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SEO and content marketing have definitely proved that they can make or break businesses. Apart from having huge implications for your SEO performance, it can also hold a lot of power on your potential customers.
Over the years, the way brands approached content marketing has been evolving. As of 2021, nearly 80% of marketers use content marketing to aid their marketing strategy. In this evolution, several strategies have emerged and one such strategy that is making a dent in this vertical is the topic cluster model.
If you have been into SEO for long, you may have surely heard about them — but if you are new to it — don’t worry, we have you covered. Sure, you can take help from a reputed SEO agency to navigate this strategy, but getting a little knowledge of your own never hurt anybody.
We will start from the basics of topic clusters, the process of strategising, creating them and positioning them for generating the results you want for your brand.
And yes, we are going to have expert insights guide you through the journey!
Excited? Let us get started then.
How Topic Clusters Work
Ask any seasoned SEO and they will tell you — never take internal linking for granted.
But internal linking can easily become haphazard in the absence of a structured approach. This brings us to why and how topic clusters were born. So, what is a topic cluster?
Topic clusters are a collection of content pieces revolving around a central topic, with strategic internal linking as their foundation.
This internal linking happens with the help of a pillar page — the central hub for various cluster pages to link to and from. If you follow highly authoritative websites, you have probably encountered topic clusters quite often. There is a single powerful article on a topic idea that links to several articles that cover various aspects of that topic.
Why do you need this, you ask?
First, using the topic cluster model ensures that the content on your website is super-organised. By defining pillar pages for the broader topics on your blog, and establishing a strong internal link structure, you can essentially organise your entire blog.
Next, you get the benefit of having more control over the content production process and improved SEO performance. Proactively linking cluster pages to pillar pages will indicate to the search engines that you have authority over those topics.
“Topic clusters are essential to satisfying user intent in an organised, structured way. They’re important because they answer visitors’ questions while visiting your site. Gone are the days when Google emphasised keywords and pages – it’s all about expertise now. When implemented correctly, topic clusters increase site authority and overall page ranking, and, well… this can only benefit your bottom line.”
Finally, you would address a major problem that a lot of blogs today face. You will have comprehensive content about the topics that you are covering, with minimal room for any gaps. Since there is quite a bit of planning involved, a lot of brands go for SEO services to implement this strategy.
Now that you know what topic clusters and pillar pages are all about, let us look at how you can go about finding topic clusters.
Finding Topic Clusters
One of the major challenges that marketers report while implementing a topic cluster model is finding the right topic clusters for targeting high interlinkability. Not to forget, in order to establish semantic relationships between your pillar and cluster pages, you would need to create a strong network of related topics.
For this, you can use an array of methods, including tools that let you build topic clusters, and an organised way of going about your Google searches. Here are a few proven ways that you can consider for navigating through this process:
Think Topics, Not Keywords
Before you completely pass on this suggestion as outrageous — hear us out.
Keywords are definitely one of the more important sub-processes while creating topic clusters. But when you let a singular keyword guide the process, you may end up with broad topics with limited room for creating cluster pages. What we are ideally looking for in this process is instead a strong pillar page that can be the central hub to numerous cluster pages.
Instead, think about your niche and come up with possible topics that you could produce quality content on. If you really think about it — Google wants to offer relevant results to the search queries it receives from users, and so do you. So incorporating all the information you can find about a specific topic is a win-win situation for everyone.
For instance, if you are a digital marketing agency, content marketing could be one topic you could consider building a topic cluster on. From this point, you can come up with various sub-topics that you can cover about content marketing. These could be your cluster pages, but to come up with the ones that would work for you, narrow down the pain points that your customers are likely to have.
From there (identification of pain points), you can use the findings to help inform your keyword research. As you start putting your plan together, you’ll be able to start logical grouping keywords together and, hey presto: you have some topic clusters.
Using this approach, you can ensure that you find topic clusters that are most relevant to your target audience and help you perform better on organic search.
Consider Buyer Journey and Personas
When we talk about the semantics of coming up with topic clusters that work for your customers, you have to put them right at the centre of it all. You also have another reason to do so.
We already talked about the fact that Google obsessively works on refining search results for users’ queries. But then, Google went ahead and dropped this bombshell of an announcement in late 2020:
This essentially meant that brands would now benefit from tracking down the entirety of their buyers’ journey. By producing content that your buyers would be interested in, and guiding them through their journey, you will be able to hold their attention and actually improve conversions.
Of course, this starts from getting your buyer personas in order before anything else.
“The approach will be to understand the various questions or searches a user can do around a topic. Think about his journey on the SERP and how he could navigate from questions to answers to the following questions. Be there at each step, with an article answering his main concern, and you will create a comprehensive topic cluster.”, says Samuel Schmitt, SEO blogger and Founder of Thruuu.
