Building High-Performing Content Pillars: Your Ultimate Guide
Content pillars are an essential part of a brand’s content strategy and they serve a fundamental purpose: they provide a comprehensive, authoritative exploration of a topic that a reader can get everything they need on that subject in one place.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? While the concept of pillar and cluster content isn’t really new, many marketers face the initial challenge of creating an effective content strategy to address the full scope of questions, problems, or solutions they ultimately seek to deliver.
We’ll dive into some prime examples of pillar content from the web that successfully incorporate cluster content into their framework. But first, we must understand how pillar pages work in order to leverage them effectively. Let’s get started.
What Are Content Pillars? What Is a Pillar Content Strategy?
Pillar pages provide a substantive amount of information that can be divided into numerous formats such as ultimate guides, longreads, hub pages, and more. For digital marketers, it is an opportunity to create a better user experience and be rewarded by search engines with high-level, authoritative content.
Think of it as a destination that provides all the key information, in-depth, enough data to refer back to, a guide, a mini-encyclopedia, a “101” guide, if you will.
Whether you’re creating an informational guide or developing a landing page for a family of products to convert to a purchase, the pillar page should be optimized for a specific keyword or phrase that satisfies the searcher’s intent.
That being said, the content pillar is the center of your content hub, where cluster pages are interlinked with the pillar. It can be dissected and repurposed into smaller pieces of content that you can promote to your audience. From social media posts to emails, landing pages, gated content, or other channels where you market your brand.
What Are the Key Elements of Content Pillars? What Are the Examples?
Depending on your content marketing goals, there are three main types of pillar pages: the “Guide”, the “What Is”, and the “How-To.” We’ll look at examples of each type and see how they work.
For the “Guide” format, this webpage should provide an authoritative overview of the topic with various elements and pages that link to support it. The subtopics and supporting elements, whether they are blog posts, links to resources or products, related questions, FAQs, or videos are clustered around the pillar page’s main topic. Think of the pillar page as the “head” of your content marketing strategy, and cluster topics are the legs, arms, and torso that support your overall goal.
Let’s take an example of this pillar page from the Southern District of New York—a website that ranks on the first page of Google with the keyword phrase, “How to file for bankruptcy in New York.”
Titled “Understanding Bankruptcy,” the body of the text on this pillar page provides a high-level overview of bankruptcy law, outlining the major themes, chapters, and courts involved in both personal and corporate bankruptcy matters. It is devoted and optimized to provide the reader with everything they need in one place to properly and effectively get the information they need.
The left sidebar contains a list of topics such as free legal consultations, checklists and instructions, filing fee information, as well as FAQs and other related bankruptcy content pieces. These are cluster content topics that are highly related to the user’s search inquiry, and most likely recommended readings to supplement their knowledge of bankruptcy law.
The What Is
Long-form blogs can be excellent candidates for the “What Is” pillar page that covers a subject in great depth. If the subject matter is complex enough, you can break down the themes or subtopics into chapters and segments.
Here’s an example we created, “What Is SEO? A Beginner’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization.”
Each subtopic is organized by a linked table of contents on the left side of the main content that covers each piece in greater detail. Adding elements such as illustrations, videos, and graphs, each cluster is optimized for its specific purpose. Note that these visual elements are perfect for sharing on social media, email marketing, and other channels to promote the pillar content.
The How-To can be a powerful content asset for your brand, and an opportunity for you to position yourself as a subject matter expert. It can also be the ideal format if you’re targeting an audience with informational and transactional intents.
Healthcare.gov’s pillar page on how to apply for health insurance provides a well-structured, easy-to-navigate experience that delivers all the important information all in one place. Its developed cluster topics cover the important themes, frequently asked questions, plan comparisons, and more. Another highlight of this layout is that it also presents actionable content to the user so they can get started on the enrollment process right away.
How Do You Develop a Pillar Content Strategy for a Website?
