The Guide to HubSpot Topic Clusters & Pillar Pages
Written by Tobias M. Pasma
The Guide to HubSpot Topic Clusters & Pillar Pages
- Last updated: 29 November 2019
The goal of this guide is to provide you with everything you need to know about topic clusters, pillar pages, subtopic pages, and HubSpot’s SEO tool.
Let's get started!
1. Introduction into Topic Clusters
1.1 How do search engines work?
To understand how to create effective topic clusters, it is important to understand how Google works. Whenever someone enters a search query, Google starts going through all the pages they have indexed and serves a list of results to the searcher, starting with the most relevant result.
Now to find which page fits best to which search query, Google uses an algorithm. This algorithm has over 200 different factors and gets (minor) updates about 500 to 600 times a year. But all changes go in the same direction: a better result for the searcher. The bigger updates on the algorithm usually get an animal name like Panda (content), Pigeon (local search), Hummingbird (searcher intent), and Penguin (backlinks).
1.2 Searcher intent
Thanks to the Hummingbird update and the Rankbrain component in the Google Algorithm, Google is now able to very clearly determine the intent of the search. This is what we call Semantic search, which means the meaning of the search is understood, even though it might be implicit.
Back in the day, you would optimize one page for one keyword. You would make a page focus on the keyword ‘compare mortgage types’ and a second one for ‘differences in mortgage types’. But this is no longer needed. Google understands that it is very well possible that both these search queries and many others, can be answered with the same page.
1.3 The SEO tactic of Topic Clusters
So, the algorithms have now changed in such a way that the search engine interprets the topic of the content. As a result of these changes, the tactic of topic clusters was developed.
A topic cluster is a group of pages on a website linked together. All pages in this cluster have the same general topic but explain different perspectives or explain subtopics more in-depth. In the center of this topic cluster is your pillar page: a page that extensively explains the core topic.
Using topic clusters helps to create better visibility of your content for search engines. It makes it easy for them to better identify your content and the context of your content. Topic clusters are a powerful tactic for search engine optimization.
This video by HubSpot gives a great, short, and sweet explanation of how search engines work and why topic clusters are a perfect tactic to go along with this.
2. Prerequisites for starting with Topic Clusters
Before you get started with topic clusters, pillar pages, and subtopic pages, there are two important things you should have been taking care of.
2.1 Buyer Personas
Firstly, you want to make sure you have your buyer personas profiles ready. A buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers. This is something that should have (or will be) included in your inbound marketing strategy.
2.2 Google Search Console
Make sure you have Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) set up for your website, using your own Google Account. If you haven’t, don’t worry. It’s a rather simple process. You create your account, add your domain and verify your ownership. These articles by Google will guide you through the steps.
2.3 Google Search Console integration
Once you have Google Search Console set up, make sure to integrate it with HubSpot. This will provide you with valuable data right into your HubSpot tools. Navigate to ‘integrations’ in your HubSpot portal, search for Google Search Console and follow the instructions. If you need more guidance on the steps to follow, this article by HubSpot will be of good help.
3. Finding the right core topic for your topic cluster
The core topic will be the subject of your pillar page. This topic should be educational but also has a direct alignment with the core business of your organization.
3.1 Collecting core topic ideas
The first place you want to look for a great core topic is your buyer persona profiles. Find their most important challenges.
The next you want to do is group these challenges into some three to five main problems your buyer personas experience. These should be short and sweet. For example, Lead Generation, Employee Engagement, or Talent Acquisition would all be great core topics.
Choose which core topic has the highest priority and use that to create your first pillar page.
The symptoms of the challenges can later be used as subtopics.
3.2 Validate your core topic
Now that you have a good idea of what your core topic is going to be, you can start validating it. You want to do this in a few different ways.
Validating with Google
Search for your selected core topic. Find out if others are ranking for this topic, how strong that content is and if you can create something better. Make sure that this is the topic you want to be seen as a thought leader and want to rank for in Google.
