Gone are the days of writing content to rank for hundreds of keywords. Gone are the days of disorganized blogs and mountains of content. We've dedicated this page to be a comprehensive resource about topic clusters: the future of Google search.
Needless to say, the strategy worked, and continues to work. In fact, the strategy of rapid content creation worked so well that now everyone seems to be doing it - and that’s where problems start to arise that can’t be easily solved in the traditional content marketing framework.
According to MarketingProfs, in a single minute…
In that same minute, Google receives over 4 million search queries. However, of all that traffic, only about 8% of users will ever venture past the first page of search results. No matter how great your content is, it won’t be converting any leads if it never gets seen in the first place.
With all this content being written, it becomes increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd and actually get read. According to the Content Marketing Institute, producing enough quality content is already the biggest challenge facing B2B marketers; now, with the web oversaturated with existing content, that job is only becoming harder by the day.
Making matters worse, many industry experts believe we’re approaching content shock, the point at which producing content at the current rate is no longer sustainable - the inevitable result as the ever-increasing amount of content at our fingertips clashes with our limited ability to actually consume it.
While the quantity of content on the web has drastically increased, the quality has not. This is not to say great content doesn’t get made anymore, because it does every day. However, much of this content is simply rephrasing information from other sites, meaning that it often doesn’t tell the reader anything he or she didn’t already know - giving them no reason to come back.
Search engines are getting smarter by the day. Through years of constant tweaks and algorithm adjustments, Google in particular has become excellent at searching through huge amounts of available content, identifying relevant pieces, and sending the best, most accurate results possible back to the searcher. All this takes place in the blink of an eye, and the process will only get more efficient with time.
With so many search queries coming in from so many varied sources, Google’s biggest push has been ensuring that only the best and most-relevant content reaches the first page of search results. Many of the updates thus far have focused on curbing bad practices: pages with too many irrelevant internal links are now penalized, as are “keyword-stuffers,” or pages filled with keywords designed to manipulate search rankings instead of providing value to the reader.
However, the biggest way Google has changed in recent years is in its shift from keyword-focused to topic-focused results. Gone are the days of of breaking down a search query based on individual keywords and trying to find pages filled with the same terminology; instead, Google has begun to view the entire query as a cohesive whole, using machine-learning to quickly and accurately interpret it before returning the pages most relevant to the overall topic of the query.
While the shift was gradual, two major updates are responsible for much of it: the 2013 “Hummingbird” algorithm update, which parsed out whole phrases rather than specific keywords, and the 2015 RankBrain update, which incorporated a machine-learning artificial intelligence that could associate keywords and phrases used from past searches with similar themes in order to build a true context-driven search engine results page.
For users, this means that now, when you make a Google search on a given topic, the results you get will be more relevant to the topic than ever before, regardless of the specific keywords you used to get there. Even if you aren’t exactly sure what you’re looking for, Google is smart enough to figure it out using the context of your query.
Google knows what you meant, not just what you typed.
Of course, as the technology used to interpret and serve search results changed, users adapted their own search behavior accordingly.
When search engines were first being adopted, queries were generally short and succinct, often only including the most-important keywords. For instance, if someone was visiting New York and looking to go shoe shopping, he or she would probably just type in “New York shoe stores” into the Google search bar before scrolling through results to find a shop nearby.
As search engines grew in intelligence, users started submitting longer, more conversational search queries - writing exactly what they’re looking for instead of a few keywords they think the search engine will pick up on. Using the example above, the same person shoe shopping in New York today could instead search for “where is a shoe store near me,” knowing that Google will be smart enough to figure out the context even if the search terms are vague.
As of 2017, long-form conversational queries have become more popular than the traditional keyword-focused approach. In fact, when marketing blog Ahrefs performed an in-depth study analyzing over 1.4 billion keywords, they found that 64% of searches contained four words or more, emphasizing a demonstrable shift toward long-form, conversational queries.
