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Topic Clusters - Why Your SEO Can't Live Without Them

Topic clusters are what content marketers are using to lay the foundation for incredible search rankings. No longer a wild theory but a real SEO strategy.

Eric Melillo
By Eric Melillo   |  

 Aug 11, 2019

Topic Clusters - Why Your SEO Can't Live Without Them


These days, SEO can seem like a moving target. There seem to be so many theories and strategies for improving rankings. That's why a modern SEO approach has shifted towards topic clusters and pillar pages.

Marketers Must Adapt & Evolve with the New SEO

It seems like it was just yesterday we were all talking about keywords. So, How did we get here, and why has the game shifted...again? Most importantly, why have the search engine algorithms changed how websites rank?

Over the years, Google has made significant changes and tweaks to its ranking algorithm, trying to produce the very best search experience. Until 2012, there was much less governance over search results than there is today.

Marketers engaging in shortcut Black Hat SEO could simply keyword-stuff content and buy hoards of backlinks to manipulate the search engines. Users would plug keywords into search and ta-da - search magic. It worked for a while - until it didn't!

Fast forward to today, and you're benefiting from the latest algorithm change that favors topic clusters.


What is a Topic Cluster?

A topic cluster comprises various pieces of digital content aligned around a core topic (AKA pillar page) and relevant subtopics. The entire content cluster covers a specific topic in depth while also positioning each piece of content to answer a user's search query. Then, create content relationships by linking the pillar to subtopics, and reciprocal subtopic links back to the pillar.

Create Content for Users, NOT Search Engines

You may have noticed over the last few years that websites are changing. Moreover, it appears that, suddenly, almost all businesses seem to follow the same blueprint when designing their sites and linking pages. They're not all using the same web designer. Besides that, they didn't have a meeting to agree on the changes.

Rather, SEO practices are consistently evolving. Search engines – particularly Google – are driving this evolution with updates to their algorithms. Keeping in step with these changes is essential for companies that want to be found online by people searching for information. The latest move is toward a topic clusters model with a single pillar post that links them together.

Of course, what's really driving these changes is consumer behavior. You might enter a keyword to look for information in the not-so-distant past. Over the years, this behavior changed. Consumers were now entering keyword phrases. Consequently, search engines noted the trend and changed their algorithms. Businesses that remained in step would rank higher.

The Connection between SERPs and the Topic Cluster Approach

It's noteworthy that the search engines learned to anticipate user behavior. There was only a small step between keyword phrases and queries that were more intricate. Moreover, search engine AI succeeded in making connections between queries. Queue the next algorithm change that brings the topic clusters.

Ranking high on search engine results pages (SERPs) is now directly tied to the ability to cluster content and expertly link to it. HubSpot topic clusters researcher Anum Hussain crunched the numbers and did the experiments. Findings confirmed that interlinked content consistently ranked higher than stand-alone content.

It's fair to conclude that internal links boost SERP rankings. This understanding is now sending businesses scrambling in search of workable solutions.

How Do Traditional Websites Stack Up to the New Way of Doing SEO?

There's a good chance that you're not there yet. That's okay. You're in good company. Many businesses still feature websites that follow the old hierarchical design style.

  • Main page.
    This is the page that someone types into the search engine field to connect with your company.
  • Services page.
    This page features the services or products that you offer. In some cases, it might include prices and package information.
  • About us page.
    An "about us" page tells a little about your company's history, its motto, and its vision. It's an excellent tool for brand development.
  • Contact us page.
    Make it easy for the consumer to contact you by phone, via social media, or email.
  • Blog page with sub-domains.
    Most companies now have a blog. They've realized that it's an excellent tool for creating strong content that appeals to the consumer in search of answers. Most blogs have several sub-domains that focus on different topics. Next, there are posts that relate to these various topics.

As we said before, this is the old way of putting together a website. While the main pages look neat and tidy, the blog and its sub-domains are a mess when you look at them through the eyes of a search engine. Adding insult to injury, the various pages are competing for the attention of the search engine's AI.

