With many brands in your space playing a challenging content game, content marketing became more important than ever before.
Content helps you to:
- Become a thought leader in your market,
- Acquire more users,
- Build connections between your brand and cold leads.
But Karolina, how can I take advantage of the content in a very competitive niche? I don’t have the budget for building links. I don’t have time to write 100+ blog posts per year.
You don’t need to write 100+ articles per year. You need to write a couple of high-quality articles that are the best of the best.
And if I needed to pick just one strategy that would help you conquer competitive SERPs and write high-quality posts, I would choose pillar pages and supportive pages, or in short, the content clusters.
Many marketers use a pillar page as a big dump to throw everything they know about some particular topic, without any specific order, organization, or sense.
But there’s a better way to write pillar content. Here’s a 10-step framework that uses content intelligence for writing great pillar pages that convert and conquer first spots on Google.
In this article, we're going to explain in-depth how to create a pillar page:
- What a pillar page is;
- How to find perfect topics for your pillar posts;
- How to analyze the best competitive articles on your subject;
- How to optimize your pillar pages for SEO without a headache;
- How to prepare the best outline possible;
- How to create the best pillar page on the web.
- Make sure to know your ideal reader persona.
- Pick your main topic by running careful keyword research. There are no one-size-fits-all answers for that. You need to find a topic that works for YOU. You can use Surfer, a content intelligence tool, to analyze keywords and SERP competition.
- Find your unique angle and provide real value. Ask other industry experts for their quotes, listen to relevant podcasts, and join different communities to find unique insights.
- Optimize your pillar page for at least ten additional keywords for additional search engine traffic.
- Identify additional topic clusters by using Surfers’ Content Planner.
- Analyze SERP to find frequently asked questions and topics your potential readers care about.
- Don’t underestimate the power of a great outline. At the bottom of this article, we covered some great strategies for writing outstanding outlines.
Let’s get started.
What is a pillar page?
Many marketers still rely on the “individual keyword research” tactic to pick content topics. They just try to catch one seemingly attractive topic after another and don’t think about how their new pages fit into the website’s structure.
But this approach not enough to rank high anymore. Google now values websites with high topical authority.
What does it mean? To gain a topical authority in your niche, you need to cover all the related subjects andbuild topic clusters on your site. And on top of that, all your content has to be top-notch.
Just look at this Tweet from John Mueller, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst:
To achieve topical authority, you need a carefully planned content cluster strategy for your domain.
Structuring your site into topic clusters has the following benefits:
- Helps you cover all the keywords relevant in your niche so that Google’s bots recognized your expertise;
- Improves website organization so that Google can crawl your website easier;
- Give your users exactly what they want to see, along with easy website navigation.
Pillar pages are the main articles about a particular subject, while supportive pages are “supporting” articles that deeply explain a specific aspect of the main topic. Usually, pillar pages rank for more popular, head keywords, while supportive pages cover a bunch of long-tail phrases. Then, those pages link to the core topic so the internal linking strategy is a big part of the equation!
Let’s say that you, for example, want to rank for the keyword “chatbots.”
You notice it has a search volume of over 33k, and you sure would like a chunk of that traffic!
But when you analyze SERP results using Surfer, you will face intense competition there.
You can find a lot of popular domains and high-quality content ranking on top, as demonstrated by Content Scores and the authority metric (that measures the number of backlinks). I mean, one of the pages is Wikipedia, so it figures!
How on earth can you even TRY to outrank them?
If you pay close attention to the first article, you’ll see that it’s not an ordinary blog post.
It’s a pillar page that consists of many topics and is the heart of the topic cluster. It probably managed to rank high as a comprehensive source of knowledge on the niche. Just look at the scope of the “Featured Articles” section above.
Let’s take a closer look. The entire article is divided into different headlines. In each section, we can take a look at the key takeaways about it and find a link towards a supportive topic for more information:
This pillar post published by Drift is an excellent example of how to create an immersive value resource about a particular topic.
