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January 31, 2023 (Updated: March 8, 2023)
In the past, SEO was just about keywords. Marketers created individual pages centered around a relevant term, with no links between them. However, today’s SEO is far more complex. Search engines think like users, prioritizing topical authority and engaging content. To make it on the modern internet, you need an optimization strategy that cuts through the noise while maximizing engagement. And pillar pages and topic clusters are the ways to do it. Today, we’re covering what you need to know when connecting pillar pages and topic clusters with topics like:
Although they work together symbiotically, pillar pages and topic clusters are different in both structure and purpose. They aren’t the same, but they can’t exist apart. A pillar page is the center of the cluster-pillar model. It’s a primary piece of content that covers the main topic you want to rank for. When a user comes to your site, they’ll land on the pillar page. The pillar page then leads visitors down through your brand’s cluster content, which answers more specific queries that all fall under the same broad-level topic as the pillar.
On the other hand, topic cluster pages are typically shorter than pillar pages and connect related content that falls under the topic of the pillar page. The aim of a topic cluster is to diversify the queries that your content can answer. Plus, cluster pages focus more on long-tail keywords, whereas pillar pages focus more on broad-head keywords.
Read more about it: What Are Pillar Posts in Content Marketing?
The pillar page connects to the topic clusters, which link back to the pillar page. Once you’ve set this up, you’ll have your own self-sustaining link-building ecosystem. An interconnected network of content establishes you as the topical authority. Google’s RankBrain algorithm, for example, reads this spoke-and-wheel structure as evidence that your site covers a topic in-depth. It groups all your pillar pages and topic clusters into one subject area and ranks your site higher as quality content.
Topic clusters and pillar pages don’t just appeal to search engines, though. They also increase the value you give readers. By providing a topical overview with links to more resources, audiences get everything they need from a single page. The model is designed based on the way users search and interact with content online, making it especially effective for engaging and converting leads.
Related reading: How To Create Topic Clusters To Boost SEO
Besides accessibility, connecting pillar pages and topic clusters are important for a few reasons:
Screenshot via HubSpot
One of the biggest factors in user experience and satisfaction when browsing your site is its organization. If visitors have a hard time navigating between related posts and pages on your site, they’re not going to stay long. Take HubSpot for example. The visual above shows the brand’s earlier structure before adopting a pillar-and-cluster approach.
The content that should be clustered around central pillars all pools together, under different sub-headings. If you’re a user landing on their site, how are you supposed to navigate it? How do you find what you want? Worse still, there’s no clear pathway leading to related content and content that might resonate with you even more than what you searched for. After creating central pillar pages and topic clusters, HubSpot’s organization and flow looks like this:
Screenshot via HubSpot
Now see how HubSpot looks with pillar posts and topic clusters. Each of the pillars clearly offers the searcher a range of related content. What’s more, if visitors land on related cluster content pages, these also direct them to the pillar on the topic.
However, the cluster-pillar method isn’t just about gaming the algorithm. It’s also about understanding organic searcher intent. As Zooma’s digital strategist, Stellan Björnesjö, describes: “Google wants to function like humans function, ultimately.” The big move in search engine development means making algorithms fit the way people naturally search.
When a searcher inputs a query, they don’t usually put it in exact terms. They’ll phrase their query in a way that responds to their needs, in the hope that Google delivers exactly what they want. Bring voice search into the mix, and queries become even less precise. This new search style produces a huge range of keyword variations, which can only be caught with an umbrella strategy like the cluster-pillar method.
Plus, you can narrow down broad-term searches. This specific style of link building makes it easy for users to bridge from one piece to another until they find exactly what they want. When users type in a broad query, they aren’t usually looking to convert.
Nobody searches for “rock music” with the intent to purchase, for example. But if they search “1950s rock music CDs,” they’ll likely know exactly what they want to buy. The specifying ability of topic clustering is ideal for bringing users to the point of sale. So, connecting pillar pages and topic clusters allows you to target search intent and provide exactly what your audience needs.
Google and other search engine algorithms recognize the semantic links (and hyperlinks) between the various pieces of clustered content. This gives your site more topical authority, as we’ve described before. Yet connecting pillar pages and topic clusters also has the effect of “pulling up” each syndicated piece of content. When one piece of content on the tree does well, it also boosts the ranking of the other interconnected pieces.
This allows you to eventually own a certain topic. Each piece supports the others within the topical category, resulting in shared authority and higher rankings. A MarTech study shows the effect of topic clustering in action. Their most “pillar” style piece ranked at number two for the “marketing automation” query, while the page in the conventional SEO structure ranked at 53.
But it’s not just thematic connections that increase your reach. Both internal and external hyperlinks throughout your topic clusters and pillar pages positively impact your SEO strategy. Essentially, the more linking you do to related clusters in your pillar pages, the better content will rank in SERPs. So, connecting your pillar pages and topic clusters is the way to go.
