Keeping up with the newest SEO strategies is not easy. Especially with new search technology constantly evolving, it can be hard for marketers to see changes before they happen. Enter the pillar page.
Pillar pages are comprehensive—and ungated—guides that cover all aspects of one core topic on a single web page. They answer all the basic questions on one topic while linking to more detailed offers and blog posts.
With the evolution of voice search and more conversational queries, Google and other search engines had to adjust. These changes are great for users, as we can now simply enter song lyrics, full questions, or just streams of consciousness into a search bar and, somehow, search engines understand our intentions and come back with relevant results.
While it might seem like magic, it’s really just Google’s way of responding to user habits and making our lives easier, but making content marketers’ jobs harder at the same time. But, that's why you’re here! This guide will explain why these changes happened and exactly how to create content that search engines will love.
There are 3.5 billion searches per day on Google alone
(Internet Live Stats)
20% of search queries on mobile are voice searches
(Search Engine Land)
64% of searches are four or more words
70% of the links search users click on are organic
93% of online experiences begin with a search engine
Google's 2 most important factors for rank are high-quality content and relevant links
(Search Engine Land)
Years ago, the job of a content marketer was somewhat simple. Choose the keywords you want to rank for, write content filled with those keywords, and voila! Your content was on the front page of Google. As we all know, this is no longer the case.
The cat-and-mouse game between SEO and search engines has evolved once again. The way people are searching on the internet and the type of content they expect in return has changed. Along the way, marketers have continuously changed tactics in an attempt to find the best way to adapt, but it’s been a struggle.
But there’s no need to worry. Everything you need to know is right here!
Keywords used to rule the search engine optimization world. But over the last decade, Google has expanded its criteria to now use over 200 factors to determine page ranking. The truth is these changes have been on the horizon for a while, but it was just in the last couple years that marketers truly saw a drop-off in the accuracy of their keyword analyses and content optimization strategies.
Although it may feel like search engines are personally trying to make your life difficult when they make changes to their algorithms, they are just trying to provide the best possible answers to ever-changing search methods. They are actively responding to the changes in human behaviour and our relationship with technology. The addition of voice search and full statement queries has led to a need for change in how Google and others rank content.
While the quantity of content online has dramatically increased over the past decade, the quality has not. Most of the content out there is not adding much new information or fresh perspectives on a particular topic, so Google adjusted. With each algorithm change, it promoted sites that proved their authority and their content’s relevance while giving less credibility to generic and unoriginal content and poorly organized websites.
So when did these changes happen? What problems was Google trying to solve? Here are timelines for the major updates that have changed the SEO game.
So are keywords irrelevant? No, they’re still important to the basis of your content strategy, but your reliance on them has to change. By understanding that you no longer need to focus on ranking for a specific word, but rather for the general topic, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for developing your content. It’s the way we think about creating content that needs to evolve.
In 2016, HubSpot began experimenting with topic clusters (we’ll go into more detail on these in the next chapter). Their initial work found that interlinking and reorganizing their website gave them better rankings and increased site views. They attributed this to Google “liking” the fact it could easily scan HubSpot’s site and their well-organized content. Creating this tighter web that interconnected their own content with authoritative external links not only helped with site traffic but also showed search engines that HubSpot was reliable and easy to navigate.
So what does this mean for your existing content strategy? How fast do you need to make changes? Are you already behind?
First, take a deep breath. The good news is you're reading this! You’re learning as much as you can before taking any next steps.
Currently, your content strategy might consist of writing content with certain short or long-tail keywords in mind throughout your work to build up your site’s authority in that area. In your next strategy meeting, it’s time shift the mindset. Get away from your keyword analysis and consider the main topics you want your business to be known for.
“Get away from your keyword analysis and consider the main topics you want your business to be known for.”
Whether you’re blogging a few times a year, or have an ongoing digital marketing strategy, there are some straightforward ways you can implement new changes to impact your rankings under the new “rules.”
Consider the main keywords that once seemed unattainable. Which would be most valuable to your business? These could be keywords like digital marketing, running shoes, or home repair.
