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Creating a killer content pillar strategy

Ask a content marketing expert what they see for the future of their field, and they will probably at least mention topic clusters or content pillars. By all accounts, these strategies are the next big thing (or maybe even the current big thing) in SEO and web content marketing. Using content pillars on your website could help you strengthen the structure of the site, make relevant information easier for your users to find, improve time-on-site rates and help your Google rankings.

Needless to say, all these outcomes are precisely what content marketers need. The question is, how can you start taking advantage of these benefits? Read on to learn a little more about pillar content, from definitions to applicable strategies.

What is pillar content?

In architecture or construction, a pillar is typically an important structural element that supports part of the building. Take out the pillar, and the building becomes structurally unsound. The same basic idea applies to content pillar marketing. In pillar content, you have a collection of “pillar pages” throughout your website. Each pillar page covers a core topic that is important to your business. The pillar page might be the main landing page for a specific product or service, or it might be an extensive category or department page. The topic will usually be quite broad or expansive, leaving plenty of space for the pillar page to delve into both general discussions about that topic and more nuanced details.

Think of it this way: If your website is a globe or world map, and most of the specific blogs or product pages are state or city maps, then your pillar pages are the countries or continents. They aren’t the homepage, from which users can explore every aspect of your business, but they are the next step down: landing pages that offer a wealth of information and link or breakdown to smaller subtopics.

HubSpot Topic Cluster and Pillar Page Overview

What are topic clusters?

While the intention of a pillar page is to cover a big, broad topic, there is still a need for more in-depth discussions about smaller pieces or parts of that topic. And while pillar pages are typically quite lengthy, there is not necessarily enough space to cover every detail of every subtopic right there on the pillar page itself.

Therein lies the benefit and function of topic clusters, which are an important component of any content pillar marketing strategy. Topic clusters are usually separate blogs or pages that are linked via your pillar page. They are meant to expound upon smaller, more niche subjects that exist under the umbrella of the pillar page. However, a topic cluster can be any material that supports your pillar page with additional detail or information. Blog posts, videos, white papers, eBooks, quizzes, surveys, infographics, FAQs, tutorials — any of these resources can exist within a topic cluster. The important thing isn’t so much the form that the cluster content takes, but the topics it covers and how those topics relate back to the core topic of the pillar page.

Say your business is a law firm with several different departments or areas of practice. You might have a content pillar for family law that defines this type of legal practice, introduces your attorneys practicing in this area and provides a list of services that exist under the family law umbrella. Your content cluster pages could take the form of individual service pages for different areas of family law (such as divorce, custody or adoption), or perhaps to blog posts answering frequently asked questions about this topic. In any case, each topic cluster page would be distinctly relevant to the topic of the pillar page. The cluster pages all have to do with family law but are focusing on more specific branches of the topic than the pillar page with its broad overview.

Why pillars and topic clusters are essential to good content strategy

Both from a functional perspective and for SEO purposes, content pillars are becoming a commonly cited “best practice” of smart content strategy. The first reason is simple organization. Users intuitively understand the content pillar structure. Product or service landing pages have always been easy to find on most websites, but supporting materials for those pages have often been segmented off in a different spot. They’ve been lost in FAQ sections, blogs or even YouTube channels. This structure leaves some resources on your site or in your arsenal underutilized and under-seen — especially more niche items such as infographics and white papers. Pillar pages put everything right there — a link or a click away at most. As such, users can take comfort knowing that all the information they need on a topic is either there on the pillar page or linked from it.

That improvement in user experience is a big reason to adopt a content pillar strategy. For years, content marketers have been saying that the key to effective SEO is just as much about the quality and originality of the content as it is about technical aspects such as keyword density and meta tags. Pillar content takes that argument one step further by not only providing detailed, comprehensive content, but by also making it as user-friendly as possible. With topic clusters, you can anticipate the questions your users might have — or the details they may want to explore more fully — and react accordingly. Providing that easy user flow encourages users to spend more time on your site and minimizes the risk of a bounce. The longer you can keep your users on your website consuming the information you provide, the more trust you can build and the closer you can get to conversion.

