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The Content Strategy Revolution – How Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages are Changing the Game

Angeline Rast
1 October 2018

Savvy marketers are always keen on the latest ways to increase organic search, ways to drive quality leads to a website and improve the overall content strategy for higher ranking. Search engines algorithms are constantly changing; they remain a source of constant headache for marketers. Did you know that Google has changed their algorithm to favor content that is topic-based? Keywords may no longer be the foundation for content creation; pillar pages are the new strategy in town!

Pillar pages are main hubs of content for overarching topics. They have multiple content pages related to the pillar page and are linked back to the pillar page. The act of linking various pages back to the pillar page and each other signals the search engines that the pillar page is an authority on the given topic. With time, the pillar page may rank higher and higher for the given topic that it covers. This strategy ‘topic cluster model’ at its very core is used to organize a site’s content pages to deliver a neater, cleaner and more deliberate site architecture. SEO experts now advise that businesses need to explore new ways of linking related content under ‘topic clusters or pillar pages.’

Here is a tactical primer for savvy marketers keen on fruitful SEO strategies.

Why you need topic clusters and pillar pages for your website

The changing customer behavior is the primary force behind topic clusters as well as pillar pages. As opposed to previous user behavior of using fragmented keyword queries; nowadays, customers are more comfortable posting complex search queries and still expect accurate and timely results. And even searchers who want specific answers also use multiple different queries for their searches. Search engines, on the other hand, have evolved to keep up with complex behavior change of users. They are smart enough to not only recognize the connections between queries and their algorithms, but also to understand the context behind the intention of the search. Consequently, they can tie back to similar searches conducted in the past and deliver the best of answers to the same query.

The primary step indicative of this change is Google’s RankBrain update launched in 2015. This is Google’s machine learning algorithm which is designed to understand the context of user’s search queries. It is tailored to associate past searches with similar current themes. Also, it can pull multiple keywords and phrases that are closely associated with the search query to find the best results.

Here is your evidence

In light of these changes, Anum Hussain and Cambria Davies conducted topic cluster experiments in 2016 for some selected topics. Their extensive findings from their research revealed that the more interlinking they did in their cluster topics and pillar pages, the better the placement for their pages in Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) got. The number of views also increased with the number of links created. Therefore, more links result to higher SERP placements.

The rationale behind cluster topics for your website

Before adopting cluster topics, a website’s content structure has the master URL hosting the home page and links to subdirectories or sub-domains. As the website produces more content, there is no uniform linking structure for the content. The result is that there will be a considerable increase in the number of blog pages and the website structure becomes complex as it spreads out. Such websites find themselves with dozens of web pages which cover similar topic areas and are not linked in a clear manner. These pages compete against each other to be found by search engines and by the researcher. A more thoughtful and coherent structure is needed – one that prioritizes and displays the main topic and then organizes all other related pages to the main page in an interlinked cluster.

Transforming your website content to topic clusters

You can already start clustering your content and topics and reap increased visibility on SERPs. To begin with, you may want to conduct an audit of your existing content pages and group them into the main topics. One of the guiding principles in pillar pages and content clustering is to think of your content assets regarding the topics you want your website to compete in as opposed to considering discrete keywords. Keywords remain essential, but let them play into your overall strategy; the keyword strategy will operate under the umbrella of crucial content topics.

Here is some wisdom from Leslie Ye, a content expert who clustered Hubspot’s content:

“When considering whether something should be called a pillar page or not, ask yourself this: Would this page answer every question the reader who searched X keyword and is it broad enough to be an umbrella for 20-30 posts?

A good sniff test here is:“If you are trying to get the page you are working on to rank for a long-tail keyword, it is not a pillar page. If the page you are working on explores a very narrow topic in great depth, it is not a pillar page. If the page you are working on touches on many aspects of a broad topic, it is probably a pillar page.”

Let us consider the example of ‘content marketing’. You may want to create a pillar page on “content strategy” that captures all the aspects of the topic on a single page. The pillar page should broadly cover the topic ‘content strategy’ so that it will make sense when the cluster content is linked to it. Here are topics that could be captured in the pillar page for ‘content strategy’, for instance:

Pillar Page – content strategy

  • Content marketing strategy
  • Content planning
  • Brainstorming tools and techniques
  • Content creation tools
  • Grammar fails
  • Gated content
  • Blogging
  • Blog post topics
  • Buyer Personas
  • Post types
  • Mistakes in blogging
  • Writing techniques
  • Writing productivity
  • Growing your readership
  • Scaling content output

Once you are done with the pillar page, you can now focus on the cluster content. The cluster content topics should now go in great depth to cover just one area that is mentioned in the pillar page. In the above example on content strategy, a cluster topic would go into great detail on “content marketing strategy.” Or if the pillar page is on Search Engine Optimization, a cluster topic would cove in depth on how to optimize the architecture of your site for search engines.

Once your designated pillar page is ready, update the links in the related cluster content that you have created to form a cluster around the pillar page. Each post in the cluster content set will need to be linked at least once to the anchor text (text that is hyperlinked). This will help the search engine to know that it is part of a topic cluster. Keep monitoring your pillar page’s ranking in search engines, and when your ranking stabilizes, and you have grown to be an authority on the topic, consider furthering your clusters by linking to related topics and content. For instance, if you were focusing on content marketing, you could link up to ‘how to create content that converts.’

An alternative route to pillar pages and cluster content

The whole process of content auditing and choosing out cluster topics can be somewhat daunting, and if you have an extensive archive of your content, the process becomes even more painful. But here are tactical tips to get you started with pillar pages and content clustering.

  • Identify 5-10 core problems or pain points for your buyer personas. You can use surveys, interviews and secondary research within online communities.
  • Group the pain points in topic areas.
  • Build on the topics with subtopics using a keyword search.
  • Build up content ideas that align with the core topics as well as the subtopics.
  • Confirm each content idea with competitive and industry research.
  • Create content, measure the impact, review and adopt successful strategies and adjust strategies that are not fruitful.

Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages – A New Imperative

Competition today to get found in search engine results is intense, and as a result, SEO practices have evolved to a new model being leveraged by many content-focused websites and that is why many companies are reconfiguring their webpages in the background. Given the transition to pillar pages and content-clusters has its potential benefits, the early birds are sure to catch the worm. The above insights are a sure guide for anyone wanting to get their website to the next level. This will not only put brands on a path toward a positive ROI, but also establish a more well-oiled marketing strategy overall.

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