Pillar pages and topic clusters are common topics in Web content marketing, so you may think you know what to expect in a discussion about pillar-based marketing.
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However, in Marketing Smarts Episode 560, guest Ryan Brock lays down some pretty controversial statements about his content strategy. At least, controversial to practitioners of traditional SEO.
"Search volume does not matter," he says. "I don't think about estimated search volume at all. I don't think about competition. I don't think about domain authority. I don't build links."
Wow. So what does he think about?
User experience, for one thing. The passion people have, for another. And the way Google's search algorithm works. To master Google, he explains, you have think like Google.
"If we're trying to show Google we are a topical authority, [pillar-based] structure for content not only provides a good user experience, not only talks about what people actually care about, but itself serves as a representation of what Google's own recommendation engine looks like."
To learn exactly what a pillar-based strategy is and how to create one, check out the full transcript below. You can also listen to the entire show from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.
George B. Thomas: Are you ready to unleash the power? I know I am. I'm super excited about this episode today because we're talking about unleashing the power of pillar-based marketing. That's right, pillar pages, content clusters, educational articles, and a little thing called sub-pillars. We'll get into that later. We're going to talk with Ryan Brock, who is the expert on pillar-based marketing. We're going to talk about what keeps Ryan up at night, the hurdles, success, how to get started, and he's going to break it down. Of course, toward the end, we're going to get some words of wisdom. I have to be honest. I was nerding out the entire time I was speaking with Ryan Brock for this interview.
Ryan Brock is a brilliant storyteller who founded and ran the DemandJump acquired content agency Metonymy Media. With 12 years of experience driving measurable content outcomes for business in every industry, Ryan is a seasoned SEO expert. Now, as chief solution officer at DemandJump, Ryan works with companies worldwide to remove the guesswork from SEO and drive industry leading organic traffic results through pillar-based marketing methodologies. Ryan is the co-author of Pillar-Based Marketing: A Data-Driven Methodology for SEO and Content That Actually Works.
Get ready to unleash the power, get ready to learn about pillar-based marketing. Let's go ahead and get into the good stuff.
I'm super excited because I really feel like I'm going to get the fill of nerdiness that I need on most of these episodes. I am talking with Ryan Brock today. The reason that I'm so excited is because we're talking about unleashing the power of pillar-based marketing. Again, I can't wait to see what nuggets of wisdom we can uncover for you, the Marketing Smarts listeners.
Ryan, how are you doing today?
Ryan Brock: I am doing lovely, George. Thank you. I'm going to take that introduction as a compliment about nerdy stuff and getting into it. I love this story, I love talking about pillar-based marketing. When I talk to people who I think aren't blowing smoke and are like, "I want to talk about this," my brain just starts firing off. So, I'm pumped.
George: Just so everybody knows the level to which I am willing to go today: I am a content nerd, I subscribe to the idea of pillar pages, content clusters, subtopics, blog articles. You said something in a MarketingProfs webinar that I was part of, and it was something around sub-pillars. I'm going to lightly allude to these other elements that you started to mention. Then I purchased your book and had it shipped to my house almost immediately.
Let's get back into the actual episode here after that context of why we're talking to Ryan and the importance of this conversation for all of the Marketing Smarts listeners. I always like to start and end with a couple of little fun questions. I've realized that this gets us to a good, fun place. Sometimes it's a dream, sometimes it's a nightmare, but what keeps you up at night around SEO and content marketing and maybe this idea of pillar-based marketing when you think about it?
Ryan: I get the sense that you've at least opened my book and looked at what the first chapter is called. I'll tell you what keeps me up at night, and what has for a long time, and it's just guesswork. It's not having data where we think we have data. That's a pretty broad statement, but I feel like maybe in all of business, certainly in all of marketing, there isn't a field, a tactic, a strategy like SEO that just is full of Excel spreadsheets, BI graphs and charts, numbers and metrics that all don't actually tell you anything. There is so much information involved with doing the work of search engine optimization, and yet a lot of the information you're looking at ends up being noise or vanity, or something in between.
For me, I owned a content agency for over a decade before I came over to the dark side of marketing technology. Nine times out of ten, my instincts were pretty good when it came to how to develop content that people are going to want to read, how to drive traffic to a new client's website. But even if I was pretty good, we're talking about a six to 12 month lead time for any value, and there is just so much waste along the way. That drives me nuts.