As the great Sun Tzu famously said, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” While we are not discussing the art of war here, the importance of strategic thinking in content creation is essential in achieving the desired outcome of any marketing effort. Content without structure and purpose will ultimately fail for your brand, your customers, and search engines.
Here are the steps that should form the foundation for your content pillar strategy:
1. Identify your core topic and keyword
Identifying your core topic and keyword (head term) should both satisfy your user intent as much as it should attract search engine algorithms. What problem are you solving? What product or service are you offering? Who is your target audience, and what are their pain points?
As a starting point, go back to your buyer personas, and explore their pain points. For example, if your customers tend to struggle with juggling work and family life, content themes around family activities could be a good option.
To get to your customer better, perform interviews and surveys to gather details about what content they’re looking for. This will help you get a high-level understanding of what your pillar pages might focus on.
Next, identify your primary keyword or topic, and make sure it’s substantial enough to build a hub around. Look at the following factors:
- Search volume
- Competitiveness of your topic
- Relevancy to your audience and your product offering
- Potential of becoming an evergreen piece of content
Let’s go back to the example of a bankruptcy law firm, using the Semrush Topic Research tool. Based on the head term “bankruptcy law,” the tool suggests a number of topics to consider:
You can then filter your topics by Topic Efficiency, which takes into account the search volume and ranking difficulty.
Pro tip: To further expand your keyword research, use the Keyword Magic Tool that will help you further assess the selected keywords and find related keywords.
For example, if you consider creating your pillar page about filing for bankruptcy, you have find out whether the search volume and the keyword difficulty are optimal for your specific case.
Analyze Your Subtopics
Next, you’ll need to come up with a list of subtopics to form the cluster pages and create the structure for the pillar page. You would want your pillar page to touch base on all of these subtopics and link to the relevant articles uncovering them in detail.
It might be a good idea to create the cluster pages first to make sure your pillar page has all the relevant links from the start, delivering the maximum value to the reader. Besides, by starting with cluster content, you minimize the potential for duplicating content or cannibalizing what you already have.
Let’s say our bankruptcy law firm is creating a pillar content piece that serves as a “What Is” resource for their clients, they can create cluster content based on highly relevant questions including:
Using the Topic Research tool, you can keep exploring other themes related to your pillar page. For example, “Secured Debt” is one of the most efficient subtopics suggested, and it’s also marked as the trending topics.
Here you can take a deeper dive to see if these subtopics would align with your core objective.
If you think that some of the subtopics are powerful enough to become the cluster centers, click ‘Get ideas on this topic’ and keep exploring.
At this stage, you can also start deciding what format these subtopics will take—whether it’s a news article, blog, quiz, infographic, e-books, video, or something else. After you’ve identified your subtopics, it’s time to see if there’s already low-hanging fruit to optimize.
Pro tip: Add headlines, and questions to your Favorite Ideas in Topic Research so you can go back to them at any time.
2. Audit the Existing Content on Your Website
At this stage, performing a content audit of your website will help you determine whether you already have existing pages that could be modified, repurposed, and optimized for your pillar content strategy.
For websites that have hundreds, or even thousands of pages—this may seem like a daunting task. You can easily and quickly perform a content audit with the Semrush Content Audit tool that automatically and systematically runs it for you.
Performing the audit can help you identify whether you already have a candidate for a pillar page, or better yet—that you already have plenty of articles that could be restructured into a central pillar.
There are two additional benefits to this process.
- The first is that by updating and optimizing your existing content, you can avoid the pitfalls of cannibalization or duplicate content on your website. Having multiple pages on your website that discuss the same topic is neither a good user experience nor a favorable practice in the eyes of search engines.
- Secondly, the audit process allows you to re-evaluate your internal linking structure.
On the other hand, if you lack existing content to support a pillar page, you may need to reverse-engineer this process. Many content strategies can begin with creating the pillar page before the supporting cluster articles. It depends on what you already have, and what you’ll need to create.
