Director of Web & Interactive Content, Speaker, Host of 'Content Lab' Podcast
March 29th, 2018
This is the first post in a series about pillar content best practices. The second installment on pillar content dos and don'ts is also available.
I was first introduced to the concept of pillar content many moons ago, when Kathleen told Jessie-Lee and myself that we were going to make one about web design.
At the time, I didn't really understand the concept of pillar content. All I knew was that, even though I was a passionate content creator, the idea of creating some 12,000+ word monolith that had no guarantee of success sounded painful.
After dragging our feet and doing our fair share of teenager-esque complaining, Jessie-Lee and I locked ourselves in an office and emerged two hours later with an outline that made sense. Then, I used that outline as the basis for a series of recorded interviews with Jessie-Lee, as our resident subject matter expert on web design, at the time.
From there, we wrote. And edited. And refined. Then, finally, we built it out.
Grudgingly, by the time we got to launch day, we had to admit to Kathleen that we were glad we put in the work. We felt really proud. We built a piece of content that was valuable. Really valuable. We poured ourselves into something that was the biggest, baddest piece of content we had ever seen, and it was gorgeous.
It felt kind of like giving birth -- or, at least, I assume that's what it felt like. (I have dogs.)
Looking back on it now, I'm still proud of what we did.
But over the past couple of months, my interest in the idea of pillar content, once mild, has become somewhat rabid.
More than that, I've realized that even though I somewhat got what we were doing back then, my comprehension of what pillar content really represents was very limited.
I also had the opportunity to present at the Annapolis HUG on topic clusters and pillar content a few weeks back.
Through my research over the past couple of months, my experience in putting a few of these together myself, a great conversation with Justin Champion at HubSpot, and the questions I was asked at the HUG (and later in IMPACT Elite), I've come to realize something.
Pillar content is a shift in the inbound world of seismic proportions. Yet, so many people still:
Do not understand pillar content;
Do not know where to start with pillar content;
Have a one-dimensional idea of what pillar content is; and/or
Don't even want to bother with it.
That's why today, I want to kick off our long-term pillar content adventure by correcting a few assumptions through lessons I've learned.
Of course, I reserve the right to disagree with myself at a later date. Because I live to be contrary in the worst and most annoying ways possible.
Lesson #1: The Pillar Strategy Is About More Than the Pillar Page
Because a pillar page, by definition, is supposed to be this massive, comprehensive guide on a particular topic, it's really easy to freeze like the marketing equivalent of a deer in the headlights and see nothing else.
You'll be like me, when Kathleen first brought up the idea. While I went through the motions of putting it together, mentally I was melting into a pouty puddle of gloom and angst.
"I'm going to put in 10X the effort to get the same ROI I would get out of a mediocre blog post," I whined to myself.
I didn't understand the context. I didn't understand its purpose. I literally thought it was just some new-fangled content strategy where we just needed to create something longer to be more effective. Like how we all used to think 400-word blog posts got the job done, but we've since learned that longer blog posts -- with 2,100 words being the sweet spot -- are what bring more boys to the yard.
So, overnight, our ongoing blogging strategies became more complex and more challenging to manage without a killer process in place, just to get the same results we thought we would get before with less work.
In reality, the pillar page is the core of a much larger content network. In fact, we've written about this network before -- it's called topic clusters.
If you haven't heard this term before, you must go back and read that post in full -- it's a fairly complex topic --but I'll recap it a little here to explain what I mean.
The purpose of the topic cluster content architecture is to help Google realize you're an authority on a particular topic. So, if you think all you need to do is create pillar content as a massive word wall that stands alone in the proverbial internet wilderness, without any interconnected supporting content around it, you are sorely mistaken.
It must link out to other related pieces of content. It cannot exist as a single structure, in a vacuum. It won't get found. Or, even if it does gain some traction, you're still missing the point of what a pillar is --the center of a giant content web that's like a blinking beacon broadcasting to Google:
"Yo! We own this topic! You can tell, because our crazy comprehensive pillar proves it. Plus, we've got all of this supporting content that's connected to it. We are the authority!"
Furthermore, those pieces of linked content need to link back to your pillar -- linking out to them isn't enough. The hyperlinks have to exist at both ends, between the pillar and the content clusters.
Lesson #2: SEO Isn't Dead, It's Simply Becoming More Human
Warning: This lesson is a little on the long side.
