Let’s face it, if you’re not ranking on page one of Google search results, visitors aren’t getting to your site. “Getting on page one” remains the gold standard of SEO digital marketing.
And it used to be simple. Once upon a time, the way to achieve a top ranking was through “Keyword Optimization.” But living in this new era of search engines powered by Artificial Intelligence, Google algorithms are smarter than ever before. And as a result, Keyword Optimization and traditional SEO don’t work as well as they used to. Still, organic search remains the best investment for businesses looking to grow over time.
If you’re hoping to move up in the ranks of Search Engine Results Pages, it may be time to upgrade to a new SEO-boosting strategy. Google’s gatekeeper John Mueller confirms that what’s rewarded and valued on SERPs today is STRONG CONTENT that provides valuable information, rather than a straight, transactional message.
The direction is clear: To rank highly, brands must employ a more robust organizational system—such as one built on Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages. Building your website with this system in mind will not only improve your organic search results, it will also make your site easier to navigate for the average user.
How SEO Used to Work: Keyword Optimization
If you’ve ever built your own website or worked with a digital marketing agency in the past, you probably went through a keyword optimization exercise that looked something like this:
1) Create a list of keywords relevant to your business
2) Check analytics to see which of these keywords were being searched by consumers
3) Narrow that list down further by finding a niche where there was little competition from other businesses
4) Create website content that includes these keywords.
Keyword Optimization worked well for a while, but eventually companies discovered they could boost their rankings through “keyword loading”—cramming as many keywords as possible onto their websites, with little thought to user experience. As a result, the Internet went through a phase where top search results often contained spammy websites that were useless to consumers.
How SEO Works Now: Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages
Thankfully, Google has gotten smarter, and instead of ranking websites based on how many times they used a keyword, the newest algorithms rank pages based on how organized they are, how “expert” they appear to the rest of the Internet, and how explicitly they seem to address your specific queries.
Let’s start with the last of these:
Not long ago, most Internet searches contained just one or two words. For example, “Local Realtor.” But today nearly 65% of all searches contain four or more words. We call these, “Long tail searches” and they include not only terms that you type in, but also voice searches performed through Alexa and Siri (12% of all searches are voice searches*).
This is good news for companies and consumers alike. Most Internet users are not looking for general information about a topic like real estate—they have a very specific question in mind that is tied to a specific action they desire to take. For example, I recently moved from Seattle to Tennessee. When looking for a local realtor, I would have been overwhelmed with useless results if I had used a short search term. Instead, I used very specific queries like, “Best Nashville realtors with virtual walkthrough” that fit my particular context as someone who wanted to start looking at houses while I was still living on the other side of the country.
These screenshots illustrate the difference between search results for a general term (realtor Nashville) and a long tail search term (best Nashville realtor with virtual walkthrough). Because the results on the right specifically match my query, they rank at the top and the sites on the left that dominate a general search don’t even appear.
The Google algorithm also looks at how expert your website appears to other sites. In short, the more external sites that link to your site, the higher your search ranking will be, especially if the sites linking to you are themselves viewed as expert sites. (Iin other words, don’t try to set up a hundred shell sites to backlink to your site—it won’t work.).
Whether or not your website is viewed as an expert and matches long tail search terms in large part has to do with how organized it is. Having a lot of content may help your site rank higher in search results, but if your content isn’t easily accessible, if you don’t have enough internal and external links set up, you will have built a content database that nobody is seeing. Not sure if this is you? Ask your web team if you have any pages on your site that don’t get any traffic. If you have a lot of unviewed pages, then you’re wasting time and money that could be better spent if you had a content and organization strategy. That’s where topic clusters and pillar pages come in.
Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages
Simply put, a topic cluster is a way of structuring a website that links all of your content together by subject. This helps it rank higher in SEO and makes it more user friendly. Without a topic cluster organizational structure, most websites have a homepage, product or information pages, and a blog that focuses on capturing traffic from keywords. As search phrases became longer, websites had to create multiple blogs and content