Validating with HubSpot
- Go to the SEO tool in your HubSpot Portal (Marketing > Planning and Strategy > SEO);
- Click ‘Add a topic’;
- Make sure you have the right country selected in the top left;
- Enter the topic you’ve decided on in 3.1 and click ‘Add.’ You can add a few variations to find the wording with the highest ‘Monthly Search Volume’ and lowest ‘Difficulty’;
- Select the topic you want to use;
- Click ‘Create topic’ in the banner (bottom left).
Your core topic is now set in HubSpot, and the topic clusters you will use have now been created.
4. Finding the right subtopics for your topic cluster
Where a pillar page covers all aspects of the topic on a single page; the subtopic pages will cover more in-depth the subtopics related to your core topic. So, to get a broader image of the subject people will click from your subtopic content to your core topic content. The other way around, people will click from your core topic content to your subtopic content to get a deeper understanding or explanation.
4.1 Collecting subtopic ideas
Now the first thing you want to do is to find the most commonly searched questions around your core topic. Maybe you have some symptoms of the challenges named from step 3.1. You can start using those. Other places where you can get a suggestion on possible subtopics are:
- Questions have listed in your buyer journeys;
- Take a look into relevant industry forums, groups on Facebook and LinkedIn, hashtags on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. This might give some great insight into the hottest / most important subjects related to your core topic;
- Go to answerthepublic.com to find searches that occur around your core topic (data from Google’s Autocomplete);
- Use Google Trends to find related queries (right bottom). Make sure you check both the Top Queries and Rising Queries.
4.2 Validate your subtopics
You should now have a pretty good list of subtopics you can use in your topic cluster. It’s time to find the best of the best and start validating it. You want to end up with about five to ten of your strongest subtopics. There are a few different ways to go about this.
Validating with Ubersuggest
You can also use to find suggested and related keywords for your subtopics. But what we are now want to use it for, is to find the subtopics with the highest search volume (VOL) and the lowest organic competition (SD). So move over to Ubersuggest, put your subtopics in and keep the best.
Validating with HubSpot
- Go to the SEO tool in your HubSpot Portal (Marketing > Planning and Strategy > SEO);
- Click on the topic you created in step 3.2.2;
- Click ‘Add subtopic keyword’;
- Enter the keywords you’ve decided on in 4.2.1 and click ‘Research Subtopic Keywords’.
- HubSpot generates a list of keywords related and shows the ‘Monthly Search Volume’ (this number might differ from the one you’ve seen in Ubersuggest).
- Select the topic you want to use (and has a high Monthly Search Volume.
- Click ‘Save’
5. Creating a pillar page for your topic cluster
Now that you have your core topic defined, it is time to make the actual pillar page. We’ll take a look at both the design and the content creation aspects of the pillar page.
5.1 Pillar Page Design
Your pillar page will hold a whole lot of information on your core topic. Even though you don’t explain everything in-depth on this page, you should still aim for it to be at least 4000 words, sometimes it might even go up to 15000 words. Because it is such a long page, there are a few things in the design of the page that need some extra attention:
- Navigation: The longer your pillar page, the more important it becomes to have great navigation. It is a critical part of your pillar page. Use anchor links in the menu to send people to the right place on the page.
- Content variation: Imagen seeing a few thousand words, some headings, some subheadings. Would you want to dive further into that page? No. Make your pillar page attractive with a larger variety of content. Include quotes, infographics, videos, interactive elements, additional resources to download, or even a quiz on your page. This will have a few great benefits; it will entice more readers to go through the page, it will increase the time spent on the page and it becomes a more shareable (and bookmarkable) resource.
- CTA’s & Lead Generation: Some might say you should only put one CTA on every page, but for a pillar page, this is a bit different. Make sure you give visitors the opportunity to download the page as a PDF, sign up for updates, or to download additional resources like spreadsheets, courses, or templates. Even though the biggest focus of your pillar page is to gain organic traffic, you shouldn’t ignore the great lead generation opportunities.
