What are SEO pillar pages and how do they help you grow?

Phil Vallender

Phil Vallender

Jun 18, 2018

SEO

Pillar pagesA pillar page is a comprehensive website page optimised to rank for a specific, attractive head term - a short keyword with higher search volume and competition than related longer tail variants.

The world of SEO is constantly changing. In 2017 and 2018, marketers saw a rapid increase in the localisation and personalisation of Google's search results, along with the application of more artificial intelligence (AI) to users' search queries.

While these advances give users better results and have led to increase in rankings for many business in their home regions, they have also made SEO staples like keyword research and rank tracking harder and less accurate.

In light of this, SEOs have sought other ways to ensure consistent SEO gains. Out of this effort, pillar pages were born.

Read our step-by-step guide to B2B SEO here and master search engine  optimisation for your business today.

Pillar pages are the central idea in a website content organisation strategy intended to ensure that you gain maximum SEO benefit from the content you produce, by making sure that your pillar pages gain authority for specific topics and rank highly for lots of related search queries.

The history of pillar pages

The pillar page concept, in essence, is not new.

Brian Clark of Copyblogger wrote an excellent article in 2007 in which he described "cornerstone content". Clark states that comprehensive, flagship content supported by blogging is the best bet when trying to rank for keywords that are important to you.

Yoast's Joost de Valk expanded on that in 2015 when he wrote about the importance of structured internal linking for improving the ranking power of that cornerstone content.

In 2016, HubSpot made the discovery that the cornerstone content idea works well in a time when AI is interpreting the meaning of more and more search queries, by garnering high rankings for core topics that could appear in a wide range of long and natural format searches.

HubSpot has gone all in on this approach, coining the terms 'pillar page' and 'topic cluster', introducing a dedicated tool for it to their software, and, as is their tendency, sharing in great detail how they have tested, proven and scaled it.

The difference between 2007, when Clark wrote about the idea, and now is, I think, the understanding that you can take the pillar page idea beyond just a couple of key pages and apply it more broadly. Doing so can grow the number of head terms driving traffic to your site, give your content marketing enhanced structure and SEO impact, and improve your lead generation.

What makes a good pillar page?

Now that we know what pillar pages are, what makes a good one?

Well, to get the benefits of the pillar page approach, you need:

Comprehensive content

An effective pillar page is typically longer and more comprehensive than an average website page or blog post.

While content does not *have* to be long to rank for competitive keywords, multiple studies have shown that longer content is more likely to appear on the first page of many search results.

A 2012 study by SerpIQ (sadly no longer available online, but reported many times over by others such as here and here) looked at 20,000 search results and identified that the average length of the top 10 results was more than 2,000 words.

SerpIQ Average Content Length vs Position

Given that the aim of a pillar page is to rank well for a competitive head term, better to lean toward the longer side and give it a greater chance of success.

In addition, longer content tends to receive more social sharing and backlinks, meaning, once again, longer content has a better change of ranking more highly for competitive terms over time.

A good strategy for coming up with long form content is to simply write exhaustively on a subject. If you explain an interesting topic in full, and combine it with data, references, examples and evidence, you will almost certainly end up with a long pillar page on your hands.

Keyword research and search engine optimisation

The goal of every pillar page is to rank well for a competitive topic.

Selecting this topic in the first place requires careful keyword research. There is little point in creating pillar pages that target topics that are of little or no relevance to your offering. There is also little point creating pillar pages that compete directly with your main website pages - those should be treated as pillar pages in their own right.

The right topic for a pillar page is one step removed from a page that you would naturally put on your main navigation or customer journey. A closely associated topic with attractive monthly search volume that doesn't directly reference your products or services.

Once topics are selected and pillar pages created, don’t overlook basic SEO best practice.

The depth and breadth of long form content, plus the likely number of internal and external links in the piece, are all positive ranking factors - but all will be wasted without sound on-page SEO.

Meta title, meta description, title tags and image alt tags all need to be optimised for your target keyword, just as you would with any other page.

Consistent internal linking

While the creation of a keyword optimised pillar page is a positive step forward in its own right, the magic really happens when you place it at the heart of a 'topic cluster' by means of consistent internal linking.

By taking the existing, or creating new, supporting content on your website (usually blog posts) and linking it to your pillar page using the same keyword phrase that it is optimised for, you can improve its authority on that topic in the eyes of Google's algorithm.

Research conducted for HubSpot by Anum Hussain and Cambria Davies found that the more related pieces of content your can link to your pillar page, the higher your page can rank for search terms across the associated topic. This leads to more impressions and more traffic, as shown below.

HubSpot SERP Impressions vs Internal LinksSource: HubSpot

User experience optimisation

As we mentioned many times already, the best performing pillar pages are going to be long and comprehensive, describing many aspects of a relatively broad topic.

When this is the case, its good practice to go beyond the structure of a standard blog post and provide readers with more assistance for navigating and consuming the content.

Internal anchor links (jump links) and indexes are a good and simple way to start. Internal navigation, either in the form of a sidebar or sticky navigation menu, is even better. 

HubSpot Pillar Page NavigationExample pillar page navigation - HubSpot

Offering the content for optional download, so that your visitors can take it away and read it later, is another good gesture to make - you can also gate this option, just like you would an ebook or other lead magnet, bolstering your lead generation capability.

Pillar pages, three ways

If taking the pillar page approach, there are three types of pillar page you should consider creating.

Topic pillar pages

For keywords that are one step or removed from the ones that warrant their own page on your main website, this classic pillar page approach is ideal.

A topic pillar page needs to be well researched, comprehensive and valuable.

By optimising for terms that are closely related to but don't directly describe your offering, pillar pages can let you extract valuable organic search traffic from them without confusing website visitors as to what your offering is.

Again, it is essential that your pillar page topics appear frequently, yet naturally, throughout your other content affording you the opportunity to set up consistent internal links between them.

Un-gated ebook

A potentially quick way to spin up a pillar on a longer tail topic is to un-gate and ebook that you already have on the subject.

By un-gating the contents of an ebook, you can instantly have the kind of comprehensive content that pillar pages call for. Furthermore, all the content that was once hidden from Google in a PDF document can now be properly crawled and indexed, improving your SEO.

You should still give reader the option to download your ebook - this way you can continue to enjoy lead generation from it while also serving buyers who may be less inclined to submit forms.

Your ebooks might need some tweaking to work in the pillar page role, but at least most of the writing is already done.

Navigation pillar page

You should automatically think of all the website pages that talk about your products or services as pillar pages.

These pages should be optimised for the terms that buyers use to describe what you offer. This terminology should also be repeated through your blog posts and other contents, and linked to your navigation pillar pages.

Website pages that describe your offering should lean towards being longer and more comprehensive, effectively answering as many questions for your buyer as possible - within reason.

I wouldn't recommend going quite as long as the topic pillar page in this situation. But as these pages are close to your homepage hierarchically, and probably have incoming links from every page, in the main navigation, they already have a good chance of ranking when supported with internal linking from other content.

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