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An Essential Guide to Topic Clusters: Skyrocket Your Content

Everyone knows content is important, but what really elevates content is context. Giving meaning to your content is one of the best ways to demonstrate knowledge and relevance to both humans and search engines alike.

Topic clusters are among the most effective ways to enhance content and context. Pioneered by HubSpot as “The next evolution of SEO”, in their very own words, we must lead by asking you: are you using the topic cluster model?

If your answer is anything other than resounding "yes!" - best believe this blog was written just for you. 

By the end of this blog, you’ll understand what the fuss is about.

We’ll introduce topic clusters and the idea behind them, explain how they improve your content marketing, and how to set about creating your very own topic clusters.

What Is A Topic Cluster?

A topic cluster is a new way of thinking about content on a website. It consists of a central piece of pillar content that links to related cluster content.

Topic clusters logically and semantically group together subjects that are related, in a way that provides context and a memorable user experience for humans, and a great trail of insight for search engine spiders.

This image sums it up best. It's one you'll see frequently when researching topic clusters:



Topic clusters comprise two integral parts: pillar pages and cluster content.

Pillar content is housed on a pillar page, typically a long-form content piece that outlines a broad topic at a very high level.

"Digital Marketing", for example.

The individual pieces of cluster content - such as blogs, videos and infographics are linked out to from pillar pages.

While the pillar page covers a broad topic catering to top-of-the-funnel users, cluster content like blogs delves into specific details related to that broader topic, and caters to middle- and bottom-of-the-funnel users whoa re looking for intricate details on the topic.

For example - "Digital Marketing Strategies", or "Digital Marketing for Recruitment Agencies".

The idea behind topic clusters is that with smarter search engines and intent-based search, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) should focus on topics rather than keywords and subsequently provide a better, more comprehensive user experience.

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Why Focus On Topic Clusters vs Keywords?

With Google's adoption of a phrase-based interpretation of search queries and the implementation of natural language processing, the way we search has changed.

Nowadays we're comfortable searching with questions - "where to buy light bulbs?", "how to fix a blocked sink?".

We're quite happy to key-in searches with fragmented demands - "pizza near me", "taxi number".

SEOs need to be creating a content experience that anticipates and meets these evolving demands.

We understand that Google will interpret the intent behind these searches, cross-reference it with information on our location and search trends and so on, and deliver relevant results. We don't need to search "cheap taxi company Manchester phone number" anymore, but we do need to make sure we've created an environment where our content displays for these searches.

Topic clusters bake this assumption into content marketing strategies and allow websites to structure their content in a more intuitive way while staying visible (and dominant) in search results.

Why Should I Use Topic Clusters?

Not convinced yet?

Nothing in SEO is future-proof, but the underlying assumptions of topic clusters suggest they’re a good choice for the next step in the evolution of content.

The nature of the internet changes over time, as do user preferences and resulting priorities of the Google algorithm. Topic clusters tick a lot of the boxes to suggest they'll be around for a long while.

Although they're not overly vocal about it, Google changes its search algorithm constantly, with the long-standing focus being higher quality content.

Back in the early 2010s, we saw spun content and syndicated article sites dominating the rankings which, from a user perspective, was unacceptable.

Google tweaked the algorithm to penalise these sites and to reward unique, well written, in-depth content. This direction of change has been maintained ever since, with recent changes rewarding topic-based content. Topic clusters are a response to this development.

According to HubSpot, who pioneered the topic cluster concept, you need to be using them for three core reasons:

  1. To improve your site's architecture
  2. To make it easier for people to discover related content
  3. And ultimately, to boost your search engine visibility

Navigationally, topic clusters improve your site's architecture by reducing the number of steps required to reach the desired content.

Instead of trawling back through years of blog posts or navigating via internal search, users and crawlers can follow clear and efficient navigation to the content they're looking for.

    • Previously: Homepage -> Blog -> Scroll to find the post they're looking for, or, navigate via links, oftentimes get lost in the maze of content.
    • Now: Homepage -> Topic -> Cluster Content.