3. Take a Look at the Competition
If you’ve identified a topic that you want to become an authority on, chances are you have competition vying for the same space. Next, you’ll want to do competitive content analysis on what their content marketing looks like to identify gaps, opportunities, and other areas for your own pillar content.
One of the best ways to leapfrog the competition in search (and for your readers) is to find areas where you can improve what’s already existing and build a more authoritative guide that your readers will find valuable. By analyzing the subtopics covered by your competitors and finding content gaps, you’ll be able to build a better, stronger, more comprehensive content pillar.
In short—you can look at what your competitors are doing, what they’re NOT doing, and what you could be doing to improve or fill a missing gap.
Pro Tip: Download this free Competitive Analysis Template that provides an actionable, explanatory guide with step-by-step instructions on how to analyze and document your competitor’s content strategy elements.
4. Create Your Content Pillar
Now that you’ve identified your main topic and your clusters, and have found an opportunity to shine among your competitors—it’s time to start creating the content!
Map out the Structure of Your Pillar Page
The next step is to collect all possible questions your pillar page will strive to answer and use them to design the structure of the article. According to our research, 47% of articles with advanced heading structure (H2 + H3 + H4) belong to the group of top-performing organic content.
Let’s see how this step could be automated using Topic Research.
Head to the subtopic of choice—for example, this one with the title “What is the downside of filing for bankruptcy.” You will be able to get useful insights on popular headlines and frequently asked questions collected from the entire web. Below you can also see the most popular related searches for this subtopic.
Using this information, you can come up with your unique headline and use the questions that build out the structure of your blog post. To illustrate, it looks like the question of pros and cons of filing for bankruptcy dominates is present in a big proposition of articles on this topic.
Next, you can see that there is a number of questions you can use to create an outline for this page:
- What does it mean to file for bankruptcy
- How to declare bankruptcy
- What are the consequences
- What are the benefits
Content Pillar Example: Boundless
While we’re using legal topics to describe effective pillar content strategies, let’s look at another powerful example from Boundless. Their page on how to get a green card through marriage ranks organically on Google in both positions 1 and 2, beating out Wikipedia’s page to boot!
The content on the pillar page features an anchored table of contents below the fold that addresses the most important cluster topics focusing on timelines, eligibility, costs, forms and fees, and interview process details.
You can easily see the structure of the content cluster, with all important links gathered on the pillar page and every possible related question and subtopic covered by the company. All this creates a great experience for the user and sends positive signals to Google.
Note that the page also incorporates strong calls to action to encourage the reader to apply right away. It also includes diverse content such as recent reviews from Trustpilot, additional resources about marriage green cards, and even an interactive green card checklist quiz.
5. Interlink, Promote, and Distribute Your Pillar Content
Interlinking your cluster content to your pillar page is an essential part of the information architecture. If you want your pillar content to rank, you’ll need to optimize your links (both internal and backlinks from external sources) to start getting traction.
Remember that the pillar page is the hub where the user can get access to all the information they’re seeking all in one place. Additionally, since you want to promote your pillar content as an authoritative resource, you’ll want to have a strategy for acquiring backlinks from high-quality sources, too.
Let’s look at the example of Adobe’s guide to Photoshop. Each corresponding subtopic (cluster) of the tool is linked in the left sidebar to other articles, video guides, and troubleshooting tips across the website.
This pillar page is effective because it features the most popular topics while incorporating all features of the tool as individual pages that have a single topic and focus keyword associated with it. For the user and a search engine, it provides an in-depth resource all in one place.
Content Pillar Promotion
As thoughtful and excellent as your content may be, it’s not going to benefit anyone if it’s not seen. That’s why having a definitive content distribution plan should be a vital part of your content marketing strategy. You wouldn’t spend 50 hours creating your content and only sharing it once, right?