What I think continues to keep me up at night now, even though I feel like I've found a better way, is that people still cling onto the notion that that kind of waste is necessary and acceptable. It's a really uphill battle to convince people that they can let go of the trauma they've all experienced when it comes to SEO.
George: Marketing Smarts listeners, I have to ask, are you stuck in a world of the wrong data or data you don't understand? Are you stuck in a world where you're wasting time or accepting something that you shouldn't be accepting? Buckle up, because we're about to head down a journey that's going to hopefully help with all of those things as we move forward.
Ryan, one of the things that I like to level-set because while you might be a pillar-based marketing nerd, and I might be a content SEO pillar-based nerd, not everybody listening to these episodes are like, let's rock with the pillars or know what we're talking about. When we say pillar-based marketing, what the heck do we even mean? In other words, how do you define marketing that would be pillar-based for the listeners who are listening today?
Ryan: Great question. I'm going to answer it from two perspectives.
The first perspective is a literal response to the question that I've been asked. A pillar is a topic, a concept, a subject matter in which you might be an authority, an expert, or a moron. It's sort of a sandbox of ideas in which people look for information.
The concept of the pillar page or the pillar strategy for content has been around for a while. However, one of the metrics we're looking at to measure search behavior and understand what we should be writing about, what we should be putting out there from a creative standpoint is so different than what we've been doing with SEO for a long time that it's worthy of its own label. This concept of pillar-based marketing, the notion that actually if you start with an idea, and that idea is a category that you're serving, it's an industry that you're in, it's whatever the name of your service or product is, it's the solution you're providing, that pillar concept, if you start there and you actually understand what people are talking about around that topic, not just on a micro level, you're engaging with your customers, you're putting out good polls, you're speaking to salespeople to understand what it is that you're customers are talking about. That's something that has been done for a long time and it's something that doesn't work.
It's the same around social media listening and all this stuff. There are a lot of ways that you can begin to understand what people care about around a topic. I believe, and I think I've proven out around a considerable amount of time and a lot of case studies, that if you want to understand what people are talking about, what they actually care about around a subject, around a pillar, if you will, the best source of data for that is the way Google contextualizes related searches and related question behavior in search engines.
If you start with any phrase, you can begin working your way through the branching ways Google knows that people learn about a topic. There comes a point eventually where if you're using the right kind of machine-learning algorithms and data where you analyze that recommendation engine that you suddenly have an objective map of what is this topic, what is the subject in terms of search behavior, in terms of the questions that matter, the keywords that matter.
It's not about metrics like search volume. You're not working from a perspective of, here is a list of keywords that somebody has in a database that I'm paying to access and I'm going to measure them according to do they look like words that I want to target, do they have high monthly search volume, do they have a low competition score so I feel like I can write this content and actually drive traffic to my website. We're saying forget all of that. Only care about how likely it is any given term related to a topic, a pillar, is to show up across otherwise completely unrelated journeys.
In other words, if people start at two very different places with different phrases learning about little facets of a pillar topic that your business cares about, what are the terms that time and again people are going to keep asking, even if they're learning about otherwise different things? These terms just keep coming back. It's a different kind of metric that allows us to say we can say this is the structure of a pillar topic in terms of how people learn about it online. Then this is the spiderweb, this is the way people move around the structure of that network, so this is the content you need to develop.
It just starts there. Pillar-based marketing has a lot of potential beyond just organic content. Effectively what we're doing is we're starting to think statistically and at a very high level about how entire populations learn about subjects. If you're talking about investing any marketing dollars in something creative, content-driven, educational, that's the level where I think you're able to actually start learning insights that point you in the right direction in terms of what to write about.
That's the very long-winded answer to your question. I have a second one, but I'm going to stop talking for a moment because I've been on your side of the fence, too, and I don't like guests that ramble.
George: I don't think that was rambling. Marketing Smarts listeners, that's probably the first rewind point. There was so much in there that you should map out and pay attention to. We're going to keep diving down. Ryan, what's the second answer to my question?
Ryan: The second answer is what makes marketing pillar-based is that marketers came up with a label. It's the most obvious marketer-driven label for a new category, period. We realized when we started doing this that our time to value was different than traditional SEO and our metrics were different than traditional SEO. So, we're looking at it from a different perspective.
