Modern search engine optimisation (SEO) is becoming as much about the quality of the content on your target pages as the technical and link-building elements behind them.
In the past, the focus was primarily on bulk keyword research and strategic placement throughout the page. Naturally, this practice left SEO technicians and content marketers building strategies constituting hundreds of different pages targeting long-tail keywords and obscure search phrases, leaving websites bloated with countless articles repeating each other.
Now, consumer behaviours are changing from specific, fragmented queries that return direct answers in results pages, to more complex questions that require search engines to recognise user intent better than ever before. As a result, SEO strategies need to adapt.
And these adaptations are coming thick and fast in the form of ‘topic clusters’.
In this article, the specialists at Clearwater will explain what topic clusters are, how they impact SEO, and how you can integrate them into your wider digital marketing strategies.
What are Topic Clusters?
Topic clusters are a way to better organise groups of related content around a ‘main topic’, with each additional article or content piece than branching out based on searchable topics and keywords.
At the cluster’s core is the ‘pillar’ page, which broadly outlines a particular topic, service or product category. Surrounding the pillar page will be a selection of ‘cluster’ articles and pages focusing on areas that hold more specific talking points and longer-tail keywords.
These content pieces are all connected through strategic placement of internal links, with the clusters and pillar pages clearly linked in the eyes of search engine crawlers. Once your cluster is within the sites of these bots crawling through countless other pages, they will more easily move through your site architecture to find related content, assisting with your pursuit of higher positions on higher search engine results pages (SERPs). Topic clusters provide a clear, semantic relationship to search engines, demonstrating that you are an authority within the field or industry.
Moreover, given the careful interlinking connections, if a singular piece of cluster content performs well on SERPs and garners greater authority, then all of the connected content pieces within the topic cluster group will share in that boosted authority.
Why Have Topic Clusters Become So Prevalent In Modern SEO Strategies?
As mentioned above, Google search engines have refined their algorithm over the past decade to place a keener focus on intent and user experience, rather than simply rewarding websites with messy site structures and over-stuffed keywords.
Key updates include:
- The Penguin Update (2012) – New additions to penalise spammy content, particularly pages that were stuffing keywords
- The Hummingbird Update (2013) – Introduced the ability to parse out phrases instead of placing all focus on keywords.
- The RankBrain Update (2015) – This is Google’s sophisticated, AI-based machine learning algorithm that can better interpret the context behind search queries by associating previous searches with likened themes, keywords and phrases.
- The Helpful Content Update (2022) – Google has announced their intention to reward websites that create a satisfying user experience through their ‘helpful content’ update. Websites need a people-first focus rather than developing content solely for search engines.
Modern websites need a comprehensive strategy that develops a clear pathway for visitors, helping them to find the content that answers their questions and meets their needs, as well as any closely related material that could further elevate their experience.
Enter topic cluster campaigns with their pillar pages and associated cluster content.
Why Should You Incorporate Topic Clusters Into Your Site Architecture?
- Reduce repetition & redundancy in your site content: By grouping related content together, you can ensure that your site is more organised and cohesive, minimising the chance of duplicate or irrelevant information.
- Improve your website’s authority: Focusing on one topic at a time can build up your authority around specific topics or keywords, increasing the likelihood that your site will rank higher in SERPs for these terms.
- Create a more satisfying user experience: Topic clusters also improve site usability by making it easier for users to find relevant information quickly and easily. This leads to better engagement and increased conversion rates, two key metrics for measuring success in today’s competitive online landscape.
- Save time when creating new content: Topic clustering also makes it easier to create new content, as you already have a framework in place for organising related content. You can ensure your site stays relevant and up-to-date so that visitors keep coming back and sharing your content with others.
- Better utilise keywords: Rather than simply stuffing high-volume or long-tail keywords wherever you can, organised topic clusters encourage better utilisation of targeted keywords in your strategy. Now, they will be found in content that matches user intent and search behaviour, leading to higher rankings for the terms most important to your industry.
- Build more organic traffic: As you improve your keyword usage and are rewarded with higher SERP rankings, you will generate a greater amount of organic traffic streaming through to your target pages.
- Optimise internal linking: Topic clusters also enable better internal linking, which is essential for improving website performance and increasing ROI. Optimising the connections between different pages allows you to create a clear content hierarchy, encourages longer session lengths, and promotes higher click-through rates for all your site’s content.