If you are new to creating topic clusters, Schmitt suggests a great technique that includes breaking down a long-form article to find topic clusters. Essentially, you find a long-form article on your website that has blocks of content addressing different kinds of search intent. The logic here is that each of these content blocks can become cluster pages, thus creating an effective topic cluster.
Remember that when you are just starting, your focus should be on identifying the topics that your users would find most useful, and generating content to address gaps in these topic areas.
Conduct Keyword Research
Once you have mapped out your buyer personas and their journeys, you can get into keyword research. At this stage, you could align your research on customers and their expectations with your process of finding the right keywords.
That’s the beauty of the topic cluster approach to keyword research. The entire process becomes more organised and easier to navigate. Instead of finding a bunch of keywords and giving them to your content team, you can now create buckets of keywords for specific blogs and clusters.
No more of just focusing on highly competitive keywords, or long-tail keywords. Your content strategy will be much clearer, with a collection of content pieces clearly driving a lot of traffic to your website.
More specifically, keep the highest performing core keyword for your pillar page. Then, add supporting phrases to your core keyword and the resulting combinations will give you a lot of ideas for cluster pages.
Focus on Building Authoritative Content
When you are working on any kind of content strategy, it is important to keep in mind that Google takes E-A-T (Expertise – Authoritativeness – Trustworthiness) quite seriously. This parameter will determine how well it ranks on the SERPs, and how your readers engage with your content.
So right from the get-go, your focus should be on creating highly authoritative content. If you operate in a niche market, get subject matter experts to write or review content for you, and ensure to promote their credentials within each content piece. All this matters, when Google is assessing your content’s usefulness and credibility.
According to Garrett Sussman, Demand Generation Manager at iPullRank, “If the content of your cluster is exhaustive, well-researched, authoritative, and supported by expertise, you can expect to see a lift in topical authority and increased rankings for a range of related keywords. While topic clusters are intimately tied to SEO, they’re ultimately used to guide the people who are searching for your business to become customers.”
With that sort of conversion-oriented approach to content, you can expect to see a steady rise in your organic traffic from potential customers.
Organising Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages
So far, we have understood how topic clusters and pillar pages work, and how you can find topic clusters to boost your content marketing efforts. The next step after finding topic clusters is organising them so that you can seamlessly integrate them into your content strategy.
Since we just talked about E-A-T, you already know the importance that it holds while producing pillar pages and topic clusters. Google highlighted the importance of ensuring E-A-T in their Medic algorithm update, attesting the importance for websites to ensure credibility and expertise in their content.
This parameter continues to be of paramount importance for websites looking to make a dent in their content strategies. So, your topic clusters are no exception. From the very beginning, you must target E-A-T to ensure that your blogs are able to balance knowledge-sharing and credibility.
“Working on content strategy for your brand? E.A.T should be running at the back of your head all the time. It’s not about ranking for a few keywords, it’s about owning the whole cluster which places your brand as “the brand” in the eyes of users and search engines for the industry you’re in.”, suggests Nitin Manchanda, Founder & Chief SEO Consultant of Botpresso.
So it all boils down to creating strong and best-in-class pillar pages that your cluster pages can link to and from easily. What’s more, it also sends powerful signals to search engines that you have expertise in this niche, and that users are finding your content quite useful.
ToFu (Top of Funnel) thinking is a great way to ensure that you have more control over your buyer’s journey and can seamlessly guide them towards conversion. Producing ToFu content essentially means that you should aim your content pieces at generating more brand awareness and increasing engagement among potential customers.
The customers at the very top of the funnel are the ones seeking more information about your product/service and are conducting active research. Giving them comprehensive information that they are looking through topic clusters will undoubtedly go a long way in keeping them on your website for longer. The result?
When they finally get to the transaction stage, they are likely to choose a brand that has educated them and strongly established credibility in their minds.
Powerful stuff, right?
“If you want to make the most of your topic clusters, ensure you have carefully mapped out your Customer Journey. This will help you create clusters that both educate and convert your audience. Topic clusters are also a great opportunity for keyword optimisation and internal linking, which can amplify your search engine performance and bring new customers to your website.”, says Stephen McCambridge, Senior Content Writer at Supple Digital.
Of course, you would need to support your content with appropriate keyword mapping according to the needs of your ToFu customers.
Consider Search Intent
When we talk about keywords and topic clusters, considering the search intent of the keywords has to be emphasised. Few people make the association between grouping keywords and topic clustering — they are widely different but follow the same philosophy.
Content topic clusters aim to bring together a pillar page — the penultimate resource, and the cluster pages together under the same umbrella. Keyword grouping aims to do the same with the ones that are related to each other, considering certain parameters.