Another growing trend is that people are skimming certain types of content more than ever before, using a combination of blog headers, bullet points, and Google’s featured info section to get the answers they need quickly and move on. In a 2016 HubSpot study comparing how thoroughly people consume content presented in different forms, two of the highest-skimmed formats were blogs (43% skimmed) and long-form business content (41%) - two of the most common forms used by content marketers.
However, these trends did not appear independent of one another. While the rise in long-tail keywords can partially be attributed to the introduction of voice recognition technology (20% of Google queries from mobile devices are voice searches), both trends can ultimately be traced back to content shock. In a sea of useless content, people want to get the answers they need as quickly and painlessly as possible - long-form queries and skimming help them do just that.
The key takeaway from all this is that, while search engines and searcher behavior are constantly evolving as one adapts to changes in the other, content marketing has largely remained stagnant. More content is being created than ever before, but much of it still rooted in the keyword-centric philosophy that has been made obsolete.
To survive in the modern realm of content marketing, pumping out blogs and keyword-stuffing is not enough: you have to optimize your content both to the search engine itself and to the buyer personas you’re trying to attract. If you want to set yourself apart from the competition, you have to break away from the outdated keyword-centric model and adapt for the topic-centric future.
But how? While 2017 has seen the introduction of a slew of new products and services, content marketers may have found a solution in the pillar content model, also known as the topic cluster model.
As defined by HubSpot, the topic cluster model is a search engine optimization strategy that focuses on topics instead of individual keywords. At its most basic, the topic cluster model gives content marketers a strategy for content creation, organization, and promotion that better fits the way modern users search for information and the metrics search engines use to qualify it.
By linking together owned media topic clusters hosted on blogs, social media, and web pages, the topic cluster model enables content marketers to create a centralized resource hub that explores every facet of a broad topic by breaking it into manageable segments.
To fully understand the strength of the topic cluster model, it’s important to first understand the traditional blog architecture it aims to replace. Until recently, the blog architecture most websites used looked something like this:
Many content marketers find themselves with an architecture that looks like this:
In this setup, each circle represents an individual blog post built to rank for a specific keyword and each shape represents the overall topic that post would fall under. While individual blog posts address specific keywords and subtopics, the blog as a whole has no overarching theme or topical organization.
As you can see, the end result is a blog that has no shortage of content but doesn’t follow any clear organizational pattern, making it hard for a visitor to find the specific information he or she is searching for. Making matters worse, any blog posts that share similar keywords end up competing against each other for search engine results, putting your hard work to waste.
In recent years, as search engines grew smarter and queries grew more conversational, many marketers found themselves creating more content than ever before yet seeing diminishing returns for all their hard work. Content marketing had failed to adapt in the same way search engines had. The content was there, but it either wasn’t getting to the readers, or wasn’t resonating.
The topic cluster model is specifically designed to account for both of these factors by creating content that is as easily-navigable as possible for all its readers - including the search engine crawlers checking your website for validity. Let’s take a look at how content might be organized on a website adhering to the topic cluster model:
Where the traditional blog was an unorganized mess, content in the topic cluster model is specifically designed to help marketers create and promote content the way humans think about it and search engines are beginning to rank for: by the topic, not the keyword.
However, while search engine optimization is a plus, the real potential of cluster content under this model if much greater: namely, the opportunity to become a resource that your readers return to again and again as they explore your topic further. We’ll explain that in further detail in the next section.
Every topic cluster has three core components:
The centerpiece of the pillar content strategy is the pillar page, a long-form landing page that incorporates various forms of media in order to cover the entire breadth of a topic and answer the top questions your buyer personas might have. The pillar page is so-named because it should serve as the central pillar
While it serves a similar purpose as a traditional long-form content offer, such as an eBook or whitepaper, the pillar page is ungated so that search engines can crawl it and readers can view it without having to fill out a form.
