You need two things out of the content that lives on your website.
- A well-organized structure that makes it easy for your readers/viewers to navigate between related content
- To be viewed as a legitimate authority on the topics most relevant to your ICP
Let us introduce to you, the pillar and cluster strategy.
Content marketers often refer to them as content hubs.
Those of us who work in content with a focus specifically on search engine optimization (SEO) refer to them as topic clusters, pillars and clusters, wheel and spoke models, hub and spoke models, etc.
No matter what you prefer to call them, everyone benefits from building them.
What is a topic cluster, a pillar page, and what are cluster pages?
A topic cluster, or a hub, refers to a group of content pages that are related by an overarching theme or a broad topic. What’s most important is that cluster of content pages are all relevant to one another, or in SEO industry-speak, they are semantically related to one main topic.
Perhaps you offer 10 articles all related to customer service topics:
- 12 SaaS companies that do killer social media customer service
- How to hire customer service representatives, and in what order?
- What customer service software does your SMB need?
By linking those pages together (leveraging the power of internal links, aka hyperlinks between pages) you’ve now made it easier for people to move between those related topics.
From the view of algorithms, the more breadth and depth you offer related to a given topic, the more authority that search engine, like Google, believes you have related to that topic.
This results in increased rankings and prioritized indexation of your content within that content cluster.
Below is the goal site architecture for a single cluster of content. In reality, there will be internal links pointing to all sorts of internal and external web pages, but the goal is to get as close to this as possible.
A pillar page or a piece of pillar content is a page that acts as the central hub for all of the other related posts to connect to.
In Ecommerce, these are your category pages that link out to all the products that belong to that category.
For SaaS companies, this can be the template overview page that links to the 20 templates related to your industry/product.
In content marketing, this is often that high-level guide or list that links out to more specific pieces of content that go in-depth on each point, solution, or valuable section offered in the pillar piece.
Common pillar page types for reference:
A. The “Ultimate Guide” pillar page
A “Guide” pillar page is a format that provides an authoritative and comprehensive overview of your core topic.
Then you use your subtopics and topic clusters to support the overview, usually in the form of related questions, FAQs, resources, and videos.
Here’s an example of a “Guide” pillar page: The Definitive Guide to Branding
B. The “What is” pillar page
The “What is” pillar page is another content pillar format that begins by asking a “what is” question.
This main question becomes the core topic of your content page, and your subheadings are the subtopics that support the main question.
With this format, you can easily utilize blog post templates and scale up faster.
Here’s an example of a “What is” pillar page: What is a KPI?
C. The “How-to” pillar page
The “How-to” pillar page walks a reader through a number of specific steps in order to assist the reader in completing a task.
The clustered content around this type of pillar should relate to helping readers with what they need to further understand at each step of the process.
Here’s an example of a “How-to” pillar page: How to Start a Business in 13 Steps
Cluster pages are the individual, in-depth, highly specific pages that are connected to the pillar pages.
These are your individual ecommerce products, your individual templates, or your in-depth how-to content that often targets long-tail keywords.
Best practices for creating topic clusters
Now that you know the steps to launch your strategy, let’s walk through three final tips to guide you each time you create (or update) a content pillar page.
Use the right SEO tools to build pillars
In combination with your SME notes and ICP data, you’ll benefit from a small tech stack to document your content efforts, monitor performance, choose future topics, and understand competitor pillars.
- Ahrefs or Semrush for keyword research/verification of demand for topics
- Google Search Console for performance data and related keyword opportunities regarding your best performing posts
- ScreamingFrog for crawling your own website and your competitors’ websites to visualize their organization/website structure
Pro Tip: Make sure the internal linking for connecting your pillars and clusters is documented in every content brief that you create. See our example in this brief resource.
Leverage Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to identify cluster topics that you won’t find keyword data on
If you want to rank your posts and allow them to be differentiated and more informative than the competition’s content, lean on your subject matter experts.
Where they list out the steps, the tools used, tips, etc. notice when they offer advice that your competitors or not.
These will not only allow your pillars to stand out, but allow you to create unique cluster content pieces that offer big value that for your audience.
Start with at least 3 supporting posts for each pillar
Topic clusters can be fluid, but we recommend starting with no fewer than 3 posts in a cluster.
The competitiveness of your target keywords and their direct relationship to your website/brand/the company will impact the actual number you need.
An SEO specialist can help you more accurately design a content cluster that’ll help you rank. But if you are determined to do it all yourself, start with 3 and then watching the data in GSC to get an idea of how that content is performing and understood by Google.
Build with UX in mind
It’s vital to know the technical and on-page SEO components when you want peak performance.