While the general strategy to do so includes grouping keywords for a certain topic, or competition or volume together, you can definitely consider an alternate approach when it comes to topic clusters.
According to Dan Smullen, Head of SEO at Betsperts, “The biggest benefit and why you would want to use topic clusters in your content marketing strategy is that many keywords have the same search intent. And many similar keywords can be targeted with a single page. However, not all topic clusters require the same content format. And sometimes require different website architecture organisations.”
By grouping keywords together based on their search intent, you can successfully guide users through their journey on your website. With your pillar page as the starting point, you can take them through all there is to know about a broad topic by targeting relevant long-tail keywords through cluster pages.
Let us understand this with the example of HubSpot — the company that made the topic clusters in SEO so popular. ‘The Ultimate Guide to Content Marketing in 2021’ published by them is the perfect example of a pillar page. If a user lands on this page, they could get a lot of information and can choose to keep reading by clicking on a bunch of cluster pages. These cluster pages use several long-tail keywords that fall under the bracket of content marketing.
Creating Effective Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages
So by now, you know all about finding and organising topic clusters. But is having just the know-how, ever enough?
Well, there are multiple approaches to creating effective topic clusters and pillar pages, and most of the time, it has a lot to do with how you organise your content strategy.
But, how to create topic clusters that work for you?
Now, let us look at some of the proven ways in which you can create and implement impactful topic clusters.
Create a Content Organisation Strategy
Keeping things tidy and organised is not just important for navigating your day-to-day lives, but also for determining the success of your content strategy.
There is a lot of evidence that will show that content teams operate more effectively when there is a content organisation strategy in place. And this goes beyond keeping it clean and organised in your own computers — it has much more to do with the semantics of how search engines work.
Search engines rely on crawl paths and links to navigate websites. Having an organised structure and hierarchy in your web pages will ensure a better flow of information for your users as well as search engines.
According to Koray Tuğberk Gübür, Founder of Holistic SEO & Digital, “Topic Clusters in Marketing involve the contextual topic hierarchies for explaining concepts while engaging with the users during their discovery experience. The topic clusters are to provide a better contextual crawl path for the search engine crawlers while improving the conversion rate.”
The wider implications of doing so are immense. Users are clustered together through topical connections, which essentially attests to the need for websites to have a clear topic cluster strategy. Doing so will help them find relevant users, and guide them through the awareness stage in an organised way.
If you are still wondering why this is important — Koray Tuğberk Gübür further stresses the importance of such topical connections and says, “Google’s NLP API has over 200+ different text classes based on their topics. Google Discovery is a query-less contextual news and blog content recommender that relies on topical connections and interest areas of users. Thus, topical clusters are a fundamental need for creating a better information tree, user navigation and crawler paths.”
Start with Cluster Pages
If you are already are on top of your topic cluster strategy, you will narrow down your pillar page before anything else. Of course, you could identify the broader topic before you get to the various child categories that are included in it.
What’s more, you have a large number of keywords that you need to group effectively for your blogs to perform well on search engines. To help you navigate the process of keyword grouping for topic clusters in a more structured way, you now have useful templates online that can guide you through the process.
To begin with, there is a clear distinction between the keywords that will go on to become pillar pages and ones that will become cluster pages. If it is a high volume keyword that describes a broad topic, you are probably looking at a pillar page. However, if you are looking at a much more specific long-tail keyword within that subject, you have a potential cluster page in hand.
But once you have the keywords, you can benefit by starting with cluster pages before you go on to create the pillar page of a topic cluster. Jonas Sickler, SEO Manager at Terakeet sums it up perfectly here:
“When it comes to pillar pages, I recommend writing your cluster pages first. If you start with a pillar, you’ll feel the urge to go too deep on the subtopics. But if you have the cluster page already written, you can introduce the subtopic on the pillar page, include high-level information, and then link out to the cluster page for more info. That prevents any cannibalisation of content.”
He also adds that your pillar pages would still be more likely to be ranked by the search engines, considering the number of links they will include. Of course, the final and most important step in creating an effective cluster is to have a clear internal linking structure, wherein you clearly define separate sections for each cluster page.
Put Pillar Page at the Centre
When all is said and done, all SEO experts agree on one thing — your pillar page is going to be the star of the show.
Sure, creating cluster pages within a topic cluster takes just as much time and effort as putting together a pillar page. But the structure and the high number of links within pillar pages will always make it easier for them to rank on search engines.
When you are creating a topic cluster, ensure that you keep your pillar page at the centre of your strategy and start building your cluster from there. This essentially means that all the cluster pages should be subtopics of the one covered in the pillar page and work together hierarchically.