Now, there's a better way of presenting this information to the search engine that prevents internal competition. In the process, you better your ranking on the SERPs. This refers to the topic cluster. A cluster takes the posts from the example above and changes them from randomly positioned pages to interlinked ones that connect to a pillar page.

The Nuts and Bolts of Creating a Topic Cluster That Works

Creating the right topic clusters and SEO can seem like a tall order. This finding is particularly true if you have a wealth of blog posts that need to be classified and appropriately linked. However, there's a two-step process to make sense of what's there.

  1. Inventory accessible content pages.
    There's no way around it. You need to inventory each bit of content to assess the focus. Next, group-like pages that have a similar topic focus.
  2. Pillar page creation.
    Sometimes, you already have a pillar page in place that you can interlink with the content of the right focus. At other times, creating a new pillar page that fits into the topic cluster more naturally makes more sense. Remember, this isn't about forcing existing content into linking relationships with existing pillar pages. Instead, it's about intuitive linking that makes sense.

Align your Topic Cluster with your Pillar Page

The trick to finding or creating the ideal pillar page is to think in terms of a broad focus that naturally aligns with specific topic clusters. You're wasting your efforts if the links seem forced or don't make perfect sense.

A case in point is the pillar page that focuses on your company's services. You would link to posts relating to service agreements, price lists, and information about individual services and bundles.

It requires you to get away from the keyword focus that permeated website design for so many years. Instead, it's time to focus on content ideas or clusters. When you can think in concepts, this approach makes perfect sense.

Topics vs Keywords

Mind you, nobody's doing away with keywords. They're still part of the content creation process. However, they're now taking a backseat to topics when it comes to organizing the information on your website.

If there's still some confusion about content classification, consider the pillar page a suitcase. You designate it to hold your beach gear. Therefore, this suitcase doesn't have a long-tail keyword such as "Oxford-weave beach towels in red and yellow." Instead, its name would be "beach gear." You'd link pages to it that talk about the towels and all the other things you might put into the suitcase.

Linking Related Subtopic Content

Moreover, the pillar page is most suitable for linking a bunch of related content to it. This property marks it as the ideal pillar. Most importantly, it could feature posts that answer a consumer's questions about beach gear. This would differentiate this particular pillar page from another one that might talk about the services you offer for beach gear buyers.

Although labor-intensive, it's actually an advantageous process. When you consider that the goal of any company's website is to position the business as an authority in the field, this clustering empowers you to take ownership of specific topics. It can drive your SEO strategy, focus your blog content, and enable you to tweak certain aspects of your corporate persona much more effectively.

Revamping Your Website to Include a Topic Cluster Approach

Anchor text is now an important consideration. If you're revamping your website with a pillar strategy in mind, clustering content requires the same anchor text.

For example, if you're clustering "sales consulting" around "business sales services," it must have the same linking anchor text as the page that focuses on "optimizing sales operations." A possible anchor phrase could be "sales strategy."

Of course, it's not enough to link and then walk away. Monitoring your pillar pages is the next step. See how they do on the SERPs. Make tweaks if necessary. Later on, you might consider adding more clusters.

Build the Cluster to Serve Your Buyer Personas

If you're still struggling to wrap your mind around the process, go back to the basics. It's time to dust off your buyer persona's data. You will remember that this is the information that drives everything you do in business.

Remind yourself who your target audience is. Next, develop a list of questions or problems that your buyer persona most likely has. What is it that they're looking for online? Translate the problems into long-tail keyword queries.

Use Binding and Related Subtopics

You can now group the queries that relate to one another. Next, develop an umbrella term for the queries. What ties them together? This understanding defines your pillar page. The queries link to it. You can now add more topics with some quick and straightforward keyword searching. Doing so is an excellent option if your page lacks content and you're unsure in which direction to go.

If you're still stumped, consider getting some help from the online gurus. Several online tools help you put together content on a variety of topics. As a result, you can boost your company's authority in any one topic area, which is what the consumer is looking for.

Eric Melillo

Eric Melillo

An expert Growth Hacker helping enterprise companies scale and crush competitors using the full Inbound Flywheel & HubSpot.

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