Along the way, we will take a better look into other inspiring pillar page examples and ideas.
The benefits of creating a pillar page
- It helps you organize your content into an immersive and in-depth source of value for your audience.
- It allows you to conquer even the most difficult keywords without investing a fortune in link building, and it gets a lot of organic traffic.
- On the other hand, it also naturally attracts high-quality links.
- It is excellent for nurturing your leads from the cold to the hot stage. And no matter where the visitor is in their buyer’s journey, they’ll find something for themselves.
10-step framework for creating outstanding pillar pages
With years of experience creating tools that help write outstanding content (and ultimately conquer any keyword), we came up with this 10-step framework for pillar pages.
This framework will help you like nothing else to create a pillar page that ranks:
- It’s easy to follow. You’ll never miss a step, and onboarding your content writing team will be easy-peasy.
- It covers every step of the content creation process. From understanding your target audience to researching your competition, this pillar page process has got you covered.
- It helps you make the best pillar page that brings the money. This framework will let you create a well-oiled content machine for your business.
Let’s get started.
#1 Know your target audience
Yes, all marketers know that this is an essential thing. But we like to insist on it all the time because people almost always lose sight of their ideal customer.
If your target audience is an IT security manager or CTO, then you’ll agree that it doesn’t make sense to write content such as:
- 5 ways to improve your IT security,
- Pay attention to THIS glitch in your security protocols,
- And so on.
Long story short: by knowing who your ideal reader is, you’ll save yourself a ton of time, especially when it comes to research and planning.
So first and foremost, you want to write down answers to these questions:
- Who do I talk to?
- What’s their level of expertise?
- What kind of content do they consume?
- What are their everyday problems?
- Where do they hang out?
- What are their values?
As an example, if you want to write extensive pillar content that focuses on B2B Marketing, you might define your ideal reader this way:
- Who do I talk to? B2B Marketing Managers and CMOs eager to stay on top of new B2B marketing trends and strategies. Preferably, they could be CMOs in SaaS companies with over $3m in ARR.
- What’s their level of expertise? They’re very experienced in B2B and SaaS marketing. They’ve been doing it for the last 5 years.
- What kind of content do they consume? Highly-actionable and in-depth content, full of expert opinions, golden nuggets, and real-life case studies. They are also very busy, so they like crisp and sharp content.
- What are their everyday problems? User behavior changes all the time, and innovative B2B marketing strategies keep popping up almost every week. They want to stay on top of that.
- Where do they hang out? They can be found in the DGMG Facebook community, Trends community, or on Zest.
- What are their values? They value honesty and transparency more than anything else. They love to read real content, with actionable insights included.
#2 Pick your main topic
Now we approach the planning phase. This is also the moment when we’re starting to adopt content intelligence to find better insights in less time.
Of course, choosing your main topic for the pillar page and the whole topic cluster is the first thing to do.
Finding the perfect keyword is always a hard task. We’ve got a whole guide on keyword research that will help you analyze all crucial metrics and make the most educated guess possible… But if you’re in a rush, here’s a quick content-intelligence-based process.
How to find the best pillar page keyword?
1. Determine the overall topic you want to write about. If your ideal reader persona is a CMO, you probably want to talk about marketing.
2. Write down a couple of different topics in the Keyword Research tool and run the search.
3. You’ll get a list of the best keyword ideas related to your phrases.
Eliminate keywords that:
- are too broad (like “marketing,”),
- don’t fit your business (for example, if you don’t offer PPC services, it would make no sense to pick “ppc marketing” keyword),
- have very low search volume in comparison to others (there are a more popular topic in your niche, and a pillar page needs to cater to a broader audience by definition).
4. Pick the best resulting keywords. In this case, my picks would be b2b marketing, content marketing, and marketing funnel since they’re not too broad and have decent traffic. They will work great as a topic cluster theme as well.