Only once you have looked at the bigger picture can you start to fill in the gaps around it. Think about what the topics revolving around that central theme would look like. Areas
All of these still use keywords you want to rank for, but they are supporting a larger theme. Think of your content assets as topics you want your business to compete in, not just containers for specific keywords. Keywords are still a part of the strategy but are housed under the main umbrella of your topic cluster. This will help you start looking at your content in terms of topics rather than as a collection of loosely related blogs and offers.
“Think of your content assets as topics you want your business to compete in.”
During your brainstorming or strategy session, remember that your pillar pages will generate other content that all can be used to promote the same topic. Once you have written a pillar page, additional content can be pulled out of it to support it, promote it, and create links to it.
For instance, chapters can become e-books. Statistics or bulleted sections can become infographics or checklists. You can add videos to accompany each chapter and pull information from the page to generate dozens of tweets, Facebook posts, and email content. By creating a pillar page, you are also creating a marketing machine
So let's get into the real details. What exactly is this pillar page you keep hearing about?
“A pillar page is a comprehensive ungated guide that details one main topic in-depth while linking to relevant and useful content created to dig into subtopics within the pillar theme.”
The concept of pillar content or pillar pages isn’t new. As far back as 2006, marketers were describing longer, essential, or foundational content that people would read to answer questions and other sites would want to link to. Even way back then, people knew
A pillar page is a comprehensive ungated guide that details one main topic in-depth while linking to relevant and useful content created to dig into subtopics within the pillar theme.
We all know our search habits have changed. Think about when you started using search engines. You were taught how to plug in specific terms and generally received thousands of results that matched those keywords. Over time, we have become more general in our searches and rely heavily on Google to understand our intention, location, and meaning behind our more conversational searches.
This change has only been amplified with the use of voice search. People are more likely to search full questions or long statements. In fact, 20% of mobile Google searches are made via voice search, and with the rise of smart devices like Amazon Echo, this number is bound to increase. Currently, 64% of searches are four or more words, and everyone knows that to get the answers you are looking for with the significant amount of web content out there, you need to be as specific as possible.
Due to Google focusing on becoming more intuitive with search results, a lot of the content that marketers create is bound to show up in searches not specifically using the keywords plugged into the H1 tag or meta description. Over time, you may have noticed your content is often competing with itself for Google rankings or with other posts without any obvious keyword. This is due to the topic ruling the roost of the
Search engine results page (SERP) algorithms are much better today at finding the best possible answers to searches by moving away from exact keyword matching. Most of this has come through penalizing pages that have too many irrelevant internal links, understanding that conversational searches encompass one thought rather than just individual keywords, and using artificial intelligence (AI) to interpret what specific terms might mean.
For instance, if you search “cheap computer,” you will now get results for laptops, desktops, tablets, computers for sale, reviews of top computers, and price comparisons. Essentially, your results will encompass the entire “computer” topic and include the many details within it you may be interested in.
Content creators need to adapt and create and organize their content so they are less focused on a specific keyword (cheap computer) and more focused on the topic in general. Consider the following organic results when “cheap computer” was plugged into Google:
Included are possible keywords such as Canada computers, computer parts, computer components, desktop PCs, cheap desktop PCs, buy or sell laptop or desktop computers, and computers and laptops—none of which is what we searched. “Cheap” is only included a few times, but words like “best deals” and “clearance” are also highlighted in the results. Also, because the search was conducted in Toronto, only local or Canadian retailers are included.
By understanding the new way Google ranks content, marketers can take a deep breath and realize they don’t need to plug Canada or Toronto into the title just to appear in local searches. Content creators also no longer need to focus on keyword matching to the detriment of the readability or usefulness of their content.
“Content creators also no longer need to focus on keyword matching to the detriment of the readability or usefulness of their content.”
Google has doubled down on websites that are organized and can prove their authority on topics they write about. There are two main ways topic clusters and pillar
Going through your content, you will probably find you are already writing primarily about certain main categories or broad themes. Organizing all the content in these main topics is the first step to pillar page success.
