We have been talking a lot lately about topic clusters and pillar page strategies and how they should fit into every marketer's campaign strategy. Because of Google's algorithm ranking factor, RankBrain, it is crucial that we optimize our websites around topics rather than a limited amount of keywords.
According to research by ahrefs, queries have become longer and more complex. People have seen their search engine results become more accurate than ever before. We’ve become more accustomed to asking our search engines questions that are much more conversational and reliant upon our search engine’s ability to understand context and intent.
The strategy here is that if we focus on optimizing the right pages and writing on the correct topics, our rankings will increase for all related keywords within that topic.
Throughout this article, I will be discussing how to choose which pillar pages you should focus on, and how you can successfully implement this type of SEO strategy through content creation, optimization, and internal linking.
The Steps of Choosing Pillar Pages
The pillar page must be the central piece of a much larger content network, topic clusters. The first step in this process is to choose which pages on your site are going to be considered your pieces of pillar content. Depending on the type of business, this could be anything from an important service page to an offer that you want to drive traffic to. If you don’t have any pages that you can elaborate on, or if there isn’t an already existing pillar page that you believe you need to add, there are steps you can take to create new pillar content. With that said, it is much more beneficial to choose a page that already has domain authority and ranking behind it.
How Buyer Personas Can Help
If you’ve started your digital marketing campaign the right way, you’ve already researched to understand your buyer personas. With this understanding, you’ll have a good idea as to what your buyer personas are looking for through keyword research.
Pro tip: Look for both simple, target keywords and long-tail keywords when performing your keyword research
After you’ve performed this keyword research, you’ll be able to understand if there are any gaps in your content. The first step is reviewing what you already have to see if you can alter it into a pillar page format. If you don’t have any content that can be revised, it’s time to start from scratch.
When choosing pillar pages, we take a look at the analytics behind the website pages to make an educated guess as to what pages will be the most beneficial to go after. This will help us get a sense as to what exactly our audience is looking for and make sure we are optimizing our site even further for those topics.
Of course, you can effectively create a pillar page from nothing, from developing a good, highly searched topic and publishing the new page on your website. But remember, a high ranking, high traffic page may have everything you need for a pillar page with some reworking.
Deciding Between a Pillar Page or a Blog Post
Knowing when to create a pillar page versus a comprehensive blog post can be tricky.
In a best practice topic cluster strategy, there is the centralized, core topic. Behind that core topic is a single, live website page. This means that there is a page that needs to be optimized with basic SEO rules. However, as a general rule, the best pillar pages are at least receiving hundreds of searches per month for that core long-tail keyword.
Traditionally, inbound marketing has been reliant on blogging for keyword growth. Writing blog posts optimized for target keywords allows us to create content specific to that core topic, and somewhere in those posts is a link back to a landing page with a form. That is a super simplified version of the traditional inbound method.
This new-and-improved method attempts to optimize all articles for long-tail keywords. That is the core difference between the traditional model and the new model. The old way was to optimize for competitive short-tail keywords, and the new way is to optimize for long-tail keywords.
The First Criteria: Search Volume
HubSpot’s SEO team published a recent wiki about how they decide whether if the page should be a pillar page or a blog post. These standards should help digital marketers and SEO experts alike.
For a page to be a considered a viable pillar page for HubSpot, the monthly search volume for the core keyword topic has to be at least 50,000 searches per month. This is way more than our recommended triple digits, but keep in mind that this is for HubSpot’s pillar pages. The triple digits of monthly searches should a the bare minimum.
So first rule, first criteria for the core topic is that we want at least a 100 searches per month. That is criteria number one.
The Second Criteria: Current Rank
The second piece of criteria that we want is to be already ranking for the core topic in question. For example, does your local law firm appear in the first 100 search results for a long-tail keyword? If you do, you’re much more likely to get a larger ROI from creating a pillar page. The best pillar pages tend to already rank for your long-tail keywords in the first 100 search results, and when implemented with a best practice blogging strategy, can positively affect search engine rank.
Conversely, if you are not ranking at all for the long-tail keyword, it’s going to be hard to quickly impact rankings. Keep in mind that it’s not going to be impossible, but it’s going to be much more difficult.
Create Topics with “SEO Opportunity”
Each pillar page that is chosen or created is then translated into a topic. For example, if we have a digital marketing page, we will probably make that topic "Digital Marketing." An important way to determine if you have chosen a right topic is to do some broad keyword research around that particular topic to ensure it gets enough search volume and is worth targeting. If it is not, you may want to change topics for that page.
Additionally, each core topic is something that is educational or informative and must have supporting content. To keep with our earlier example of “digital marketing,” it can be supported by email marketing, content marketing, and even sales enablement.
