a woman with a ribbon demonstrates how SEO-friendly pillar pages work

Once upon a time, content on the internet was cataloged so people could find it. Then along came Google, which gave browsers the opportunity to simply search for what they wanted. What ensued was a kind of space race between the search engines trying to become ever more relevant to their users and the sites who want to be the top of those search rankings.

Writing authoritative content and organizing it sensibly is the top strategy for search engine optimization – or SEO. Developing a cluster page strategy is vital to remaining competitive for the keywords your customers use when searching for what you do.

What is a Pillar or Cluster Page Strategy?

When we talk about a cluster page strategy, we’re talking about the development of a single extremely compelling piece of written content – a pillar – that is connected via links to several other pages that help build its authority – generally blogs. I like to think about the pillar page like a maypole: The pole is solid, sturdy, and rooted in your site. The cluster pages are the ribbons: beautiful, flashy, and connected to the world.

How Do Cluster Pages Work on SEO?

Done well, the strategy works by showing Google that the pillar page has authority because other pages are linking to it. The keywords used in the pillar page title, headings, URL, and text all reinforce that this a valuable piece of content. The blogs linking to it use similar words, especially in their link text, which helps to reinforce its value.

It sounds simple, and it is in principle, but doing this well takes a lot of effort and planning.

What Should My Pillar Page Include?

Most importantly, the pillar must be original, deep, authoritative content about a single subject. For example, if it’s a pillar about Nurture Email Testing Best Practices, it should include detailed information about what a nurture email is, how to set SMART goals, why you’d want to test, what to measure, how to test, how to make sense of your data, and how to report.

If your goal is to sell something related to that subject, make sure your pillar page has that information as well. But remember, this is not a sales page. Leave the features of your product for other pages and focus on building the best content you can.

The pillar should also link to all its cluster pages (ie: blogs) using relevant keywords as the linked phrases. Because they contain a huge amount of detailed information, they’re generally very long – over 2000 words in most cases.

What Should My Cluster Page Blogs Include?

These are the ribbons on your maypole that connect it to the dynamic world around it. Cluster page blogs should be informative, engaging, and up-to-date. I often say: Write for humans first and search engines second. Google will not think your content has authority if no one clicks on it.

These pages are your opportunity to educate, entertain, and build brand recognition. Frequently, these blogs hook into a social, email, or advertising campaign that gives their authority a head start. Make sure they have relevant links back to the pillar page for your pillar strategy to stand up.

How Do I Know What to Write About?

Once you’ve decided you want to develop a cluster page strategy, where do you start? As always, start with your keywords. Spend a bit of time with Google, and ask yourself the following:

What are the keywords you want to rank for?

Use your organic search traffic or AdWords to figure out what people are searching for around your area of authority. Going back to our Email Nurtures Testing Best Practices example, you might do some keyword research and discover that the main keyword you want is email nurture RoI and that some related keywords are sales email testing and nurture email MQLs.

What are the things your company does or knows better than anyone else?

This is a good time for a gut check: Are these keywords closely related to your product or service? If the answer is yes, keep going.

Next, supplement your keyword research with your internal resources. What do you know about these subjects? Who in your company knows about them? What research or third-party sources are available? Original insights are the best sources for both humans and search engines but if you don’t have internal resources, a skilled rewrite of third-party information is almost as good.

What keywords is your competition ranking for?

This research will help you discover content ideas you might have missed as well as places you can be competitive.

Where are the gaps in authoritative content?

This is the key to cluster page success. You can work yourself hoarse creating the most compelling content in the world but if your competitor has that niche sewn up with a successful cluster, you’ll be hard-pressed to knock them out of the top spot. Google prioritizes popular content so pages at the top of search rankings tend to stay there.

The real trick is finding a niche that is currently unoccupied where there is still demand. Maybe there’s less demand for Nurture Email Testing Best Practices for Campaign Monitor than there is for Nurture Email Testing Best Practices for Marketo but if there is near-zero content available for Campaign Monitor users, you can lead in that space. Think a little obliquely and you can have great success.

SEO has really grown up in recent years and for what it’s worth, I’m glad. Gone are the days when keyword stuffing will get you anywhere. The search engines, led by Google, have forced the industry back to basics and made sites recognize that if they want the traffic, they’d better give good value. And isn’t that what we all want?

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Lyndal Cairns has produced successful cluster page content for technology companies, including SaaS. Get in touch to start building your SEO content campaign.