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January 30, 2023 (Updated: March 8, 2023)
Over the years, inbound marketers have refined their SEO strategies. Creating topic clusters and pillar pages is one of the most effective ways to optimize your site’s reach and create a network of targeted, value-driven content. But where do you start? Today, we’re covering just that: creating topic clusters and pillar pages to maximize your brand’s authority and push your content to the top of SERPs.
Topic clusters group content around a certain topic. Each piece covers related subtopics to connect to the entire subject. The pillar page is the center of this cluster, hyperlinking between the various pieces to create an easily-indexed network. Before, SEO focused on creating content around a certain keyword. If you wanted your website to rank for a specific query, all you needed was content to answer the search phrase.
However, topic clusters have led marketers to rethink SEO. It’s not just important to create content that ranks high—you also need a structure that satisfies users’ needs. This isn’t the only reason topic clustering is so important. Look at several more reasons to target topic clusters and pillar pages in your strategy:
The modern internet is overcrowded. Thousands, if not millions of marketers are also trying to get their sites to perform better. This over-saturation has led Google to change its algorithmic functioning: search engines all work to connect the searcher with the most relevant, authoritative content possible, but now Google specifically works to solve for organic search intent.
So, how do you optimize for search intent? The answer is topic clusters and pillar pages. When most people search online, they don’t always type in the exact words for what they want to find. This produces a huge range of keyword variations, which you can catch by targeting topic clusters and related keywords.
The magic of using topic clusters and pillar pages also makes content more accessible to your audience. Clustering related subtopics under one, large pillar topic makes it easier for users to navigate between pieces until they find exactly what they want—even if they didn’t search for a keyword specifically. Plus, linking internally between related posts on your site appeals to Google’s preference for topic leaders, which can further push your brand to page one.
Clusters and pillars also intersect seamlessly with a 10X content strategy. If you want to rank for a certain topic, you might ask: what can I produce that’ll be better than my competitors? How can I best answer the searcher’s intent? If you can offer a high-quality, comprehensive knowledge base that search engines deem authoritative, you’re bound to beat them all.
Every great content marketer knows that SEO is not just about creating content that satisfies search queries; it needs to answer your readers’ questions too. So, topic clusters and pillar pages add value, engage your readers, and appeal to the algorithms.
Related reading: How To Use Topic Clusters For Amazing SEO
As you know, search engines now look for different content to provide to searchers. They want far more depth and quality in the content they serve around broad topics. Especially after the Google Helpful Content Update, this is more important than ever before. This means you need to offer well-formed, thorough content, and using topic clusters and pillar pages is the first place to start in your keyword research:
When identifying your top-level topic, opt for something that’s niche enough to retain focus, but broad enough to make room for a decent amount of content. Content marketing educator Justin Champion suggests a monthly search volume of 1,800 or above is a good benchmark for an overarching topic. This is because it’s big enough to accommodate a wide range, but also to make creating the sub-topic content worthwhile. There’s no point in choosing a topic that won’t break into smaller terms with substantial search volumes.
Remember, the top-level topic should be the subject of your pillar page. The content you produce within your topic cluster will work to augment the pillar page, improve its quality, and lift it higher up the rankings as an authoritative source.
Once you’ve selected your topic, you need to split it up into related subtopics. You can do this with an analytic program, but typically, old-fashioned behavioral research is just as effective. Map out your buyer persona’s five or ten core problems, then gather data on how they search for the topic online. Using your audience’s intent and buyer needs, outline potential subtopics that directly relate to the top-level pillar.
Within the topic, you’ll need to find three “classes” of content: comprehensive pillar pages that form the center of a topic cluster, sub-pillar pages that cover subheadings related to the pillar, and niche pages that relate to specific queries. Each topic has a pillar, with a smaller group of sub-pillars, and lots of niche pages interlinked. Here’s an example topic cluster, using the topic of “Hawaiian hotels:”
Here, there’s a pillar page on the chosen broad topic linking out to several sub-pillars, which then link to niche content. Ideally, these pages should all refer back to each other. And the more they connect, the better they index, ultimately improving navigation and accessibility on your company’s website.
Screenshot via Mangools
Now it’s time to do your keyword research. You most likely know the strategy that narrows down the exact term you want to rank for, then identifies the best-performing keywords. But how is keyword research different for a topic cluster? Over 3 million Google searches show that cluster keywords should have a minimum monthly search volume of 100. That may not sound like much, but the keywords you’ll need to create cluster content have a much wider reach than normal. They also found niche keywords that rank on the first page are ranking better than 1,000 other relevant keywords.
This is because topic clusters for SEO are powered by long-tail keywords. These are specific, longer keyword phrases that visitors are less likely to use organically, such as “ocean view surfing hotel on Kauai.” Head keywords are shorter terms that draw more searches and traffic but fewer conversions. Long-tail keywords will often rank for head terms, too.
Although long-tail keywords have smaller search volumes, they have higher engagement and a more committed user persona. This makes them the ideal basis for the outer ring of your topic cluster. They have small enough search numbers that they won’t cannibalize volume from each other but still draw enough traffic to make content creation worthwhile.
So, look for long-tail keywords when you do your research to create topic clusters. Recognize the different classes of terms you need for your different pages, and understand how they symbiotically support each other. The long-tail keywords you assign to your cluster content could catch users searching for your pillar page’s head term, and direct them down the “tail” to a conversion.
Related reading: Can You Use Content Analysis Data to Pick Topic Clusters?