However, with great power, comes great responsibility and people who are new to SEO tend to over-optimize topic clusters because they forget to prioritize their audience’s experience.
You’ll be best served to start with UX as the core reason for organizing your website and allowing someone with working knowledge of SEO to help you finalize the details and opportunities based on that strategy.
How do topic clusters result in improved rankings?
Think about what Google’s goal is for providing content to its searchers.
It wants to provide the best, most authoritative pieces of content to its users as fast as possible.
And so, we have to approach this problem from two important angles.
- How are computer algorithms going to detect “best” and “authoritative?”
- What experience do people want when searching for answers that will generate content?
An authority on a topic, is someone or something who knows a significant amount of information about a subject, both depth and breadth as we mentioned above. The simple way to show algorithms that you have depth and breadth is to offer multiple pieces of content related to that topic.
Depending on the competitiveness of a space, entire pillars and clusters can range from 3 pieces of content to 10s, 100s, and even 1000s of pages.
Side note: You might ask, “How do we show an algorithm that those topics are related?”
The short answer is that Google has a semantic understanding of “entities.” For simplicity sake, entities are things that can be known in relativity to other things.
Google’s algorithms are collecting data about topics in such a way that it understands that, for example, Shaquille O’Neal is related to basketball, The Lakers, Kobe Bryant, and The General insurance company.
If you’re a content marketing manager or director who doesn’t need to understand entities, simply leave it up to your SEO-loving counterparts.
Then, that algorithm needs a way to know that you’re connecting the dots. That’s where your internal links come in. Maybe they’re placed in the “related reading section” or they’re included in-line throughout the text or in CTAs.
The number of internal links that point to a page helps display two things. One, the number of related posts you have to offer readers. Two, how important this cluster is in relation to the rest of the content on your domain (website).
If a pillar page has the most number of internal links pointed at it, you’ve signaled to Google that this particular topic is very important/related to your brand, and that it can expect you to offer thorough, informative content in this space.
As Google continues to receive authoritative signals from your pillars, these pages will rise in the rankings.
***A warning to content marketers and SEO professionals who understand the above: Algorithms aren’t the MAIN point of doing this.
The reason the algorithms prioritize any of this comes from data based on the way that people prefer to consume information.
People trust information from sources that can answer all their questions on a subject, not just one question. People enjoy a topic to be split into the most relevant parts, like chapters in a book rather than being given the entire book on one blog post.
So while it might be tempting to “manipulate” algorithms with the technical SEO components involved in building a topic cluster, your best bet for performance is to think about pillars from a UX perspective to avoid over-optimization and a bad website experience for the sake of Google.
How to develop a topic cluster strategy, step-by-step
1. Establish core topics aka themes that are vital to your company
The first step of any pillar and cluster strategy is to identify content marketing topics most pertinent to your business (as they related to your audience). These often align with a SaaS product’s features and the values they provide to your ICP.
Once you’ve identified an initial 3-5 themes that you’d like to focus on, prioritize 1 or 2 that have the potential to drive the most impact for your business, first.
You want to start building out a library of content around these topics to show your customers, your audience, and Google, that you’re the authority in this space.
2. Audit your existing content and organize it, better (if you’re not starting from scratch)
For content marketing managers that have a fairly established content program with plenty of assets, start by auditing what your company already has.
This will help you understand how much content you have, which keywords your content is already targeting, what topics you are effectively covering, and the quality of your current content.
For a content cluster plan, this step should involve identifying which content has been created and should be linked together.
Here is a simple way to put internal linking into practice, correctly:
For a new piece of content targeting a specific keyword:
1️⃣ Perform a Google search for:
site:yourdomain(dot)com [insert your target keyword]
This will give you a list of pages that Google believes are most relevant to that term on your website already.
It also will tell you which pages use that keyword somewhere inside that content.
👉 These pages should link to your newest piece of content.
2️⃣ Perform a Google search for:
site:yourdomain(dot)com [insert short phrase that describes each section of the new blog]
This will tell you if you have any content on your site that relates to the individual sections of your new post.
👉 If you do, link out to them from their related section.
***A common mistake that plenty of content teams make is to create new content that links to existing content, BUT not going back and including links from existing content to the new content as discussed in 1️⃣ above.
3. Conduct a competitive analysis
After you audit your own content, you’ll want to run a competitive analysis of your main content marketing competitor’s content that you specifically are trying to rank for.
The competitor analysis serves two functions in building content topic pillars that will perform best.
Indicates how much content you’ll need to create → If your competitor is ranking for your target search queries that are a part of a cluster featuring 20 other useful articles about that theme, you’ll be best served to aim for a similar number of articles.
