It’s 2010. You do keyword research, pick a keyword you want to rank for, and write a 1,000-word article on it.
Simple and straightforward.
But will the same strategy work today? Not quite.
While keywords are still an integral part of content marketing, they should not be the sole focus.
With Google’s ever-evolving algorithm and search engines becoming smarter, it’s time marketers switch to a topic-focused content strategy to rank and improve SEO.
This is where topic clusters come into the picture.
What Are Topic Clusters?
Search engines are changing because the way searchers search is changing.
The first big change came about in 2013 when Google launched its Hummingbird update which transformed how Google understood search queries. It started focusing on recognizing the intent behind a search to present searchers with more relevant results.
Six years later, Google launched the BERT update which was about understanding the context of a search query rather than looking at keywords in silos.
As Simon Kahn, CMO, Google APAC puts it, “We have transitioned from using keywords to get answers to having longer conversational journeys.
Search has transformed from a tool that provides quick answers to one that enables continuous exploration with recommendations tailor-made to our needs.”
This means that one-off, keyword-focused articles won’t cut it. You need to create comprehensive pieces of content that dive deep into the topic and provide users with valuable information.
These comprehensive content pieces are called topic clusters.
Topic clusters are a group of content pieces on your website that relate to a common subject. This subject is known as the pillar content.
Here’s an example of pillar content and topic clusters model by Moz. Their pillar page ‘The Beginner’s Guide to SEO’ gives an overview of search engine optimization (SEO):
On scrolling further, you’ll see that this pillar page is broken down into several smaller chapters (or topic clusters). Each chapter is optimized for a specific keyword and covers a particular topic in-depth:
The idea behind this approach is to interlink pillar pages and topic clusters, making it easier for Google to index your content and have it appear higher on the SERPs.
How Do Topic Clusters Improve SEO?
Former product marketer at Buffer, Alfred Lua built topic clusters around Instagram marketing (pillar page) by interlinking articles related to the same topic.
In six months, weekly organic traffic went up by 48% from 27,000 to 40,000:
This example is proof enough that topic clusters when done right have the potential to improve your search engine rankings and boost traffic. Here’s how:
1. Organize website structure
A well-structured website helps visitors find information quickly and easily. It also helps search engine crawlers understand your content pages better.
Google’s John Mueller recommends a pyramid site structure for SEO optimization. He says:
A pyramid structure helps us better understand the context of individual pages within the site. So in particular, if we know this category is associated with these other subcategories then that’s a clear connection that we have between those parts. That helps us better understand how they are connected and how they work together.
One of the most effective ways to implement this structure and organize your website is by creating topic clusters. It leads you to group topics and places them under their respective umbrella concepts:
Think of it as organizing your shelf and categorizing your belongings in different boxes. Neat and clean — exactly how Google (and your visitors) expects your website to be.
2. Build authority
Google aims to provide searchers with valuable and reliable information. This is why topical authority is a key SEO ranking factor.
Topical authority is a measure of the depth of expertise you hold in your niche. For example, if your business offers HR solutions for remote teams, you can’t afford to write 1-2 articles on remote work and hope to rank.
It’s important to dig deeper into the subject, create multiple pieces of content and interlink them to establish authority. It’s about showing Google that you know your stuff while writing high-ranking articles.
Creating topic clusters lets you build authority and establish expertise.
Looking to add more depth to your outlines and enhance your content? You can create detailed content briefs with Topic. Enter your target keyword and our AI will suggest angle ideas and generate a robust outline for you:
3. Better user experience
Let’s say you come across a pillar page on how to start a blog. It leads you to topic cluster pages such as:
- How to pick a blog niche and name
- How to choose a blog hosting platform
- How to design your blog
- How to write your blog post
- How to promote your blog post
By the time you’re done reading these articles, you’re left with a comprehensive understanding of how to start a blog.
This is an example of a positive user experience — one that lets you navigate the website easily and find relevant content while deriving value from it.
So, it’s safe to say that creating (and interlinking) topic clusters improves user experience by helping them find the information they need.
4. Reduce bounce rates
According to Backlinko, websites with above-average “time on site” tend to rank higher. This proves that bounce rates are a ranking signal.
