Contents: Topic Clusters & Pillar Pages
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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 get (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).
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 for 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.
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 clusters 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.
Before you get started it with topic clusters, pillar pages, and subtopic pages there are two important things you should have been taking care of.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Your core topic is now set in HubSpot and the topic clusters you will use, has now been created.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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. If you want, you can check our page on HubSpot Development to see how we could help you create the perfect pillar page for your organization. Here you’ll find a few great examples of pillar pages with a good design.
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 expend your pillar page.
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.
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, video’s, 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:
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:
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.
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. This 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).
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.
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.
It’s important to regularly report on the success of your topic clusters. This will help you in 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 on a regular basis.
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?
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?
To give you truly all the best information there is on this topic we asked Brigitta Edberg to share her thoughts. We are happy to include four amazing tips from her.
Birgitta Edberg is an experienced leader and strategist passionate in Digital Transformation, Customers Experiences and Growth Marketing. She has 20+ years of experience in leading digital journeys. She works as a researcher on the business impact of changes in technology, market and consumer behavior. She is the author of Social Nätverksekonomin i Nätverksekonomin and founder of Thinking Media.
People today are getting exposed to between 4000 and 10000 commercials per day, depending on their lifestyle. If it’s not relevant people find it annoying. Leave the traditional marketer push mindset which focuses on people’s transactions and get into the connection logic.
Think more like a publisher than a marketer to get the right tone of voice. You are a problem solver, open to people’s questions in community forum and be generous with tips. The goal of the People to People-strategy, P2P, is to connect human to human. Meet the questions to build relations; Do I know you? Can I trust you? Over time your relations will create awareness and will become the first one to ask for problem solutions just in time when people need it. Trust is almost as important to consumers as quality and value, shows this study.
More than 70% of B2B buyers fully define their needs before engaging with sales. Meet individuals in their decision buyer journey with content that mirrors their problems and give them tools to solve it. You are more successful if your content is less product-focused. Imagine how the context could look like in the customer journey, test your hypothesis and learn from feedback.
The mobile connected individual expects to satisfy needs with the right content at the right time in the preferred channel with the right peers. The traditional marketing target group thinking does not fit that demand. People change jobs and contexts; needs and problems are often unpredictable. Be personal. We want to feel unique and to be treated as someone special. Build content for that and organize it with marketing automation tactics.
It’s easy to push content in different channels, it takes more to listen carefully and interact in community dialogues. Explore your customer needs and co-create content with them. Use common questions and feedback as a source for writing new blog posts. Write Google Snippets answering the user’s question instant when they google it.
Google values what people are searching for, that’s why common questions come instantly in the search field and show the Snippets. Not only do they add value to the visitor, but search engines also recognize the value and curate your media to surface in featured snippets. Look for common questions and write excellent answers, to get traffic to your web site and service.
So what happens after you have attracted and engaged prospects and leads to your web site, app or service? How can you delight them? People get more impatience and have high expectations for experiences. 53% of mobile site visits leave a page that takes longer than three seconds to load, shows this study. Customer Experiences are crucial. If you write good content and gain five new users while losing three existing ones, and you’ve only grown by two. If retention doesn’t factor into your marketing, you’re cutting your acquisition efforts off at the knees.
You invest a lot to attract visitors to your web page with campaigns or social media impact, now it’s time to catch their pain points in the customer journey. Frictions in the customer journey can destroy the delight of your brand and is often an effect of silos thinking.
So, level up and become a growth marketer. Growth marketing is focusing on the entire sales funnel, whereas traditional marketing limits itself primarily to just the top of it – the acquisition stage – getting visitors to your page. You need the visitors to try the service that you provide to deliver and delight the customer experiences. Always keep an eye on the churn metrics and learn from it. And work as a growth marketing team to ensure a delightful customer journey and empower customer success. Put on a learning mindset and build a marketing experiment, measure the impact and improve.
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 their content around topic clusters. Enjoy!