The best practices, how you use search behavior data, how you use keywords, how you plan your content, how you optimize it for SEO, all of that is so different that it's not SEO. It's not just another step in SEO. It's a different way of thinking about the concept of topical authority, basically, so we were like we have to come up with a label for this. The pillar becomes such a distinctive part of the strategy and the methodology. We looked at what happened with account-based marketing, how did they get that to become a category. Creating a category is like the stupidest hardest thing to do in marketing, so if we want to say this is at least a new subcategory of digital marketing, we just sort of followed the lead of account-based marketing and said let's call it pillar-based marketing.
When I first began building content around pillar-based marketing, I crawled account-based marketing search behavior to see how people historically learned about this as a new approach to marketing and sales, and then started taking cues from that in order to build this up to what it is today. It worked pretty well, obviously.
George: I love it. It's interesting. I want to break this down a little bit more so that people start to understand. Again, some folks may have heard some of this. They may have heard of pillar-based as skyscraper or different things. There are different names for this, but it's really honing into this pillar-based idea. I love that we're talking about topics, a topic that you want to be known for, a content strategy, and we'll get into that in a hot minute when we go a little bit off the beaten path, and what that equals moving forward.
When you think of the key elements, and by the way, one of the reasons why we're here is for me, key elements were articles, which created a content cluster, which would be attached to the pillar. When we were on the MarketingProfs webinar, there were other things that you were talking about. You had maybe made a 2.0 version of even what I had been hearing about. Maybe talk about some of the key elements of pillar-based marketing that B2B marketers should be paying attention to as they move forward with this strategy for their organization.
Ryan: If you've been into content clusters, topic clusters, pillar strategy for content in the past, it's a fairly simple concept to understand. You have a pillar page, a pillar article, or the hub, it's the hub in the middle of the spokes. This is your big page about a subject. It's usually going to be your short-tail keyword that you think categorizes all of your activity pretty well. If you're Nike, you might have a pillar page on running shoes. You surround that with articles that answer questions, get into further detail around running shoes. You have that one hub and then you have spokes, and it almost could look like a wheel coming off of it.
Most pillar strategies that you read about out there, that's the extent of it. Shawn Schwegman, co-founder of DemandJump, and Toph Day knew to start there because the concept of Google's recommendation engine lends itself to this 2D visual of a network. Hub and spoke models and traditional pillar strategy models have a little bit of that going. They're also very flat, they're two-dimensional, you have the hub and then you have some spokes.
What we try to do is we try to take our cues from the ways that certain terms serve as nodules in a network for other recommendations. I'm trying to think of a way to really root this.
Let's say you were searching for running shoes, and one of the recommendations Google gives you was 'what are the best running shoes.' That's a dumb question to ask because it's very subjective question, but let's just pretend that's that. Then let's say we searched 'what are the best running shoes,' and then we find some questions that people also ask. Maybe one of those questions is 'how do I tell what the best running shoes are for me.' So, you search that and you go looking for data, you go looking for information, and you don't find everything that you need, so then you go back to the recommendations. All of sudden, 'what are the best running shoes' shows up again.
What we're talking about is a nonlinear kind of funnel. The funnel doesn't matter anymore. In this world, we think about the spiderweb, not the funnel. In a spiderweb, each of these terms in the network can appear sort of in a physical point in space. As you go around learning, one term that you might go through and search on could lead you back to this term again. Other terms that are far off on the other side of the network, the other side of the spiderweb, could find their way eventually looping you back around to that same term.
Gartner has done a lot of good stuff on this. We can talk about it and we can put some show notes, if you want. I have some good stuff to share here, especially when it comes to the B2B buying journey.
People don't buy linearly. When we build keyword lists and then we build our CTA funnels with content, a lot of times we are assuming that people are going to have the same questions in the same order, and that the people who come into our website because they asked one question really care about this broader topic that we care about. Because we know that there are those intermediary terms where you get there, you go away, you come back again, that happens a lot. What that ends up looking like is a three-level pillar strategy versus that hub and spokes model where you have a pillar page and some associated content.
You actually think about this as more of a pyramid. Maybe we should have called this pyramid-based marketing, because it looks like a pyramid. You start with your pillar page at the top, that's the core element, it's the hub of your network. If we think about it hierarchically, it's like a pyramid where you have a pillar page at the top, then you have what we call three sub-pillar pages in the middle, and this is the start of a plan, and then you have 12 supporting blog posts on the bottom.
You could also think about this from that spiderweb network model where in the center is your pillar topic. That's your pillar page. If it's running shoes, it's going to be about a 3,000-word piece of content. It's going to be your broadest and your longest, but still your shallowest piece of content on your website about running shoes.
