It’s hard to imagine a world without Google, but believe it or not, SEO, or search engine optimization, predates that juggernaut. You could argue that SEO began when the first website was published in 1991. Or you could tie the birth of SEO to the launch of a range of search engines a few years later, including Yahoo, AltaVista, Lycos and more. The notion of topic clusters and pillar content was decades away.

Regardless of the exact details of its beginnings, SEO quickly rose to prominence as many businesses struggled to gain traffic after investing in the creation of their websites. Over the past 20-odd years, the “how” of SEO has evolved, sometimes at breakneck speed. The “why” remains the same: Driving relevant traffic.

As Google emerged and continually (and continuously!) refined its algorithms, the increasing sophistication and relevance of search results has necessitated changes to SEO strategy. Today, smart devices have thrown yet another curveball at marketers and strategists, as we aim to create better-value, higher-quality, and topically-relevant content to drive inbound traffic and ultimately, create more inbound leads to grow businesses.

Chief among the components of solid SEO strategy is content. But most businesses aren’t sure what they should be creating, or how often, or how long it should be, or how to be sure it will help drive traffic. In this page, we will break down today’s standard for the foundation of SEO: topic clusters and pillar content. This will help businesses make strategic decisions about their SEO and inbound marketing plans.

The Old Way to Write and Publish Content

When you think about the “old days,” you may picture black and white televisions, rotary telephones, and everyone leaving their doors unlocked. But when it comes to SEO, the “old days” could go as far back as…only 5 years ago! That’s because Google has become increasingly sophisticated in the past few years as it strives to deliver the most relevant search results. It has put the onus on content creators and marketers like ClearPivot to raise their game in order to get results.

Let’s look at how many businesses approached writing SEO content in the “old days.”

Short posts (sometimes as few as 250 words), jammed with keywords, posted every day (sometimes multiple times per day) and offering very little value. Finding a writer with the lowest cost-per-word price and grinding out as many pages hitting as many different keyword variations that you could think of. The content usually focused on selling something directly or driving up pageviews for advertising rather than on providing value to the reader.

Publish more posts, with more keywords, more frequently, and you could expect to get more traffic. That’s the general outlook for content back in the day. More is better. This came to be known as the “content farm” approach.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some inherent value in some of this content. Although it usually lacked depth and focused primarily on keyword stuffing, there were sometimes at least a few nuggets of wisdom that were relevant to their keywords.

As a result of this onslaught of short, high-volume, keyword-stuffed content, many websites created before two or three years ago would look like this if you were to map out all of their content:

 

pillar-content-before

 

The website structure basically resembles a giant swimming pool, with hundreds or thousands of little one-off content pieces just floating aimlessly around inside it.

The New Way to Write and Publish Content

As Google continues to refine its algorithm and focus on providing the best possible results for user searches, it has moved away from delivering results purely based on keyword-matching algorithms. Although keywords are a key indicator of relevance, they are no longer the king of the hill in SEO.

Rather, Google is instead focusing on organizing information more effectively using the concepts of entities and relationships.

To think like a search engine, take a piece of data; say, a search for “Harry Potter.” Google, in this instance, would ask, what is “this?” Well, it’s an entity that is a book series, which is also related to an entity that is a movie series. Next, Google is asking, how does it work with “that?” “That,” could be entities such as characters from the books, locations featured in the books, stage plays and spin-off stories from the books, similar book series from different authors but which are in the same genre, and more.

Rather than a free-for-all of disorganized content, Google is recognizing relationships between entities to deliver more relevant pieces of content to its users (and to deliver more targeted ads with better results for advertisers as well).

Companies that create and organize their website content with an understanding of this new, entity-focused approach to content can get much more prominent positions in Google’s new knowledge graph — and are consequently leaping to the head of search results and are driving more, better traffic to their websites.

There are two key components of this “new way” to create and publish content: Topic clusters and pillar content.

Topic Clusters - An Introduction

At the heart of the “new way” to write and share content that brings in traffic is topic clusters. Topic clusters organize your site content more effectively, and when implemented well, improves your search engine rankings. Plus, visitors to your website are happier because it’s easier for them to find more content that is relevant to their interests.

By their definition, topic clusters are groups of articles or pages linking to an “umbrella” or “pillar” topic (more on “pillar” topics later). The articles or pages within a cluster will each delve into specific subtopics of a main pillar topic. The length of these individual content pieces can vary depending on the specific topic, but generally should be at least 600 words.