There are a number of channels and methods to both internally and externally promote your pillar content. Here are some of the first places you can begin to increase traffic to your content:
One of the benefits of creating pillar and cluster content is that you automatically build a massive library of potential messages, ideas, and stories that can be broken down and repurposed for your audience on social media. If your content is based around an evergreen topic or idea: even better.
Looking back at Boundless’ guide to marriage-based greencards, they successfully break down key messages and facts from their pillar page, repurposing it to their social audience. Here’s a piece of cluster content—focusing on what documents are needed to apply—as a video post on Facebook:
You can experiment with different copy, graphics, and calls-to-action to distribute and promote your content forever. If you have a budget for paid promotion, consider boosting your best-performing organic posts to reach new audiences and expand your universe.
87% of B2B and 76% of B2C marketers are using email as an organic marketing vehicle, according to 2021 research from the Content Marketing Institute, making it one of the most popular ways to distribute content to a qualified audience.
Consider highlighting some cluster topics and creating multiple email newsletters to bring your email contacts back to your website. Not only could it generate immediate leads, but will support your subject matter expertise and spark up traffic to your website.
Pitch to Influencers
Reach out to bloggers, thought leaders, and other relevant influencers who would be interested in sharing your content. Using the Backlink Gap Tool can help you identify linking opportunities based on your top competitors to develop an outreach plan.
Don’t exclusively pitch your pillar content as a package—identify specific cluster topics, pages, visuals, and other elements that could be of interest to a backlink prospect. As a rule of thumb, your pillar content has the highest potential of getting lots of backlinks, since it covers the topic in-depth.
Depending on your budget, you could also pitch an official press release and promote it with a content distribution or wire service to target specific audiences or geographies based on your business objectives.
Which Is Better: Evergreen or Timely Pillar Content?
In a perfect world, your content marketing strategy should include a diversity of timely pieces as well as evergreen content. When it comes to developing pillar and cluster content, what’s best when it comes to content creation?
Pillar pages centered on evergreen content can perform especially well with both readers and search engines, provided you have enough high-quality cluster topics to support it. Always consider your searcher’s intent and the nature of the topic you’re delving into.
For example, let’s say that you are a news publisher and, during your content audit, discover that you already have dozens of articles that followed a historical event. From this vantage point, you could easily create a powerful, evergreen pillar page that provides an authoritative, high-level view of that historical event, its highlights, and link out appropriately to your cluster topics that dive into each subtopic in greater detail.
Encyclopedia Britannica has done an exceptional job with its page on Hurricane Katrina. The body of the pillar contains an overview of the event, supported by internal links to cluster topics found elsewhere on the website. From fast facts, to photo galleries, video explainers, additional information, and top questions, this pillar page strategy is on point.
On the other hand, let’s say you’re a technology solution provider. Perhaps you’ve noted that customers are frequently requesting product or service updates. It may be an effective strategy to build an authoritative pillar page that contains both evergreen as well as timely content about new product features and releases.
The example from WordPress, a popular content management system, has an engaging pillar page that covers all matters of support with their product. By including various content pieces, blogs, and news updates, a user looking for support on their platform will be able to easily find it, all in one place.
Whether a WordPress user is looking for general support, installation information, or wants to read about the latest updates, they can get everything they need on this page alone. (Bonus user experience points for the search bar feature above the fold!)
The word “pillar”—whether used in architecture, philosophy, or content marketing—is a loaded term. It immediately conjures up ideas related to structure, strength, and the upholding of a system of information and ideas. For content marketers, it’s the ability to be more strategic, to truly consider what your readers want. To create winning content that supersedes the noise from your competitors.
And just like pillars on a building need a solid foundation and purpose to perform properly, so does understanding all the elements of a successful pillar content strategy. Whether your metric of success is increasing your exposure, authority, or selling products online, thinking strategically is the first step. Your pillar content should satisfy both your users’ intent, as well as be structured accordingly for search engines.
Ready to create a content pillar strategy that generates better marketing results? Get started with the Semrush Topic Research Tool—the ultimate companion for building your next winning campaign!