One level out or one level down, depending on the perspective that you're looking at this from, you have what we call sub-pillar pages. This is where you remain sort of really high level, broad but shallow, but a little bit less broad, a little bit less shallow. You're talking about a 2,000-word piece of content. If running shoes is the pillar page, a sub-pillar page might be sheep running shoes, breathable running shoes, green running shoes. Those might be sub-pillars. They earn that status in your strategy because they're loadbearing, they're architectural. They are those hub terms that as people learn and ask different questions about running shoes, they keep coming back to them, those terms keep showing up again and again. We want to zero in on that part of the network and see what people are talking about, and we want to build our article around that.
Then, finally, you have supporting blog posts. Those supporting blog posts are where we really zero in on the 'people also ask' section of Google search results. Those are still showing up even if you're getting the generative AI experience, they're just coming up as follow up questions, but then you'll also see it down below as well. The idea there is these are your really long-tail, really low competition terms that even in some search engine optimization tools you might be seeing really low monthly search volumes, so it's not even worth your time. However, because they come up in the 'people also ask' recommendations with Google, we know that these are questions that are really important and that a lot of people ask them. You can sort of contextualize those as they branch off of your sub-pillar pages.
When it all comes together, you end up with this multitiered hierarchy of content where people can come in at any point and then have a choose-your-own-adventure style experience through your network of content. By the way, Google just so happens to mimic exactly how you've designed your recommendation engine around this topic.
So, if our job as organic content marketers is to establish topical authority, because domain authority doesn't matter anymore and all that technical scammy stuff that used to be a big deal is really unimportant in the eyes of Google, if we're trying to show Google we are a topical authority, this structure for content not only provides a good user experience, not only talks about what people actually care about, but itself serves as a representation of what Google's own recommendation engine looks like. So, it's comfortable, it's familiar to Google, they know that statistically speaking most people who come to this website are going to like it, they'll connect with what they're reading.
That's the core of it. It's really data-driven in a way that I don't think any other SEO tactic has ever been.
George: I love this so much. Marketing Smarts listeners, I hope you know that you just had a multi-minute masterclass in what you should be doing with your content strategy around these topics that you want to be known for.
Also, you can't see this because you're listening to the podcast, but I am literally holding the book by Ryan Brock and Christopher 'Toph' Day, Pillar-Based Marketing: A Data-Driven Methodology for SEO and Content That Actually Works.. If you loved that section that we just listened to and you want to dive in deeper, this book might be right for you.
By the way, Ryan, I want you to take some time and talk to me about the book. Who is it for? Why do they need it? Wax poetic on just that additional resource that they can get their hands on.
Ryan: Sure. First, I want to say that looked like it was a hardback. Was that a hardback?
George: It's a hardback, yes. I got the hardback version.
Ryan: We have sold precious few of those, so respect.
Why the book and who is it for? This book is for any marketer who is like me. You can't see it, I'm wearing a hat, you're not watching this, you're listening to it, but my joke that I like to give, this is very self-deprecating, when I started my agency back in 2011, I had a full head of hair. It was thick and blonde, it was beautiful. Now I have no hair. In fact, the state of Indiana decided when I got my driver's license updated here a couple of months ago, now that I don't have any blonde hair, and my beard is red, they marked me down as a redhead on my driver's license. I was like I love that I don't have an opinion in this, what I think doesn't matter, whatever you think is fine.
The point that I'm trying to make, despite all of this weirdness, is that I legitimately was so stressed about the calculus of going to a client. Maybe you're not in an agency, maybe you're working internally as a marketer. You still have some client, you have a stakeholder, a boss, somebody who is tracking what you're doing, and you have to say it would be real nice, especially as advertising costs skyrocket, for us to be able to actually write content that people read. To know that it's not on us to have to cram that content down people's throats by shoving it on Facebook constantly, by emailing it out constantly, but we can actually put it out there, it can address real problems, it can be measured as authoritative, and then it can drive organic traffic to our website.
It's just very difficult to work that calculus when you're trying to say to somebody, give me a portion of the budget that I need to create not just good content, not just content that's okay, but content that legitimately is better than whatever else is out there. That it is legitimately more aligned with the statistical average of what people are looking for around any given topic and is going to actually solve problems for people and then, in doing so, drive meaningful traffic that is really good leads or sales, or whatever it is that we're looking for. It's just hard to look somebody in the eye and say, "You have to give me money for three to six months at minimum," and if we're lucky, the average is like 10% of that content will end up ranking high on Google, but it's easy to miss completely. Even if you do hit, you don't know for a long time and you don't know why.