The whole reason why we're even talking about topic clusters and pillar content has everything to do with how drastically search has changed.
And not in the usual, ho-hum, "Google's changed their algorithm again," kind of way. It's the kind of shift that has led many marketers to throw up their hands and say that the sky is falling, SEO is dead, and our lives are over.
I find this kind of doomsday rhetoric annoying, because it's as if everyone forgot that we've spent the past however many years preaching the content marketing gospel of "feeding people -- not robots -- first."
And then the moment Google actually tries to be more people-friendly -- which is what we claim we're all trying to do -- we completely lose our minds.
I'll admit that until recently, I used to love to hide behind my cloak of words and editorial standards, avoiding the harsh, blinding glare of topics like SEO and Google and other stuff that made my eyes glaze over.
It's similar to when my husband tries to explain what he does for his job.(Something with computers, I think?)
But when I started scratching beyond the surface of pillar content, I was blown away.
The death of SEO has been greatly exaggerated, because search has simply evolved.
According to research by ahrefs (shown above) queries have become longer and more complex. Additionally, we've become more accustomed to asking our search engines questions that are much more conversational and reliant upon our search engine's ability to understand context.
For example, seven years ago, I would have gone to my great Google machine and typed, "restaurants in Annapolis," if I wanted to know where I should go for dinner.
Now, there's a good chance I'll search by asking, "Where should I go for dinner?"
I won't tell Google -- or maybe now Alexa or Siri, because voice accounted for 20% of mobile searches in 2016 -- where I am, but I'll still expect relevant results that help me solve my dining problem instantly.
In short, we are talking to devices and asking questions of search engines like they're people. And we expect them to understand us, as a person would.
As consumers, we love that Google is rising to the challenge. We want The Jetsons to be a reality!
As marketers, we're infuriated. Here's why.
It began in 2013 with the rollout of Google Hummingbird. Hummingbird was a step away from the old school way of hyper-focusing on keywords and a step toward delivering results that understood the intent of what people were really looking for. (Hello there, semantic search. Lookin' good!)
For the most part, this change didn't result in rankings plummeting for marketers across the board, so no one really panicked.
Unlike their other algorithms of the past, RankBrain is based on machine-learning. It's AI that isn't taught by humans or forced to adhere to the finite boundaries of hyper-structured pre-programming. It teaches itself, and early testing showed it was outperforming the humans:
"So far, RankBrain is living up to its AI hype. Google search engineers, who spend their days crafting the algorithms that underpin the search software, were asked to eyeball some pages and guess which they thought Google’s search engine technology would rank on top. While the humans guessed correctly 70 percent of the time, RankBrain had an 80 percent success rate." (Source)
Again, this is great for consumers. Better, more relevant content is being returned when we ask a question or try to solve a problem.
But marketers are in an uproar because, even though we all joked about how annoying Google was -- constantly changing the rules around how pages were ranked -- traditional algorithms were at least still a little more... predictable, in their own way.
As much as we pontificated on the importance of creating content for people, we have to be honest with ourselves that we found some comfort in the pre-programmed robots of yore that didn't think. Or learn.
That didn't infuse human-like complexity and unpredictability into how search works at a fundamental level.
"Uh, Liz... what does any of this have to do with pillar content?"
It's easy to think of pillar content as some trend that will die off in a year or two. But there's a big reason why the Content Strategy Tool HubSpot introduced a little while back is not referred to as a content tool, but rather an SEO tool.
Just because the HubSpot keyword tool is on the way out doesn't mean SEO is dead. It also doesn't mean keyword research as we know it is entirely gone either. (While you lead with higher-level topics and user research, you will use keyword research to validate and create supporting content clusters for your pillar.)
Instead, here's what you need to get into your head, and never forget:
How we search for content has drastically changed.
As a result, the robots got smarter, and changed how they find and deliver relevant results.
So, what does that mean for us marketers?
Pillar content and topic clusters aren't a new content fad, like an infographic or a big piece of content you can churn out every now and again, when you're feeling ambitious.
How we structure content needs to change.
How we map our content strategies needs to change.
How we think about content creation needs to change.
There is no shortcut. This is the future of search and the future of content. And it's only going to continue to evolve in this direction. It will strive to be more human.
Because that's what we want out of our search.