The linking aspect of the content pillar strategy also offers big boosts for search engine rankings. Pillar pages and topic clusters are deliberately interlinked. The pillar page links out to each topic cluster page — think of them as branches on a tree — while each topic cluster links back to the pillar page. This robust internal linking strategy not only improves user experience and site organization, but it also makes your site easier for search engine crawlers to navigate and make sense of the structure. Moreover, the linking strategy signals to Google that your pillar page is a major authority on the topic at hand. Google might rank your pillar page higher than similar pages because it knows how many pages link back to it. Alternatively, if one of your topic cluster pages is performing well, that will benefit your pillar page and all the other topic clusters attached to it.

Content pillar strategies, in other words, are a way to achieve more efficient content optimization. Instead of trying to optimize each page individually, you can focus on the content pillar and its associated topic clusters as a unit. A boost in ranking or traffic for one can mean a boost for all. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes.

Types of content pillars (and how to choose the right one for your business)

There are two basic types of pillar pages that you have at your disposal: the 10x content pillar page and the resource pillar page.

The 10x content pillar page is by far the most popular type of content pillar for most businesses. Most of the discussion about pillar pages so far in this post has related most strongly to the concept of the 10x content pillar. This type of page is meant to be a lengthy deep dive into a specific topic, with sub-topic pages linking off as topic clusters. The idea is for a 10x pillar page to be 10 times better — 10 times more detailed, more engaging, and more helpful — than other pages on the web that focus on the same topic. Your goal with this type of page should be to cover as much of a subject as possible in one place, with links to all the relevant pages or resources on your website.

There are two important things to remember about 10x content pillar pages. First, the content needs to be ungated. The pillar page and the sub-topic cluster pages are intended for user engagement and conversion. Putting any of that content behind a paywall can be a turnoff for your users and can cost you valuable conversions. Second, 10x content pillars belong in the top level of your site’s navigation. As such, you don’t want to have a ton of them. Most businesses will probably have four or five, related to their core products, services, departments or areas of business. Larger companies might have a few more, but not so many that your site’s homepage becomes jumbled or confusing.

A resource pillar page is not so much about a specific topic, but about solving a particular problem for the reader. It is a list of tools or resources, internal or external that the user might find useful. Your goal with this type of page isn’t to sell a specific product or service. Rather, your goal is to help the reader and hopefully build some trust and authority along the way. For instance, say your business offers some sort of service designed to help employers with hiring, be it recruitment, employee background checks or something else. You might offer a resource pillar page that highlights the “25 best apps to help with hiring and onboarding.” The pillar page would include brief descriptions of each app or program, along with a link to where the user can find the app.

Both types of pillar pages are useful to your organization’s bottom line, as they can both build traffic, authority and trust. The difference is that a 10x content pillar page should relate directly to the products and services your business provides, while a resource pillar page may be made up partially or entirely of external links. Your 10x pages show users that you know a lot about the product niche you serve, thereby pushing those users toward a purchase. They also answer key questions that users may be asking when shopping around for the product or service you have to offer. Your resource pages show a broader base of knowledge about your industry as a whole, while also telling your users that you care about helping them first and foremost.

Of course, you can also link to your own resources on your resource pages, depending on what problems you are trying to solve. Instead of a list of apps, for example, your resource pillar page might be showing 40 infographics that are relevant to your industry. Some of these will be external sources, but if you have internal infographics to share, by all means include them. Just because a resource page is intended as an easy-to-bookmark reference for users rather than a purely promotional tool doesn’t mean you can’t direct traffic to your content assets.

Finding inspiration for your pillar pages

These days, more and more businesses and websites are transitioning to a content pillar strategy. Between the user experience benefits of this model and the proven SEO boosts, it’s only a matter of time before virtually every content-focused website has a pillar structure.

As a result, it’s not difficult to find examples of pillar pages around the web. Take a look at what your competitors are doing, with your eyes peeled for long, detailed pages that link off to more focused sub-topic pages. Alternatively, type “pillar page examples” into Google and see what you find. You will be able to get inspiration — both in terms of the topics that businesses choose to build their pillar pages around, and in terms of page structure and linking strategies.

At Belo + Company, we are here to help you bring your website into the era of content pillars and topic clusters. From creating the pillar pages to helping you track down existing resources on your site that can be linked as topic clusters, we are ready to assist with your new content marketing strategy. Contact us today to get started.

Andrew Dutcher
Andrew Dutcher
Andrew specializes in enterprise technical SEO and content strategy, with more than a decade of experience working with retail brands such as Carter’s, Banana Republic, and Athleta and B2B brands such as Insight. A lover of food and music, he likes to travel, go to concerts, and seek out new experiences.