5. Analyze SERP competition for each keyword. Nope, this is not a time-consuming task! Just write down your pillar post ideas in the Surfer’s SERP Analyzer, and you’re good to go.
6. Check each analysis and pick the pillar page keyword with enormous potential.
The first thing you should determine when opening the analysis is the dominant search intent of this keyword.
Do you see pillar pages and comprehensive guides, like the ones you want to write? Or is the SERP filled with other types of content, like sales-y landing pages, reviews, short knowledge bites?
If it’s the latter, don’t bother with this keyword. Being in line with search intent is crucial. SEO experts agree that following search intent is the only way to rank high.
If you decide the search intent is fitting, check if the keyword has a decent search volume and competition that your site can handle.
In this particular example, we would go with the keyword “b2b marketing” because the average website authority is just 5.9, and the average Content Score is 70.
The only downside of this keyword is that the average article length of the first 10 results is around 4500—5000 words.
But hey, we want to create the most immersive pillar page, right?
So, if you want the best results, be prepared to write high-quality and in-depth content.
#3 Think about your golden nuggets
What is the unique perspective that you can provide on your pillar page?
What’s the one thing that will make your pillar post better than any other content on the particular keyword?
The third step of this framework is to figure out how to deliver something better than any other search result for the desired keyword.
Also, think outside the box here.
Pillar pages are also great for distribution across various channels.
Your goal is to make a pillar page:
- That is clickable and converting;
- People would pay to read—they won’t, of course, but setting the right mindset at the beginning is crucial,
- That has the opportunity to rank 1st on Google.
My strategy is always to find a unique angle that no one had before and include unique and actionable insights.
How do I do this? How do I find actionable insights to write about?
I like to call this approach “content journalism.” I reach out to other experts in the niche and ask questions. Jump on the calls. Start threads in communities.
How to source high-quality content and insights for your pillar pages?
1 .Talk to niche experts from different communities. Communities can be a great way of finding high-quality content and insights. This is a part of the research me and Ugi did for this pillar page article:
Note: Don’t limit yourself to Facebook communities only. There are plenty of other places such as Reddit, Telegram, LinkedIn, Quora, Slack, and others.
2. Send HARO requests to gather relevant insights. HARO sends your query to millions of people. You will likely get 100+ responses, but make sure to filter out irrelevant and inadequate insights.
3. Consume insightful content. Join relevant communities and regularly follow industry experts. If I were to write pillar content on B2B Marketing, this community organized by Dave Gerhardt would be my go-to source.
Additionally, it’s also a good practice to look for valuable insights from niche-specific podcasts and webinars. They are a real goldmine for pillar pages.
#4 Find 10 keywords that are related to your main keyword
Don’t underestimate this step.
Finding additional keywords will:
- Help you craft the outline your audience cares about,
- Optimize your pillar page to rank for secondary keywords,
- Answer all the questions your reader might have about the topic.
The best and easiest way to do this is to use Surfers’ SERP Analyzer to identify keywords your competitors are (not) using.
1. Open the SERP analysis of your pillar page keyword, and click on the “Keywords” section.
2. Now you have access to hundreds of relevant keywords to your pillar post topic—it’s a good practice to pick 10 of them that are most relevant and have the highest number of overlapping pages. Pick a golden mean!
Tip: If the number of overlapping pages is nine, for example, it means that nine out of ten top-ranking pages for this keyword are identical to the pages ranking for our main keyword. So we can assume that when we manage to rank for one of them, we can easily rank for another and dominate many more SERPs! Try to cover all keywords with high similarity with one piece of content.
Leave this tab open since you will need it again soon.
#5 Find the best topic cluster ideas
A pillar page is nothing without supportive pages and internal links, right?
You need those supportive pages to build topic clusters, provide more value to your audience, and rank your pillar page for the first SERP position.
