Many companies dedicate part of their website to providing advice on topics relating to the services they provide. They regularly publish in-depth, high-quality articles on a variety of topics. They also provide product pages, interviews, published studies and more. But this is frequently the crux of the problem. Existing content is rarely or only partially linked to other relevant content. There is no virtual “bracket” around content to keep it together. This makes it difficult for users to find the right content.
This is why we came up with the idea of building pillar pages while working on our client’s project. We started with just one pillar page. We have now developed several pillar pages and have analysed how successful they are.
What Are Pillar Pages?
Pillar pages have been used and discussed in online marketing for several years now. An article written by the software provider Hubspot was a key driver in the discussion. The software provider Ryte describes pillar pages as a “content format which reflects changing search behaviour and Google’s improved algorithm” source: https://de.ryte.com/wiki/Pillar_Page. Essentially, a pillar page is a comprehensive page of content which briefly outlines various aspects of a topic and then links to these “subtopics”, otherwise known as cluster content. Each cluster content page provides in-depth coverage of a subtopic and links back to the pillar page. This creates a topic cluster and is shown in the example below:
Why Users Love Pillar Pages
Pillar pages outline as many aspects of a broad and complex topic as possible. They are suited to users who want an overview of a topic. These users tend to type generic keywords into search engines or on-site searches, such as “private pensions”. On the pillar page, they can explore the different aspects of this topic. Ideally, the page includes a table of contents with jump links. By clicking internal links, users can jump from the pillar page to the cluster content that deals with the particular subtopic in detail.
Users who already know a great deal about the topic can delve into the in-depth cluster content pages right away by searching for “private pension equity funds”, for example. These users can then return to the pillar page from the cluster content and navigate to other in-depth content pages from there.
Using Pillar Pages to be Visible at the Top of the Marketing Funnel
Pillar pages are an easy way of making a variety of in-depth articles accessible. As opposed to an overview page or triage page – a page with a grid of text and image teasers with no additional text – a pillar page provides the most relevant information about the linked content. By setting up a pillar page around a generic, but preferably not too generic, topic, the page goes up in search engine rankings, creating more visibility for keywords associated with this generic topic. By linking relevant cluster content to the pillar page, this content will also rank better in longtail searches. This means that users are always provided with a relevant content page the moment they start looking for information. Ultimately, when users are provided with relevant content, conversions increase as well. This may translate to more requests for consultation, for example.
What Are the Benefits of Pillar Pages? An Example
We worked with one of our clients from the banking and insurance sector to design and implement pillar pages, and then analysed how successful these pages were. We have anonymised this example so as not to reveal our client’s name. For this reason, we have also generalised the topics of the pillar pages.
Best Practice for Pillar Pages
To create the pillar pages, we did the following:
- Looked for a suitable core topic: We started by identifying a suitable core topic. The topic couldn’t be too specific, but it couldn’t be too generic either. “Pensions” would have been too generic, “private pension equity funds” too specific. This is why we chose “private pensions”.
- Assembled the subtopics for the core topic: We worked together to develop the cluster content, i.e., the various subtopics related to the core topic.
- Developed the pillar page: On the pillar page, we described the core topic as well as each subtopic briefly and added links to the more detailed articles (cluster content). We frequently had to edit these.
- Set up a monitoring system: We included Google Search Console and Web Analytics Data in our assessment of organic visibility to ensure the analysis was detailed.
- Published the pillar page in the content management system
- Measured its success: We checked the position history of relevant keywords using Searchmetrics software and analysed how the ranking of the pillar page and the article on each main keyword changed. However, we were more interested in organic search traffic to the pillar page and cluster content URLs than their ranking.
How We Measured the Pillar Pages’ Success
When reviewing how successful the pillar pages were, we focused on two in particular:
- One page which summarises various recent content (two thematically related periodical market study series each focusing on one subtopic).
- Another page which summarises a topic related to pension schemes.
Results for the Market Study Series Pillar Page and Cluster Content
Initially, not much happened with the pillar page for the market studies:
- Phase 1: The market study from the previous year ranked as the best page for the generic keyword in positions 15 to 9 for several weeks.
- Phase 2: Several weeks followed in which the best-ranking URL changed several times. Around two months later, Google ranked the pillar page as the best page.
- Phase 3: Finally, seven months after publishing the pillar page, its ranking for the main keyword stabilised on the first page of search results.