Read more about it: How To Use Topic Clusters For Amazing SEO
Now you know how and why topic clusters and pillar pages work. You understand how they can boost your rankings, and how they perfectly fit with user behavior in a way search engines love. But you don’t know how to organize them. So, let’s find out how to organize pillar pages and topic clusters. Here’s our key advice to revolutionize your SEO strategy.
Start by auditing your existing content. Sort everything you have into topic groups. It’s likely that you already have enough content to form several clusters or enough that you could reform into a pillar page. The topics you find should form the basis of your new clusters.
If there’s subtopic content that overlaps, figure out how to optimize it for another related topic, or consider removing it. Overlapping content only cannibalizes search volume from your new cluster content, so these need assessment as you go. The great thing about topic clustering, though, is it makes it much easier to generate new material. Your writers will be naturally led to new topics within the cluster, continually creating slight niches and variations on each facet of your overarching topic.
Each of the topics you’ve identified will require a pillar page. The pillar page for each topic will function as a total, comprehensive guide. Any more specialized cluster content you make will branch off this, so create lots of jumping-off points.
Considering this, it’s also important to include space for every subtopic within your pillar page’s remit. The topic you choose needs to be broad enough to support eight to 22 blog posts (we’ll discuss search volumes in a moment). Usually, a pillar page will be anywhere from 5000 to 10000 words. This is significantly more than the average blog post, which comes in at anything between 500 and 2000 words.
However, it’s not just about word count. It’s important that your pillar page is the richest, most valuable source on your site. Take the time to make your pillar page as extensive, comprehensive, and thorough as possible. It’s this page that will be ranking the highest, so you want it to make a great first impression.
If you have too much topic content for just one pillar page, you can create supporting sub-pillars. These are umbrella pages for sub-topics within your semantic group. A sophisticated pillar page and topic cluster model will have several sub-pillars under each pillar, with a minimum of five cluster pieces on each sub-pillar.
Read more about it: Creating Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages
It might seem strange to do keyword research before you’ve mapped your topic clusters, but there’s a method to this madness. Categorize pillar pages and topic clusters according to the type of keyword. Target head terms for pillar pages and long-tail terms for cluster content. When assigning keywords, the best place to start is with the long tails. Believe it or not, most of the traffic to your pillar page comes from these keywords. So even if the individual pages receive less traffic, they’ll attract more users to the network than if you only target head keywords.
Longer keywords also produce the most site conversions. Remember, people who search for long-tail keywords are already in the mood to convert. So, prioritize these keywords before narrowing down the exact head term you’ll use on your pillar page. Organize all the different keywords related to your topic pools. Then, put these keywords into your keyword research tool, and make a list of the most specific ones. Aim for keywords that best answer your searcher’s needs. Then, you can position the topic clusters to answer them.
Once you establish cluster keywords, connect them to overarching head keywords. Make sure these head terms are broad enough to cover the search volumes of all your subtopics. An Ahrefs study actually shows that cluster keywords should have a minimum monthly search volume of 100. So, this means pillar page keywords should have around 1,800.
As any good marketer knows, the main goal of all your content is conversion. So, the pillar pages and topic clusters you create should be organized to maximize conversion. The best way to do this is by constructing a user pathway. If you arrange them right, clusters make it easy for searchers to travel straight from your pillar page into lead-generating content.
If you imagine the long-tail keyword chart, you’ll see that your ultimate goal is to move users down the “tail”—that is, your marketing funnel. You want them to go from a broad query to something more tailored. By whittling down their broad head term into a specific phrase, you can help them find exactly what they’re looking for. That’ll increase your value to them, boost conversions, and improve your rankings.
The first thing you can do to institute a user pathway is simple: create a good old table of contents. A TOC allows your users to easily navigate the pillar-cluster network. It also reminds them to loop back to the pillar page if they don’t find what they’re looking for, which can reduce the bounce rate. It also gives them new topics they might not have thought to search for.
In addition, CTAs at the bottom of each page are critical to helping users navigate your site. One of the biggest barriers to conversion is users failing to go where you want them to. CTA’s work seamlessly with the pillar-cluster method to move customers “down the tail”, or back up to the pillar page if they need to re-route.
Related reading: Can You Use Content Analysis Data To Pick Topic Clusters?
Of course, the normal rules of SEO still apply. All the elements in a topic cluster should share the same URL structure. All your long-tail keywords should be naturally related to your head terms, too. And lastly, never, ever scrimp on hyperlinks. The pillar page should contain a hyperlink to every single piece of cluster content in your topic cluster, and each piece of cluster content should link back to the pillar page.
Without these connections, search engines won’t be able to associate your pages back to each other. For example, since the Google Helpful Content Update, you can only build topical authority on Google by signaling to the algorithm that you have an interconnected pool of in-depth content. The links between the pages are what give the pillar-cluster method its power.
Pillar pages and topic clusters are the perfect way to adapt and improve your content marketing. It’s not so much about changing the type of content you produce, but rather the way you connect and organize it. If you get it right, this method will supercharge your SERP results, boost your conversions, and make your site an authority in its niche.