Topic Clusters Are SEO Game Changers (Here’s How to Use Them)

Jonas Sickler
Key Points
  • A topic cluster is a collection of related pages unified by a broad pillar page.

  • Content clusters provide contextual support for other pages within a group. They also create a strong internal linking framework to help users (and search engines) find your content.

  • Topic clusters allow you to cover broad subjects and dominate keyword categories in organic search.

  • For best results when creating topic clusters, avoid keyword cannibalization, link silos, and narrow pillar pages.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could publish less content and get more traffic? I know, it sounds crazy. But stick with me and I’ll show you exactly how to use topic clusters to do just that.

As you probably know, Google’s search algorithm is really sophisticated. It no longer matches keywords to a search query. Instead, Google uses machine learning to analyze context and extract meaning and intent from words.

So if you write a blog post that mentions “cruise”, Google can interpret whether you mean a cruise ship, cruise missile, CRUISE (the movie) or Tom Cruise based upon other terms on the page. But while Google is pretty smart, it still makes incorrect assumptions about your content.

Topic clusters help Google understand your pages in the right context. And that’s great for your SEO as well as your users.

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SEO Before Content Clusters

In the past, content creation involved writing an article around a single keyword. Want to dominate the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) for hundreds of terms? Then you needed to write hundreds of similar pages.

When the Hummingbird algorithm update hit in 2013, brands quickly learned to focus on topic areas rather than individual keywords. As a result, one page could rank for dozens of related terms. Thus, the topic cluster SEO strategy was born.

What is a Topic Cluster, Exactly?

A topic cluster is a collection of many related blog posts called “cluster pages” that are unified by a single broad “pillar page.” Content clusters provide contextual support for other pages within a group. They also create a strong internal linking framework to help users (and search engines) find your content.

topic clusters

Let’s look at the three key components of the topic cluster model.

Pillar Pages

A pillar page is a high-level overview of a core topic that you couldn’t possibly cover in a single post. In fact, most pillar pages link out to as many as 10-20 in-depth cluster pages to completely cover the subject. Pillar content also tends to include lots of CTAs, visuals, videos and resources to keep readers engaged.

Cluster Pages

A cluster page is an in-depth blog post that elaborates on a subtopic under the pillar page umbrella. It’s important that each cluster page targets a specific topic to avoid keyword cannibalization (more on that later).

Internal Links

Internal links are vital to an SEO topic cluster strategy. Each cluster page should link to other relevant clusters, and ALL clusters must link back to their pillar page. Think of hyperlinks like the glue that holds content clusters together.

Here’s a Topic Cluster Example

Imagine you have a page that broadly covers “content strategy.” This would be the core topic of the topic cluster. You’d then write blog posts that tackle sub-topics within the category, like these:

  • Keyword Research
  • Content Writing
  • Content Marketing
  • Content Marketing Strategy
  • Content Marketing Funnel
  • Content Audit
  • Quality Content
  • Pillar Pages
  • Cluster Pages
  • Topic Clusters

Does that make sense? Each of the above cluster pages represents an important part of the content strategy puzzle. They all have a semantic relationship, yet none of them overlap too heavily.

How Topic Clusters Improve SEO

Topic clusters organize your content, so they’re the ideal foundation for an unbeatable SEO strategy. Here are just a few ways they can help boost organic traffic:

Completely Cover Broad Topics

Some topics are simply too massive to cover in one article. A single post about content strategy could span more than 50,000 words. Not only is that a poor user experience, but Google would struggle with how to classify and rank something so broad.

Yet, if you limit your article to 2,500 words and don’t link to other resources on your site, then it might feel like thin content.

Topic clusters enable you to cover very broad subjects and dominate keyword categories. That means you’ll own the entire purchase funnel.

topic cluster internal link illustration

Build a Strong Internal Link Structure

We’ve already talked about the importance of internal links in terms of context, but they’re also critical to your SEO strategy.

Let’s say you write ten cluster pages packed with actionable advice and data. Assume each of those posts earn ten great backlinks and they all link to each other as well as a pillar page using descriptive anchor text. As a result, the content cluster collectively has 100 backlinks that can share “link juice.”

