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The pressure to rank on page one is on and SEOs across the world are constantly looking for new ways to crawl up the search engine results pages (SERPs).

They’re always looking for the next best thing, the latest search algorithm unveil, but we all know that ranking isn’t meant to be easy to master— or else competition wouldn’t exist.

There are, however, some fundamental updates to Google’s algorithm that we should be aware of, as they have prompted changes in many business’ content marketing strategies.

Google’s Algorithm has Shifted Gears to Focus on “Topics”

Search engines are crazy smart. They have been for years, but they keep getting more and more robust.

Way back in 2013, Google released its Hummingbird algorithm update, announcing that its search bots were no longer focusing solely on specific keywords. Rather, Google now understood longer queries and topical associations. The search engine started recognizing semantic keywords, or phrases that were related to similar queries. A search for “lawyer” could serve up information around “attorneys” or “legal advisor.”

Then in 2015, their RankBrain update proved that Google could actually learn things about you based on past searches, as well as understand your context to serve better results. So if you looked up the song “Cake by the Ocean” for a funky beat, it might assume the next time you look up “cake” that you’re looking for the band DNCE and not a delicious baked treat.

Why Topics Matters More than Ever

Fast-forward to 2018, where the search engine can deduce your intent.

As Moz points out, a search for “damaged furniture” could mean a number of things. The user could want to fix their broken furniture themselves, be looking for a professional repair shop or possibility want to buy discounted furniture. Google is getting pretty darn good at recognizing your reasoning to serve up the right results for you, even if the keywords are the same for different queries.

Now, instead of focusing purely on keywords, keywords, keywords!— people are realizing that things are shifting. Though still important, keywords aren’t packing the same ranking punch that they used to.

In fact, HubSpot did an extensive study on this idea they call “topic clusters,” discovering that interlinking between related topical pages, not necessarily keywords, was the key to better search rankings.

Well you betcha this prompted some questions about the effectiveness of people’s current content marketing strategies!

Let’s explore what pillar pages and topic clusters are to discover how they can help you score higher positions on the SERPs.

What is a Pillar Page?

Pillar pages are likely service or product pages, the end game, where you want users to ultimately land.

Pillar pages are arguably one of the most important parts of your website, for as your product or service pages, they are your sales tools. All your efforts go into strengthening your pillars, or these foundational pages.

Check out this visual, depicting your pillar page as an orange circle outlined in black:

Pillar pages are unique in that they are traditionally long (usually over 5,000 words!), in-depth pages about a broad topic.

Curious as to what makes a pillar page different from any ol’ webpage? Learn more about these SEO powerhouses for your content marketing strategy.

What Is a Topic Cluster?

Topic clusters are just like they sound: they’re clusters of content all themed around the same main topic (your pillar page).

They could be groups of blog posts, content offers, infographics or any form of content that supports your broader topic:

  • If you sell marketing services, your topic cluster for your SEO pillar page could include blogs about ranking on Google, keyword research, etc.
  • If you offer a free website crawl tool for users, your clusters could talk about site speed, image optimization, etc.

Why Create all This Content?

The whole point of creating these subtopics is to embed links to the overarching pillar page inside of these posts. Searchers find your blogs or content— and ultimately click-through your product or service page.

Plus, links from your subtopics to your main topic page show search engines that these pieces of content complement the pillar page and drive SEO juice to it.

Not only can people click these embedded links and send more traffic to your important main page, but it also sends signals to search bots that these pages are related.

Interlinking shows search engines that your content has depth, which basically means your content isn’t keyword-stuffed and genuinely addresses and references a wide range of ideas that are commonly used in association with the topic.

If you’re talking about “jellyfish,” Google might expect that you mention the words “ocean,” “water,” or “sting.” If it doesn’t see topics and words it knows are related to jellyfish, it’s going to conclude you’re not really talking about jellyfish and likely not serve your site up for queries about these gelatinous aquatic creatures.

That means the secret to ranking on Google search isn’t about article length or keyword density, it’s now about content depth.

In fact, many studies have used these topical associations to boost their rankings and you can too.

How Can I Create Pillar Pages and Topic Clusters?

The main idea here is that although keywords still matter, topics should be what initially drive your site structure and content marketing strategy.

And you want to build quite a few!

  • Focus your pillars on your products or services. // If you’re an online clothing consignment store, maybe you silo your pillar pages by category. If you create pillar pages for Women, Men, Children and Babies’ used clothing, talk about the brands and styles you accept.
  • Compile a list of blog and content offers ideas that support these broad topics. // Pull up a spreadsheet and keep them organized by coming up with maybe 15 blog titles for each of your pillar pages.
  • Think in terms of subtopics. // You can do this by writing four different “types” of blog posts, targeting your different pillars around women’s consignment fashion. Maybe you decide to do a seasonal “trend” post about popular fall outfits, spring, etc. Create a few blogs around subtopics: a couple around stylish shirts, a couple around the best jeans, etc.
  • Don’t forget your keywords in your topic clusters. // This supportive content should have a specific long-tailed keyword it’s trying to rank for and still address other naturally associated keywords too.
  • Link from your blogs and content offers back to your main pillar! // Google will see that you talk about specific topics that have to do with “women’s clothing” and see your content as relevant, authentic and, with some traffic and shares, see that other people like it too and serve it.
  • Take it to the next level by targeting your buyer personas. // HubSpot’s inbound marketing strategy involves developing buyer personas to represent the various “types” of prospects and customers you attract. Assign a persona to each blog and target it around their pain points and motivations, and make sure you plan keywords around them too!

Remember, in order for these pages to be successful, they must deeply address your chosen topic and include all traditional on-page SEO best practices like optimized headers, meta descriptions, keywords and more.

How Many Pillar Pages and Topic Clusters Should I Have?

You will want a number of different clusters within your content marketing strategy. It’ll help you become a thought-leader around your industry and show search engines you understand many elements of your niche.

This picture depicts five pillars— but let your service or product pages dictate that number:

HubSpot’s Content Strategy Tool

HubSpot actually developed an interface to track your topical content marketing efforts, their Content Strategy Tool.

Once you develop your topics to support your pillars, this tool gives you a visual representation of all your content. Here’s an example of content we have around our video pillar page:

It gives you suggestions, revealing what pillar could use some more supporting content love, by suggesting you “add subtopics,” or create new blogs to complement your papa pillar.

The “webs” connected to the to the pillar are green if there’s a link in the post to the pillar page, and are red if the link is missing— alerting you that a link might have been broken or never added from the content back to the pillar to show their connection.

Adopting a Powerful Pillar Page and Topic Cluster Strategy Could Really Transform Your Rankings!

The concept is easy to understand, but creating pillar pages and topic clusters could give you a strong edge over your competition on the SERPs.

Remember, your topic clusters don’t have to be just blogs— they could be detailed content offers, longer videos or any other form of content, so don’t be afraid to get creative.

Do you struggle to actively publish blogs for your company or feel like there is no real consistency behind your efforts? Downloading our Beginner’s Guide to Blogging for Business might be the perfect way to start improving your content marketing strategy today!