This year, pillar pages (also called cornerstone pages) have emerged as one of the hottest topics in the world of SEO and content marketing. As search engines continue to distinguish more nuanced queries and deliver more refined results, many people in the content marketing and SEO worlds have looked to pillar pages as a way to keep their content search engine friendly.
So, is the hype real? Can pillar pages help your website’s SEO? The short answer is yes. The inbound marketing firm Hubspot conducted research that documents their own success with this strategy.
But in order to build a strategy that works for you, it’s important to get a clear understanding of
- what pillar pages are,
- why the industry took this approach, and
- how this strategy could help you.
By the end of this blog, you should be able to wrap your mind around all those things!
What is a pillar page?
Essentially a pillar page is a piece of content (usually a blog) that has two basic distinctions:
- the type of information that it contains
- its relationship to other content.
First, the information it contains. A pillar page is a high level, comprehensive overview of a topic. Even though the content is longer than a typical page (because it needs to be thorough), the information that it references has the potential to get a lot more granular or specific. (File away that fact about the potential for more granular information. It’s going to come up later.)
Here’s an example: You could write a pillar page about “Everything you need to know about picking out eyeglasses.” The post could talk about frames, online vs. eye doctor options, types of lenses, etc. That could give you a good overview of the topic, and it probably takes a decent amount of space to do it.
But you could still have particular needs that would lead you to look beyond the pillar page for more granular information, such as picking the right lenses for someone with astigmatism or finding frames that would hold up in extreme sports.
Second, the relationship to other content. Pillar content is set up to work as the hub in a hub and spoke model.
Remember all those opportunities to get more granular? Those are the spokes. So having a pillar page implies that you also have a bunch of tangential pieces of content that relate to the pillar page. Those “spoke” pages are usually shorter because the topic is narrower.
This relationship between the pillar pages and surrounding pages is implemented through the content structure on the site. All the shorter, specific blogs link back to the pillar page. It’s also probably easier to navigate to the pillar page within the site hierarchy itself (although that’s not always the case).
Why are pillar pages becoming popular now?
So this system of organization may seem reasonable, but why is it cropping up all of the sudden? And how does it relate to SEO?
This all relates back to two big developments in the web landscape:
- Users have increasingly begun using more complex and conversational searches. (Voice technology such as Siri and Alexa encourage this!)
- There is more and more and more (and, to be fair, better) content on the web every day.
So users want more specific and relevant information to their nuanced questions, but there is more information than ever that search engines have to catalog to find the best answer for every query. What is a poor search engine to do?
I don’t feel too badly for the search engines. They’re rising to meet this need with flying colors—from Google’s 2013 Pigeon update that was a breakthrough in understanding phrases in context to RankBrain that uses AI technology to better understanding the intent of searches.
The bigger question is, “What is a content marketer or a website content owner to do?” For many, their response is organizing content into pillar pages. “Why is that their response?” you ask? Well, since you brought it up...
How a pillar page works (and helps your SEO)
By organizing and developing content in this hub and spoke model, a website owner gains several benefits that directly respond to the current nature of users' search habits and search engines’ ranking systems. Specifically, a pillar page approach,
- Makes it easier for a search engine to crawl a website’s content and figure out how the pieces relate to each other.
- Demonstrates that a website is more of an authority on the topic.
If a search engine has a better picture of the content on your website and sees that your content as an authority because it is so extensive and organized, your pages (especially those pillar pages) will be more likely to rank.
Pillar pages also have other benefits. If you have a thorough page with links to different, specific spokes, people are more likely to link to your page. Those links also a great sign for search engines.
Think about it this way: Say there are two blog sites out there about baking individual pastries (specifically, muffins, cupcakes, and scones). Blog A has a jumble of blogs such as, “Best Dried Fruits for Muffins” and “Cupcakes for a Summer Birthday Party.” The blogs are all very specific, and they are all mixed together.
Blog B has the same type of blogs as Blog A, but it also has a comprehensive overview blog called, “Everything You Need to Know About Baking Muffins,” with a similar blog each for Cupcakes and Scones. Every individual article links back to one of the major articles, so that even if you’re figuring out the best type of frosting to go with a caramel cupcake, you can easily glance back to see all the basics on baking a cupcake at the right temperature, using the right ingredients, etc.
In that scenario, it’s easier for a search engine to see that Blog B is writing about three big topics. In addition to a basic overview of each of those topics, it seems to have a large (and therefore authoritative) library of more specific content around those clearly defined areas of focus. Because this is also so evident through the organization of the site, the search engine can quickly verify the value of this content.
Getting Practical: How to Use Pillar Pages to Optimize Your SEO
So how can you start to implement this strategy in your blog? It can be a time-consuming process, but there are a couple of important first steps to take:
- Determine on what topics your company could write a blog called, “Everything you Need to Know about X.” Start with your top one to three topics, and these are your pillar pages.
- Identify what content you already have that revolves around those pillar blogs. Review the content and make slight tweaks to point all these pages back (through links or navigation) to the appropriate pillar page.
- Amend your content calendar to produce content around the pillars that you identified, making appropriate internal links.
Of course you could take steps to refine this process further, but these are important core actions. From there, you can monitor how it affects your SEO and adjust for the maximum ROI.