post or how best to allocate your overall marketing budget.
Shifting your SEO strategy from a keyword-driven approach to a topic-driven strategy is no easy task. But pillar pages and topic clusters can have real business benefits:
Whether it’s performing a content audit, researching topics, or writing a pillar page, we’re here to help. Contact us today to schedule a conversation!