Cluster content refers to the supporting blogs that surround and bolster your pillar page. While your pillar page should give readers a bird’s eye view of an entire topic, cluster content is intended to do the opposite, taking one of the long-tail keywords that relate back to the core topic and expanding upon it as much as possible.
Every pillar article you create should be surrounded by 8-22 blogs of cluster content. If you're running out of ideas, consider re-purposing your client's existing content and using it for subtopic cluster content.
Hyperlinks are the glue that binds your pillar content strategy together. All of your cluster content should have text-based hyperlinks leading back to the pillar page which will serve as a conversion path for your visitors. Having everything physically linked will also show Google that all of your pillar content is related, boosting its validity.
Good Pillar Content Is…
Cover the topic thoroughly enough to answer any question your buyer personas might have while simultaneously introducing new information or factors they might not have considered.
Break up content into clusters of related topics with clearly-defined sections and appropriate titles so that readers can easily navigate through your content to find the information they’re looking for.
Incorporate all relevant keywords, as well as synonyms and related terms, to maximize your content’s reach and help it rank higher on a search engine results page.
Visitors and search engine crawlers should be able to access your content without having to fill out a form first, boosting its visibility.
Update your content regularly, especially after any industry-changing developments or technological breakthroughs, both to ensure it’s always relevant to the reader and to improve its validity in the eyes of the search engine crawlers that come across it.
Now that we know the basics of the topic cluster model, let’s delve deeper into the individual pieces that make it work, starting with the most important one: the pillar article.
The pillar article is centerpiece of the pillar content model and the foundation upon which the other two core components are built. In this section, we’ll take a deeper look at the pillar article, its key components, and what a great pillar article should - and shouldn’t - look like.
A pillar article, also known as a Pillar Page, is a long-form content piece that covers a given topic as broadly as possible, hitting all of the most important points and giving readers a general understanding of the complete topic without delving too far into the finer details. Like a support column in a building, your pillar article is the base around which the entire topic cluster is built.
As the word “pillar” indicates, the entire article takes up a single page on your website but will be filled with hyperlinks to cluster content blogs that explain specific subtopics and keywords in greater depth. This means that beyond its metaphorical function as a pillar, the finished article should visually resemble a pillar on the screen: narrow in width but great in height.
Your pillar should be a comprehensive resource that viewers are encouraged to bookmark and return to as necessary. Ideally, the pillar article will be the first piece of content your visitors come across when searching for one of your targeted topics, allowing it to serve as their baseline as they explore the subtopics that are thoroughly dissected in the cluster content blogs hyperlinked throughout. Thankfully, Pillar Pages are really easy to set up!
Like the topic cluster model, the pillar article is split into the three principle components:
The Core Topic
Every pillar article you create should be based around a single topic you’re trying to rank or gain influence for. The best topics are broad 2-4 word terms with high search volume, which should give you plenty of subtopic content to explore while simultaneously building your search engine ranking for a competitive long-tail keyword. For some help getting started, check out our blog post on mastering long-tail keywords.
The body content of the pillar article, segmented and organized into logical sections that the reader can easily navigate to and from in order to find answers quickly.
The blogs that address specific subtopics or keywords in greater detail, hyperlinked throughout the text in corresponding subtopic sections. The pages you link to, and the pages that backlink to you, can make all the difference how valid search engines view your website.
Above all else, your pillar article must be relevant to the buyer personas you’re trying to attract. Assuming people are able to find it in the first place, if your pillar content isn’t related to what they’re searching for, they won’t view you as a knowledgeable resource and almost certainly won’t convert into a customer.
Even the best, most-relevant information won’t be of much help if it’s presented in an illegible manner. Your pillar articles are designed to be shared and used as a resource and as such should undergo a length editorial process before they ever see the public; don’t sabotage your own credibility with syntax errors, spelling mistakes, and poor grammar.
Break up the content and keep reader’s attention by switching up formats and incorporating visual aids and multimedia like infographics and videos.
