A pillar post is like the bricks and mortar that support your website, your business, and help to define your brand. A pillar post improves your SEO, raises your search visibility, and drives traffic from Google to your website.
Christine Whittemore understands what goes into an effective pillar post and how to draw readers and visitors back to your site again and again.
Rich: She is Chief Simplifier of Simple Marketing Now, an inbound marketing consultancy that helps organizations get found online and generate leads through SEO, blogs, social media, content marketing, and pay per click advertising. She has spoken at Marketing Profs, B2B Forum, Info 360, and Digital Summit focus on Social. She’s also certified in inbound marketing, contextual marketing, content marketing, email marketing, and also HubSpot’s all in one sales and marketing automation software. Please welcome to the show, Christine B. Whittemore.
Christine: Hi Rich, it’s great to be here.
Rich: I’m glad to have you. So Christine, there’s a lot of things obviously that you are an expert in, but how did you get into SEO?
Christine: Well, it strikes me that if you’re serious about the digital world, then you need to know something about SEO. In many ways it’s a lot easier now than it was when I first got immersed when I started blogging in 2006. And I remember scrounging through blog articles to figure out how to insert code in the HTML of my blog for meta descriptions and proper title tags and things of that nature. So I came back by it despite my best intentions.
Rich: So you say that it’s easier now. Why do you think it’s easier now to do SEO?
Christine: Because a lot of the tools make it easier. You don’t have to hunt and peck through code to find out where to place it, and some of them will even guide you along it. Now there’s easy and there’s easy. You still need to be thoughtful and do your research and that aspect of things. But the implementation is a lot easier than it used to be.
Rich: Ok. So I believe I discovered you when I was doing some research into pillar content, and you were one of the top ranking articles actually on Google for “pillar content”. So why don’t you explain to us what exactly is pillar content and what role does it play in our overall SEO strategy.
Christine: Sure. And I’m delighted you found me, I’m delighted the article ranks, because when I created this article I wanted to experiment with pillar content, I wanted to create one. So it all fits together. So pillar content, a pillar, if you think of a pillar in construction, it’s a mighty piece of concrete, of structure. It supports an infrastructure. So when you’re creating the pillar of a content pillar, you’re doing the same thing. You want something that is strong and that helps support the infrastructure of your organization of all the topics that you talk about. So that’s an important way to think about it because it forces you to make this relevant to what you do in your business and how you are communicating with your customers.
Rich: So we’re creating this pillar content. So it sounds like what we want to do is we want to align these pillars with our business offerings. Is that true?
Rich: Alright, so if we’re selling pizza we might create pillar content around pizza, around pepperoni, around crust, around sauce, around cheese. I can’t believe that was the best example I could come up with on the fly.
Christine: Are you hungry?
Rich: Perhaps I am. But is that like a good example of the kind of stuff we might do? Or if we’re a plastic surgeon maybe we create some pillar content around different types of surgery we might be offering.
Christine: Yes. So let’s go back to pizza because it’s a fun one.
Rich: More fun that rhinoplasty? Really?
Christine: Well, we’ll segue from one to the other. So if you’re in the pizza business then there’s the history of pizza, and it’s important to put your business into content, and you do that whether it’s pizza, whether it’s plastic surgery. So what’s the history behind it, how did the ingredients come to be associated with pizza? What makes a good pizza?
When you’re thinking of that pillar piece of content, which can also be identified as “cornerstone content”, it’s a massive piece of content. You can think in terms of chapters, and then it allows you to support that piece of pillar content through other content on your site. So it may be that you touched briefly about the history of pizza in your pizza pillar. Then maybe you have a blog article that goes through the history of pizza, and all kinds of visuals that maybe integrates your own history.
If you’re doing it for plastic surgery, certainly you’re going to want to talk about why you want plastic surgery, what makes a good plastic surgeon, what are the various areas of specialization. And you’ll be supporting some of those chapters by perhaps some of your service pages that specifically talk about rhinoplasty and other types of plastic surgery interventions.
So it ties together very snugly, but it also allows you to build out the information and to keep it fresh. It needs to stay fresh.
Rich: So I guess what I struggle with when it comes to this pillar content is the idea of what gets included and what maybe is content that goes on another page. How deep do you go? Because we’ve also been told that Google really loves focus, they want us to create content that has a very narrow focus. And now it feels like – using the plastic surgery example – you might have pillar content about all the different types of plastic surgery out there, but then shouldn’t those types of plastic surgery have their own pages? Or with the pizza example, it’s like we talk about the different types of pizza – neapolitan pizza, thin crust, stuffed crust, gluten free pizza – and when do we decide that gluten free pizza deserves its own page, and when is it that it should be part of a page that’s all about the different types of pizza that are out there, or should it appear in both places with different words?