Yeah, you got it right: it means you will have a couple more separate articles to write to really boost your pillar page. Just like I explained above, a whole topic cluster of related articles surrounding the main page will raise your topical authority and improve organic traffic from search engines.
Creating an outstanding pillar page is a game of endurance. You’ll have a lot of work to do (or assign), but in the end, it will be worth it.
If you want to create the best pillar page and knowledge center on the web, you can easily find topic clusters with Surfer’s Content Planner tool.
1. Write your pillar page keyword inside the Content Planner and run the analysis.
2. Out of a hundred or more topic cluster ideas, pick 10-20 best ones based on their relevance and search volume.
They’ll be your supportive articles that will boost authority of your pillar page.
For each of them, you can quickly set up a Content Editor and build unbeatable topic cluster for your site.
#6 Start planning your pillar content outline
Now we approach the “outline phase.”
I think there’s no need to explain the importance of creating an excellent pillar content outline.
We will talk more about the best practices and ways to create the outline in the steps below.
Now is the time to set up the foundations of our outline.
Most content writers struggle to organize their draft pages and have to keep an eye on every keyword and topic they need to mention or write about. But fortunately, Surfer's content intelligence comes to the rescue.
We can build an easy-to-use Content Editor that will give us a list of relevant secondary keywords and enable to track their usage.
Copy the 10 keywords you have chosen in step #4 into the Content Editor, and click the “Create Content Editor using 10 keywords” button.
And… that’s it.
You’ll receive a ready set of guidelines on the ideal number of words, headings, images, and paragraphs, as well as a list of terms to use and topics to cover.
Based on how well you follow these guidelines, Surfer will assign you a Content Score. Don’t get fixed on reaching a hundred - just try to surpass your competitors.
Completing those “objectives” will ensure that your pillar page is optimized for SEO and winning the 1st position on Google.
Of course, you can also go beyond them, or skip some. Never sacrifice quality to chase “optimal SEO optimization!” The main goal of your article is to be AMAZING, remember?
If you prefer using Google Docs for writing your content (as I do), Surfer also has a Chrome extension that embeds its Content Editor into your Google Docs file. Here’s what it looks like for me while I’m writing this article:
#7 Adjust your content benchmarks
By default, Conte Editor will give you the benchmarks and content structure needed to beat your entire competition.
But in case you want to change them, you can adjust your benchmarks and so the pillar page structure.
Click on the “settings” icon inside your content editor (or on the widget if you’re using it with Google Docs).
Here, you can change up a few things.
Surfer already chose benchmarks with the highest Content Score, but it’s good to double-check this category for a pillar page.
Not all SERPs are as straightforward as our “b2b marketing” one. Sometimes, next to your direct competitors, there will be outliers with different search intent.
If Surfer chose one of them for a benchmark, deselect it.
2. Content structure.
For pillar pages, treat the recommended word count rather loosely. Don’t worry if you exceed it. Since your goal is to create the most comprehensive piece of content, that will probably happen.
Pillar pages are usually 4000+ words long, so you can change the word count settings.
But remember that changing those settings will affect your final Content Score.
Content Score is the content intelligence metric developed by Surfer that shows the “quality of on-page optimization” of an article based on more than a hundred on-page SEO factors. The better the content score you have, the better chances you will rank for your pillar page keyword.
The Content Score helps you to:
- Specify benchmarks and guidelines for your content,
- Specify content quality requirements,
- Identify the best keywords to go after.
3. Terms to use
Here’s the list of terms Surfer recommends you to use to make sure your pillar page content is as SEO-optimized as possible.
I don’t recommend de-selecting any since the pillar pages landscape is competitive. Instead, go through them to get inspired for planning the final outline. Are you ready to raise all these crucial topics in your text?
#8 Determine the topics and structure of your pillar page
So far, you figured out:
- The benchmarks and requirements we need to satisfy if we want to beat our organic competition;
- 10+ secondary keywords we can use inside the article to get even more significant organic exposure;
- Supportive pages to write as supporting content for our pillar page. But, as Drift did in the example mentioned above, it’s also a good practice to briefly write about your cluster articles inside the pillar content.
