Originally published January 13, 2020
It’s hard enough to land your site onto the first page of Google, especially when you’re stuck playing catch-up to all the new search algorithm updates that never really seem to end.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard the phrase “pillar page” or “cluster content” being thrown about in the past few months. While the idea of pillar pages has been around since 2013, it hasn’t gained much popularity until recently.
Back in 2017, HubSpot announced they had adopted the Pillar page approach as their new SEO strategy.
They discovered that cornerstone content, an approach where you educate readers on the foundational information they need to understand in order to be able to buy your product or service, works well when search engines are now using AI techniques to understand the meaning of content and categorize them into topics.
HubSpot adapted this cornerstone idea into a new pillar content approach that gives a comprehensive guide on a topic in order to increase rankings in search related to that particular topic.
It’s like the cornerstone approach but with an SEO focus, instead of only educating potential customers, you’re also educating the AI that ranks your content in search results.
Generally speaking, a pillar page is what connects all of your site’s content together. A pillar page is a single page that covers a whole topic in basic detail.
It essentially exists to answer a searcher’s question, and the one after that, and the one after that, and so on, preventing the user from hopping back to the search page to get an answer from your competitors and potentially purchasing their product instead.
As the user spends more time on your page rather than picking through the other search results, Google realises that your website is a quality resource for that topic, and bumps up your topic authority and consequently your SERP ranking.
Pillar pages are supposed to be long, but not so long that they become too difficult to skim over, so what happens when the user wants more information than your pillar page can offer? This is where Cluster Content comes in.
A pillar page includes internal links to “cluster content” that explains certain aspects of the topic and relevant subtopics in more detail. This can be things such as your existing or new blog posts, articles, etc that give more detailed information than provided on the pillar page. In terms of cluster content, pillar pages are essentially just a way to organize information and connect all of your cluster content together.
Each cluster page is internally linked to the pillar page using the same keyword phrase which it is optimized for. Then, on each cluster page, there is an internal link back to the pillar page, creating a web of internal links that provides value and accessibility to your readers.
To put it shortly, think of a pillar page like an encyclopedia, it covers the main idea, giving you enough information to understand a topic then has links for you to explore sub-content in more detail, this is your cluster content. Like a structural pillar is the foundation for a ceiling, a pillar page is a foundation for your SEO and content strategies.
By utilizing pillar pages in your website, you’re killing two birds with one stone.
Firstly, a pillar page will organize your content and make it easier for readers to browse and access similar content, resulting in – you guessed it! More site engagement. It’ll also make it a lot easier for you to organize your content in meaningful ways, remove redundant content and plan new content!
Secondly, and more importantly, Pillar pages will Increase your site authority and page ranking. Prior to Google’s Hummingbird update, ranking algorithms were mostly keyword based.
Businesses would often produce content with more emphasis on keyword density than readability and overall quality. Businesses were writing for the search engines instead of their potential customers, in hopes of increasing their page’s SERP ranking.
Unfortunately, this provided an unsatisfactory user experience. Instead of finding the information they were looking for, readers would be greeted with long, repetitive content with little to no substance, after a while all search engine results became dominated by thin content.
Thankfully, since the release of Hummingbird, this approach no longer works. Google has focused more on topic-based content, penalizing content with keyword stuffing to ensure a better user experience.
While it’s still very widely practised to rank for specific keywords, if you want to stay on top of the game, it’s a lot more efficient switch up your SEO strategy to rank for topics.
These days, in order to find the exact answer they’re looking for, the majority of user searches are conversational phrases, not keywords. In fact, the majority of searches nowadays are at least 4 words long!
For example, if you were looking for a new pair of shoes you wouldn’t only type “shoes” into the search bar, that’d return far too much information that you don’t have time to sort through! Instead, You’d write something more specific like “size 7 women’s running shoes”.
As search queries become longer and more conversational, search algorithms must evolve to accommodate for this transition. So, rather than only returning sites that mention “size 7 women’s running shoes”, Google will instead use their top-secret AI techniques to categorize your search query into a specific topic and then return results that have a high topic authority for your query.
So, even though you searched for “size 7 women’s running shoes” you’ll also get results for “women’s sneakers” and any other synonymous keywords.
Just as Google’s algorithm categorises search queries into topics, it categorizes your content too!