Bounce rate refers to the percentage of website visitors who enter your website and leave without viewing other pages. A high bounce rate can be a sign of poor content or a bad user experience.
The good news is that when you provide in-depth content through topic clusters, it can help you reduce bounce rates. They attract the right traffic to your pages and give visitors a reason to stay on your website for longer.
How Do You Create a Topic Cluster?
Now that you know the impact a well-planned pillar and topic cluster model can have on your website’s SEO, let’s put it into practice.
Here’s how you can create a topic cluster in seven steps:
1. Define the main topic
The first step is to narrow down on the core topic that will hold the topic clusters together. The key is to choose a topic that isn’t too narrow or too broad.
For example, a topic like ‘what is productivity’ is too broad. There’s so much to say about it — what direction will you take?
Similarly, ‘productivity tools’ is too narrow a topic for a pillar page, leaving little scope to create topic clusters around it. But, it can be a good topic for a cluster content piece.
Here are some ways to brainstorm topic ideas:
- List down your products, services or solutions
- Think about your target audience’s challenges or pain points
- Define buyer personas
- Map the buyer’s journey
- Speak to your customer service or sales team to uncover customer insights
- Analyze your competitors’ content
Pro Tip: Shortlist a few broad topics that are in line with your core offerings and will be of interest to your readers.
2. Identify and group keywords
“Is keyword research still necessary?”
Very much. When you write for SEO, you have to take keywords and search intent into account.
Let’s say you chose ‘freelance writing’ as the main topic. Here are some keywords you could create content clusters around:
You’ll notice a lot of overlapping keywords that can be grouped together.
For example, keywords like ‘where to find freelance writing jobs’ and ‘best freelance writing sites’ address the same search intent and can be grouped together under one topic cluster.
Pro Tip: While identifying keywords for topic clusters, opt for those with a monthly search volume between 100 to 2,000.
In addition to this, it’s also a good idea to do a SERP analysis and check the ‘People also ask’ section. This will give you insights into the types of questions people ask related to the keyword which you can incorporate in your cluster content model.
You can pick out evident themes such as what is freelance writing, how to get started, how to get paid, etc.
Alternatively, you can also use Topic’s People Also Ask tool. This free tool extracts the most commonly asked questions on Google and groups them under broad categories.
Here are the top questions asked about ‘freelance writing’. One glance at the visual below helps you identify different subtopics for your clusters:
3. Review and optimize existing content
You’ve done all the research and are now left with the specific topics you want to create cluster content around.
Before you start creating content from scratch, run a content audit. Have you written articles that might be relevant to the cluster content topics?
Let’s say you’ve written an article on ‘what is freelance writing’ in the past. Instead of creating another one along similar lines (and risk them competing with each other), why not optimize the post and include it as a cluster content page?
You can use Topic’s Content Grader to see what your article is missing. This tool grades content in real-time, letting you know how your article compares to the competition and which topics to cover to optimize it:
4. Create new content
There will be topic clusters you will need to create new content for.
Start by checking the search intent of the target keyword on Google. Review the top-ranking articles to make sure you address the same search intent. You should also find questions people ask related to the keyword which can be included in your article.
The next step is to create an outline. This helps you organize your content and include all the topics you want to cover.
You can then start writing the article. Here are some best practices to keep in mind:
- Keep the headline under 65 characters
- Use descriptive headers to break down large chunks of text
- Use bullet points and write short paragraphs
- Add visuals in the form of images, GIFs, videos, screenshots, etc.
- Include interesting facts or relevant statistical data
- Optimize the article for on-page SEO
Pro Tip: While word count doesn’t guarantee success, it’s a good idea to stick to the ideal blog post length of 2,100 – 2,400 words for cluster content.
5. Add internal links
Once you’ve created the pillar page and topic clusters, don’t forget the crucial last step — adding internal links.
When you link the topic clusters to each other and the pillar page, Google considers them to be related content. This helps search engine crawlers index your content, improves navigation, and helps you rank.
Create Topic Clusters = Drive More Traffic
The thought of creating elaborate content hubs and multiple in-depth articles might seem intimidating at first. But trust me, it’s worth the time and effort.
Think of topic clusters as a long-term investment in SEO. The result: higher rankings, better UX, and a robust content marketing strategy.