You’ll want a minimum of 6 to 8 subtopics in your topic clusters, so choose your pillar topic wisely. Each subtopic in your cluster will link back to your pillar content, creating a hub-and-spoke model. Your long-term goal should be to build up to around 20 subtopic pieces in each topic cluster, each linking back to your pillar content.

Going back to our Harry Potter example, let’s say that your pillar topic is “Harry Potter: A Biography.” The subtopics in your topic cluster may include:

  • How each Hogwarts professor impacted the saga of Harry Potter
  • Which Hogwarts students had the biggest impact on Harry Potter’s life?
  • How would the story be different if Dudley Dursley had been nice to Harry Potter?
  • Why didn’t the Weasleys just adopt Harry Potter?
  • Hagrid: The unsung hero of the Harry Potter saga?
  • The father/son relationship of Dumbledore and Harry at the heart of the Harry Potter stories

Eventually the majority of your site content should be built into topic clusters. Some businesses only deal with a handful of subject matter areas and so might just need 3-4 topic clusters in total. Other businesses might need 10 or more topic clusters.

After going through this process, your website architecture doesn’t resemble the “swimming pool” structure of old-school websites described above, but instead looks more like this:

 

pillar-content-after

 

One important thing to remember is that topic cluster structure and linking doesn’t necessarily need to be done through the main navigation menu of your website. You can certainly build your main website navigation menu around topic clusters if it’s appropriate, but you can also build out these internal linking structures through on-page links elsewhere on your site pages as well, such as inline text links, topic/category tags, call-to-action buttons, and other types of on-page links as well.

How do topic clusters drive more traffic to my site?

There are several reasons why Google loves topic clusters. For instance:

Google wants to see authoritative content. Thinking back to the “old days,” the focus was on more content that should relate to your search. Today, Google wants your search results to be relevant and authoritative. When you write and publish full multi-page topic clusters on your site rather than isolated individual articles, you are showing Google the breadth of your expertise on those topic areas.

Google’s crawler likes easy work. Google tasks itself with understanding and indexing literally the entire internet, so naturally it typically looks for the fastest path to complete a job. This is what’s known as “crawl budget.” When your site is a disorganized pool of content, without topic clusters and pillar content to structure it, it takes more effort for Google to crawl your site and inventory your pages. With topic clusters, all relevant pieces of your topic cluster are linked back to your pillar topic. Rather than pinging from corner to corner and back again, Google can quickly identify and index each key subject matter area of your website.

How do I determine what topic clusters to feature on my site?

This is a great time to sit down and think strategically about your business. If you could only choose 1-3 things that you’d like to be known for, or that drives revenue, what would they be? In many instances, one of these is a great place to start for your first pillar topic. From there, you can brainstorm your secondary and even tertiary business areas you’d like to be known for, and build out further.

But you’re not done yet. It’s time to do a little keyword research. Google is prioritizing relevant content through pillar topics and topic clusters, but individual keyword choices still matter. The topics and queries that get lots of search traffic aren’t always what you might assume. You want to be sure people are actually searching for the topics you’re writing about!

When you’re doing research for topic clusters, keep in mind that your pillar content is the central theme, and is more broad. That means your pillar topics should reflect short-tail keywords - higher-trafficked but also more competitive. As you flesh out your topic clusters, you’ll be using all the sub-topics in your cluster to optimize for more granular, long-tail keywords.

If you work with an inbound marketing agency like ClearPivot, we’ll work with you to facilitate that brainstorming session on your topics. Then, we’ll use sophisticated keyword research tools to recommend pillar topics and cluster sub-topics around those key areas.

If you’re attempting to create your own pillar topics and topic clusters, tools like Moz Keyword Explorer allow several free searches per month. Ubersuggest is another free keyword tool with limited functionality, but that can help you narrow down potential pillar topics and subtopics for your topic clusters. And for more ambitious individuals, our personal favorite tool to dive deep into advanced SEO keyword research is Ahrefs.

Can I use content I’ve already published in topic clusters?

If you’ve been publishing quality content on your site for some time and are now investing in a content strategy that leverages topic clusters, much of your old content should not go to waste! Chances are your previously published content will fit in to your proposed pillar topics. As you’re mapping out your topic clusters and pillar topics, be sure to pencil in your existing relevant content into those clusters. If some of the older content is a little lightweight, or needs some work to bring it to today’s standards for quality content, you may want to hire someone to go in and build out that content for you. But you definitely should make use of your existing content if you can.

Pillar Content - An Introduction


By now, you’ve probably got a fair understanding of where pillar content fits into topic clusters . They are the central, or umbrella, topic around which your topic clusters are created. You’ve completed your thought exercise to determine which core business areas are worthy of topic clusters. You (or your inbound marketing agency) have conducted keyword research and have refined your initial list into a polished, prioritized list of pillar topics.

