Why are content pillars useful for news SEO? 

In issue 18 we look at what you know about content pillars and topic clusters

Hello and welcome back! This week, it’s me, Jessie, back from a very long hike in some trees. Walking near trees, napping near trees - both get my most enthusiastic endorsement.

Last week, I went through how to incorporate SEO into the development of a new news product, and how to ensure it is solving user intent. This week we are tackling how to use topic pillars and content clusters to further search efforts. 

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In this issue: 

  1. What is a content pillar?

  2. What is a topic cluster?

  3. How do I build clusters for pillars?


THE 101

Content pillars, topic clusters concept  

There are three parts to content pillars and topic clusters: 

  1. The hub page for the topic pillar

  2. The content that creates topic clusters

  3. The hyperlinks that connect it all

What are content pillars and topic clusters?

For journalism, a content pillar is a broad topic of news coverage. It’s broader than a single news story (Canada promises vaccines at the G7 summit), but more specific than a section page (world, news, politics). The pillar page is the hub for the content pillar that links out to stories.

A topic cluster is a related subtopic of the main content pillar. Topic clusters are more specific sub-pages with specific content (ie., a news story, FAQ, commentary) on the topic. The content for the cluster always links back to the pillar page. 

The structure looks like this:

  • Website > Pillar page (a topic) > cluster of content (related to the pillar)

  • The Globe and Mail > Pillar page (G7 summit) > cluster of content (Canada vaccine pledge, global infrastructure plan, Biden meets with the Queen)

How are they connected: Hyperlinks connect the pages. Links between stories form clusters on your site. This helps tell Google – and your readers – what content is related and what is important on your site. 

Why build out content pillars and topic clusters? 

Journalism goes beyond one story, and that’s why we build out pillars. If you’ve got a particular topic you cover extensively – residential schools in Canada, environmental law, the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo or anything that will have multiple focal points – build out a pillar to increase your authority. This will also help execute an effective breaking news SEO strategy.

Well-organized content pillars and topic clusters are useful to readers. Done well, this interconnected content will prompt extra clicks and longer time spent on site – while cutting your bounce rate. The result: higher engagement and more page views that push users through the audience funnel. 

  • Well-structured pillars and clusters are signals that communicate your expertise on a topic, ultimately helping you build topical authority and rank better in search results. 

There’s some overlap in content pillars and evergreen SEO efforts. And to be effective, it needs to be part of your internal linking strategy.


THE KNOW HOW

How to build content pillars 

Decide on a topic: First, think about what your publication covers most often (look at the list of reporter beats – this always lines up with organizational priorities) and what you want to be known as an authority for. 

  • Also consider search volume and keyword difficulty when picking topics. The topic should have good traffic potential and informational search intent (when Googlers are actively looking to fill a knowledge gap).

Make sure you will have sustained coverage for the topic. There’s no sense trying to build a pillar for reporting on internet culture if the only story on your site is to explain cheugy.

Pick a topic for the pillar page that is core to your publication’s mission and has enough breadth that you will have sub-topics to explore. 

  • If you cover politics and policy through a gendered lens, a pillar could be the wage gap, or child poverty. 

  • If you’re a food magazine, a pillar might be vegan and vegetarian recipes, or sustainability in the food industry. The title of the pillar page might be vegetarian and vegan recipes. Your meta description should note the page includes recipes for people with dietary restrictions. 

  • If you’re a general interest news site, your pillars should reflect your newsroom priority efforts such as covering the government’s response to climate change. The title of the pillar page might be “A guide to Canada’s climate change response,” and the meta description – and subsequent clusters – can indicate you cover forestry, extreme weather, and international efforts to address the crisis. 

The bottom line: Put effort into creating content pillars that support broader newsroom efforts and reflect areas of interest for your publication. 


Types of pillar pages

SEMRush outlines several types of web pages you can create for pillar pages, including: 

  • Guides: A page that explains in full a specific topic. Often a list. Frequently contains “ultimate” in the headline (🙄). Likely evergreen content such as explaining the best way to take care of your clothes.

  • What is X?: A page that provides a deep-dive answer to a question. Acts a stand-alone resource but links out to cluster URLs.

  • How to X: A step-by-step set of action items to complete a task – like how to ask for a day off. From A-Z, start to finish resources. 

These pillar pages are well-structured with a clear headline, sub-title (meta description), a table of contents, and enough content to be useful as a stand-alone resource for readers but also link off to more in-depth stories. 


Use stories to create topic clusters 

Once you have a topic pillar, go more niche. What subtopics within the topic will you cover? The stories you write are the content that will form a topic cluster. 

These pages should be fairly comprehensive. Pillar pages need to link up to the topic page, and out to specific pieces of cluster content. 

These sub-topics (Fairy Creek, extreme weather, G7) fall under the broad pillar of climate change. The set of news stories, explainers, FAQs and commentary or analysis related to the sub-topics is what creates the topic clusters.


Use internal links to pull it all together 

Linking between the pillar page and cluster content helps build a semantic relationship between those URLs. Links act as ✨SEO dust ✨, telling Google that these pages are related and high quality. In turn, this can help improve authority in search on a particular topic. 

As you publish new stories, add links, where useful, to other stories within the topic cluster. Update older stories that are performing well in search with links to new reporting – and link from new stories back to older, evergreen content. 

  • Remember: Internal links help Google find and index new pages on your site. Use the authority of a topic/cluster to sprinkle some ✨SEO dust ✨ on a new URL. But! Only link when it’s actually useful for readers – Google will know if it’s a random page and ding you for it.

  • We don’t want orphan pages on our sites (pages without any internal links) because then there’s no way for a person on your website to find that story without the direct URL.


Best practices:

  • Pick topics for content pillars your newsroom covers often

  • Identify clusters of content to support the content pillars

  • Content pillar pages should link to cluster content and cluster content should link to content pillar pages

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FUN + GAMES

SEO quiz

What percent of search queries show a People Also Ask box in search results? 

  1. 43

  2. 24

  3. 34

  4. 44


RECOMMENDED READING 

  1. Aleyda Solis shared Google slides and spreadsheet templates for implementing SEO recommendations for content audits.

  2. John Mueller Answers What To Do About Link Building


NEXT WEEK: Shelby will be back [SB: did I ever leave? You’ll never know] with an update on Google’s core web vitals – and what publishers need to know.


Have something you’d like us to discuss? Send us a note on Twitter (Jessie or Shelby) or to our email: seoforjournalism@gmail.com.

(Don’t forget to bookmark our glossary.)


FUN + GAMES

The answer: According to Ahrefs, 43 per cent of search queries now show a People Also Ask box on results pages.


Written by Jessie Willms and Shelby Blackley