HubSpot Templates & Inspiration
There are a few free pillar page templates available in the HubSpot Marketplace. But I would always suggest creating a custom one that perfectly fits in with your branding, needs, current pages, and code. This way you can also make sure that you include the three features mentioned here above in the correct way.
When building a template in HubSpot for your pillar page, make sure you don’t do more work than needed. You might already have a great variety of custom modules available to use in your pillar page template. You might need to create some extra modules for the navigation on your page, but you might be able to reuse modules for CTA banners, text, and images.
One extra tip when building a pillar page template: use flexible columns to keep it easy to adapt and expand your pillar page.
5.2 Pillar Page Content Creation
Whatever you do, or how you decide to write your pillar page: make sure you always keep your buyer persona in mind; he or she is the one that will consume the content and they have to find it as valuable as possible. If you only need 3000 words to explain your core topic, don’t force yourself to write 1000 more.
Make an outline
Before you start writing, make an outline. Start with writing down the chapters of your pillar page. Then create a subtitle for every paragraph in the chapter. Lastly, write down shortly what you want to say in every paragraph. And you’re done. I personally like to create an outline that just exists of bullets, but maybe something else works better for you.
If you have to start from scratch with writing your pillar page it might seem like a lot of work. But you already have an outline ready. Just start filling in the caps. Block time in your calendar to write and make sure there are no distractions when writing. You’ll be surprised how fast it can go.
If you’ve already been doing inbound marketing or content marketing for some time, there is a good chance that you don’t have to start from scratch when writing your pillar page. Find the content that you already have on the core topic. This might include blogs, whitepapers, videos, e-books, webinar recordings et cetera.
Once you have a lit of all your available content ready, go through it to determine the best format for repurposing the content. HubSpot uses the ACE method for this:
- Adjust: Some content you already have might need to be adjusted. Maybe you need to rewrite or maybe you have to put it in a different format.
- Combine: Maybe you find two (or more) pieces of content that could be perfectly combined into something that brings new insights or more value.
- Expand: Some content might just not go deep enough to be of much value on this pillar page. In this case, you could maybe add some parts and paint a bigger picture for your readers.
5.3 Adding your pillar page to the topic cluster
Let’s not forget: you want to actually set your newly created pillar page in the HubSpot SEO tool as the core attribute. Follow these steps:
- Go to the SEO tool in HubSpot.
- Click on the name of the topic cluster you wish to add a pillar page to.
- Click ‘Attach content URL’ on the core topic bubble.
- Search for the pillar page you’ve created. Click on it. It is now added as the pillar page in your topic cluster.
6. Creating subtopic pages
It’s time to start building out the linked content that helps establish authority for your pillar page. Subtopics are shorter pieces of content that answer a specific question about the core topic covered on your pillar page.
6.1 Writing subtopic pages
Subtopic pages can be any kind of page on your website, like a regular page you can find in your top menu, a blog, or a landing page. However, you want to make sure you always avoid ‘thin content’ when you create your subtopic pages.
What is thin content exactly? Content that provides no or little value to the reader. These can be pages with just very little content or doorway pages. But also pages with scraped or duplicated content are considered thin content. Even pages with non-valuable or low-quality content can be considered thin content. Google has gotten better and better at this and is continuing to improve here (Panda Updates).
6.2 Linking your subtopic pages
Once you have created your first subtopic page, it is time to connect it to the pillar page in the HubSpot SEO Tool. Before you actually navigate to the tool, make sure you have a link included from the subtopic page to the pillar page and vice versa.
Once in the SEO tool, click on the subtopic you have written the page for and click ‘Attach Content URL’. Search for your new page (if created in HubSpot) or use ‘Add external URL’. If you did include a link in your subtopic page, the SEO tool will show this too, by changing the color of the connection between the two from grey (or red) to green.