Now what?

In most cases, you’re going to start your topic cluster buildout with pillar content. Pillar content is the “hub” of your wheel shown in this diagram:

 

pillar-content-structure

 

The subtopics of your topic cluster are hyperlinked to the main “hub” — your pillar content. And as you saw in the previous diagram, as you progress in the buildout, your site architecture will eventually contain several of the above clusters, each centered around a piece of pillar content.

When Google crawls your site and sees valuable pillar content as connected to relevant subtopics in your topic clusters, your search rankings are likely to improve — often, dramatically.

How is pillar content different from “traditional” content?

While the content in your topic clusters each delve into specific subtopics, pillar content examines every aspect (or almost every aspects) of your pillar topic in a single, comprehensive page. But while it will cover your subtopics, pillar content is not necessarily exhaustive on every component, rather, it leaves room for the content in your topic clusters to take a “deep dive.”

What are the components of strong pillar content?

To start, your pillar content title should be focused around a short-tail keyword that is relevant to your business and has enough search volume to deliver strong traffic value to your organization. From there, strong pillar content often follows a standard structure, including:

Introduction - What is this topic, why is it relevant to me, and what can I expect from this pillar content?

“Meat” of the content - The overview/examination of every (or many) aspect of your pillar topic. This will likely be many chapters long (we recommend including an on-page Table of Contents on your pillar content page to help people navigate within it). Within the “meat” of your post, you will include relevant hyperlinks to the subtopics of your topic cluster. If you haven’t published all of your subtopics yet, you’ll want to go back and add those hyperlinks every time a relevant subtopic is published.

Conclusion - Now that your readers have this valuable information, what should they do next? What else do they need to know?

Your pillar content examines multiple components of your target topic, and as a result, it should be significantly longer than your standard posts or articles. In most cases, pillar content should be between 5,000 and 10,000 words or more to adequately delve into every aspect of the pillar topic.

The most important thing to remember is that Google is looking to give searchers the most high-quality search results possible — so your goal is to make your pillar page the most high-quality page on the internet regarding the topic you’re writing about. SEO expert Rand Fishkin refers to this goal as “10x content:” that is, a content piece that is 10 times better than anybody else’s in that topic area.

The length and depth of pillar content has exceptional search engine value on its own merit. When combined with subtopics to form topic clusters, the impact is doubly potent.

What does pillar content look like?

Stepping away from Hogwarts for a bit, let’s take a look at an example of pillar content on our own website.

In this piece of content, we examine the tenets of medical device marketing for relevant manufacturers in the medical device industry. If you scroll and scan, you’ll see that this piece follows the format noted above closely.

The introduction outlines why medical device marketing is relevant and for whom. It also lays out what the pillar content page will cover to prepare the reader for what’s ahead.

From there, the pillar content examines the 11 major components of medical device marketing in the 21st century, to a total of more than 7,000 words.

The conclusion swiftly summarizes the “why” of the post, and offers suggestions for what to do next.

As a bonus, we recommend also creating a downloadable PDF version of your pillar content page as well. Then have a form on the pillar page giving your readers the option to download it in a PDF format that they can save for later. This creates a nice lead-generation opportunity from your pillar content in addition to its SEO benefits.

Now What?

Now that you’re armed with an introduction to topic clusters and pillar content, you’re ready to take action to optimize your site for this new foundation of SEO. An inbound strategy centered around topic clusters and pillar content is one of the most powerful ways to drive inbound traffic and convert inbound leads for businesses today.

To start, take an inventory of the content on your site. What content have you already written, and on what topics? Then, sit down and have a conversation with your executive leadership, your inbound marketing agency, and/or other key stakeholders in your business.

Identify those key business areas that make the most sense for building up strong organic search traffic through pillar content. Then, get to work on keyword research. Determine which current content fits where in your new pillar content outline, and start writing and building out at least 6 to 8 subtopics to fill your topic clusters. We recommend using the SEO tool in HubSpot to track and measure your topic cluster build-out progress and effectiveness.

We know, this may seem a bit daunting. That’s because designing and implementing a strategy for topic clusters and pillar content is a LOT of work. Investing so much time and resources into crafting and implementing this strategy by yourself, only to risk coming up short and not get the desired result, can be defeating. That’s why we recommend partnering with an inbound marketing agency (like ClearPivot!) to work with you on implementing this. We’ve worked with businesses across the country to develop and implement topic clusters and pillar content strategy, with incredible, game changing results. We’ve documented many case studies here.

To learn more, contact us to get started.