SEO Content Strategy
March 19th 2020

Pillar Page Problems

9 min read

Creating pillar pages and their corresponding content clusters require a significant amount of effort. Yet, it’s surprising how many people miss the key component, making sure the value aligns with the expectations of readers. Failing to do so can lead you down a really awkward path.

There seems to be a common issue that a lot of people think a pillar page means really long-form content. So, they think, “I’ll just write 5000 words on this one topic and I’m done.”

Just because something is long doesn’t mean it’s comprehensive. It also doesn’t mean it’s in line with the value you’re trying to convey. Also, I find that when people offer reasons for choosing a pillar page, it somehow leads to the idea that every page needs to be a long-form pillar page.

A Common Pillar Page Problem

The problem with this shotgun approach is that it’s not methodical and can end up being quite detrimental. There’s a kind of diminishing value to it because when spending the resources to create that much content, you should probably do it right. That means doing your research ahead of time to really understand what it should include.

Granted, most people don’t just start writing a 5000-word article without doing at least some research. But with pillar content, it’s also important to understand how to cover the subject. You’re not going for depth; you’re aiming for the breadth of coverage. You want to touch on a lot of things that are important and relevant to your topic.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a guide to Google Analytics. The nuances of the landing page report aren’t something you’re going to cover. Instead, you’ll talk about a number of different things at a high level. 

This is where the technical side of a good pillar page comes into play. Understanding all the user intents, important to the topic, are critical to your research. You want your content to address all the things people want to know about the subject.

Pillar Page Example

Let’s consider my favorite example, apple pie. You could just go ahead and write a whole bunch of stuff on apple pie. After publishing enough content, you’ll eventually cover all the required intents.

Or, you could take a more efficient approach to create the best content on the subject. Take a look at the Knowledge Graph in MarketMuse (the Content Research application) to find everything important to apple pie. Use the Questions Application to discover the questions people are asking about apple pie. 

Screenshot of MarketMuse Research showing topics related to apple pie.

The key is to make sure your content and its subsections align with what people want to know. So, maybe it’s choosing the right apples, the different ways to make pie crust, or whether it should be served with ice cream.

Frequently I hear people say, “Well, this is a long-form piece, so it’s my pillar.” Okay, but the chances are that you’ve failed to touch on a lot of key topics within that page. 

Pillar Page Mechanics

That’s the missing piece. Doing the research to understand what should be in that guide. That’s why MarketMuse is so powerful. It can tell you all those different things, giving you tools to really research and make sure you’re providing the right type of value.

That also sets you up for building satellite pages, or spokes for those who call it hub-and-spoke. The easiest thing to do is to align your supporting content with a known user intent. Your pillar page covers all these topics and then links to another page that goes into greater detail. So, if choosing apples is a subtopic, you could write a whole separate article with an in-depth discussion on all the different types of apples suitable for use in apple pies.

That’s how you provide proper topical coverage, build out content clusters, and doing it in alignment with the hub and spoke model to provide more value to the reader. If I’m only guessing a particular subtopic or user intent, I’m wasting resources on writing about something that doesn’t add value.

Granted, there will be intents that you think people should know but really google it. That’s okay.

But thinking about it from the perspective of driving traffic, this is the smarter way to creating content clusters. They cover all the important user intents that are SEO and search focused.

You can actually see this in certain pillar pages that are unsupported, MarketMuse will show you all the synonyms for what you’re covering in your guide to apple pie. You might see rankings for topics like ‘recipes for apple pie’ or ‘everything to know about apple.

But you may also rank for other topics like ‘styles of apple pie.’ It’s not a synonym for our topic but is closely related. 

So that’s a key indicator that I’m on the right path. I’ve covered a little bit of a core user intent, and I’m on Google’s radar for it. That’s where we get that intent mismatch

The article covers it but not comprehensively. That should be the focus of the next article I produce while trying to build out the cluster.

Some software tools, like Hubspot, let you pick a pillar page and then build supporting content. But they don’t tell you what specific topics to cover, which can lead to some weird overlaps.

If you’re not thinking tactically about your goal, you could unintentionally end up getting too far in-depth. Maybe you’re writing a guide to apple pie and end up writing a huge multi-paragraph section on choosing the right apple. You thought that was the right path to take, but here’s what happens.

Google doesn’t necessarily see the page as the guide you intended it to be. Maybe it sees it as an article on choosing apples for apple pie or maybe just choosing apples. The search engine’s not sure exactly what the page is about, and that’s when it gets a little weird.

So, you’ve written a really long page and inadvertently included that really long for which you’re getting credit. Following the hub and spoke model, you decide to write yet another page that’s even longer about choosing apples.

Now you’re getting into what I call intent confusion. You’ve covered everything; it’s not duplicate content, but it is duplicate intent.

What I’ve noticed is, in this case, the supporting content isn’t judged as being a better page. Instead, Google does nothing. The new article you expect to rank well doesn’t, and the existing ranking article continues to rank poorly for that topic.

This often happens with domains that have lots of old SEO content. It’s the old school approach where they wrote a page for every keyword. 

It used to work but doesn’t anymore. Now, if you have a lot of legacy content, Google has trouble determining what is most authoritative since you seem to be covering everything. That’s really problematic, and the Content Advisory Team at MarketMuse has done a lot of remediation work with clients to overcome this situation.

Remediating Broken Pillar Pages

What do you do when every page is a long-form pillar page?

It can be difficult to figure out, but the first is to decide what is your intent pillar. Then see if it ranks for the core topic. So, if your guide to apple pie ranks for that topic, even if it’s performing poorly, at least you’re getting credit for it. That’s good.

Now check if the page ranks for any of the targeted intents. If the answer is “no because my satellite pages are ranking,” that’s a good thing. But they may not be ranking for anything I intended; both the pillar and its supporting satellite pages.

You can use MarketMuse to determine whether your pillar and satellite pages have been properly executed. If they have, you should see a good authority score. If not, the authority will be low, along with the opportunity score, and it won’t rank for its targeted intents.

Once you’ve determined a pillar page is broken, you need to start dialing into the intent and value you’re trying to convey in the article. Do your research to determine the correct subheading structure, topics, questions, and links to be competitive (or just order a MarketMuse Content Brief). 

Take inventory of all pillar and supporting content on the topic, along with the core intents. So, if ‘pie crusts’ is your topic, do you have a page specifically about that topic or does it deviate and lose focus. 

Use MarketMuse to make the best possible page on pie crusts. Use internal links between the pillar and pie crust page to make sure we’re covering that intent. 

Mention it in a paragraph or so on your pillar page. You’re not going in-depth, just enough to add value aligned to properly convey pie crusts within the subject. Use MarketMuse Research to guide you according to how many mentions are appropriate.

If you’re creating a guide to help understand apple pies and you spend two pages discussing how to choose apple pies, you’re not providing a good experience. Google picks up on that.

When fixing pillar page problems, it’s a matter of making pages align with the core value you aim to provide. In the pillar itself, you talk about those things at a very high level and provide the link to another topically aligned page that discusses that aspect in greater detail.

David Juengst

Written by David Juengst davidjuengst