Lesson #3: Pillar Content Can & Should Serve Many Purposes
Now, let's dive back down into some tactics.
There seems to be some confusion around what pillar content should look like and what purpose a pillar should serve.
For example, while pillar content is explicitly defined as comprehensive and ungated -- and it's at the heart of a strategy to signal to Google to bring more traffic in on a particular topic -- that doesn't mean you can't use it to drive lead conversions.
It embraces the pillar mentality, while also providing the courtesy of a download option -- and, candidly, a visitor-to-lead conversion opportunity for us -- in a way that doesn't force information out of a visitor in order for them to get the value or expertise they seek.
Another way pillar content can serve multiple purposes is simply by what you choose to write about.
Using our website redesign guide as an example again, it lives at the core of a content pillar, and has nine pieces of cluster content built off of it.
The day we released the website redesign guide, something magical happened.
One of our sales guys reached out to me and said, "My last 2 prospects should have read this article before my exploratory call. Like, if we knew a [bottom of the funnel lead] was interested in website redesign, I'd want to send this to them automatically for them to read, before our explore call."
As it turned out, our piece of attract content was a valuable sales tool that could also be used on its own.
This is born out of my absolute insistence that any piece of content that passes through my hands -- no matter how big or small -- must solve a specific problem.
I apply this rule to pillar content by saying it can't just be a dumping ground for anything and everything to do with a topic. You need to go back to inbound 101.
Who is your audience, and what do they care about?
When they're searching for answers about the topic you've chosen, what questions are they trying to answer or what big problem are they trying to solve?
Truth be told, our website redesign pillar had an awful beginning. The original outline given to Jessie-Lee and myself had everything in it and was completely disorganized, with zero focus.
In one chapter, we would address cost, and then jump to the principles of wireframing in the next. What? Why?
When Jessie-Lee and I locked ourselves in that office for two hours to rewrite the outline, we started by asking who our target audience was, and what problem we were going to solve for them.
We decided to focus the scope of the piece on everything a business would need to know before they reached out to an agency to discuss their potential redesign. From there, we mapped out the logical progression of questions they would ask -- or should ask -- along this journey, from deciding to redesign their website to picking up the phone to call a prospective agency.
We knew it would provide value to our visitors as an educational resource, to help them make an informed decision for their business. We also knew it would help us during the sales process, because it would qualify or disqualify potential leads by pulling back the curtain on our philosophies around how we think about websites and the reality behind the effort of what goes into a website redesign project.
And thus, our multi-purpose, traffic-driving, lead-converting, educational sales tool pillar was born.
Lesson #4: You Can't Fake It Anymore with Content
Don't worry. This final lesson is a short-ish one.
Pillar content seems to have "broken the collective brain" of the inbound world in a lot of ways, and I think I may know why. Or at least part of the reason why.
Much in the way our chants of, "Feed people, not robots!" were somewhat hollow, so were our passionate "Amens!" when thought leaders would preach at conferences that content that's good enough just doesn't cut it anymore.
Still, before the pillar came along, you could cobble together a serviceable content strategy in bite-sized blog chunks. You could get away with kind of being okay-ish with content creation and eBooks that were alright, but still basically useless.
Now that the pillar has arrived, however, those days are over.
You have to walk the walk of being able to create content that has real value. Not only that, you have to be able to do so at scale, with a global, interconnected strategy, across thousands of words.
Yes, you can still be Chaucer and have your new pillar and topic cluster strategy fail spectacularly.
As Justin Champion (who recently joined George B Thomas on the Hubcast podcast) told me yesterday, his biggest pet peeve is that people don't understand that you can't win with great content alone. ("It's simple," he said. "Great content + high website authority = ranking.")
But my small prediction is that pillar content is going to uncover some uncomfortable content skill set gaps within organizations and agencies. And probably a few instances of some who feign enthusiasm about content creation, but would rather die than actually have to put any real, sustained effort into it.
Don't get me wrong, this is really exciting stuff that we're talking about. (Ask anyone at IMPACT who's had the misfortune of speaking to me in the past couple of months; I can't shut up about it.) But hear me when I say this -- the world of content marketing just stopped being nice and started being real, folks.
That's why I can't wait to share more of what I learn with you all, as I continue to explore and experiment with pillar content. We know a lot already, but there is still so much opportunity to innovate and discover.