A pillar article should be as helpful to the reader ten years from now as it is today, even if that means the content inside is completely different. Nothing turns away visitors (and search engines) faster than old news, outdated information, and broken links, so update your pillar article as frequently as necessary to ensure your content always feels recent to the person reading it, regardless of when that may be.
Pillar content can still fall victim to content shock if it doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been said before. In addition to featuring relevant and timely information, great pillar articles make the most of the format by introducing entirely new information or by presenting existing information in new ways, differentiating yourself from the crowd and building your reputation as an expert within the industry.
Your pillar article should cover its subject matter thoroughly enough that even someone completely unfamiliar with your industry can leave with a general understanding of topic as a whole. Remember that your pillar article should act as a one-stop resource for your readers: while the most important keywords and subtopics will be explored in greater depth using linked cluster content, every conceivable component of the topic should be addressed somewhere in the original article.
With so much content on one page, your readers will undoubtedly feel overwhelmed if they’re presented with a huge block of text with little to indicate where one subtopic ends and the next begins. Breaking up pillar page content into manageable segments will both improve the aesthetics of your page and make it easier for readers to find what they’re looking for quickly, both of which boost your credibility as a resource.
If your content is as helpful and insightful as it should be, satisfied readers will show it to friends and coworkers with similar interests or experiencing similar problems. Encourage your audience to share your pillar page among their social groups, and make it as easy as possible for them to do so by including sharing links for all social media channels that are relevant to your topic or industry. Ideally, external sites will come to view your pillar article as a canonical resource on the topic and link to it on their own blogs, bringing in new readers and boosting your page’s credibility simultaneously.
A Blog Post
While a typical blog post and a pillar article both take up a single page on your website, this is where the similarities end. Beyond dwarfing a blog post in word count, a pillar article is much wider in scope but shallower in depth: where a pillar article gives the reader a general understanding of an entire topic, a blog should delve into individual keywords and subtopics presented in the pillar article and explore them much more thoroughly.
A Traditional Content Offer
In the traditional content marketing methodology, readers fill out a form with their name and contact information in exchange for an eBook, industry white paper, or other high-value resource. While a traditional landing page was a great tool for converting anonymous visitors into leads, in the modern search context, locking content behind a form or in a PDF prevents Google from reading it - meaning no one else will read it either. On the other hand, a pillar article is ungated and hosted directly as a page on your website, pushing your keywords further by working with search engines rather than against them.
Just Another Web Page
Far from it. The pillar articles you create should be some of the best, most detailed content you ever produce, updated to never lose relevance to your buyer personas or the search engines they use to find you. It takes work and diligence, but a great pillar article can establish you as the premiere resource for anyone looking to learn more about your topic, increasing your viewership dramatically.
With a comprehensive pillar article in place, qualified leads are sure to follow.
While there is no exact formula for creating a pillar article, when designing yours it can be helpful to have an idea of what formats are appropriate for which situations. Writers for sites like WriteHacked and Entrepreneurs-Journey have identified some of the most effective, including:
A hypothetical problem is introduced, and the topic is how to resolve the issue. Find out a typical setback your buyer persona might experience, provide them with an actionable and duplicatable solution, and become the resource they come back to every time the problem rears its ugly head. Incorporate examples and analogies to clarify every concept introduced.
Instead of a addressing a problem, a how-to pillar article teach your audience a new skill or trade relevant to their buyer personas. Readers will return to the article repeatedly as their mastery improves, and will be able to find detailed explanations of unfamiliar terms or concepts through the linked topic cluster blogs.
A definition pillar article lists out the most important concepts of the industry that a new reader might not be familiar with and defines them in understandable terms. If the concept is actionable, the definition should also include how it can be implemented. Definition articles are especially effective in industries with complicated or poorly-understood processes, as your readers will likely return for an explanation anytime they come across a term they’re unfamiliar with.
