The Pillar-Cluster Model has been around as a concept for well over a year now. BusinessBrew was first introduced to it via a HubSpot blog post and it was a dominating topic at INBOUND 2017. We implemented it as a test in the summer and refined it again in October 2017. Recently, we were asked whether it worked for our inbound marketing and what our thoughts were on the implementation of the model. We pulled some stats and really critically thought about whether it actually worked. Here’s what we’ve found:
HubSpot shared research in May 2017 which showed that search engines may not be comprehending your full site. In fact, they are getting confused by all individual bits of information shared. The content is competing against each other rather than working with each other.
This is the graph HubSpot shared that demonstrates this:
Source: Matt Barby
So what are search engines looking for? It’s overarching themes. The topics you are really about. And, how your content connects with the overarching themes. This is HubSpot’s Pillar-Cluster Model:
Source: Matt Barby
You can see the five topic pillars and then all the clusters of more detailed information linking to them and support them.
I’ve really just scratched at the research and synopsised the basic concept. So if you are not familiar with the model at all, I invite you to read the full piece by HubSpot to get the background. Find it here.
Many believe that the Pillar-Cluster Model doesn’t work unless you have oodles of content, a massive blog. However, we found that to be quite different. Let’s take a step back in time.
In Summer 2017, BusinessBrew was barely a year old. We focussed on business development via our network and some content creation. Remember, we were a team of just two. Writing blog content consistently was an issue. Our SEO results trickled along...no great rises, no great falls. It was as expected. Organic results take time to build.
In autumn 2017, we restructured our website and decided definitively what we were all about:
- Inbound Marketing
- GDPR and Marketing
- HubSpot for Startups
We applied the Pillar-Cluster Model and this is what happened to our organic visits:
You can see the very flat, struggling year one of BusinessBrew’s SEO. Then in autumn of 2017, the rise starts and we have seen the influx ever since (more on the spike below). The velocity kept going. Check the frequency of our blogs since the summer...this is only the second one we published. Yet, the numbers are going up.
What’s the magic sauce?
1. Strategic Choice
There is no magic. Just a strategic choice. For some businesses, this is going to be difficult. Define what you are about in a handful of topics. I recently spoke to a large German distributor of B2C goods about this and while they know their products, the sheer vastness makes it difficult to focus. In turn, I’ve spoken to some startups who are still finding their exact niche and are not ready to put a stake into the ground on their topics. However, without making a call on what you are about this is not going to work. We opted for four topics: Inbound marketing, GDPR for Marketing, HubSpot for Startups and BusinessBrew.
2. Content Audit
Performing a full audit of your website and the pages you have will give you the base to start forming clusters around your pillars. This should include blogs, site pages, landing pages and thank you pages. Screaming Frog is a great tool for this. Decide which of the pages fit with your overarching themes. You might find that some need amendment whereas others may not fit at all anymore. The latter can and should be removed. Remember, this is all about showing relevancy and clarity about who you are to search engines and users.
3. Pillar Pages
Create your pillar pages and think of them as beacons of information. They give an overview of the entire topic and showcase some of the most important cluster pages.
I have seen some companies build pillar pages around products but I would wonder about the longevity of this approach? Your products may evolve, however, what you are about will not. Pillars are meant to last.
4. Cluster Pages
Back to the content audit, we went through every page and categorised it according to our four pillars. Each and every cluster page links back to our pillar (check this blog, it links right back to the Inbound Marketing Pillar in the first paragraph). Because we had a limited amount of content this was simpler to do than when you stand in front of a mountain of decade-old blog posts. So the sooner you start this the better! If you do have a lot of content, aim to go through this and decide whether some of your clusters need to be mini-pillars - a subtopic that you write more about. And yes, all you need is a spreadsheet to map this out.
5. Bring it all together
We worked through every page, restructured our navigation and linked all content to our pillars. In addition, we stripped our blog topics down to match our four pillars. We did all we could to show search engines that BusinessBrew is an agency that provides inbound marketing services, GDPR consultation for marketing as well as HubSpot advice for startups.
Is SEO as we know it dead?
I told you earlier as I shared our stats that I’d get back to the spike. Some of you will realise that a May spike for anyone dealing in the GDPR was bound to happen (the May 25th deadline set about waves of searches). So what does that have to do with SEO as we know it?
BusinessBrew still applies all best practice processes for on-page and technical SEO. We spend a lot of time researching what keywords are relevant. The terms inform clusters and, of course, help add the right wording to the pillars. For us, the work we did on researching specific terms in relation to trends in the industry (such as inbound/digital transformation, the GDPR and startup marketing) helped boost our numbers.
We do have to recognise though that the age of creating content for the sake of ranking (aka quantity over quality) is dead. Today, users and search engines want to know that you are an expert in your topic. They want to easily browse through your topic and dive deep as and when they want to. Being a true thought-leader, not a content creation machine will help you win.
Two Trick Pony
The Pillar-Cluster Model for us is more than a One Trick SEO Pony. The first trick we love; a team with limited content creation capacity can rise in SEO ranks (there was a rumour in early 2018 that our domain authority for ‘marketing + GDPR’ terms was higher than a certain inbound powerhouse’s one). And this should be the main objective for anyone adopting this strategy.
However, it has brought a second trick, too. Focus. We will not write about how to structure your busy day anymore. It’s not part of our core topics. It’s not what we are about. This level of focus has filtered from our SEO strategy into our content strategy. From our content strategy into our inbound strategy. And from our inbound strategy into our business strategy.
And it all started with a simple spreadsheet mapping our Pillars and Clusters…