We wrote this book because we felt that the results that we see from pillar-based marketing… I tell people this all the time, I'm going to use the really overblown hyperbolic brag case study here. It's small, it's medium, it's large, but no matter how much content you're producing, or what you're targeting, or how competitive it is, pillar-based marketing drives results overnight. It's right away.
The last time that I created a pillar strategy for DemandJump for our own marketing purposes, it was around SaaS content. We had never written anything on that. In fact, we've written a ton of stuff on content, SEO, websites, and all of that, but if you look at the network of search terms surrounding SaaS content, we weren't on the board for anything. Nothing. We had no content. We weren't even trying.
So, we wrote just 28 pieces of content, which is a lot, I know. There are some marketers out there who are like, "That's half of my year, that's a lot of content." At the end of the day, here's the difference. By investing in writing 28 pieces of content over a month to six weeks, basically we're investing what we would have been investing in paid search during that same amount of time, but instead we wrote content with it.
We published that content. We put about $40 an article on that content, driving qualified traffic. That's another key element of pillar-based marketing is where we bring together your paid strategy with your organic content strategy and say these things can work together in harmony. That works because we need to tell Google, look at these people who are reading this content, they like what they see, because statistically we know that we're answering the questions that they actually have. Maybe not for everybody, but for the most part what we're actually covering in an article is what people want to read.
By the way, another aside. When we talk about a pillar page of 3,000 words, that sounds insane to a lot of people. Like are you kidding me? I'm not writing a 3,000-word article, no one is going to read it, nobody likes it. George, I'm going to ask you, I'm going to put you in the hot seat.
Ryan: Across all of the practitioners of pillar-based marketing that I am tracking, so this isn't by any means a scientific read, but across the ones that we're paying attention to, 3,000 words, what do you think the average time on page is across the board for those 3,000-word pillar articles?
George: If I had to guess how long the users are staying on the page?
George: Less than five minutes.
Ryan: That's a really good guess. Honestly, in 2022, 52 seconds was the average time on page for any page on the website. We're getting about 15 minutes. Why is that? Because we're actually not just covering the topic that matters, but we're looking at that network for each headline, for each section, for every little bit of what we're covering. It's all data-driven. Because of that, it works really well.
Now, we put a little bit of money into driving traffic there. Traffic that looks similar to who would be landing there organically once it ranks. Those people read it, they love it, and Google says this is amazing. Not only is this one page really good, but you have a network, in this case of 28 pages, that are linked together, so people are clicking all around looking for more information, navigating that they want to, and it's a really great user experience. Guess what? You win.
What happens is, in this case, it was 28 pieces of content we published, and within five days we had 78 page one rankings, I want to say, driving actual traffic five days after publishing. This is organic traffic coming from page one rankings. Within six weeks, we had 497 page one rankings for terms related to this pillar topic in that network. By now, it's like 700.
By taking and deferring what would have been paid budget into content, following this data-driven methodology that actually works for about a month and a half, we now have something that is responsible for roughly 20% of our website traffic over time, month over month. We only had to write it once, and we only had to put it out there once, and now it's just delivering for us day in and day out. That's in addition to the other pillars that we've done.
For us, for our marketing team, it is a different story. We don't have to spend so much money on paid advertising to get a good foundation of traffic, because our good foundation of traffic is coming every single day. I wrote that book because I want people to know about that, because it is a better way and it's so exciting when you see it working in action.
George: It's so good. Marketing Smarts listeners, I hope you picked up on the words customer experience, or user experience.
Ryan, when I teach pillar pages, I actually say this line: It might be five, 10, or 15,000 words. I want them to know that it is a deep piece of content. People lose their minds, but when we start to paint the picture of it's about the experience that people have going down the page, it's about the elements on the page, images, video, iconography, subheads, all of that good stuff, people will stay on longer. That 15 minutes is like yes, I want to hear that.
Time flies when you're having fun. This should probably be a two-part episode. We might have to circle back around and get some more time together.