Topic clusters are webs of interconnected content based on a specific pillar page topic used to boost the authority of your pillar page and rank for related subtopics. This includes your blog posts, landing pages, and web pages that specifically discuss the main topic your pillar page is addressing. When creating your topic cluster, you will need to use hyperlinks to connect all the content together, both to and from your pillar page. This web of interconnected information is how you will signal to search engines that your content is related, and by pointing everything in your topic cluster to your pillar page, you are able to help prove your topic authority.
“Topic clusters are webs of interconnected content based on a specific pillar page topic used to boost the authority of your pillar page and rank for related subtopics.”
Currently, your blog might look something like this...
Right now, your blog posts may be structured to rank for specific long-tail keywords so each is treated as its own entity. Using topic clusters, all related content is organized and revolving around your pillar content. This allows your URLs to work together rather than compete against each other.
To rank for the more competitive broad topics people are searching, your topic clusters need to add value and help promote your pillar page. But…what is a pillar page?
A pillar page is what your entire topic cluster is built around. As defined earlier, a pillar page is a web page that covers all the general aspects of your chosen topic while cross-linking to your more in-depth content offers and focused blogs. Think of it as a guide that gives visitors all the basic information they could need, all in one place, with suggestions for additional content for a more in-depth analysis or greater knowledge.
Pillar pages cover a particular topic that’s central to your business or service offerings. For example, if your business offers event planning services, your pillar page might be Wedding Planning, with chapters covering how to decide on a budget, common planning missteps, and what to expect when choosing a venue. Your blogs and content
Your pillar page is
“Your pillar page is YOURTOPIC 101.”
Pillar pages should stand out from other main pages on your website. They tend to be longer than typical blog posts or web pages and include chapters with a table of contents for easy navigation. The topic needs to be broad enough but not seem overwhelming. When choosing a pillar page topic, make sure you take some factors into consideration:
(Don't worry, we’ll dive into these decisions in the next chapter.)
So to wrap up, a pillar page is an authoritative guide that answers the questions your visitors have about one specific main topic. Topic clusters are supporting content created to tackle more focused subtopics within the main pillar page cluster. It all hyperlinks together to create a network of organized and related content that makes your website stand out to search engines.
It will look something like this:
Now that you know the what, it’s time to look at how you can go about creating your pillar page masterpiece.
Let's get down to the nitty-gritty. How exactly do you go about choosing a topic, creating pillar pages and topic clusters, and promoting them?
Immediately stop thinking about your site and content strictly in terms of keywords. Keyword rankings are fluid and constantly changing. Keywords should be used to inform your content decisions, not control them. Google isn't going to suddenly prioritize disorganized sites or irrelevant content. The topic cluster/pillar page strategy simply reorganizes your site into a more logical and user-friendly experience, which is something no search engine will ever discriminate against.
“Keyword rankings are fluid and constantly changing. Keywords should be used to inform your content decisions, not control them.”
Here are a few steps you can take to get started with brainstorming your pillar page content and your related topic cluster.
Think about your buyer persona and map out some of the main pain points they have.
We know coming up with a content plan can be daunting, and taking inventory of your historical content is a painstaking endeavour, but knowing what you already have and what you're missing is crucial.
Now that you have outlined the areas you want to include in your topic cluster, it's time to build out your new network of interconnected content. To do this, you need to conduct a full content audit to determine what you already have to work with and what you will need to create. Go through your content offers and blog posts to find the areas you’ve covered thoroughly.
Once you have identified the content you are including, you can use HubSpot’s Content Strategy Tool or other marketing software to add your subtopics to your main topic and analyze your current standing. The HubSpot tool will show your domain’s authority for each main topic and analyze how well your existing content is helping your relevancy. If you have a low relevancy score, you know you may need to dig into this subtopic a bit deeper. Here’s an example of how you can build your topic cluster:
“Make sure to hyperlink directly to other blogs in the cluster and your pillar page.”