“If your pillar page is detailed and carefully optimised but still isn’t performing, you probably just need to surround it with more articles that cover the related subtopics. And make the links count. Without them, it’s not a cluster. It’s small, scattered piles of unconnected articles.”, says Andy Crestodina, Co-Founder of Orbit Media.
Once you understand this, the logic behind the concept of Topic Clusters is easy to understand and implement effectively.
Structuring Your Pillar Pages
So, now you know all there is to know about finding, organising and creating topic clusters. Let us now narrow down on pillar pages. When you are structuring your pillar pages, here are a couple of things that you should consider for making them more impactful.
Create a Network of Intent
The effectiveness of a pillar page depends largely on the number of links it houses and how well it sets up the various cluster pages it would link to. But one thing that a lot of content managers overlook is taking into account the user’s search intent — every step of the way.
It is important to consider that when a user lands on your pillar — it is highly likely that they do not know the way forward from there. So, your content and links should guide their journey and pinpoint the resources that they should read next. Here, creating a network of resources based on the user journey centring around the pillar page helps.
“So in their user journey, once they learn more about a topic, they have more questions about the topic, and that’s where Topic Clusters come in. The topic cluster can be thought of as a network of intent that users would like to understand to get things done. The topic can be a parent intent, and the topic cluster will be a list of child intent. We can call parent intent as a Pillar Page, and child intents as a Cluster Pages.”, quips Mihir Naik, SEO Product Manager at eBay Classifieds.
Ensuring that a strong network of links is built through your pillar pages will also increase the likelihood of your piece performing and ranking better on search engines.
Let the Topic Guide Your Approach
First of all, there is no one way to approach pillar pages and topic clusters. While every website takes follows an approach of its own, the foundation should always be based on your topic and what it demands.
Jake Sheridan lists down the following ways to approach pillar pages:
- Hub & Spoke – one pillar page (hub) linking to sub-pages (spokes).
- Library – one pillar page linking to content by categories.
- Gateway – pillar page with a topic overview allows users to dig into a topic.
- Database – a pillar page that can filter hundreds of child pages.
You can choose the approach that seems like the most suitable option based on your content and move forward accordingly.
Top Tools to Consider
You have heard the experts — topic clusters are here to stay and dominate.
But don’t worry — you will always have the option of leveraging tools to help you navigate this process effectively for your website.
This tool has been recommended by a couple of experts featured in this list and is known for its user-friendliness and usefulness for creating topic clusters. The tool offers a smart way for marketers to group keywords and informs their content strategy with users’ search intent.
One of the best features that Keyword Insights offers, which makes it so great for topic clusters, is the Hub/Spoke feature. Once you have created a keyword cluster grouped, the tool lets you identify other clusters which may be related to this one. This would help you create pillar pages seamlessly and come up with effective cluster pages to add to these pages.
Cost: Keyword Insights offers an entire array of pricing plans for teams and brands of all sizes and requirements. The basic plan starts at $9.99/month, and the most high-end plan is the Agency Elite plan at $4956/month.
Having SEMrush on this list should not come as a surprise — after all, every marketer has encountered the tool one way or another in their career.
SEMrush is an online marketing suite offering tools for SEO, content marketing, advertising and more. No wonder 30% of Fortune 500 companies use the tool to support their marketing processes.
But for topic clusters, you may need to do quite a bit of keyword research on your own and go through the process of grouping manually. You can definitely use it in combination with tools such as Keyword Insights to amplify the quality of your keyword research, though.
Cost: SEMrush’s pricing plans are classified into three primary tiers. The Pro plan costs $119.95/month, the Guru plan costs $229.95/month, and the Business plan costs $449.95/month.
NeuralText is a great tool for companies and teams that are looking for a comprehensive tool to support their content marketing processes. It is an NLP-based tool that has several features, like an AI-based copywriting tool, and a content optimiser that lets you polish your content for optimal performance on the SERPs.
Orit Mutznik, SEO Director at Forbes, says, “I use KeywordInsights mainly, combined with SEMrush and Keyword Tool. NeuralText is also a tool I use and love, to be able to then brief/action this to writers.”
But the feature that is of most relevance to us today is the Keyword Clustering feature. This feature lets you group similar keywords by crawling SERPs — thus helping you come up with effective topic clusters easily.
Cost: NeuralText offers a free plan with limited capabilities, a Starter plan costing $49/month, and a Pro plan at $119/month.
Topic Clusters are already revolutionising the way content is produced by up-and-coming brands. This approach to content strategy and production impacts the way brands can engage users as well as perform effectively on search engines. With that in mind, we have highlighted the most effective ways in which you can find, create, and structure your topic clusters and pillar pages.
Do let us know if you found this article interesting. We are always up for a chat about your SEO and digital marketing strategy — feel free to reach out to us.