Where is the opportunity? What can we realistically achieve from this pillar page? If your SEO opportunity lies in only 10 searches a month, you should evaluate whether it is worth the time you spend to write it.
This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t write the page; it means you can’t spend as much time writing it as you would for other pillar pages. If the opportunity is 50,000 searches a month, there will be a huge impact on your blogging efforts.
The SEO team needs to think carefully about the genuine opportunity of the pillar page. Assuming everything goes right, and that you’ve selected a long-tail keyword with adequate searches, you can get a good idea of what you’ll get from these pages.
We typically look for 5 to 7 pages with decent SEO metrics the that could potentially be converted into pillar pages. This helps person writing the content have more direction with their writing.
On top of figuring out the search opportunity, it’s essential for SEO analysts to determine the competition looks for that keyword. For example, if the SEO team finds a chance to write a pillar page for something with 20,000 searches a month, it is critical that the person writing that content understands that they are up against huge competitors. Sites like Wikipedia, Forbes, or other massive domains will most likely show up first in search results. This means that to make the most impact, the content for this pillar page will have to be especially in-depth and valuable.
As a reminder, SEO is very relative. Sometimes people have very general statements such as “we will grow your traffic by 10 percent every month.” These statements don’t make any sense, because nobody can guarantee that kind of monthly growth. It depends on the situation, industry, and on the competition of the area.
Search volume is the opportunity; the competition is who you are up against, but what about domain authority?
If you are dealing with a website that has a domain authority of 50 or above, you are going to have an easier time ranking for things. On the other hand, if you are working with a new domain with an authority of 12, it will be much harder. It doesn’t matter how great your content is, because it will be an uphill battle because it doesn’t have the authority to rank for those competitive keywords.
Once you have chosen your pillar pages and topics to go along with them, it is time to brainstorm your topic clusters. An integral part of the pillar strategy is to make sure you are creating content that is related to one of your topics. You start with the main pillar page, and you build off that by creating content to support those pages, gain authority, and rise in rank.
My Business is Local, Are Topic Clusters a Good Strategy for Me?
One of the issues we keep seeing is that people chose their core topics for a local business or local audience.
Think of an auto body shop as an example. Even if you write a pillar page on how to do an oil change, which is a very competitive long-tail keyword, not many people in that auto body shop’s target audience will engage with that website page. This is because auto body shops have a very local audience, even if you can do a great job and rank first on Google, you could generate unqualified leads.
If your business is local, you may want to rethink whether or not a pillar strategy is an approach you want to take. Ideally, you need a national audience to make sure that potential leads that it generates are qualified. If someone from outside your area of service contacts you, then that pillar page isn’t going to generate qualified leads.
Remember, we are trying to optimize a main site page. Sometimes, we’ll want to make a current page a pillar page optimized to be at the top-of-the-funnel, educating readers on a topic. However, your pillar page could be more focused on bottom-of-the-funnel content so they can convert on your website.
To continue using our auto body shop example, let’s imagine that it is in Northern Ohio. You could revise an existing site page for “Oil Change in Ohio,” to make the pillar page effective for your localized, Northern Ohio audience. Keep in mind that this page will not be thousands of words long, unlike non-local pillar pages. This pillar page example includes a relevant keyword, it is competitive and will drive traffic to this page.
In conclusion, if your client has a local audience, you may want to be thinking about instead of building a pillar page from scratch, optimizing the main site page around a service. That is one thing digital marketers are getting wrong when we talk about pillar pages: we are so focused on creating long pieces of content, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It can simply be a central site page that is well optimized for the SEO best practices.
Link Internally To Support Your Pillar Strategy
So yes, these topics are all related to each other, but how does Google know? There is one step that is vital to this strategy that you must not forget. When working with topic clusters, it is vital to:
- Link back to the pillar page that you are writing about on each blog post inside the topic cluster.
- Keep only one link to the pillar page per blog post, but you can link externally as much as you want to.
This is an essential step because it is the key to bringing everything together and showing Google how everything works together and what pages are related.
To recap, if you are thinking of creating a pillar page and adopting a topic cluster strategy, let’s touch on a few key points:
- Topic clusters haven’t replaced the need for keywords. Instead, they’ve pushed marketers to rethink keyword research, going beyond singular terms and thinking more broadly about topics as a whole.
- Creating multiple pieces of high-quality content around one topic helps establish authority. This one may seem somewhat obvious, but having numerous pieces of content targeting different aspects of a single topic shows people that you’re a useful resource. That leads to more rankings, traffic, and conversions.
As you can see, modern SEO strategies play a much more prominent role in digital marketing than ever before. Pillar pages are useful tools that allow your digital marketing efforts to succeed. Bring together your whole marketing strategy to support your main pages and so you can reach your goals.
*This blog was originally published on 4/26/17 and has been revised for freshness and accuracy.