Here’s where the idea of a pillar page comes in. If every piece of content you write about a certain topic is linked back to a relevant pillar page, then Google knows what those pieces of content are about, and in return, your topic authority increases and Google will rank your page higher for searches on that particular topic.
Because of this, it is increasingly more and more important to use pillar pages in your content SEO strategy.
Well, luckily for you, I’ve compiled an easy step-by-step guide.
You can’t start a pillar page without a topic. Choose a topic that is suitable for your business. There is no point targeting something that isn’t going to attract the audience you want! If you have more than one topic you can create a pillar page for each topic, but make sure your topic isn’t too broad or too narrow.
Your topic needs to be big enough that you can include enough cluster content, but not so big that your cluster content loses its relevance. A good rule of thumb to follow when choosing topics is to pick a subject that’s a step removed from something you’d naturally put on your site’s navigation menu.
You want to target the niche of your product, not your product itself! for example, if you sell supplements for hair, instead of choosing “hair gummy vitamins” as a topic, you should take a step back and target hair health instead.
This way, you’re expanding your reach by grabbing the attention of potential customers who are interested in ways to improve their hair health and may not know about your product yet. When these potential customers click onto your content to find out more about hair health they’ll also see that you sell products they might be interested in buying.
In order to rank for your chosen topic, Google needs to know what your topic is, so it’s important to include keywords related to this topic.
Like I mentioned earlier, internet users tend to search for natural, more conversational phrases, so in response, Google will return search results based not only on that phrase but also other keywords within that same topic. In order to increase your topic authority, it’s a great idea to include these other topic-related keywords in your content, especially your pillar page.
The more comprehensive and quality content you publish about a topic, the more Google thinks you know about a topic, and the higher it will rank your topic authority.
But how do you find these keywords? If you’re already using keywords to improve your SEO ranking, you can utilise these in your pillar page too. But, if you’re new to using keywords, or simply looking for more, there are plenty of online resources to help you.
Or, you could have a peek into the ones Google already associates with your chosen topic. Have you ever noticed that Google will automatically give you suggestions when you type something into your search bar?
These search suggestions are examples of commonly searched queries related to your topic that will give you a good grasp of what types of keywords to include in your pillar page and cluster content.
A practical approach is to Take a look at the other results that come up when you type in your existing keywords or topics. If you search for “running shoes” Google will probably give you results for “sneakers” too.
Take note of these extra keywords that show up, as they are likely to be keywords also associated with your topic that you can take advantage of in your own content.
There are many ways you can choose to structure this. popular approaches are ebook or pdf style with a contents section of links at the top and anchors throughout the page for easy navigation.
Another approach is to include hyperlinks cluster content as they would naturally appear in your pillar page content.
Be sure to keep the pillar page well organised and easy to scan as it is likely to be one of your longest pieces of content. Thick, unstructured blocks of text without anchors or well-defined headers is the last thing your viewers want to see! But only keep it as long as it needs to be!.
You’ve created your pillar page. Finished, right? Wrong. While a pillar page on its own is a great step forward to ranking higher, the magic doesn’t really happen until you place it at the centerpiece of your cluster content.
Linking your new and existing content to your pillar page using the same keyword phrase it is optimized for will really grab Google’s attention to give you topic authority.
The more internal links you can include, the better! When you link a piece of cluster content to the pillar page, make sure there’s also a link from the cluster content back to the pillar page too
But remember to keep it user-friendly! After all, your pillar page is likely to be the largest piece of content on your website, so make sure it’s easy to navigate.
A pillar page should be skimmable to allow readers to find what they’re looking for with ease. Include anchors at the end of each section, so users can navigate back to the start without scrolling, keep a consistent layout with well-defined headings, and breaks block text into small paragraphs, images, graphs, lists etc to keep your reader’s attention.
Search algorithms are constantly evolving and marketers are constantly searching for new ways to dominate the competition.
Pillar pages are a comprehensive guide that covers a topic in enough detail to answer any basic questions a reader may have, while cluster content is more detailed and describes subtopics in more depth.
Pillar pages not only organise your site, making it easier for readers to navigate but will also aid in the growth of your site.
By incorporating pillar pages and cluster content into your SEO content strategy you will notice an improvement in your site authority and page ranking.