To boost the search performance of your website and content, you need a strategy
By strategy, I do not mean:
- Link farms
- Keywords stuffing
- Buying links
- SEO squatting
- Creating social media accounts for your pets so you can generate social search links back to your website.
Yes, that last one is a real ‘Grey-hat’ SEO technique, and not one I would recommend, no matter how much you love your cats (or how much your cats love your products).
With every algorithm change Google introduces, it becomes harder and harder to ‘game’ the system. So why try? It’s a good system, designed to bring relevant search results to people who need them.
Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do here? Bring your solution to the people who need it?
But you might think that, unless you smudge a few ethical lines, you can’t get ahead of the people who do. There is a better way. But, it’s going to take some major reorganization of your content.
The technique is referred to as 'Topic Clustering' or 'Pillar pages'
Topic Clusters Help Get You Found
An increasing number of search engine experts are now telling their clients to create content pieces which support each other, and thereby increase page authority, because when you write a series of posts about the thing you do, which interlink with each other, you’re building an internal content network of sorts. And Google can see that.
This isn’t necessarily a new thing, but the technique has had a resurgence because links have become one of the primary ways Google recognizes content in context.
Instead of paying a hundred bloggers to link to your website, which takes time and money, you can reap many of the benefits of those inbound links by linking your own content to your own content.
As noted by Rob Marsh from Brandstory:
“The strength of this strategy is the ability of the content (both pillar and cluster) to get links. That usually takes a ton of work/outreach to do well.”
The topic cluster model capitalizes on this - it’s a way of linking related content around categories, or “hubs”, which, in turn, link back to the individual blog posts that fall under that category.
So each post links to each related post, and back to the pillar page. This tells the search engine algorithm that the pillar page - the one with all of those links to related topics - is an authority on that topic.
To qualify this approach, Anum Hussain and Cambria Davies from Hubspot launched a series of experiments to put it to the test. They found that the more internal links, the higher the placement on search engine results pages - and subsequently, the more views each page had.
How to Construct Your Pillar Pages
Beth Carter, founder of Clariant Creative, has been using the topic cluster model for her own business and her clients. She says the best place to begin putting the pillar-cluster (aka. Topic cluster) model into practice is to:
- Decide what you want to be known for - On which topics would you like to be the authority? What answers do your customers most need, and seek?
- Find the keywords people use to search for what you offer - These keywords will become your pillar pages.
- Create Pillar Pages - Plan to write as many blog posts as it takes to make your pillar pages *complete* resources for each of your chosen topics.
If you’ve already been publishing blog posts, and they’re good (just delete them if they’re bad - they aren’t helping you), then follow steps 1 and 2, and see which of your good posts fall under your new keyword categories. Then you’ll have to go back and link those related posts to each other, and to the pillar page, and link the pillar page to those posts.
Then you can fill in any information gaps with fresh content.
Once you have your topics chosen, it’s time to actually write your pillar page. Choose a page title and link that contains the exact keywords people use. From there, you can put your pillar pages under a “Resources” tab in your main navigation menu, or have your pillar pages linked in your footer. Each website is different, but just be sure that people are able to find this incredible resource you’re creating for them.
On the pillar page itself, give an introductory overview of your topic which provides definitions, and points readers to the first few posts they should read to get started.
You can then create a directory-like list of your related posts, including brief introductory blurbs about what the reader will find there. If you need a writing prompt for those blurbs, try this: “Why will this post be useful to the reader? What will it help them do?”
Building Out Your Pillar Content
If you struggle with what to write about, pillar pages act like ready-made writing prompts. It can be as simple as making a list of “what do my customers need to know to successfully get the results they’re hoping for?” But, you can also get more technical and look at your long-tail keyword tools and customer research to make sure you’re creating relevant content your customers are looking for.
Personally, I'd recommend asking a few of your trusted, dedicated customers what they wish they’d known when they started with you. Creating content based on your ideal customers is the best way to attract more ideal customers.
Start with no more than three pillars to build out, because each of those pillar topics is going to require a substantial amount of high-quality content.
High-quality content doesn’t mean long posts, either - there’s a myth running around that 1-2K word posts are a guaranteed ‘in’ to Google’s good graces. But the fact is, as long as your content is genuinely helpful, actionable, and original - as long as it tells your customers everything they need and want to know - that’s all you need. If it’s useful enough for people to link to, unasked, that’s your marker for success. And if you can do that in 500 words or in a 5 minute vlog, so much the better.
As you add posts, link each subtopic post back to the pillar page using the same anchor text for each one. That anchor text should be that topic keyword phrase again.
This is how Google knows your post is part of a cluster set.
SERP Climbing Still Requires Engagement
Links are great for search engine optimization, to be sure, but links are not the only, or even the primary, criteria for website ranking.
Moz conducted a series of studies to find out which metrics correlated most to page ranking within the last two years, and it’s these:
- Time spent on site by visitors
- Bounce rate
These are also known as ‘engagement metrics.’
The pillar cluster model’s internal links help Google understand what your website is about, but that’s not all Google wants to do. It doesn’t show any old applicable page to searchers. Google’s mission is to show the best pages, the pages that answer the question posed in the most informative, most useful way.
Inbound links help to identify the most helpful content, because people don’t link to things that aren’t helpful, funny or interesting (or offensive, but that’s outside the scope of this post). But those engagement metrics are even more important than inbound links.
As Clariant Creative’s Beth Carter puts it:
“Inbound links used to be how they identified those, but engagement is a much more accurate sign of quality. Visitors stay longer, click around and watch the whole video, or read the whole post, only if the quality of the content is high.”
The pillar cluster model is designed to maximize those engagement metrics. When a user lands on the pillar cluster page, they’re directed to click around - pageviews. Once they find the piece of genuinely useful content they’re looking for, they’ll read all the way to the end - bounce rate. Then, they’ll want to read the next post, because it has even more information that they need to know - more page views, and possibly more links on social media too.
And all of this adds up to more time spent on the site - but these results are entirely dependent on how well your content serves your audience.
Quality is still King - but even Kings need support.