Once you’ve mapped and researched your topic cluster, you need to bring it together around your pillar page. The pillar post covers all sides of a heavily-searched topic, and channels users toward more in-depth posts via extensive hyperlinking. These sub-pillar and cluster content posts also link back to the pillar page, creating fluid content syndication.
When Google sees that your pillar page has a complex web of well-organized links, it’ll read it as a topical authority and push it to users. So, your pillar page needs to be the ultimate overview of your broad topic. Here’s how to create a pillar page.
Most guides usually advise that you consider your pillar page first, as the other elements of your clusters will relate back to it. However, we suggest mapping your clusters first. This allows you to naturally incorporate the “flesh” of your cluster content onto the “bones” of your pillar page.
A pillar page can be anything from 3000 to 8000 words long, with enough detail to prompt links to your sub-pillar and topic cluster content pages. Don’t include too much of your cluster content, as this deters viewers from clicking further to find out more. Remember, your aim is to build up your pillar page as a high-profile in-road to your other, more specific content.
Of course, you might be dealing with a very broad topic; there are thousands of topics related to ‘hotels in Hawaii’. So, be aware that your pillar page will be assisted by sub-pillar pages too. Plus, even cluster content that isn’t linked on your pillar page will link back to it, so it’ll still all be connected. You don’t need to write the War and Peace of Hawaiian hotels in a desperate attempt to link to everything.
There are several conventional structures for pillar pages for different purposes, including 10X content, resource pages, and article series. The most important point, though, is creating structure. Here are several to think about as you establish top-level pillars and related subtopics:
A 10X content pillar page is usually based on your own content. It’s similar to an “ultimate guide” article and tells the reader everything they need to know about a certain topic. It branches off into different sub-topic pages, under the guise of presenting viewers with more information about a specific area.
When search engines see lots of related content on the same theme, they perceive it as being a higher quality, and higher ranking resource. You could think of a 10X pillar page as the “classic” format. Users benefit from the comprehensive knowledge and links, while search engines respect the topical authority.
The resource pillar page is usually based on links. It offers users a page of external or internal links, which they can then bookmark and use for reference. Again, this leads to link-building, and higher rankings. Most of the common pillar page structures are types of resource pages.
An external pillar page is a type of resource page that focuses on non-branded links and content you don’t own. It organizes or aggregates the different links into subtopics, to make it easier for users to find what they need. This type is useful if you want to take advantage of the cluster method without generating reams of content. However, you can’t guarantee those external links will link their pages back to you.
A resource pillar page linked to a series of smaller 10X content pages. Of course, as this shows, you can always link up different structures of pillar pages as sub-pillars to get the advantage of each one. If you link up several 10X pages on a resource page, you can create a series or “course” on your set topic. Consider creating the resource page in the style of a table of contents.
There are a few extra strategies you can use to fully optimize your topic clusters and pillar pages. Here are eight tips to build a framework that effectively connects your top-level pillars with each relevant subtopic you include in your content hub:
Conduct your keyword research around your target user’s behavior. Keyword research for cluster content is different from conventional SEO keyword research, and keyword research for a pillar page is different still. Understand your user’s search intent, and structure your keyword usage around it. Then, focus your pillar pages on head terms, and your cluster content on long-tail terms.
One of the classic mistakes marketers make is to over-saturate their content with keywords. This is known as “keyword stuffing”, where you load the page, sub-headings, meta description, and everything else with irrelevant, un-contextualized keywords. Always make sure your keywords are naturally woven into the piece.
Not only does keyword stuffing knock you further down the rankings, it also lowers your content’s value to your readers. Long-tail keywords are a great way to reduce the impact of keyword stuffing and keep your article flowing.
CTAs are valuable when it comes to topic clusters and pillar pages. Writing CTAs helps users move around the cluster-pillar network of your site content. A well-placed CTA encourages audiences to go deeper into your brand’s website and increases the chances they find content satisfying. Also, a clear CTA re-directing users back to the pillar page at the end of each piece of cluster content keeps them in the loop.
Internal links throughout your topic clusters and pillar pages positively affect your SEO results. Past marketing studies involving topic cluster experiments showed that the more interlinking, the better topic clusters and pillar pages perform in search results. The lesson? Make sure you link all your topic clusters and pillar pages to each subtopic you cover directly under them.
Remember that your pillar page is the star. It’s the backbone of your network, and so it needs the most promotion. Keep it as the focus of your link-building strategy. Usually, your pillar page should be able to attract external backlinks organically as it rises the ranks, but it doesn’t hurt to reach out and promote it to other sites. The higher your pillar page’s authority and traffic, the better the results across all top-level topics.
Read more about it: How To Create Topic Clusters To Boost SEO
Each of your subtopics and cluster content pages should be strong enough to rank high on its own. Delivering quality content is the easiest way to generate organic clicks. And you can’t rank high without quality content. So, think of each piece as a stand-alone post. Then, when you connect these with other pieces under the same topic, they’ll all work to support each other.
Creating topic clusters and pillar pages is about quality, not quantity. If your site currently has lots of content that isn’t performing well, plan a content optimization strategy. Underperforming pages that share keywords with your new, clustered content can end up cannibalizing search volume from the successful content. Use a framework for updating and improving on older content, and if it’s necessary, remove old content that isn’t relevant to your brand anymore.
If you already have a content marketing platform, you’ll have a large pool of pages that haven’t been organized into topic clusters and pillar pages. Even if you plan to structure all your new content in this way, you can’t leave other pages in a conventional structure. So think about converting your existing content into topic clusters and pillar pages.
It’s likely that you already have enough content to form several clusters or enough that you could reform into a pillar page. Look through your existing site, map it into clusters, build central pillars, and start forming an internal linking structure between them.