search is becoming topic oriented, rather than keyword oriented. This trend has skyrocketed since Google’s RankBrain machine-learning technology began intelligently optimizing search results based more on user intent and natural speech language versus the way people used to search for things “back in the day.”

Engineers working on the algorithms at Google realized that the smarter their search engine became, the more people talked to it like a regular human being. Instead of typing in key phrases that the human user would expect to find on the resulting webpage, we started asking open-ended questions like “where should I eat?” or “what is there to do near me?” or “how to make a chocolate soufflé”. At this point, the query is rewarded with variations on a theme (search autofill), snippets, and “related searches.”

Google search autofill

Original user query

Google relevant result

Most relevant post featured

related google searches

Related searches (nice cluster, by the way)

… And so begins the implementation of intelligent technology to start associating broad topics and assessing user intent.

Search engines (ahem, *cough* GOOGLE *cough cough*) amassed enough data on what we search for and what we ultimately spend time viewing, that a contextual relationship became apparent between many quite differently worded search terms.

Businesses that have published content on a general topic and then content about specific relevant subtopics have seen a climb in their rankings, and websites that publish massive amounts of content but orient everything around disjointed keyword phrases are losing ground.

The Importance of Pillar Content and Topic Clustering

The weaker the rest of your SEO is, the more your content will suffer from not being intelligently connected with other related and supporting content. But to really dominate search results and turn your blog into a resource for the leads you need, you want what the industry calls a “pillar page.”

What Defines a Pillar Page?

Pillar pages are pages that are intended to cover a topic broadly, as well as in-depth. By developing a go-to resource for readers, you do exactly that. Search engines begin to learn and decide that YOUR PAGE is THE page for people seeking the knowledge you have. The longer a person spends on your webpage, the more certain the learning algorithms that control search results are that your content is holding people’s attention, thus probably answering their questions.

For the main topic your pillar page focuses on, you should be able to identify 6 to 8 or so sub-topics for which you can create content on pages separately, all of which link back to the pillar page and vice versa.

Content Clustering

It’s time to start looking at your content not as a long series of keyword-motivated articles living in isolation from one another, but as a series of pots all stewing content on topics that are related.

By elaborating in-depth on some of the primary subtopics on separate pages, you create valuable resources for users who want to learn more about a particular facet of your pillar page’s main topic, while also creating inbound-driven SEO indicators, sending signals to the search engines about what matters.

This practice is called content clustering, and it’s what helps your pillar page stand out in a sea of search engine results.

Another reason this works so well is that it’s exactly how a person would like to consume information. Linking to complimentary content to the main topic helps users navigate all the info you’re putting out there, and allows them to choose what they need to read more about and what they can skip over or save for later. Users spend longer on your domain which puts your content higher in SERP results the next time someone enters related search queries.

Now we’ll show 5 of the simplest steps to use the content you’ve already created to set up your pillar pages and content clusters.

Using Existing Content to Create Clusters (5 steps)

1.) Identify topics that matter to your buyer persona(s)

Think about your target audience and what they’re looking for online. Identify the primary area where you can provide valuable information that your customers-to-be are out there looking for. When you’ve narrowed your topics down, see if they have anything in common, and consider that perhaps you’ve found your topic for the piece of pillar content you’ll be building soon. Time to review content you’ve already published for posts and pages that align with what you’ve identified here…

2.) Content audit: list all published blogs for those topics and sort by performance

If you’ve been blogging for a while, chances are you’ve covered your target topic already. Find all past blog posts that relate to the primary concept you want to focus on. Analyze the performance of these pages and look at the top results.

3.) Isolate the best performing blog to be the pillar

Sort your analytics data by the metric you value most. You might be more interested in how many times a page was found, or maybe you want to focus on which page users spent the longest time on before leaving. Did visitors click their back-buttons? Or did they continue on to other content within your own website…? You may want to weigh these metrics against each other and find a balance.

4.) Proceed to keyword research and optimization

I know I’ve made it sound like keywords don’t matter anymore but they do still play a vital role in online content. Getting broadly related ideas from a keyword tool is the best way to discover how your customers are searching for information. It helps you make sure your pillar page is comprehensive, and gives you an insight into valid subtopics you can cluster content around.

5.) Cross link all subtopics with the pillar page

Make sure the topics that make up the cluster are linked to the pillar page. You’re creating a beautiful family of posts where no kid is isolated from the parental unit.

Measuring Cluster Performance

No matter how good you think your pillar/cluster strategy is, it may fall short on several levels.

  • You connected topics but they don’t get views
  • You are getting views but no conversion
  • You are getting views but high bounce rate

Those 3 metrics are indicators of irrelevant content and/or misplaced distribution.

cluster strategy performance

Measuring your content performance for a given hub of blogs will help you determine the areas that need improvement. It will also reveal how cleverly connected your articles are: your pillar will typically receive the most visits, but the cluster topics should also get traffic. If not, you need to rethink the family dynamic.

Creating content around pillar pages and topic clusters is more than a means to dominate search results. It serves as a great exercise to ensure you are offering your audience relevant content, becoming a resource for knowledge. That’s inbound marketing at its best. Answer to what people search. Sell the way people buy.

Interested in learning more about ways to optimize your inbound strategy?