With existing content, you must now go back and optimize those pages around your new main topic. Make sure to add any keywords that might be missing, or change keywords to relate to a broader array of searches. Make sure to hyperlink directly to other blogs in the cluster and your pillar page. Once you have gone back to optimize your content, the Content Strategy Tool will show all your link building to display a perfectly interconnected topic cluster!
Your topic is decided, your content cluster is brimming with links, and all that's left to do is sit down and write your main source of informational content—the pillar page!
As a first step, outline your table of contents. Consider using chapter titles that respond to questions people are already asking. For instance, for this pillar page on pillar pages (genius, we know) we added headings such as “what is a pillar page?” and “how do you create a pillar page?” If you answer these direct questions throughout the page, you can increase your chances of being linked to by other sites, being picked up by Google Snippets, and gaining high rankings for full-question queries.
Here are some other key points to remember when writing your pillar page:
“Since your pillar page should be the comprehensive guide to your topic, make sure you’ve answered the who, what, where, when, why, and how.”
Once you’ve finished writing, have others in your organization look over your pillar page. Ask your sales and support teams if questions they encounter often are answered within the page. Since your pillar page should be the comprehensive guide to your topic, make sure you’ve answered the who, what, where, when, why, and how. Finally, make sure you haven’t simply repeated the pillar page topic keyword in every chapter—that’s the old way! Make a list of synonyms or associated terms to include throughout your pillar content.
Editing your pillar page content is a tedious but crucial step in the content creation process. With thorough revisions, you will be able to make sure your entire pillar page reads well as one cohesive document and accurately responds to the questions your visitors are asking.
The editing process also allows someone other than the original writer to comb through the pillar page. Editors should confirm whether chapters are in a coherent order, whether images, videos, and CTAs are placed properly, and whether all sources are cited.
Pillar pages are not just long blog posts. Editing them takes time and you should budget at least two to three revisions into your timeline. Also, if you are including a downloadable PDF version of your pillar page, this will also need at least one run through with your editor.
Once editing is complete—and after you praise your editor for their hard work—it’s time to let the design team take over.
Now is the time to let your brand’s creativity speak for itself. While there are some best practices (outlined in the next chapter) to give you a guideline, there are no rules to what your pillar page should or can look like.
There is some excellent work being created and, in Chapter 5, we give you some examples you can use for pillar page inspiration. We suggest having a specific strategy meeting to brainstorm design ideas for your pillar page. Bring together everyone working on the project and play around with what you want your visitors to see, hear, and feel while reading your pillar content.
Ideally, a pillar page will take up residence as a part of your main site navigation where your site already gets a lot of traffic. This is not something you will bury in the blog or resources section of your site; it deserves the same amount of consideration as one of your main website pages. If it is being placed in a submenu on your navigation, make sure those pages are regularly viewed and you promote the page throughout the rest of the site.
“Ideally, a pillar page will take up residence as a part of your main site navigation where your site already gets a lot of traffic.”
The first pillar page you design will take the longest. After that, you will be able to reuse templates and designs for additional pillar content. Let your imagination run wild, and find the perfect way to show off your pillar page.
Promoting your pillar page is sometimes overlooked, but it can be one of the best ways to jumpstart link building and get your content noticed. Here are some ways you can promote your new offer to your existing customers, leads, and industry insiders:
Ultimately, your pillar page is a guide, and the information should be valuable not only just to your website visitors but to others in your industry and even to your competitors.
Congratulations! You’ve now completed the pillar page process! From here on out, it’s all about analyzing your page performance, optimizing your content, and continuing to update the page as new innovations, techniques, and useful information become available.
As discussed previously, pillar content is not new. Over time, some best practices have emerged to not only help you boost your search engine rankings but to also enhance the user experience and conversion success of your pillar page.
Here are some of the pillar page best practices you should keep in mind during your creation process:
Now that you know how to go about strategizing, creating, and optimizing your pillar page, we will send you off with some of our favourite examples of pillar page creativity. Almost every pillar page out there will have some aspect that you can use for inspiration, so make sure you look around to see what others are doing and how pillar content is evolving over time.