I want to go off the beaten path for a second. You said earlier, a couple of questions ago, you alluded to the way that you plan your content drastically changes. When you think about this pillar-based marketing, you have the main pillar, you have the three sub-pillars, and you have the 12 articles. First of all, is it only 12, can there be more than 12, should there be less than 12, how do you pick the right 12 if it's only 12? The question is how does this pillar-based marketing idea change what folks might be doing from a content planning strategy standpoint?
Ryan: I talked about a 16-piece pillar strategy. That has sort of become emblematic of the book and the methodology that I'm teaching and that we're enabling at DemandJump. The reason that we talk about a 16-piece strategy is because we've tested it. In order to create that network effect where Google sees it and it's like that two Spider-Men pointing at each other meme where Google is like you see the same thing we do about how people want to learn about this, that's cool, you need 16 pieces networked together to create that effect.
That's just the minimum. There are some pillars that we've done that are 130 pieces of content over time. A lot of customers that we work with who use pillar-based marketing, use our technology to make it happen, are writing between, on average, 16 and 35 pieces of content for a pillar. It just varies depending on how big the network is. Sometimes you'll analyze a network and you'll get 3,000 terms back, but a lot of that could be junk. A lot of that could be stuff that you don't care about, that you don't want to cover. A lot of it might be really good, but there's only 200 terms in your network, so you really have to buckle down and do the whole thing. It just depends.
One of the ways that this works, and I'm going to speak from a slightly proprietary standpoint because we have to address the question that you just asked in a meaningful way regularly. What we've done at DemandJump to facilitate this strategy is we've created something called a DJ score, which is effectively a score from 0 to 100 where we're measuring. I was talking before about those sub-pillars and how they're connected across a lot of different journeys and a lot of different terms might lead you back to those sub-pillar terms that you're targeting.
What we do is we analyze each term that shows in the network and we give it a score 0 to 100, and that represents how connected it is to other terms in the network. The higher the score, the more load bearing it is when it comes to the pathways people take learning about this. The lower the score, the less it matters. It's actually really easy for me when I'm doing the pillar-based marketing strategy to look at my dashboard in DemandJump, see this is the priority order of the most connected to the least connected, and if I'm going to start with 16 pieces of content, boom, this is my sub-pillar here, the three or four terms that connect to it directly in the network that are the highest DJ score.
It kind of builds itself, honestly, at that point. You just keep going until you feel like you're driving the kind of traffic you want to, you're beating out your competitors in a way that you're feeling good about, and you've covered all of the terms that seem to make sense to you. But there is a way of analyzing search terms themselves and quantifying whether or not they're worthwhile.
George: This episode has been so good so far. I want to try to squeeze in a couple more questions. First of all, you honestly have laid out so much stuff that any B2B marketer listening to this should just take and run with.
When I think about them running with the things that we've talked about, I want to dive into the hurdles that you've seen get in the way. Meaning, when the B2B marketers are trying to do this, when they're moving forward to use pillar-based marketing in their organization, what are some of the hurdles they're going to come across that you want to tell them to watch out for?
Ryan: There's at least two, but it might be three. I'm going to start with the number one. The smarter your organization is with SEO, the harder it is going to be to accept this methodology. I've found that when I work with career SEOs who are in a position where they need to provide value and prove value, what we ask people to do goes against a lot of what you've learned in SEO. We don't care about keyword density. We don't care about cannibalization.
That's one thing that we get all the time. When somebody sees the strategy that we'll put together around a topic, it will be clear that across a few of the blog posts we're covering the same information. We're doing that because the data tells us we have to and because it's a good user experience to not assume that your readership has read every blog post on your website, because nobody does that. "But you're going to cannibalize this term, they're close enough." We're more concerned about broadening the net and reinforcing the network.
That's just one example of many, and there are many, where we say forget about it. Search volume does not matter. I don't think about estimated search volume at all. I don't think about competition. I don't think about domain authority. I don't build links.
That's another thing we could probably do a whole episode around. We haven't built a single link, ever. We've never done any work to build links around this content that drives this kind of success.
Unlearning what we've all accepted as black and white substantial concrete facts of the SEO universe is number one. The more stressed somebody is about how BS SEO is, the more likely it is they're going to be able to throw that stuff away. The more complex a person's reporting and individual tactical approach to SEO is, the harder it's going to be to let go of it.
Number two, in measuring the network of content, the search behavior around a pillar topic, you start seeing questions come up that it's very clear are structurally important. These are very connected questions, you have to answer them, but they seem maybe really elementary. Somebody who is sophisticated enough to be your customer isn't going to want to buy it. Well, that's not the point. The point in a broad enough pillar strategy you are going to cover the topics where your customers are as well as the ones where people who have the potential to become your customers are.
