How to Use Topic Clusters to Drive SEO Performance

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August 1, 2019 3:00 pm

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Search is changing, and the way we market and promote our small businesses, nonprofits, and other ventures have to change with it.

It’s no longer enough to do keyword research – the basis of the vast majority of SEO strategies over the last decade-plus – when creating content, building your brand, and seeking to rank higher on Google’s results pages. We need to think more holistically about our content, and that means using a concept called “topic clusters.”

Topic clusters are a relatively new way to think about how to write and organize content. From now on, no blog post, article, or other digital content should exist only to include the odd long-tail keyword phrase. When you write, you must think about where your content fits into the bigger picture – a picture that a topic cluster content model builds for you.

What are topic clusters? Why are content marketers and strategists using them? And how can you start using them yourself? Let’s examine the topic and see if it’s a good fit for what you want to accomplish.

What are topic clusters?

Topic clusters are a way to organize your blog content. The basic concept is as follows:

  • “Pillar” pages act as a nucleus of content, covering a broad topic. Think of pillars as the trunk of a tree, or the hub of a wheel. They might be presented as “Ultimate Guides” or overviews.
  • Surrounding the pillar pages are multiple “subcluster pillars” that delve into specific aspects of that pillar topic. If the pillar page is “small business marketing” then the content clustering around it could be pages like “social media marketing,” “content marketing,” and “free marketing tactics,” which all link to the pillar page as well as to each other.
  • These “subcluster pillar” pages may have even more specific content branching off from them. If you have a large content arm, your subcluster pillars might have their own cluster of related content. If one subcluster is “social media marketing,” related content might be “Twitter marketing” or “Instagram influencer marketing.”

The key to creating a topic cluster isn’t just to create these pillar pages, subcluster pages, and related information pages – but to interlink them in a way that signals to search engines (namely Google) that the pillar page is the authoritative take on the topic.

On the backend, this is how a series of topic clusters should look, via Hubspot:

Hubspot for topic clusters

Image Source: Matt Barby

As time goes on the pillar (and its associated pages) may build authority and rank higher on search as a result.

And in SEO, ranking higher is the name of the game. When your blog content is one of the top results for a search, potential leads find your content and your homepage more easily. In fact, the first three Google search results will receive more than half of the click-throughs on a results page, which means it’s crucially important to land not just on the first page, but as high up that page as possible.

Why the switch towards topic clusters?

In years past, the driving force of most content strategies were keywords. What changed to make topic clusters the more popular method?

The shifting nature of search

The way we use search engines is changing. People are more likely to search using their mobile device, and using their voice, than ever before. There is also more of an emphasis on local search – seeking the best pizza in your neighborhood, for example, rather than the best pizza in the world.

Query growth shifting nature of search for topic clusters

Image Source: Chatmeter

People are searching more using colloquial phrases rather than a collection of keywords, resulting in thousands of possible long-tail keyword phrases – all of which you could rank for.

Google saw this change in how people use search and altered their algorithm – and brought on new language processing capabilities – to reflect more natural, local searches done on mobile. Google can now better understand the intent behind a phrase search and will look to connect users with comprehensive, informative, timely content that reflects that intent.

Topic clusters are easier for Google to crawl, and the fact that each subcluster page covers a singular, definitive topic means your content doesn’t compete with itself to rank, helping your pages emerge as leaders on topically related queries.

Emerging inefficiency

The keyword research-focused mindset meant finding keywords relevant to your industry and building your articles around those keywords, as well as searching out keywords within your existing content and linking them to related content.

The result: Endless pages of content built around a variety of similar keywords and long-tail keyword phrases, covering much of the same ground as previous articles.

From the business’ standpoint, you dedicate resources towards creating redundant content, which doesn’t necessarily result in groundswells of traffic. You’ll also lack any sort of logical content map for your content, as you continuously link random articles that happen to contain keywords featured in other articles. Google has no efficient way to crawl and index your content – and it won’t be able to make topical connections between all of your cluster-related content.

From the users’ standpoint, your content lacks cohesion or a roadmap they can easily follow. If someone stumbles on a “subcluster” article, there may not be a clear connection for them to make between the subcluster, the subcluster pillar, and the pillar – which can provide a more expansive overview of the topic they sought to learn about.

And if a user doesn’t see a reason to stay on your site and learn more, they’ll leave – hurting your bounce rate, and telling Google that your content isn’t as valuable to searchers as it should be.