How to Create a Topic Cluster Content Strategy
1. Review the Work Performed by Your Competitors
There’s no point in reinventing the wheel – take the design and put some tyres on it for some serious traction instead.
When building your topic cluster content strategy, it pays to research what your competitors are currently doing in the same space. Doing so will provide valuable insight into what topics and keywords are popular and resonate with your target audience.
It can also give you some ideas about how you might like to structure your clusters, identify who is the current authority within the industry, and potentially uncover any gaps.
2. Select Your Main Topics for Pillar Pages
Once you understand what your competitors are doing with their strategies, you can move your focus to choosing the main topics for your pillar pages. This decision-making process will largely depend on how much content you already have on your website or whether you are starting from scratch.
If you already have a wealth of information on your website, it doesn’t make sense to let it all go to waste, simply because it isn’t organised within clusters (yet). Instead, make a visual list of your content and see how you can rearrange them to organically create any groups that might be under your nose already. All you need to do from here is sort out the interlinking and a bit of restructuring!
Should you not have an existing content collection, follow a similar brainstorming process to outline your new topic clusters. These should be broad themes or topics that align closely with the main keywords and search terms you want to target, while also addressing the needs and interests of your target audience.
For example, accountants might create separate topic clusters around bookkeeping, taxation, superannuation, and other core principles that can have many associated articles.
3. Create or Attach Buyer Personas to Understand Intent
Given the ever-growing focus on user intent, the key to crafting winning content is to really understand what your audience needs. Rather than sitting down with a focus group each time you want to create a new piece of content, you can adopt a buyer persona – a fictional customer that has their various traits and characteristics clearly laid out.
Producing content with a specified buyer persona and their objectives, objections, and values will allow you to better tailor your inclusions.
If you don’t have existing buyer personas in place, it helps to speak with your existing client base and review their feedback. Whether by a poll, survey, or direct conversion, you will receive critical insights into curating a successful topic cluster strategy that serves a target audience.
4. Perform Keyword Research
Now that you have selected your main topics and developed the buyer personas to accompany them, it is time to perform keyword research. Rather than jumping article-to-article, you can identify the keywords and search terms that are most relevant for each of your topic clusters in bulk, as well as note any indicators of search intent, such as informational, commercial, transactional and navigational keywords. The information you gather and collate can then be used in your content to better capture the attention of potential customers.
As you perform your research, be sure to review the following:
- Both short form & long-tail keywords to distribute between pillar pages and cluster articles as appropriate
- The keywords your competitors are ranking for, as well as any gaps and opportunities
- Analyse search volume and those trending on either temporary, seasonal or evergreen subject matter
5. Map Out Your Clusters & Interlinking Structure with Anchor Texts
Here is where you start putting everything together. With all the information you have collected above, you can now create a clear hierarchy for your content that reflects your target audience, making it easier for search engines to crawl and index your site.
From the pillars down to the cluster articles, don’t forget to home in on your interlinking strategy. After all, it will take time to develop and publish all the content, so you need to clearly understand where the links will sit beforehand. Ensure all your related content articles link back to the pillar page using keywords as anchor text, as well as other associated articles where possible, to further aid crawlers in recognising similar content.
6. Develop & Publish Your Content
Once you have mapped out your topic clusters and interlinking structure, the next step is to develop and publish your pillar pages and supporting content. The key is to capture potential customers’ attention and integrate keywords and other technical elements, such as images and multimedia, into each piece.
As mentioned above, there is a growing preference for content that is more well-structured, engaging, and, most importantly, helpful. Ensure to include various headings and sectioned paragraphs to help readers scan and progress through the copy, optimise the keyword density throughout the piece, and perhaps even utilise a readability checker or professional content marketing service to ensure you deliver a higher standard of quality.
Don’t be tempted to write too heavily on current events and trends. You want to be able to use your content for as long as possible, so tailoring it in an evergreen format will ensure it remains relevant for months and even years to come.
7. Measure Cluster Performance
Finally, it is essential to measure the performance of your topic clusters on an ongoing basis. This can be done by tracking traditional metrics like organic traffic, conversions, and engagement rates, but it also helps to review the pathways users take once they find their way to a landing page.
You can then use tools like Google Search Console and Ahrefs to monitor how your content performs in SERPs, namely which pieces are driving the most traffic. If you notice any areas that could be improved or need optimisation, you can make changes accordingly to further improve the effectiveness of your topic cluster content strategy.