Are Pillar Pages and Topic Clusters Making SEO Keywords Extinct?

Jen Saunders
Reading Time: 7 minutes

More than 90 percent of all searches are performed using Google, so sending organic traffic from this search engine to your website is paramount to sales enablement and organizational growth.

Google is only getting smarter by every growing minute, and knowing how to rank content through its evolution is important. So how do keywords play into ranking content? Are we finally at a roadblock where they resting six feet under?

Keywords are certainly not dead; they have just become a major part to a more complex strategy that calls for topic clusters and pillar pages. Gone are the days when keywords could be peppered throughout content to achieve rankings. Today’s growth-driven SEO agencies  face something difficult to pull off, and very few marketing firms are doing it correctly.

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Why did SEO Get so Hard?

Simply executing an SEO strategy designed to convert organic traffic into paying customers in 2019 and beyond is going to require completely different talent compared to what was needed a few years ago. In order to successfully run an SEO strategy, you need a lead strategist with an advanced degree (ideally in marketing), professional writing skills, and a decade’s experience doing SEO.

Why a degree? As we move into 2019 and beyond, outperforming competitor strategies and creating one designed to resonate with target buyers requires advanced research skills taught in post graduate programs (accredited universities). Peppering content with keywords to achieve rankings and hoping something sticks no longer works. Instead, the foundation of traditional marketing is bleeding into the digital world by demanding an understanding of marketing psychology implemented into content, logic, and the necessary research to lay out a healthy foundation of sales enablement through organic traffic.

Finding an SEO ninja who’s had their head in the game for more than a decade is hard to mine. But because organic search strategies require a deep understanding of Google’s evolution, experience plays big. The main reason why SEO fails to rank content is due to a lack of experience in organic search and the utilization of outdated tactics. Today’s SEO experts need to engineer strategies for RankBrain and today’s savvy buyers, while knowing how Google has evolved and forecasting the next big changes.

Google RankBrain and the search engine’s ongoing algorithm updates are (partially) to blame for SEO’s growing difficulty. RankBrain’s AI and machine learning framework enables Google to study every intimate intention and pain point embedded in search queries, and see how search results correlate with searcher engagement behavior. As Google does this, it self educates itself consuming tons of data with the goal to award ranking to content that best suits specific needs. This means keywords and their content must have context. And context comes from a deep understanding of buyers that, only a few years ago, was not needed for SEO to work.

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Are Keywords Still Important?

Does the pope live in the Vatican? Yet people still argue this point. Simply perform a Google search asking this very question, and you will see a mixed bag of opinions. Every time I see an article written by someone who claims that keywords offer little value, I want to throw these people from a window for giving businesses terrible growth marketing advice.


I am going to clear this up once and for all, with evidence. Here is my proof:

Let’s say I want to buy a scuba regulator I can use in cold water diving conditions. I am going to do a descriptive search for my desired item, WITHOUT using keywords. When I type, “breathing device for going under cold water”, I’m not using any keywords, yet I’m being crystal clear that I want to find a solution for breathing under cold water. Here are the results Google gave me:

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As you can see, the first two results are on hypothermia and the third result is a Wikipedia article on the science of cold water diving equipment–still not what I am looking for, which is a link to products I can shop for and buy.

Now let’s see what happens when I perform a search with a main keyword. When I type, “cold water scuba regulator”, I get some high-value search results:

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As you can see, products you can shop appear up top with a cold water regulator comparison guide directly below. Then for organic results we have a great review site listing all the pros and cons of multiple cold water regulators.

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Proof that Keywords Work in Topic Clusters

In sticking to our above search query, we have clear evidence that keywords matter in using the topic cluster model. As you can see in the search results, we have a blog on the subject that’s nearly seven years old. When clicked, the blog is revealed to be part of a cluster model that links to a pillar page, and that uses a variety of keywords:

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Here, the content presents a scenario that reflects buyer intentions with a pain point, it has a specific topic, keywords used in a natural manner, and it links to the primary regulator product page (the pillar page). When scrolling down the page (see below) there are links to other cold water regulator models with supporting keywords to complete an SEO-enriched cluster.

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This is old content that offers no value to readers, but tons of value to Google. Talk about a contradiction! This is super valuable. Just think about it; who in their right mind would buy a seven year old scuba regulator, let alone spend significant time reading an article on outdated technology? I ran this page through the SEO analysis tool in SpyFu, and this page gets zero engagement. Not even crickets. Yet it ranks extremely well.

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So why does a seven year old blog with zero engagement continue to dominate page one of Google? Because using the right keywords (this page ranks for two of them, according to SpyFu) within the blog topic cluster is powerful enough on its own to sustain superior visibility. But because the date 2012 appears in the meta description, nobody is clicking on it.

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What are Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages?

Topic clusters and pillar pages are parts of a modern content strategy that accommodates contemporary search behavior. The way people search for goods and services has changed. Today’s buyers use conversational language in their search queries, and there is a clear pain point driving every search. Google RankBrain looks for these signals to use when awarding ranking, and topic clusters and pillar pages help the search engine decipher content while performing this task while ensuring a positive user experience for visitors.

Topic clusters form a number of blogs that each contain a unique title and topic. Advanced tactics can also include strategic messaging aimed at a specific buyer audience. These blogs link internally to one another to show Google relevancy, circulate SEO juice, and to help improve the user experience. In addition, these blogs link to the pillar page, which is almost always the primary product page or homepage.

Instead of writing a bunch of unrelated keyword-heavy blog posts, topic clusters can use contextualized keywords within buyer-focused content that ranks the right content for target buyer groups most likely to convert.

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Keywords for Topic Clusters

Using keywords for topic cluster content is a far cry from the traditional way most SEO blog strategies work. In fact, most organizations continue to use them in the old manner completely unaware of their poor results. SEO agencies will use keyword research tools to find relative keywords with the highest search volume. Then they will build content around these keywords to rank for them.

On the surface this may look ideal. After all, ranking well for mega keywords with high search volume means you get more eyes on your link, and this will bring more clicks. But there are two major problems with this. First, ranking for large keywords is a process that takes significantly longer than others. More importantly, these keywords perform poorly at converting visitors into buyers. And the main point of any SEO strategy is to generate revenue from organic traffic.

The reason why these keywords don’t convert well is because they aren’t dialed in to any audience targeting. Remember, today’s buyers are savvy and they are looking for content that provides a solution to a specific need or pain point. The keywords you choose for topic cluster content reflecting buyer needs can contain broad search terms with large search volume. But make sure you use variations of these keywords in longtail variations with context.

As in the example above, the blogger used “scuba regulators”, “cold water scuba regulators”, and other keywords that define the product, it’s context, and its intended audience (in this case ice divers or cold water divers). Now let’s look at  conversion potential. When researching search volume, “scuba regulator” may get an average of 1900 searches per month, and “cold water scuba regulators” an average of 40 monthly searches, but this is all irrelevant. What matters is how well they convert. If one keywords gets 500 monthly impressions and only an average of two monthly conversions, while another gets 20 monthly impressions and an average of 10 monthly conversions, clearly the one that generates the most revenue wit the lower search volume is more valuable.


Keywords are More Important than Ever Before

So long as you mix up the variety of keywords in your topic clusters and use buyer-focused context, you can expect to rank blogs, landing pages, guides and other forms of content for the right audiences most likely to convert. This is a strategy favored by both Google and  your ideal customers. It is perfectly climatized to perform well in 2019, and for many years to come (so long as a huge off-the-wall algorithm update doesn’t occur).

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