Sound the bells - we have a winner!

As usual, HubSpot has images to clearly communicate this concept:

In this image, all content about all topics sits in a convoluted jumble on one blog:



In this image, there are clear clusters, with the pillars each marked by a different colour and surrounded by their cluster content:



It's a slight oversimplification for the sake of a nice image, but it alludes to the overall neater and more refined structure.

Improved site architecture means navigation is easier, making it easier for people to find related content.

User intent is fulfilled more quickly, journeys through a website are less convoluted, and everything flows better.

The logic also dictates that content about a certain topic or aspect will be kept on one page, meaning fewer instances of multiple blog posts about the same thing competing for traffic and visibility. If you have something else to say about the topic or an aspect, you can just add it to the relevant pillar page or cluster content: because they aren't on a blog, they don't need a date and can be more evergreen.

As a result, search engine visibility is ultimately improved for two reasons:

    • Firstly, the new internal linking structure communicates the semantic links between content more clearly
    • Secondly, crawlers have a clearer idea of site structure and content relationships.

Google's crawlers benefit from this clearer navigational structure, too. The semantic relationship between pillar and cluster content is more clearly articulated than previously, so their understanding of a site’s structure is bolstered.

HubSpot reports that their SERP impressions increased as the internal linking structure was improved with the implementation of topic clusters.

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How To Create A Winning Topic Cluster

Going back to our "Digital Marketing" example from earlier, the first step when implementing topic clusters would be to figure out your pillar pages, revealed by brainstorming the main areas your content sits.

Your pillar pages could be "digital marketing trends", "digital marketing methodologies", "digital marketing tools", and so on.

Cluster content could be as follows.

We'll give some examples for each, but bear in mind a comprehensive topic cluster content strategy would have many more:

Digital Marketing Trends

    • What Are The 7 Types Of Digital Marketing?

Digital Marketing Methodologies

    • What Is The Best Digital Marketing Methodology for B2B?
    • Digital Marketing Methodologies vs Traditional Marketing
    • What Are The Different Types of Digital Marketing Methodologies?
    • Examples Of Effective Digital Marketing Methodologies

Digital Marketing Tools

    • Best Free Digital Marketing Tools
    • Digital Marketing Tools Reviewed: MOZ vs SEMrush vs ahrefs
    • What Are The Top Digital Marketing Tools?

We'll be honest here: in most instances above, we just plugged each of those terms into Google and lifted the top four questions from the 'People also ask' section. It's a great way to gather ideas for your content marketing calendar, too!

These are real questions that real people are asking. 

But, how can you easily decipher if your content falls into the category of pillar page content or topic cluster content?

HubSpot has a litmus test for this:

    • If you’re trying to get the page you’re working on to rank for a long-tail keyword, it’s not a pillar page.
    • If the page you’re working on explores a very narrow topic in great depth, it’s not a pillar page.
    • If the page you’re working on touches on many aspects of a broad topic, it’s probably a pillar page.

How To Repurpose Content Into Topic Clusters

Updating existing content into a topic cluster format is more time-consuming, but equally worthwhile.

You essentially follow the same process as above to determine your overarching pillar pages and categorise existing content within the established topic clusters.

However, it is very likely that content pieces won't fit neatly into your clusters, so certain pieces may need to be split up, merged, or rewritten completely. Consider this a worthy sacrifice.

Topic Cluster Strategy Tips & Tricks

Let's drill down into the word 'strategy'. To be as strategic as possible when deciding your clusters:

    • Align topics with user needs and buyer personas.
    • Use keyword research to check the demand and search volume behind your chosen topics
    • Undertake industry research to check your topic clusters make sense contextually.

And there you have it!

A topic-cluster-based content marketing strategy stands to improve the navigational structure of your site, match people up with the content they need more quickly, and improve your rankings by providing a more intuitive and semantically connected content offering.

Ready to unleash your online performance potential?

Explore topic clusters, pillar pages, keyword research and more in our comprehensive Guide to Getting Started with Content Marketing!

Or book a free consultation with our Content Marketing experts here.