6.3 Strengthen your topic cluster
Keep creating content to strengthen your topic cluster. Write new blogs and pages that answer more of the questions you found in step 4. Make sure you always link from your subtopic pages to your pillar page, and vice versa.
7. Analyzing your topic clusters
It’s important to regularly report on the success of your topic clusters. This will help you guide content production for new subtopic pages or pillar pages. There is two way to measure the success of your topic clusters in HubSpot. Both provide you with different metrics, but both are interesting enough to take a look at on a regular basis.
7.1 Topic Cluster Performance in the SEO tool
By now you probably know where to find the SEO tool in HubSpot. Head over there, click the topic cluster you want to analyze, and click on ‘Content Performance’ in the left upper corner, just below the name of the cluster.
The first thing you see is your pillar page and key metrics. The defaults are Time on Page, Inbound Links, Bounce Rate, and Link to the pillar page. Further down see a list of the subtopic content linked to the pillar page, displaying the same metrics. However, you can make changes to the metrics displayed (click ‘Switch Columns’ in the righthand corner). See the full list of metrics and definitions below.
So, what do these metrics mean?
- Time on Page: The average amount of time a visitor stays on the page.
- Inbound Links: The number of links from other websites pointing towards one of the pieces of content within the topic cluster, and which actually generated real traffic.
- Bounce Rate: The number of sessions with exactly one analytics event, divided by the total number of sessions. In other words: the percentage of people that only viewed this page and didn’t click through to anything else on your website.
- Link to pillar page: Is there a link on this subtopic page that links to your pillar page or not?
- Views: The number of times a visitor viewed this content from a search result.
- Average Position: The average spot in the list of Google search results where this page appears. The lower the number, the higher your page is ranking (GSC integration required – see 2.3).
- Total Impressions: The total number of times this page has shown up in Google search results (GSC integration required – see 2.3).
- Average Click-Through Rate: The total number of times people have clicked on this page in Google search results divided by the total number of times this page has appeared in Google search results. A high clickthrough rate means your page title and meta description match what people are searching for. (GSC integration required – see 2.3).
7.2 Topic Cluster Analytics
The second place to analyze your topic clusters is in the HubSpot Analytics Tools. Navigate to Reports – Analytics Tools – Traffic Analytics. You will now see the Sources report. In the left corner, click on Topic Clusters.
Here you are able to view some different metrics on your topic clusters. You are also able to deeper click into the topic clusters to view the same metrics for the subtopic pages. Here too you are able to make changes to the metrics displayed (click ‘Edit Columns’ in the right corner above the table with metrics). See the full list of metrics and definitions below.
So, what do these metrics mean?
- Sessions: The number of organic traffic sessions that started with a view to content in a topic. Same as Views mentioned in 7.1.
- Contact conversion rate: The number of contacts divided by the number of organic traffic sessions.
- New contacts: This is the number of new contacts whose organic traffic session started with a view to any content in this topic cluster.
- Customer conversion rate: The number of customers divided by the number of organic traffic sessions started with a view to content in a topic.
- Customers: This is the number of customers generated from any of the content within your topic cluster. This is based on the first-touch attribution.
- Bounce rate: The number of sessions with exactly one analytics event, divided by the total number of sessions. In other words: the percentage of people that only viewed this page and didn’t click through to anything else on your website.
- New visitor sessions: The number of new unique visitors to a page within a topic.
- New session %: The percentage of new visitors’ organic traffic sessions that started with a view to content in a topic.
- Pageviews/sessions: The average number of page views per organic traffic session.
- Session length: The average duration of a visitor’s organic traffic session. Same as Time on Page mentioned in 7.1.
8. How HubSpot uses topic clusters
As a little bonus, I would like to include this video from INBOUND17. The video as a whole is great, but I would like to highly the part from 23:35. This is where Leslie Ye explains how HubSpot moved into structuring its content around topic clusters. Enjoy!
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