As the ranking for the main keyword stabilised at the top, the way organic traffic was distributed changed. At the start, users conducting an organic search and making various search requests ended up at different cluster content pages, ie., the sub-pages for the market studies. Now most users arrive at the pillar page. In this case, the pillar page within this topic cluster clearly became the main entry page for organic traffic. This noticeable shift in traffic to the pillar page is remarkable. What is even more interesting is that the organic traffic to the pillar page and cluster content increased by more than 50%.
Results for the Pensions Pillar Page and Cluster Content
The ranking for the pillar page on the topic of private pensions also changed. However, it was the cluster content which moved up the rankings for longtail searches. The pillar page has not (yet) reached a top ranking for the main topic as another page on the client’s website ranks highly instead. This page is in the product section, i.e., outside the advice section, and is better linked internally than the pillar page. Because we originally “only” optimised pages in the advice section, we left the other page untouched. We essentially accepted this internal “cannibalisation” which allowed two content pages focusing on the same core topic to co-exist. However, we will address this issue in the medium term.
Despite this hiccup, traffic to the pillar page and cluster content is impressive. The pillar page and all the linked pages benefitted from our optimisation. Organic search traffic increased by more than 150%. There was more traffic to all content, which includes all cluster content articles and the pillar page.
What We Learned
The substantial increase in traffic is a positive sign. Moreover, this optimisation project taught both us and our client a great deal:
- Patience is key: Search engines sometimes take a lot of time to process changes in the index. Don’t jump to conclusions about whether or not pillar pages are successful too early on. It can take several months for the content to have an effect.
- Internal cannibalisation slows the whole process down: If there are other pages besides the pillar page that focus on the same main topic, then the pillar page cannot have the desired effect.
- Creating and optimising content is more important than “pillaring”: To be successful, you should start by creating high-quality content and systematically optimising individual content pages on a data-driven basis. Larger brands, in particular, see a positive effect very quickly. Structuring information into topic clusters ensures better access to content and more organic search traffic.
- Provide recent content: Providing recent content was key for the market studies topic we optimised. In SEO circles, there is a lot of talk about “Query Deserves Freshness” (QDF). People searching for “study on [pillar page topic]” want to find the most recent market study as quickly as possible. In our case, however, the pillar page was preferred over the more recent page detailing the market studies. Might it be the case that the main topic is not classified as a QDF topic as we expected? We will continue to monitor this closely.
- Internal linking is important for SEO: This is not news. This example just showed us, once again, how true this is. It also became very clear again that well-known brands with medium to large websites can do a great deal towards improving their internal linking while investing very little effort.
- Set up a monitoring process: Putting a detailed monitoring process in place in advance can help to identify the impact of optimisation. We recommend using software to monitor developments.
What Were the Key Factors for Success?
- A good overview of the topics & a preexisting network: Thanks to the expertise and structured approach of the members of our client’s team responsible for the content, as well as their close working relationship with internal stakeholders, we were able to identify all core topics and subtopics efficiently.
- Discipline in writing texts: By getting a content production agency involved, we were able to use their expertise in producing data-based content to create articles that were pleasant to read and relevant to users.
- Starting with what is already there: We started with existing articles. We rewrote or edited some articles and also used existing templates in the content management system. This meant that we were able to focus entirely on the content.
- Systematic monitoring: Thanks to a well-constructed and detailed monitoring process, we were able to observe the effects of our optimisation over weeks and months. Setting up the monitoring process required some additional work but it paid off.
- Human-centred design as a mindset: All articles and the pillar page focus on providing the information users need. The texts are not “marketing blah-blah”.
What Is Next?
We may well set up pillar pages for other content. We are particularly looking at better integrating product and advice pages, both in terms of the text used as well as the links between them. This will come with a greater workload, however, because we will need to get internal stakeholders, particularly product managers, involved as well.
Whenever we create new content in the advice section, we now systematically check whether a topic cluster can be created around it or whether the new content can be added as cluster content to an existing topic cluster.
In addition to measuring visibility and traffic, keeping an eye on conversions is also one of our priorities. As the topics in the advice section revolve around services that tend to entail a long customer journey, it is difficult to measure the extent to which an individual pillar page or cluster content page affects macro conversion, for example, by leading a customer to ask for a consultation or buy a product. Despite this, it is worth trying to improve how we measure conversion. There is not much point in generating a lot of traffic when it never results in conversion.
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