Christine: The way I have done it and one thing that I have come to love about digital marketing is that there are always multiple ways to do things. But one way to approach this – and this is the way I’ve done it – is I’ve written blog articles, I’ve developed a base of blog content. And as I’ve developed that blog content I can pull the related ones and start building my pillar page. So I’m going to have more detail in that blog article, but I’m going to certainly point and link to that piece of pillar content and I’m going to include a segment from the blog article.
So there’s the possibility of back and forth, but there’s the possibility of having almost a command and control type of organization on the pillar page that allows a person who comes there to be directed to other sections as needed. So I would definitely have an article or a webpage that talks about gluten free, but I would also talk about that in my pizza pillar. I would talk about alternate forms of pizza, which include gluten free and maybe fruit pizza, since there are people that like pineapple on their pizza, and things of that nature.
Rich: Ok. And just to use another example, something that’s near and dear to my heart besides pizza, email marketing. So I’m just thinking here and I’d like you to kind of test my thinking. So I try and create a pillar piece of content around email marketing, everything I think that that average small business needs to know. Everything from different tools that are out there. To how to build your list, and how you segment your list, and how do you manage your list, and how to read your reports. And each one of those can be its own “chapter”, as you said.
But then do I also want to do something more than multiple blog posts that dive even deeper into how to build your email list with very specific tactics that are around there? Is that kind of a way that we might approach something like this?
Rich: Ok, I think I can wrap my head around that.
Christine: And then you can promote your pillar page in that individual article. And in your pillar page you can send people to that article for more information on that particular topic.
Rich: That makes sense. So like, “For more tips on how to build your email list, read our article on 101 Ways to Build Your List”. And then the other article might say something else like, “For a more complete version of email marketing, you can check out our complete pillar post”.
So you mentioned “chapters”, is there a specific word count that we should be looking for in terms of pillar posts?
Christine: Longer is better. I mentioned a little bit earlier that it’s important to keep your pillar post evergreen. And that goes for your important blog articles, too. But it means then that you can add to it over time. And then that allows the page to grow as necessary. But definitely think long, think a minimum of 2,000 words. You can have even more, you can go to 10,000+ words. What’s important of course is to be relevant, to have quality content – don’t just string 10,000 words together – Google will not like that. But keep your audience in mind and create the best piece of content you can on email marketing…or pizza.
Rich: Or plastic surgery. So I asked about word count. Does it always have to be words on the page, can we use video, can we use audio, what are some of the elements that make for these pillar pieces of content?
Christine: Integrate them all. You want a page that truly appeals to people, and video is an effective way for people to learn. Images are a must, that’s been an interesting evolution of blogging. It started out way back when and you’d have tiny images, and now big images and white space really help to add real space and less of a sense of being compressed and crushed and all that. So use visuals. I love the idea of integrating audio, that would be marvelous given the wealth of information and content you have that’s audio-based.
Rich: Yeah, I was definitely thinking about taking old podcasts and integrating them into some of the posts that we have on our pages to kind of increase the amount of time people spend on it, and also the value that people might get out of it.
You said something interesting a few minutes ago about how you can continue to add to these pillar posts. And it makes me wonder, if you’ve got a history of blog posts, should you be trying to create a brand new piece and say, “This is my pillar post”, or should you be going back to some of your high performing blog posts in a specific category and say ok, there’s 3 posts that tend to do really well, should you combine those into one pillar post or bring the content over from two of those and use 301 redirects to basically build up the other one? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Christine: It’s really going to depend. If of those three articles one is performing phenomenally and the others aren’t, then you might build that one. And this gets to a topic that you’ve addressed in previous podcasts, and that’s around the whole purge and re-write alignment of thinking. There is so much content out there that you really need to make an effort to focus on quality, and that means having exhaustive articles, and if you have duplicate content do yourself a favor and combine that. And if it means using a 301 redirect to drive people to a strong piece of content, then do it.
And another way to build pillar content. So you take your content that’s performing well and revisit them – maybe it’s every year or every 2 years – revisit it and then add to it. As I’ve been doing that and there’s considerably more content, I’ve also been reorganizing how the article flows and I’ll add a table of contents at the beginning so that it’s easy to anchor the text so that people can easily go from one section to another. It’s an evolution. The more we all think in terms of that evolution, the easier it is to re-organize and strengthen.
Rich: If you’ve created a pillar post that now – whether on purpose or accidentally – now no longer aligns with your business goals…I’ve certainly written a few pillar posts that don’t necessarily align with either Agents of Change or flyte new media, they were just things I used to write, what do you do with those? Do you leave them be, do you get rid of that, do you try and take that page and put similar but different content up there that might be better in line with your business goals?
Christine: Oh what an interesting question. It’s particularly interesting for those that have legacy content.
Rich: Oh, I like that term. I’ve got more legacy content, I call it “baggage”, but yeah.