So the last step is to finally decide on the exact pillar page topics, sections and headlines.
To help you with this step as well, Content Editor gives you more than a hundred topic ideas, headlines, and questions you can use inside your article.
Choose “Topics & Questions” in the settings. Surfer will display:
- Topics your competition is covering inside their pillar pages/blog posts;
- Frequently asked questions about your pillar post topic;
- Its topic recommendations.
One of my favorite ways to find great subtopics is to check the “People also ask” section within Surfer:
Make sure to choose at least ten relevant topics.
You can also add your custom topic. Maybe you saw an inspirational subject when browsing expert groups, or you want to share your expertise? Go ahead and add a topic!
The topics will be inspirations for your sections and headings.
Once you’re ready, make sure to select them and click on the “Let’s go” button in the bottom right corner.
After that, Surfer will automatically add your pillar page topics/questions to the Content Editor so they can be within reach.
#9 Write the comprehensive outline
The previous 8 steps helped us figure out our pillar page content, investigate our SERP competition, and develop potential topics and sections to write about.
Now is the time to prepare one comprehensive outline either for your writers or yourself.
You probably heard about the 80/20 rule.
Well, it applies to content as well.
So, how do you do that? How do you prepare outstanding outlines for your pillar pages?
I’m going to share with you:
- Insights gained from having a team that outlines for more than a hundred content pieces we write each month.
- Insights from other leading experts in the content marketing industry.
The outline process that allows Contenthorse to create more than a hundred content pieces a month
When it comes to creating a massive amount of content, great outlines can save you hours of your writers’ time and make them more productive.
Contenthorse is an all-inclusive content marketing agency that helps B2B SaaS companies to get real ROI from content.
Ugi, Founder of Contenthorse, shared with us the outline process they’re using to create 100+ blog posts per month:
- They use Surfer’s content intelligence tools to identify the topics they need to cover, frequently asked questions, and keywords they want to target (as explained in the steps above).
- Once they know the topics and keywords that they are to focus on, they create a “skeleton” of a blog post, including only topics and headlines.
- Then they pass that draft to a team member that has the first-hand experience in the topic. If they don’t have a team member with such experience, they reach out to their consulting partners, who give them the golden nuggets we can use in the articles.
- After that, their team member or consultant record a 5-15 minute video explaining the topic and its golden nuggets (they like to call them “secret best practices”) and providing them with unique examples.
- Their content editor then takes the most important points from the video and creates a beautiful and in-depth outline in bullet-point form.
- The writer then uses the outline, video, and examples to write a perfect pillar article that: is optimized for on-page SEO; covers every question the reader might have; and is unique, comprehensive, and the best on the web.
How three content marketing experts create outlines for their writers
To give you even more golden nuggets here, I interviewed a couple of leading content marketing experts and agency owners on their outline processes and experiences.
#1 Use the MoSCoW matrix for creating outlines
Kinga Edwards is the CEO of Brainy Bees, a content marketing agency. When I talked to her, she introduced me to something I never heard before—MoSCoW matrix.
It stands for:
In addition to standard information such as length, language, or keywords, we also include structure guidelines, alpha keywords, and a simple MoSCoW matrix. We specify what MUST be included, SHOULD be covered, or can't even be mentioned.
Such a brief or draft is extremely helpful in regular content activities and onboarding new writers who have yet to bite into the project. I have not encountered the MoSCoW matrix in any draft by anyone else—and I saw thousands of drafts as a CEO and a person with 10 years of experience.
#2 See the blog postthrough your client’s eyes
If you’re a content marketing agency, then you should never underestimate the power of clients’ briefs, insights, and opinions.