Google can look at your networked pillar strategy on your website and say this person made this only of terms that have a high purchase intent and it's clear that they're trying to sell something. Should I deem them a true authority on this topic? Or they can look at you and say you're answering the questions that you know statistically are important to answer, you actually know what you're talking about, you're trying to be an authority.
That has been a hurdle. Sometimes it's even branded terms. I'll have people show up and look at the network, and I'll show them here is what the network looks like for your pillar topic. They'll think the data is bad because it has a bunch of branded terms for their competitors in it. My response to that is this is the real world, this world is not here to make you feel emotionally secure in your brand's visibility. If you're mad that your competition is getting a bunch of branded terms in this network, and those are ones we're deeming are the most important, you have to get out there and do something about that.
You can just avoid it and there's enough other material to go after, but there are times when you don't have to. I've had startups, legitimate category creators who I'm working with, there's one I have in mind that has built what is a called prescriptive forecasting AI sales forecasting tool. Gartner had to literally come up with that term and start using it because they had automatically and very accidentally, without having to try for very long, created a category. They said sales forecasting has always been trying to build a better crystal ball, but crystal balls don't exist, so instead let's just build a smarter assistant to help you navigate your sales.
We found when trying to write about sales forecasting for them to drive the traffic that, first of all, nobody is going to use prescriptive forecasting because that's a new thing, they created that. Getting around that is hard for organizations who think we want to talk about the way that we want to talk about stuff.
The other side of this is that if you know your audience is talking about Excel spreadsheets and using them for sales forecasting, even if you're an advanced AI SaaS startup, you can write about that. You can even be straight up and say, "We know that you want to know how to use Excel to do a better sales forecast. We're going to tell you how to do that, but if you want to skip to the part where you're getting to the root of your problem and actually curing the disease rather than addressing the symptoms, click here and we're going to jump you down to where we talk about our solution, which is better." That works. In fact, it's been three separate times now we've had startups, small little businesses overtake Microsoft on Excel related terms because they're important and they're part of the network, and you have to talk about them.
That's number two. Number three is kind of related just in that there is a lot of bias that comes in the SEO process. All of these metrics that we look at have to do with I feel like I'm going to go for that term, that term, and that term because they have the highest search volume. Why do you think that's a better thing? It seems obvious, but is there a reason why that's better than targeting this term that is more aligned with what your solution offers?
Or you know that you're trying to sell a lot, so you're going to pick the terms that make the most sense. Or you're going to talk to your salespeople and ask them what are the questions you're getting from customers the most often, and you're going to use that as you look through keyword lists to try to figure out what to write about. Maybe that salesperson doesn't know it, but they are falling victim to recency bias, and they're only surfacing the questions that they've heard most recently. Are those questions automatically representational of the entire market and how they think about things? No.
Even in these little decisions that we make about content marketing, there is just so much room for bias. What we're basically doing is saying I don't care what you think is important, I don't care about your domain expertise here for one moment. Just take a step back, look at the data, understand that's the conversation people are having, so you have a choice. You can either stand in the corner and shout about your new thing using your language the way you want to talk about it, or you can join a conversation that is already happening and find a way to connect with a human being and provide value in that conversation rather than immediately trying to take it over yourself.
George: So much good stuff. Did you hear this? Broaden the net and reinforce the network. Pull that thread after this episode around the topic that we're talking about.
Ryan, we have two more questions here. What does success look like? How do we know we have used pillar-based marketing to its full potential, meaning content maximum ROI?
Ryan: Basically, if you've done this right, within I'd say at most two weeks of publication of your content, you should start seeing page one rankings happen. That's something that I haven't really touched on. I think I agree that we might want to come back and do a follow up because I'm loving this conversation. We don't care about scheduling, we don't care about calendaring. We don't publish a blog post a week. We'd rather write 16 pieces of content that together are a network, then publish them together as a network.
When I talk about time to value of two, three, four weeks, that's why I'm talking about it that way, because we drop the content as a network, not as individual pieces. That's super important because we want that network to be the thing that is being analyzed by Google and being explored by our readers. After all, it's a lot easier for a network of content around a topic to be considered authoritative versus a single page on a more focused subject to be authoritative. It's a lot harder to measure. If all those pages are part of a network together, it works.