Christine: Yes, well anyhow, I have plenty of those. And you can add to that also content that’s been published on other blogs and on other vehicles. So it’s going to depend. I would focus on the content that draws the most traffic and strengthening those.
I have duds, I have ones that it used to be a good approach. For example I have ones I used to recapture my tweets of the week in a blog post. That is completely irrelevant right now. What I need to do is get rid of those pages. But it’s triage in terms of time. Ideally, yes, you would get rid of that content, you would purge, you would rewrite. If you have a phenomenal pillar post or phenomenal blog article that is irrelevant now, look to see whether you can make use of some of it to bring it back to life. It’s part of keeping the content evergreen, managing it, trimming, it’s a good idea to do so.
One of the new trends, for example, in terms of titles for blog articles – and it certainly applies to pillar content – is having a less specific title and URL. So if you’re doing an exhaustive piece on email marketing statistics for 2018, don’t necessarily title it “Email Statistics 2018”, title it “Email Statistics”, and that way you can reinvent it and extend its lifespan beyond one year.
Rich: But couldn’t you argue that you could write that article and in the title call it “Email Marketing Statistics 2018”, and then when you get the new numbers you just update the title to “2019”, because you’ve already got all those inbound links, as long as the URL doesn’t change?
Christine: Correct, yes. And thanks for that, that’s a really good point. Focus on making the URL more generic. The title can be customized, you can add a little humor and you can add teasers, but yeah, so you can keep it fresh.
Rich: As I go through my own purge – you said you’ve listened to a few episodes and I appreciate that – you mentioned the “tweets of the week” so at one point one of my SEO people turned every webinar into a blog post that she was watching. So they’re just like show notes of people’s webinars and they’re so out of date it’s painful, so I’m just purging. I wish there was a faster way to purge stuff for the website, there’s certainly out of date stuff that I’m dealing with right now.
Things do change, but I notice I’ve got these recaps/what you need to be focusing on next year, and I’ve got one for every year, and I realize I should just be focusing on getting new content over the same URL, I’ve just got to find out which of the year’s maybe gets the most traffic and make that maybe not the pillar content but at least the content we keep coming back to.
Christine: And luckily there’s a learning process. You’re learning it, I’m learning it, and going forward it means we’re embracing different approaches that make that updating process easier.
Christine: We’re in a fast evolving field.
Rich: I don’t know if you can recall exactly everything in the blog post that I am referencing – and we’ll have these in reference in the show notes – what has changed since you wrote this blog post? Do you know off the top of your head things that are like, “Oh yes, this has changed but I just haven’t updated that piece of pillar content yet”?
Christine: That’s another interesting question because I was actually surprised that I had published it in 2017, and it’s pretty accurate, it’s pretty up to date. I do need to re-publish it but I don’t think that I’ll be making a whole lot of change. Andy Crestodina has just published his 2018 blogger’s statistics, so I’ll need to revisit that to see if there are any changes in terms of length, so maybe 10,000+ words is too short. Maybe we need to go more towards 20,000+ words. But the basic approach, the basic logics, still holds.
And the other important point is, this is not a brand new technique, it’s existed for a while, the idea of having a very thorough piece of content. It’s just that now with the content glut, the congestion of content, we’re having to be more conscientious and more respectful of our readers and not bombarding them with the same content all the time.
Rich: I completely agree. It used to be that I would post 3-5 times a week and now I’m like once a month is probably enough. In fact our goal for 2019 for flyte is one new blog post and one overhauled blog post a month, because we feel like that’s a pace that both we and our audience can keep up with. Everybody’s got to decide for themselves what’s right for them.
Quick question before I let you go. So you are trying to keep all of this content up to date, the pillar posts, when you make a change do you republish it or do you just make the change and hit ‘update’? In other words, are you trying to force Google to see this as a big update of that page? What are your steps to actually do that?
Christine: If I’m making just an edit or something minor, I’ll just update the page. But what I try to do is republish the article. I include a reference to the original publishing date and I make the updates, and then when I share it on social I will make note that “just update” or “fresh insights”. But if I consider it that important of an article, than I’m going to republish it.
Rich: Awesome, good to know. Christine, this has been fantastic. I know a lot of people are going to want to check out that article, but where else can we find you online?
Christine: Well I have legacy blogs and three of them are on my current website, simplemarketingnow.com, so there’s lots of content for people to consume on my website and that’s probably the best place to find me. Although, I am on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, of course.
Rich: Awesome. Christine, thank you so much for stopping by today and sharing your expertise.
Christine: You’re welcome, I really enjoyed it. Thank you, Rich.
Christine Whittemore specializes in helping businesses get found online. She has helped develop & implement marketing strategies, drive content to be more SEO friendly, and created pillar content that drives traffic. Her website is full of valuable information if you’re looking for guidance with your inbound marketing plan.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.