Search engine optimization (SEO) is a topic that’s in flux like never before. Whereas in the past, you could pretty much count on raking in the page views with solid keyword placement, there’s been another Google algorithm update. This time, it’s a significant game-changer for the way you create online content and structure it on your website.
Google recognizes that user research behaviours are shifting away from keyword-based search to a more natural search query. This fundamental shift if the way people use search is giving rise to "EAT". An acronym that stands for Expertise, Authority and Trust.
To gain "Expertise, Authority and Trust" for your content, you must develop semantically related topic clusters and associate a pillar post as the cluster's core topic. We'll show how the pillar becomes the hub for organizing your content around which will generate higher rankings on search engine results pages (SERPs). We talk more about this change in our Content Marketing Guide - Pillar Strategy.
What is a Pillar Post?
A pillar post, AKA pillar page, is the central hub that a topic cluster is built around. A pillar page covers a core topic in-depth on a single page and can be 2k-10k words in length. The pillar would be supported by related subtopic content on their own blog posts. The pillar would hyperlink to all subtopic posts with reciprocal link from each post back to the pillar page.
Understanding Topic Clusters
It all goes back to the way that users search for information online. In the distant past, a user might type in a keyword. This singular keyword would then bring up a broad range of results. Some of them wouldn’t really address the user’s query or only do so tangentially.
After a while, users graduated to typing in a keyword phrase. This would narrow down search results. It also signaled to search engines that they needed to step up their games. Internet users weren’t happy with the information they received. Not surprisingly, search engines revamped the ways they ranked content.
Today, search queries take on an almost conversational tone. Case in point is the search for a sales consultant. A user might search for a company that provides this service by typing in “sales consultant near me.” Google’s AI understands to factor in the user’s location and find a professional of this type from within the search results.
An Emphasis on Conversational Queries Drives Content Cluster Preference by Search Engines
Of course, for the business owner who wants to be found, this means the need to change the ways they put together their online content. Website content must now reflect an answer to “sales consultant near me.” It’s no longer enough to simply rank for “sales consultant.” Experts suggest that this change in use is due in part to voice searches from mobile and home assistant devices.
Next, there’s a decrease in the human attention span. It has decreased below 12 seconds, which puts our ability to focus below that of a goldfish. For the internet user, this means skimming content rather than taking the time to read search results, blog posts, and even page content in depth. For the business owner, this now requires the ability to provide pertinent information in easy-to-consume snippets.
The natural outcropping of this change is the topic cluster. Search engines exist to serve users. They want to provide the answers that are most closely aligned to what the user actually searches for. Therefore, individual keywords are now taking a backseat to thought patterns.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) Understands Meaning, Which Changes the Way Web Designers Must Present Content
A large part of this revolution in content is the involvement of Google’s AI. Machine-learning has led to a reinterpretation of what you meant instead of what you said. That’s why users will receive accurate results even if they used an incorrect word or letter in their queries. It’s far from perfect, but it changed the playing field.
There used to be a time when you could intentionally rank for a misspelled keyword. These times are now over. If this setup is still part of your SEO strategy, it’s time to make changes.
While this understanding requires a complete change in the way you provide content, it also applies to the way you organize the content.
- Specific keyword ranking. In the past, this was the best way to put together a post or page. It would attract the attention of a search engine. However, when you put a dozen of keyword-ranked posts on a page, it gets messy. Therefore, specific keyword ranking is out as the sole means of attracting attention.
- URL competition. An outcropping of the old post organization method is the competition between URLs. This competition doesn’t mean that more of them show up high in the SERPs. In fact, the opposite could be the case. The goal of any web designer must, therefore, be an elimination of URL competition from the same site or page. Otherwise you’re at a disadvantage when you compare your rankings to those of the closest competition who already made the switch.
- Clusters solve the problem. Instead of competing URLs, you now cluster your content that relates to one another. For example, you might decide that you want to be found under “sales consultant near me” and choose to cluster posts around this topic. At the center of each cluster, there’s the pillar post or page. It ties together the clusters and makes sense of them. It also signals to search engines what the page is all about.
What is a Pillar Page?
It’s fair to say that pillar content is the basis on which you build topics clusters. Clusters have to group around something. Otherwise, you’re back to the old website structure. However, with a pillar post on hand, you make sense of the clusters that surround it. You develop an orderly structure that the search engine rewards with higher rankings in the SERPs.
In our example, “sales consultant near me” would become a pillar. It’s a broad topic. It can host content that explores the various elements of an effective sales consultancy. Moreover, it can be localized to reflect material that focuses on local SEO. All clusters that relate to this pillar link back to it. They do so with one particular key phrase. This setup further highlights the connectivity between content pieces.
The trick here is to keep the pillar’s SEO broad and the topics’ narrowed down. Therefore, pillar content effectively eclipses the length of the typical page. It won’t offer in-depth details on the subject. However, it touches on its various elements. In a way, it offers teasers or snippets that show the user what they can find. For the user, the pillar setup is an answer to specific and typical queries. Landing on it results in the ability to select in-depth content.
This change in content organization provides a more organic content consumption opportunity for the user. There’s no longer the need for long strings of related keywords. Instead, the user has the ability to spend less time thinking through queries and more time interacting with the search results. Of course, it means that you need to get on board with the latest change in SEO.
Think of the pillar as an introduction to the topic. It offers a beginner’s guide to the information. The individual clusters provide expansions on the topic elements. Since they cover different aspect, they don’t duplicate content that’s already on the pillar site. Moreover, they offer answers to specific questions that keep the user on your website.
If this were college, the pillar would offer “sales consultant near me 101” whereas the individual clusters would provide 102, 103, and similar content.
How Do You Put a Pillar Page Together?
Clearly, you want to put together the ideal pillar post. You want it to be everything the user needs and nothing they don’t want. This recognition calls for some finesse. Most importantly, you have to move away from the old way of doing business and thinking about topics.
In the past, any type of content creation was strictly keyword-driven. Keyword research was the gold standard for anything that went up. Today, you need to adopt a broader approach. It’s now about ideas. What actual questions does the user type into the search field?
As a result, searches are now concept-driven. Therefore, you need to begin thinking in broader concepts when determining your content strategy. At the same time, any idea must be sufficiently narrow to function as a pillar page. Granted, this sounds like a tall order, but once you get the shift in thinking, it makes perfect sense.
Consider that “sales consultant” is a broad term. “Sales consultant near me” narrows it down sufficiently to allow for content cluster creation around it. Unless you plan to feature general posts on sales consultancy, the slight tweak of the topic creates an ideal pillar setup.
Here’s another way of thinking about it: Does your pillar term answer a searcher’s question? Would it entice them to visit your pillar to get more information on the topic? If it’s too narrow, it might turn off more searchers than it attracts. In contrast, if it’s too broad, its generic character turns people away. As Goldilocks would say, it has to be “just right.”