Present a unique theory as the topic, and use your subtopic content to reinforce that assertion. Stimulate conversation if possible, but controversy is not necessarily a bad thing either. However, keep in mind that pillar articles should be timeless, so these types of articles are typically best left to political or scientific discussion.
When it comes to content marketing, people love lists: they’re simple to navigate while the format makes the content easy to digest and remember. They’re also actionable and prone to get shared and eventually linked to by other bloggers writing about the same general topic.
A technical blueprint article is similar in function to a how-to article but focused entirely on the technical aspect. Images, graphs, spreadsheets, and videos are used liberally to demonstrate the exact procedure for completing a complex task. Technical blueprint blogs can be especially effective for marketers looking to rank in topics concerning science and technology.
Finally, the personal philosophy pillar article shifts the focus to yourself, your personal philosophy, or your brand image. Find or create a short motto that you feel embodies the image you’re trying to convey, and explain exactly what that phrase means to you.
Regardless of the industry you’re writing about, your topic should be general enough to draw a large audience and large enough to cover in detail. The best topics offer multiple opportunities for you to provide your readers with actionable tips and advice, helping your viewers with whatever problems they might be facing and building your reputation as a resource.
Find a 2-4 word term with moderate to high search volume to become the title of your pillar article. The title should be left broad enough that the entire topic can be explored at length, giving you plenty of avenues to develop relevant supporting content, but not so long that you can’t address every aspect of the topic on a single page.
Any terms with lower search volume that answer a specific long-tail question or cover a particular keyword are best used as cluster content in subtopic blogs.
Make sure to choose a topic you’re qualified to give advice on. People will feel misled and cheated if the information you give them is false or shows obvious bias, so either pick a topic you’re already familiar with or one you’re willing to put in the research to become an expert in long before you begin writing your pillar content.
With your 2-4 word topic decided, it’s time to get to work on the pillar article. Pillar articles should be designed to answer any question a searcher might have about your topic. If your pillar article is as cohesive as it should be, they’ll keep coming back to your pillar page every time they enter a search term that your page ranks for.
Before you begin, brainstorm and write all of the keywords that fall under this topic that your buyer personas are using and that you want to rank for; these keywords will form the outline of your topic cluster.
The keywords you choose should all relate to interests your buyer personas might have or problems they might face. If you’re looking for a good place to start, try searching for one of your primary keywords in Google, skimming through the first few pages of results, and taking note of what those pages talk about and what topics they cover.
Finally, build your pillar article. While there is no one right way to build a pillar article, check out the previous sections for some great formats that can get you started. Remember, to be effective, your pillar article has to be more educational, more comprehensive, and more SEO-friendly than the competition, so use a format that naturally fits the topic you’re covering and the tone you’re trying to convey.
After your pillar article has been built, it’s time to start filling out the topic cluster with supporting blogs. Return to your list of keywords and subtopics you want to rank for, paying particular attention to longer-tail search queries and specific questions you can answer. Just remember to link every supporting blog you create back to your pillar article, keeping the conversation going.
When your topic cluster is robust and filled with meaningful content, promote the content pillar and individual subtopic cluster posts on social media as well as industry-related publications. You never know who might link back to you.
Eric Siu of Single Grain Digital Marketing lists five core steps toward creating great content:
1 Understand your audience as thoroughly as possible.
Using social media analytics and customer databases, find out as much as you can about your buyer personas before you begin. This includes factors like age, ethnicity, gender, location, education, socioeconomic status, and more - anything that could be a deciding factor in the topics you choose to cover.
2 Identify your audience’s most pressing needs.
Find out your readers’ pain points, what they’re talking about on social media, what links they’re sharing, and what content they’re searching for. Which posts get the most likes, and what types of articles get shared most frequently? If you are a member of your target audience, think about the biggest questions you had and problems you faced when you were just starting in your industry, and work from there.
3 Create meaningful content.
Your pillar articles should be so helpful and engaging to readers that they bookmark it for later and, ideally, that they’re compelled to share your content with their friends. Arrange your pillar articles into manageable sections that readers can navigate easily to find the information they need, and keep the content fresh by incorporating graphics, videos, and other multimedia.