Here’s what Olga Mykhoparkina, CEO of Quoleady, has to say about this:
We never follow a single template when it comes to putting together a content outline. It usually relies heavily on the client’s answers to our content briefs. We do our best to see a blog postwith our client’s eyes to understand its vision. Among other things, we ask our clients:
- To specify the tone and the voice of the article,
- Explain to us how promotional it should be,
- To provide some great examples of the content they like in terms of structure.
This creates the basis of the individual approach that we take towards writing a content outline, depending on the client’s vision, requirements, and expectations.
#3 5W1HFramework by Kaleigh Moore
This pillar page outline framework is excellent:
- As a foundation of your outline
- If you’re in a hurry (but you shouldn’t be!)
Just answer the following questions to your writer:
- Why? What’s the goal of an article? Why should someone read this blog post?
- What? What do you want the piece to look like? What’s the structure? What are the topics and questions that need to be answered?
- Who? Who is the ideal reader?
- Where? Where will the piece be published? What are the guidelines of that website?
- When? When is the due date?
- How? How should the article be written? What examples should the writer include?
#10 Write a killing pillar page
We went through the entire planning phase and had the outline in place.
Now is the time to write this outstanding content pillar article.
Explaining in-depth how to write a killing blog postis a different topic, but here are some golden nuggets we have for you:
- Be clear and concise. Go straight to the point. Don’t waste your reader’s time with unnecessary sentences. I personally like to include TL;DR at the beginning of each blog post to quickly deliver unique value and prompt readers to read further (as you can see in this article example).
- Be real and transparent. People don’t like fake things. Did you screw something up? Then write about it and share your insights. You did a great job at something? Perfect, brag a little bit.
- Write about real-life case studies and examples. Don’t just mention best practices. Show them! We like to say: For whatever we claim/write about, we show an example of it.
- Don’t forget to follow these on-page SEO practices and outlines. It’s good to write a blog post that you can use for content distribution, but you won’t distribute that article all the time. Making articles rank on Google is a must, so make sure to follow the outlines and on-page SEO practices we covered inside this article.
Two pillar page examples we love
Here are a couple of examples we love to give you an idea of how an excellent perfect pillar page looks.
Atlassian’s Agile Knowledge Centre
Atlassian’s agile knowledge center is a perfect example of a pillar page covering everything related to some particular topics.
It serves as a resource center for everything related to Agile methodology and project management.
Why we love it?
- It answers every question a reader might have
- It’s well optimized for SEO—to be exact, it’s ranking for 1700+ keywords:
Although, when you take a look at this page through Surfers Audit, you will see that Atlassian’s team could optimize this pillar page for additional 400+ terms and keywords:
Lemlist’s Cold Email Templates Directory
Lemlist’s cold email templates directory is one of the best on the web.
It’s a very unique pillar page that got over 6.000 shares across social media.
Why do we like it?
- It features its users.
- Every template is optimized for keywords.
- UI and navigation are super simple.
- It also has an in-depth and massive guide on how to do cold email outreach.
- It’s optimized for conversions.
The bottom line
Pillar pages and topic clusters can be an excellent strategy for conquering high-volume keywords and getting many leads.
But you can’t just write something out and use it as a big dump to put everything you know about a particular subject in it.
For the best results, pillar posts require a systematic approach and excellent on-page search engine optimization.
But doing everything manually can be time-consuming, and you will lose your entire motivation for it.
That’s why using a content intelligence tool, such as Surfer, can help you streamline your pillar page creation process.
By using this particular 10-step Framework, you will be able to:
- Identify great pillar post ideas
- Find secondary keywords to target
- Research and analyze your SERP competition
- Identify topic clusters to cover
- Identify topics and frequently asked questions to write about, and hence create a pillar post your audience will love
- Create in-depth and comprehensive outlines since they are 80% of the entire work
So you have two options in front of you:
- Go out and manually do the entire work
- Use Surfers’ Content Intelligence Tools, save your time, and get quality insights