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When Hubspot, a leading developer of inbound sales and marketing software, unveiled pillar pages and topic clusters as the new best model for SEO in blogging I was admittedly confused. However, as I started putting the model into practice on my blog, it made sense. It was similar to how I’d practised as a journalist and news producer for many years.

There’s a strategy news outlets follow when a major story breaks to ensure thorough coverage. We have a meeting where journalists will be assigned to cover different aspects of the story. A longer story will give a complete overview of the event with shorter relatable breakaway stories.

Here’s an example of the strategy in practice.

The facts

  • Major bushfires have broken out in the Adelaide Hills.
  • Authorities are evacuating homes and warning people to take refuge in designated areas.
  • The fire has destroyed several houses while there are fears for missing people.
  • There are also concerns for native, farm and domestic animals.
  • Temperatures have been exceptionally high for a week and conditions have been like a tinderbox.
  • The weather bureau is forecasting further high temperatures for several days.
  • Firefighters have been flown in from interstate to assist exhausted firefighters who have been battling the blaze for up to 20 hours without a break.
  • There is a number to call if you are worried about the safety of loved ones.
  • Charity organisations like the Salvation Army are working to raise funds and supplies for people affected.
  • The local Country Women’s League (CWL) is making sandwiches and cooking meals for emergency services.
  • Health authorities are helping victims deal with fallout and stress of the disaster along with warning people at risk to take precautions with the smoke.

The story structure

For television, online and print news outlets covering this bushfire story, the structure would be similar.

A main, longer story will give an update touching on most, if not all, of the above facts. Shorter stories will focus on one or two key topics for example:

  • Buildings destroyed and homes lost.
  • Forecasted weather conditions.
  • CWL preparing food and interstate firefighters arriving to help.
  • Health authorities are helping victims etc. and who to contact if you are worried about loved ones.

I’ve always liked this structured, ordered approach to dealing with a story. Good textbooks follow a similar orderly structure. They will have an introduction giving an overview of the book and then individual chapters covering various topics.

But most blogs have never had a clear structure. A preoccupation with keyword rankings resulted in blogs with a seriously disorganised structure with posts which were disconnected and often doubled up on content.

However, Hubspot’s pillar pages and topic cluster model as a strategy for blog content curation is based very much on the mainstream media model or that of a good textbook.

Introduction to Pillar Pages and Topic Clusters

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(photo courtesy of Elissa Hudson of Hubspot)

Hubspot director of Acquisition and one of the world’s leading experts in SEO, Matthew Barby came up with pillar pages and topic clusters as a way to organise blog content.

Matthew was working to enhance the experience for searchers to find content, along with ensuring blogs would rank more effectively on Search Engine Result Pages (SERPS).

Matthew realised it made more sense to ditch the obsession with keywords variants and work to become an authority on topics because how people search online had changed, while search engines algorithms had also improved.

Google’s has been consistently focusing on better organising and showcasing content they think is helpful to their searchers. Algorithm updates like the Hummingbird update in 2013 focused on better understanding the intent of searchers. The Rankbrain update, which is Google’s artificial intelligence system, interprets search queries to find pages which may not have the exact words they searched for but are still relevant.

Hubspot’s content and campaign manager Elissa Hudson improvements in technology meant the obsession over keywords had to change.

“You can write conversationally with questions in the search bar or use voice search and get back what you wanted to know most of the time,” Elissa says.

“Google reports around 15 per cent of searches are new, never even entered into the search engine.”

Personal search results, based not only your location but search history, the sites you visit frequently and device you are using means people in the same room typing in the same search query could end up with different results.

“You may be under the impression you’re ranking well for a keyword and it may sound good to say you’re ranking number one for a certain keyword but it’s probably not true,” Elissa says.

“That’s why it’s better to focus on monopolising topics in industries rather than keywords.”

How Pillar Pages and Topic Clusters work

While you can’t completely abandon keyword research, being across all keywords is getting harder. Under the pillar page and topic cluster structure, instead of creating blog posts designed to rank for specific, long-tail keywords, posts cover specific topic areas related to an overall topic and are known as topic cluster posts. These topic cluster posts are anchored together by the pillar page, providing a longer, broad overview of the main topic. The pillar page includes hyperlinks to these more specific posts and so they’re all joined together designed to monopolise a topic.

Screen Shot 2017-12-15 at 4.10.40 pm.png(photo courtesy of Hubspot)

This post is a cluster topic on pillar pages and topic clusters related to the pillar page Search Engine Optimisation (SEO): Your guide to the best strategy for 2018 & beyond.

There are a series of around 10 posts, often many more, taking a deep dive into topics briefly covered in the pillar page. Each of these posts links back to the pillar page, which in turn links out to the posts. It’s just like my old TV reporting days where the news anchor would say:”We cross now to Nadine McGrath with the latest from the weather bureau to find out if there’s any reprieve in sight from these harsh bushfire conditions.”

Elissa’s pillar pages and topic cluster tips  (in her words)

How do you choose a pillar page topic?

Determine who your audience is by conducting thorough buyer persona research, then figure out what they’re searching for, which will determine how broad to make your pillar page.

The topic of a pillar page should be broad enough to enable you to write an in-depth overview of that topic and come up with several more specific keywords related to the broader topic (those will be your topic cluster blog posts).

How long should a pillar page be?

There are no rules about word count, but you should try to make it as comprehensive as possible. Your pillar page should be an in-depth overview of your broad topic. If you’ve already been producing content, you might already have an in-depth blog post that you can adapt to a pillar page.

What should be on your pillar page?

There are a few elements you should include:

· A definition of the topic/term you’re covering somewhere in the first section.

· A bulleted or numbered table of contents.

· A more specific topic-related keyword in each of your subheadings.

· Content that provides an overview (but not an exhaustive one) of the subtopics discussed on the pillar page (those will make up new blog posts later)

How do you go about deciding cluster topics?

Conduct keyword research related to your pillar page topic to identify keywords and terms that dive deeper into that topic and look at more specific aspects of it. For example, if Instagram marketing is the topic for your pillar page, then Instagram captions is a more narrow keyword that you might write a blog post about within the topic cluster.

How long should a topic cluster blog be?

Again, there are no rules here. Your blog post should aim to provide all the information the title suggests it would. Aiming for at least 400 words is a good place to start as you’d probably struggle to write anything that’s informative enough to serve the needs of your reader with a smaller word count.

How do you link cluster topic blogs to pillar pages?

Your pillar page should link to cluster blog posts. For example, the Instagram marketing pillar page links out to the Instagram captions blog post. Then make sure your cluster blog posts link back to the pillar page. Use the anchor text of the broad topic to help the pillar page rank higher in a search.

Conclusion

The pillar page and topic cluster model just makes good sense. The model provides a structure for your blog and ensures posts are part of a plan to provide valuable content on an overall topic for your target audience. It will make your blog easy to navigate and improve readability. I’ve found this model makes writing blogs easier because you have a game plan. You can brainstorm, then research good topics for pillar pages and topic clusters and then start writing. The fun part is linking them all together and when you’ve finished all the posts, you can even turn them into an ebook. You could offer this ebook in a call-to-action (CTA) at the end of the posts to capture leads. What will your first pillar page and topic cluster project be about?