What happened to using keywords?

Keywords are still an important part of content creation. Researching keywords important to your business and industry can help you come up with important content that your blog should cover.

Under a topic clusters model, however, you’ll think more critically about your keywords. Does a keyword you want to cover relate to an existing pillar? Does a subcluster pillar already touch on that topic – meaning it would be more effective to update existing content than write something new that would compete with what you already have? And when you write a new article, how can you structure it so that it links to your pillar and subcluster pillar content?

Keyword-centric content isn’t going away. It will be used in a new way that requires you to think big picture about everything you write and publish.

How can you reorganize your content into topic clusters?

There is no singular way to create topic clusters. You can and should tweak your topic cluster framework until you are able to measure results that work for you.

That said, here’s an outline of how to get started if you’ve previously been creating content solely around keywords.

Audit your content

The first step is to review all of your existing content. What have you already written, and how is it linked to your other content?

Make a list of what you have – a spreadsheet is helpful here – and decide what you consider a pillar page, a subcluster pillar, and related subcluster content. If you have content that lives out on islands (i.e., it doesn’t easily fit into a subcluster), consider pruning it from your blog or combining it with other posts.

A pillar or subcluster pillar is typically associated with a highly searched topic and one that’s relevant to your business and its products and services. This means that the audience should not only care about it, but they should care about it as it relates to your products or services. If your pillar pages aren’t well-trafficked now, the idea is that you’d like them to be.

Then, organize your content around your pillars. You could have anywhere from 5-25 pillars (depending on how robust your content production arm is), but more than that and you’re starting to miss the point of having pillars.

Strip, and then replenish your links

Here’s what actually creates a topic cluster: Remove your various, scattered links that live within your current content and start fresh. Now you’ll start linking your content in a way that creates a cluster.

Take all of your subcluster pillar articles, and related subcluster content articles, and link them back to your pillar. Then find a place within your subcluster content articles to link back to their respective subcluster pillars.

Your links back to your pillars should be as natural as possible within the text, and they should appear as early as possible as well. Your first link (hopefully within the introduction) from a subcluster article will go to your pillar. If your subcluster article is a pillar for more related content, that content will link first to the pillar, and then (within the next paragraph or two) to the subcluster pillar.

Note: This doesn’t mean you can’t link out to the occasional unrelated resource within your content – say, an article about sales as opposed to marketing – but these should become the exception rather than the rule.

Continue to build content accordingly

Now that you’ve built a web with your existing content, remember to think about this framework with each new article you create. Where should it live within a topic cluster? How should you write your introductory paragraphs in order to seamlessly link back to your pillars?

Continue to refine your process for writing and linking. You might find that a certain topic is worth making into a content pillar – in that case, make sure you have related content ready to live underneath that umbrella and repeat the process for linking it. Or you could find that a topic cluster isn’t performing well relative to other clusters – which might mean it’s time to retire that pillar and disseminate it into other pillars to strengthen them accordingly.

What will topic clusters do for you?

Now that you’re using a new methodology for creating and linking content, what will you gain? How will you know if it’s working?

Generally, your content should rank better the more internal links you have on your blog pages. HubSpot conducted an experiment to this effect and found that the more links to related content they had across their site, the better their content ranked, garnering more impressions:

better content rank SERP Impressions for topic clusters

Image Source: Anum Hussain

Of course, better ranking content means little if it doesn’t help you achieve your goals.

But that’s where you come in: What are your goals with your content? Is it to convert readers into leads, and then sales? Is it to build your company brand and appear more attractive to potential hires?

Align your topic clusters with your goals. See if certain clusters are driving traffic to your other web properties, earning backlinks, or creating leads. Measuring your topic clusters against these goals will help tell you which ones are successful at helping you meet your goals, and which need refinement.

Wrapping up

Just as human beings and the technology they use are not static, our understanding of how best to garner the attention of both must remain dynamic. Writing and creating against keywords is no longer enough to entice search engines, which do their best to put the best possible content in front of readers.

Topic clusters are more organized (on both the front and back end), easier to navigate, and a better experience for users overall than just writing for keywords. If you’ve been seeing diminishing returns from your previous SEO efforts, it may be time to give this tactic a try.

Guest author: Eric Goldschein is a staff writer at Fundera, a marketplace for small business financial solutions such as business loans. He covers entrepreneurship, small business trends, finance, and marketing.

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This post was written by Keywords