“Almost every pillar page out there will have some aspect that you can use for inspiration.”
To promote their newest bot builder, HubSpot created an exciting story-based pillar page to generate chatter about their new tool. While this may have been made to boost social interaction (note the social icons on the sidebar), you can see they really took the time to structure their pillar page properly and use graphics instead of text when possible. These images likely helped HubSpot generate external links as other marketers used them in their content with a link back to cite their source.
Page Authority - 56
External Links - 229
This pillar page works perfectly with Typeform’s brand and the rest of the content on their site. It includes a sticky menu that travels with the reader down the page, many calls to action, infographics, templates, and an easy-to-follow design. Although it’s missing a meta description or a downloadable option, it does an excellent job of highlighting how Typeform’s product can improve customer success.
Page Authority - 45
External Links - 2
Social Shares - 7
At the time of writing this, Help Scout’s pillar page on list building ranks #3 on Google for its main keyword. The pillar content is engaging. It includes images, stats, and a clean design, and it’s easy to follow.
It could do with a few more CTAs sprinkled throughout the content to give readers options to engage with more detailed content. Another way to increase conversion opportunities would be to add a more obvious link to the downloadable PDF.
Page Authority - 48
External Links - 160
This example is not exactly a pillar page, but it’s a great reminder of how long-form content doesn’t need to be tedious and strictly in textbook form. The Atlantic published this piece of sponsored content with athenahealth and shows that even an in-depth article can be stunningly designed and engaging. This content would be hard for others to resist linking to because it does an excellent job of showcasing an otherwise tricky subject.
Although the page is missing a meta description and keywords in the H1 and H2 tags, this page is an exception where search engine ranking was probably not The Atlantic’s main goal.
Page Authority - 52
External Links - 13
Gather Content has been offering ungated guides on their site for some time, so it is no surprise they have perfected their pillar page process. This page features almost all of the most common pillar page best practices and has informative content to boot! It includes a detailed table of contents with an easy-to-find PDF download CTA. With engaging images and easy-to-navigate content modules, the guide is a true education resource in the form of a fictitious example of a full content strategy for UX design.
Page Authority - 38
External Links - 49
We hope you were able to find some inspiration in these pillar page examples. We promise that now you know what you are looking for, you’ll be stumbling across more pillar content without even trying!
On how SEO strategy has changed:
The Definitive Guide to SEO in 2018 - Backlinko
On topic clusters:
What Are Pillar Pages, Topic Clusters, and Subtopics? - HubSpot Academy
Topic Clusters, HubSpot’s Content Strategy Tool and the Future of SEO - New Breed Marketing
The What, Why, and How of Content Topic Clusters - Simple Marketing Now
On pillar pages:
The 3 Types of Content Pillar Pages & When to Use Them - Pepperland Marketing
Your Ultimate Pillar Page Development Guide - Blue Frog Dynamic Marketing
Pillar page tools:
9 Tools to Make Awesome Pillar Pages [Infographic] - Social Media Today
How to Build a Pillar Page in the Content Strategy Tool - HubSpot Academy
The world of SEO has changed. Google has optimized its algorithm to find better results for the new way people search. This has resulted in a need for more topic-based content and less focus on keyword matching.
A pillar page is a comprehensive—ungated—guide that covers all aspects of one core topic on a single web page. Built around it is a web of interconnected subtopics called a topic cluster that supports and promotes the pillar page through hyperlinks.
Through the pillar page model, you are able to build authority in your core topic while still ranking for relevant long-tail keywords in your related cluster content, such as blog posts and landing pages. By connecting all your related content via internal links, your website becomes a more organized environment. Combining this organization with an increase in topic authority, your business can boost its search engine ranking for keywords once thought to be out of reach.
So, it’s time to get started! Download our Topic Cluster Creation Template and start thinking about what expertise your business has to offer and how you can showcase it to the world through pillar pages.