4 Promote, promote, promote.
Your pillar article won’t do much good if it sits on a back page on your website collecting dust. Promote your articles constantly to keep your content - and your brand - in front of your audience at all times. Some great promotion strategies include:
5 Update pillar content as necessary.
Keep an eye out for any industry shifts that could potentially make your existing content out of date or irrelevant, and respond to them immediately. Beyond creating a permanent resource that readers can always feel comfortable returning to, keeping your content updated will also score big points when it comes to search engine rankings.
Bonus step: Once you've learned all about Pillar Content and topic clusters, it's time to spread the word. Whether it's pitching Pillar Content to your boss, coworkers, or clients, it might be time to revisit your pitch deck and update some content and SEO-related talking points.
Now that we’ve covered Pillar Content in depth, it’s time to get your feet wet!
HubSpot has not only laid the groundwork for the future of content, but they’ve also built a tool to help you write, edit, link, and organize Pillar Content.
Enter: Content Strategy.
Content Strategy is a useful tool for discovering and becoming the authority on topics that matter to you and your clients. It crawls your site (much like Google) and suggests topics based on relevance, competition, and popularity, and then helps you organize all of this information into topic clusters.
HubSpot treats Pillar Pages as landing pages, and thus already has hundreds of different templates for you to download and use. These templates are great for landing pages, but lack some features that a full Pillar Page needs.
After a little digging, we found that there are actually a few dedicated Pillar Page templates buried in the HubSpot Marketplace. The page you’re on is the Ridge template.
We chose this template for several reasons:
You don’t have to use HubSpot to have Pillar Content. We recommend the tool because of the reporting and ease of organization. If you’re new to the platform, the tool is available for free – try it out!
1 Sign up for or login to HubSpot (it takes less than a minute)
Content Strategy is a useful tool whether you're a first time HubSpot user or you operate at the enterprise level. We recommend trying Marketing Free if you're just getting started.
2 Click on Content > Strategy
On your main dashboard, a Strategy tab has been added under content. Is this perhaps the start of a beautiful friendship?
3 Watch the short video and click 'Create your first topic cluster'
The video offers a breath of fresh air for anyone in the midst of trying to capture and rank for hundreds of different keywords.
4 Find your core topic
Your core topic is the most important part of Content Strategy and topic clustering. Spend some time figuring out what topic you want to be an authority on and work from there. The best rule of thumb is to keep your core topic broad and from 2-4 words.
Remember, if you're trying to rank for a long-tail keyword, it's not going to be a pillar page. You need a search term with a much higher volume than a long-tail keyword can offer.
5 Attach or create a pillar article
You can create a pillar page on a blog post template or a landing page template. As of right now (Sept. 22, 2017) when you're creating a pilar page, HubSpot's default landing page is rather non-editable. After a good bit of digging, we discovered that there were a few Pillar page templates buried deep on HubSpot's site.
For more information about best practices for setting up a pillar page in HubSpot,check out our helpful blog on the topic.
6 Create a Subtopic and either link it to a blog or create a new blog post
Subtopics are a little easier to set up than Pillar pages, these link to a blog you've written or give you the option to start a new one altogether.
7 Admire your work!
Your topic cluster is under way! You're one step closer to conquering the future of search.
8 Add the rest of your topic clusters
Congrats! If you've done everything correctly, you'll see this beautiful green octopus of content linked up and ready to go. You'll see those nice green links if you have linked your subtopics correctly.
Once you've mastered the process, you can start pitching pillar content to your clients.
You're now ready for the future of content, search, SEO and so much more. Congrats! We've still got a lot to learn, and there's so much more to discover. We would love to hear your thoughts about this page and Pillar Content in general. We'd also be happy to answer any further questions you have on the subject. Fill out the form below and we'd be happy to set up a 30 minute chat with you.