Engage University Ep. 8: Topic Clusters & Pillar Pages 101
Lauren Devens: Hello and welcome to Engage University, Episode 8! Please be sure to subscribe to our channel for future videos in the world of marketing, web design, development, and other hot tips to help you manage your campaigns. My name is Lauren Devens and I am here with the wonderful Megan Manning and Jim Van Horn. Today, we are going to be discussing topic clusters for website design and SEO. So, Megan, I’ll kick it over to you first for a brief intro.
Megan Manning: Hi, I’m Megan Manning. I am the Senior Design Lead at BNP Engage and I’ve been with the company for about four years and this is my first video with Lauren.
Jim Van Horn: I’m Jim Van Horn. I’m the SEM Program Manager and I’m coming up on two years with BNP Engage in July. I have a little over 10 years of total experience in the industry itself.
Let’s dive right into some questions!
What are pillar pages and how are they associated with topic clusters?
So, pillar pages and topic clusters are very closely related and essential to one another. Pillar pages are another form of saying what used to be parent pages or main hubs of content. Before, it used to be more like a tree architecture with website builds where it was a parent and then the parent could have a couple of different child pages branching out that spoke about different services individually.
Pillar pages are different. Instead of being more keyword-triggered like parent pages used to be, it’s more topic-driven. For instance, let’s say there’s a services page for a contractor. That pillar page would outline in broad strokes all services that the contractor offers while the topic cluster would include any supporting content that’s linked to the primary pillar page.
So, the primary pillar page – using the same example as a general contractor – would outline all the various services that general contractors offer. The topic cluster pages, the supporting content that links out from that pillar, would be those individualized services that dive a little bit deeper into what those services entail.
For a GC, those topic cluster pages may be things like project management, architectural design, plumbing, fixtures, electrical work, carpentry, etc. And then those topic clusters would speak about their individualized services to give users a more detailed view of those services.
How do topic clusters and pillar pages help UX design?
It’s been interesting to see that the fear of scrolling has sort of gone away. Back in the old days, we were very concerned with making websites compact. With the advent of mobile devices, people are used to scrolling. It’s like we have more room now to have a page with full information and to provide white space. From a user experience (UX) side, it really is how most people approach information finding.
So, you Google something and you go to a page for a general contractor. Well, what all does this person do? I might be thinking about my kitchen, but pillar pages allow the user to sort of guide their own path in a way. You can link off and guide users down the page.
Whereas before, we tend to have a parent page and then a lot of shorter offshoots:
It was less possible to control or predict where people would want to go on the website. So, it’s containing the information and then sending them further down the funnel as far as they want to go.
We also can put all the things that we need to say on that page. We’re less wrangled in by keywords. It really allows for a much more narrative structure, which is generally how at least Western people absorb information. You start at the top very broad, and then you go down and drill down to more specific.
It’s a natural way that you would just look at something anyway. It’s interesting how the web has evolved from pushing against that to coming back to what we want as humans. Here is what the new structure looks like:
Website design focused on user experience
I’m sure everybody understands that every single year, your attention span gets lower and lower and lower. Especially in this day and age with AI where the answer’s literally at your fingertips. Just snap your fingers and you can get whatever answer you want.
What pillar pages do is follow that form of providing all the information upfront. And since it’s clustered together, it’s less aggravating for the user. They don’t get as frustrated and leave the website as quickly anymore. Because instead of them counting on navigational menus or mega menus or complicated link structures to figure out where the content they need is, it’s all still right there.
One of the main benefits of the pillar page in particular is that it’s meant to be a one-stop shop. Think of it more as a novel with an index where you could jump to where you need to go as opposed to Cliff Notes where you have to dig and click all over the place to find the information you need.
It just enhances that user experience to have everything at their fingertips, so you don’t lose that attention span. You know, they don’t just get frustrated and leave to find a different avenue that has fewer obstacles. They can just jump through the different links, call-to-action buttons, or conversion offers they can download and read it later.
It’s more user-focused than the old website architecture, which was very much focused on what Google might want. Now, it’s shifted a lot of those mechanisms and the focus over to what does the user want? What’s the best experience for the user when they get to the website?
How do pillar pages and topic clusters benefit SEO?
From an SEO perspective, pillar pages and topic clusters help to trigger sometimes exponentially more search queries and keyword ranking factors than the traditional page structure did. That helps boost organic visibility and organic engagement of the website when it pops up in search results because you’re populating for more.