All of that is just a little background to say that you drop that initial pillar, you've done it all right, your website is looking good, you're indexing quickly, you're getting crawled, and then within a few weeks, at most, you're starting to see page one rankings. Over time, there might be some volatility in your rankings data, especially the search experience just looks different from user to user right now. Google is going nuts, everyone is going crazy with all of the changes and everything that is happening with AI.
But you should start seeing it real fast. I have dozens of charts from PBM practitioners who are publishing content and then going from fourth place compared to their competitors in terms of total rankings to first place in the span of just a couple of months. If you've published content, you've done everything the way that we teach you do it, and in three months you haven't seen any results, something is very wrong. As opposed to the traditional SEO where that's the earliest you can expect to see results.
George: I love conversations that pull at the idea of have we been doing it wrong the entire time. This idea of I know since the dawn of blog articles it has been one, two, three a week, just dripping it over time, and this is hey, you might want to rethink your publishing strategy is a really interesting conversation. I love that it's based on what does success look like. It's going to be this faster time, these other items that you mentioned. We do have you come back, by the way. Without a doubt, there are so many other sub-conversations that we could have.
Here's the thing. You've been on a journey with this pillar-based marketing, you've been having this battle around data-driven methodologies that people can use to actually impact their SEO and content in a way that it works for their business growth that they're trying to achieve. Obviously, you've gained some wisdom along the way on this journey. What are some words of wisdom you want to share with the Marketing Smarts listeners about pillar-based marketing, SEO, content, or since this entire time you've been doing your podcast episode with me on what looks like a cruise ship, maybe just life itself? What words of wisdom do you want to share with the Marketing Smarts audience?
Ryan: Passion makes the whole thing work. It sounds so thin, but it's so true. If you are working for an organization, or you yourself are representing some sort of idea, solution, or concept, that is making people's lives easier, that is changing how people work, that is exciting stuff. Even if it's small, even if it's this little thing that you're doing, and you're not saving the world, but you're changing one person's life, or one role's life, that is so cool to me. If you are doing the job of SEO and marketing right, that passion is the fuel that is driving the whole thing forward.
What we've heard from search engines, and what continues to be the case, despite the AI stuff that is rolling out all of the time, is that humanity matters. It really does. If you're trying to game the system, if you're trying to just drive traffic and you don't care how you get it, you don't deserve to be on the top of search engine rankings, you don't deserve to be considered an authority. But if you're really passionate about something and you're willing to not only listen to what other people are saying on a subject, listen first to what people care about, and then you know what you need to tap into to really drive your story that you're passionate about home. I think pillar-based marketing is just the world's best representation of what that looks like in action in marketing.
Obviously, like you said, I have this galaxy projector up on my ceiling, bright pink hats and whatnot. My life is made up of stuff that I think is worth my time. It could be something as stupid as buying a pink hat that goes really well with my blue branded DemandJump t-shirt. It makes me happy, I'm passionate about it. That is contagious if you embrace it. I think that in marketing those lessons are very valuable as well.
George: Marketing Smarts listeners, did you take lots of notes? I have to ask, what is your one thing, your number one execution opportunity after this podcast episode? Make sure you reach out and let us know in my inbox or on Twitter using the hashtag #MPB2B.
I also have to ask, are you a free member of the MarketingProfs community yet? If not, head over to Mprofs.com/mptoday. You won't regret the additional B2B marketing education that you'll be adding to your life.
We'd like it if you could leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, but we'd love it if you would share this episode with a coworker or friend. Until we meet in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast where we talk with Meghan Bazaman about revolutionizing B2B brand monitoring with AI-powered insights, I hope you do just a couple of things. One, reach out and let us know what conversation you'd like to listen in on next. Two, focus on getting 1% better at your craft each and every day. Finally, remember to be a happy, helpful, humble B2B marketing human. We'll see you in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast.
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Published on August 23, 2023
Ryan Brock, founder of the DemandJump-acquired content agency Metonymy Media. Boasting 12 years' experience driving measurable content outcomes for businesses in every industry, Ryan is a seasoned SEO expert. Now, as chief solution officer at DemandJump, Ryan works with companies worldwide to remove the guesswork from SEO and drive industry-leading organic traffic results through pillar-based marketing methodologies. Ryan is a co-author of Pillar-Based Marketing: A Data-Driven Methodology for SEO and Content That Actually Works.
LinkedIn: Ryan Brock
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