The Google search algorithm is sophisticated. Really sophisticated. It’s constantly indexing billions of pages, determining (for the most part) what they’re about, and connecting those pages to what people are searching for. But with so much content online, how can your brand fight through all the noise?
As anyone experienced in SEO knows, high-quality content plays a critical role in your brand’s ability to break through the seemingly endless sea of competing pages and rank high in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). In the past, many digital marketers would build one web page, article, blog post, landing page, or another type of content around a single keyword, hoping to take up as much search real estate as possible.
When Hummingbird hit in 2013, brands quickly learned that they needed to focus on topics rather than individual keywords if they wanted to win in search and deliver a better user experience. Topic clusters soon became an effective SEO strategy for improving a brand’s relevance, authoritativeness, and value to online searchers.
Thankfully, topic clusters aren’t a particularly complicated SEO tactic, but it does require a refined approach to content organization and execution. In this post, we’re going to break down the what, why, and how of topic clusters so that you can begin achieving greater SEO results with your content efforts.
What Is a Topic Cluster?
Put simply, a topic cluster is a hub-and-spoke content model. It’s a collection of pages centered on an overarching topic, including a pillar or cornerstone page that speaks to the broad topic with additional cluster pages or sub-pages forming a cohesive, highly targeted grouping of related content. The pillar page acts as an index page, with links to the related sub-pages. Additionally, the subpages link back to the pillar page, creating a web of interconnected pages with one central hub holding everything together.
For example, let’s say you have a page with a broad focus on blockchain technology. This would be the high-level pillar page of the topic cluster. You’d then interlink to other pages or posts that tackle sub-topics such as:
- The Future of blockchain
- Pros and cons of blockchain
- Blockchain startups
- Smart contracts
- Initial coin offering
- Cloud mining
- Chain linking
Each of these sub-pages would then link back to the pillar page about blockchain technology.
Essentially, a pillar page functions as a central hub for a specific topic, while the cluster pages and interconnected links work to demonstrate topic depth.
Why Do SEO Topic Clusters Matter?
Topic clusters are becoming more important as search engines get better at understanding context beyond a single keyword phrase. In other words, Google can connect the dots between a brand’s range of content more effectively than ever before.
This evolution of the Google algorithm began back in 2013, again with Hummingbird, when Google implemented semantic search. Semantic search goes beyond the strict meaning of keywords to what’s implied by them, the context in which they’re used, the understanding of synonyms, etc. This makes the search engine much more accurate in the results it displays.
In other words, if you type “cruise” into the Google search box, Google can interpret whether you mean a cruise ship, cruise deals, cruise missile, CRUISE (the movie), Tom Cruise (the actor), etc. The goal is to deliver the most relevant result for you.
Google continues to evolve beyond Hummingbird. Using its RankBrain machine learning technology, Google is able to identify the context of the search more accurately and pull the results most closely related to the specific search in question. According to Jeff Dean, Senior Fellow at Google, Google RankBrain now contributes to every single search conducted within the search engine. Greg Corrado, Principal Scientist and Director of Augmented Intelligence Research at Google, has confirmed that Google RankBrain is the third most important ranking signal in Google’s algorithm.
What does all this mean for you and your brand?
It means that context really matters. It’s not about one keyword phrase mapped to one single web page. Instead, Google is able to evaluate your brand’s authoritativeness for an entire topic, as broad as it may be, across your entire content ecosystem.
Topic clusters are a way of associating different related topics under a master topic. It’s a way of structuring your site so that Google understands that various pages are related to each other and all speak to a similar subject. When a user enters a specific query, Google is able to evaluate all the pages in a topic cluster for relevant results instead of a single, isolated page.
Topic clusters also help to ensure that related pages don’t cannibalize and compete with each other. In other words, if Google finds two, three, or four pages on your site that seem to address the same subject, it may have trouble determining which one is most relevant, which can dilute the SEO value of those pages. This will likely happen if you have a large library of blog posts that aren’t clearly organized. By instead thoughtfully organizing your content in a hub-and-spoke model (pillar page at the center, with related cluster pages supporting the pillar page), you provide the search algorithm with a clear path to the right page.
Topic clusters also allow pages to pass, for lack of a better term, “SEO juice” to each other. If your pillar page ranks high for specific searches, it can pass some of that ranking power to linked pages, increasing the chances of them also showing up in the SERPs (and vice versa).
Last but not least, RankBrain has also enabled Google to more carefully evaluate user experience when determining rankings. By providing the most thorough answer to a searcher’s query you will prevent users from returning to the SERPs for more information. And if you can anticipate follow-up queries that a visitor is likely to ask, you’ll draw them even deeper into your content.
Topic clusters lend themselves to greater engagement rates as they present users with relevant options to dive deeper on any given topic. Think of how Amazon utilizes its “Frequently bought together…” feature, or its “Customers who viewed this item also viewed…” feature. Google itself has its own suggested search and “people also ask” features right in the SERPs. It’s the same idea. If you read a particular web page, it’s likely that you’ll want to explore additional pages within the topic cluster, resulting in more time spent interacting with the site.
How To Implement Topic Clusters On Your Site
Implementing topic clusters is not particularly difficult. It simply requires a thorough understanding of your target audience, competitive analysis, keyword research, and thoughtful organization.
To start, explore what your pillar pages should be. Each pillar page should broadly cover a topic. Avoid targeting a long-tail keyword. At the same time, be mindful of how broad you want to go. Perhaps “blockchain” is too broad and overly competitive, but “blockchain technology” is a more realistic target. Where “accounting” could be overly vague, “types of accounting,” “accounting principles,” or “financial accounting” might be more achievable.
If you’re looking to see how others have implemented topic clusters, check out the HubSpot blog. The company recently reorganized its library of more than 12,000 blog posts into topic clusters. Previously, it had three index pages, one for its marketing blog, one for the sales blog, and one for the agency blog. It then realized that these high-level pages were overly broad, and that they were missing out on highlighting and building a supporting infrastructure under a much broader set of targeted topics.
For example, the HubSpot blog had many posts merely addressing Instagram tips alone. So, HubSpot launched an Instagram Marketing pillar page, along with a group of supporting cluster pages such as:
- The Anatomy of a Perfect Instagram Profile
- What to Post on Instagram this Month: 18 Photo & Video Ideas to Spark Inspiration
- How to Write Good Instagram Captions: 8 Bookmarkable Tips for Perfecting Your Copy
- How to Establish an Instagram Aesthetic: 10 Brands Doing It Right
The pillar page is extremely long and includes links to not only HubSpot’s cluster pages but to relevant outside resources as well.
As it just so happens, HubSpot is #1 for “instagram marketing.”
When creating your pillar pages, consider the broad topics that are central to your audience and your brand. Ask questions such as:
- What are the primary problems your customers face?
- What questions are your customers asking?
- What are the objectives your customers are striving to achieve?
- What do customers use your products or services for?
- What are the main reasons why someone would find your website?
- On what subjects do you want to be an authority?
You can then do in-depth keyword research, content analysis including content gap analysis, online sharing analysis, competitor analysis, audience insights discovery, etc. for your related topics.
If you want your content to consistently rank for priority searches, topic clusters should be a part of your content mix. Think about the overarching topics you want to rank for and think about the ecosystem that you should be developing in order to deliver the best possible online experience related to that topic.
Make it simple for Google to understand the general topics you’re an authority on, and then go deep by defining the specific long-tail keywords that support your pillar pages most effectively. By building SEO topic clusters, you’ll be able to go broad, and deep.