You don’t need the exact amount of content as a competitor, but you wouldn’t want to have 3 articles vs their 20 and expect Google or users to think you were thee most authoritative option for covering that topic.
***An SEO specialist can help you gain a specific understanding about how much content you might need.
Each website, depending on its current authority in a space or how directly content is related to a business, will have very unique, individualized needs in order to rank.
Provides content topic ideas → By observing your competitors’ pillars and clusters, you’ll often surface ideas that you might have missed in your own interviews/brainstorming sessions that your audience will appreciate.
Again, you do not and should not create the exact same cluster as your competitors. But if you’d like to see what they’re connecting together, it’s a great exercise for ideating.
Pro Tip: ScreamingFrog is easily the most effective tool at allowing you to quickly visualize which URLs/topics are connected together by internal links. It allows you to crawl your entire website and your competitors’ websites.
4. Wireframe/roadmap your content cluster
After you’ve completed your research, document your intended pillars and clusters.
This will help you keep your website organized in the future, allowing other content team members to quickly reference, modify, and scan what has historically been covered.
Critical notes for content marketers as you continue to publish content:
- Content pillars and clusters will evolve over time. As it makes sense to reference and connect pieces of related content together, you can do so without risk of harming the performance of that content.
- Both SEO-focused, keyword targeted content and non-SEO focused content, can all be linked together. Remember that this is ultimately about the user. If you have a podcast page about the same topic as a pillar page, you can link to and from that content.
- A lot of “tools” such as keyword research tools and clustering tools tend to cluster content based on their related words aka lexical matching. They’re often semantically related, but building clusters like this can result in a poor user experience.
- The amount of content within a pillar/cluster framework is important to establishing authority.
Example for point 3: Analyzing Shopify’s Content Pillar for “ecommerce marketing strategies
You can review Shopify’s blog post here: 21 Proven Ecommerce Marketing Strategies to Try in 2022
If you scroll through Shopify’s guide, you’ll quickly notice that this pillar is linking out to content related to each of those proven strategies. This is to serve the user with related information they’ll need to execute these strategies. It’s intuitive for readers.
The keyword cluster looks something like this:
Pillar keyword target: ecommerce marketing strategies
Cluster keyword targets:
- Ecommerce SEO
- Influencer marketing
- Online marketplace selling
- Tiktok marketing strategy
- Upselling and cross selling
- Instagram shopify integration
- Prevent abandon carts
- Sms marketing
In contrast, Ahrefs and other clustering tools tend to recommend a cluster that looks like this:
Pillar keyword target: ecommerce marketing strategies
Cluster keyword targets:
- Digital marketing strategy for ecommerce
- Email marketing strategy for ecommerce
- Ecommerce content marketing strategy
- Ecommerce marketing strategy examples
- Ecommerce marketing agency
- Ecommerce marketing agencies
This type of clustering might work for algorithmic authority, but it often fails to be BOTH good for the user and good for the algorithm.
5. Create your topic cluster by linking it all together
After you’ve built and published your content, begin linking it all together in a way that makes sense for visitors.
Common ways to link your content together:
- Use in-line, anchor text phrases from paragraphs in the content
- Create custom, designed CTAs to be placed throughout the blog that relate to individual sections of a post
- Offer a navigation option, such a sticky side-bar that allows them to navigate to the other related pieces of content
- Use a plug-in or design a blog template that has recommended reading along the side or at the bottom of your posts.
Recommended Reading: An Anchor Text User Guide: What It Is, SEO Best Practices, and Strategic Uses
Benefits of utilizing a content pillar & cluster strategy
If you need help convincing your fellow marketers that this is the route to go, consider the following benefits associated with the use of topic clusters:
- A topic cluster strategy allows you to organize your content in a clean, easy-to-replicate way
- It keeps visitors on your website longer and connects them to the solutions they’re searching for quickly, which can lead to improved conversions.
- Your content pillar page and subtopics will rank higher, taking up the top spots on the search engine results page (SERPs) and bringing in more traffic
- Content pillars improve the user experience (UX) for your audience - spending less time unable to find what they want, or, even worse, leaving your website to find the information on a competitor’s website
Are you building a content strategy that makes YOU the authority?
Now is a great time to get started either re-organizing the content that you already have, or planning for the future content pillars your company needs.
By using the above post, you should be able to partner with an SEO agency or specialist to help create the website structure and content that’ll make your brand the place people go to learn about your core topics.
Ready to jumpstart your organic acquisition strategy with Content Marketing & SEO? Book a call a free call and see if our services can help your team hit your goals.