Now, there’s less of a problem for those businesses that pivot to a topic cluster SEO strategy than businesses used to have before in terms of not being able to find themselves in search results. Now, the issue is they’re popping up all over the place. Like I’m sure everybody’s come across, they do one search query and they might get different pages populated in a search result, but it’s all from the same website. So, it’s a good problem to have.
You definitely would rather have a very large top-of-funnel, a ton of visibility, and be honed in on your user rather than just trying to gain traction. And that’s where the topic clusters also help because that supporting content is where those extra search result populations come from.
Think of pillar pages like a neural network where everything’s connected, everything’s interlinked, and everything’s relevant. Google now has more than they need at their hands. So, if somebody does a search query, they have a plethora of options to pull from a website to populate that search result page instead of trying to find that one perfect entry.
Any words of advice on how to implement this page structure?
I think the most challenging thing for website design and UX is now we are providing a user with such a huge amount of information. How do I keep you engaged? Because as Jim said, attention span is zero. No one reads. We skim. It’s really important if you’re going to have a long page to keep checking in with the user in some way down the page. Literal on-page navigation breadcrumbs.
Stuff like that is important because, as Jim was saying, we’re not just driving people to a home page anymore. People are coming to your site on a pillar page and they want to learn more. They have to be able to figure out where they are on your site and who you are. On-page navigation and some sort of flow direction is important:
- Keep content sections scannable and brief. Use headlines to break up the content so it’s not a wall of text. When users see that wall of text, they might skip it.
- Add calls-to-action. It could be a text link within the paragraph. If they get to the end of a section and there’s an option for them to go to a different section on that page or on your site, you can provide the CTA in a button in a link.
- Maintain engagement down the page with visuals and bullet points. No one’s gonna read everything, but if you make it digestible, people at least can scan your information.
- Always give people more than one way to find a piece of information. Never assume that people will look for things in the way that you plan.
It’s a challenge, but I think it is a fun challenge because we’ve been doing it the other way for so long. Let’s see what we can do with a nice long page. Lots of white space. Lots of opportunities for visuals.
Following Google’s E-E-A-T guidelines
In terms of the SEO structure, Google still follows that popular E-A-T acronym: Experience, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. But they added an extra E now for Expertise. Essentially, whenever somebody’s writing content, make sure to get your users from point A to point F by interlinking correctly and ensuring everything flows well for that user journey.
Consider these questions:
- What does your brand’s past experience have to show for the user?
- Where have you messed up in the past? Where have you come through and learned from your mistakes to provide a better solution than your competitors?
- What’s the experience of the user once they get to the website? Is it hard to find what they need or is it a nice easy natural flow?
- How is your business seen? Are there other businesses that come to you for advice within your industry? Are you a subject matter expert?
Make sure that you’re putting everything out there to demonstrate that you are trustworthy to the user. Much of this is done through things like client reviews, badges, industry awards, and things of that nature that set you apart from the competition to make sure that the users instill that trust factor in you and see you as the go-to resource.
Make sure your website fits your brand
There is also a more ethereal design aspect to all of that, right? If I go to somebody’s site and my impression is supposed to be that they’re the authority on a topic, if the website looks old or has bad UX, I will question that and a few other things now. But that’s not across the board because think of state websites. They’re never the best ones, but you have to go there to get information.
We take in so many cues from the visual aspect of websites that we don’t even necessarily register. Dress for the part that you want. If you’re a bank, maybe your site isn’t orange with balloons on it. Cue the user to what you want your impression to be. If your website looks nice and it works well, you’re halfway to seeming like you know what you’re talking about.
Also, the vast majority of users are going to look at your website and a bunch of other websites as well to see which one is the best. Sometimes the website can be that one factor that really sets you apart and demonstrates that you’re invested in making sure that your look and feel is really strong.
Your site may also send users down another search engine path of looking for reviews. Like investigating that brand further or faster than you would with something that just didn’t leave you with as cool of an impression or as appropriate of an impression visually.
Learn more about pillar pages and topic clusters
Absolutely. Well, thank you both so much for your time today. I think your insights are super helpful for anyone who’s trying to improve both their website design and their SEO efforts. Please be sure to subscribe for future episodes of Engage University and contact us for more information.