What’s more, each internal link you add builds contextual relevance and also makes it easier for spiders and users to discover your content.

Rank for Competitive High-Volume Keywords

This may be obvious, but broad keywords that drive tons of traffic aren’t easy to rank for. The pillar-cluster model helps you own those high-value terms. How?

Because pillar pages are the ultimate resources. They provide a broad overview of a very complex topic and they also link out to more in-depth resources on your site. Google will understand that your content is well-organized and comprehensive enough to satisfy users’ needs.

When you provide an excellent user experience and tons of information, your off-page SEO efforts will be much easier.

topic clusters increase time on site

Increase Time on Site / Decrease Bounce Rate

Topic clusters usually have better engagement metrics because they draw users deeper into your site. Google itself has its own “related searches” and “people also ask” features right in the search results. It’s the same idea. When you anticipate a user’s follow up questions and provide the answers, they’ll spend more time on your website.

How to Create Topic Clusters

The good news? It’s fairly easy to implement topic clusters on your site. The bad news? It takes a lot of time to do it right. What’s worse, if you take the wrong approach, you might actually hamstring your search rankings and traffic. Rather than target keywords willie-nillie, you need an organized plan of attack.

1. Do Keyword Research

You can’t create topic clusters without doing thorough keyword research first. Whether you analyze competitor domains in ahrefs or use a keyword planning tool, you’ll need to build an exhaustive list of topics that your buyer personas might search for.

It’s important to include search engine optimization metrics like search volume and CPC and perhaps keyword difficulty when you build your list. This will help you identify potential pillar pages.

2. Group Keywords Into Topics

This step is the most important, but it’s also the most difficult and time consuming. The goal is to group each of your keywords into cluster and pillar topics. Here’s how to do it:

First, create a spreadsheet with columns for Pillar, Cluster, Keyword, Volume and CPC.

Next, decide which keywords are broad enough to be pillars and which terms would make good supporting cluster content pages. Finally, assign a pillar and cluster topic to each of the long-tail keywords in your list. Here’s an example:

topic cluster example

Depending upon how large your keyword set is, you may end up with several pillars and dozens of clusters.

3. Interlink Cluster Content with Pillar Pages

After you publish a complete content cluster, go back through each article and link to all other related content within the grouping. It’s also a good idea to audit existing content to see if there are some opportunities to add internal links. Anytime you add more content to an old cluster, remember to link back to it from the older posts as well.

burnt toast

Biggest Pillar-Cluster Model Mistakes

Before you get started, there are a few major mistakes that I want you to avoid. The following blunders can severely limit the ranking power of content clusters and may even hurt your SEO efforts.

Narrow Pillar Pages

One common misstep is to select a pillar keyword that’s broader than the scope of one post but can be covered completely in less than five total posts. While this mistake won’t derail your SEO efforts, it probably won’t produce the results you want. Make sure to choose pillar topics that require at least 10 supporting posts to fully address the subject.

Link Silos

Link silos are another issue to avoid. The basic concept is that you only link within a single content cluster to preserve relevance, and don’t link to other pages outside the cluster. Again, will that hurt your SEO? Probably not. But it could hold you back from getting the traffic you deserve

Keyword Cannibalization

This is a serious problem and it WILL hurt your SEO. Keyword cannibalization occurs when you publish a lot of content that all targets the same keyword. It’s the most common mistake inbound marketing teams make when they dive into topic clusters. Why?

Because they misunderstand how topic clusters work. Here’s the misconception: Select a broad keyword as a main topic. Then write 20 blog posts about that same keyword from a slightly different angle. Here’s an example of a BAD topic cluster strategy:

  • Pillar Page – Content Strategy
  • Cluster Page – A beginner’s guide to content strategy
  • Cluster Page – Content strategy: 5 ways to build better content
  • Cluster Page – Content strategy advice from the pros

See how they all target the same keyword? The misconception is that if you write about the same topic over and over and link back to a single “parent” page, then Google will consider you an expert. In reality, search engines will be confused and none of your pages will rank well.

Final Thoughts

Topic clusters, which were pioneered by Hubspot, are an indispensable tool for enterprise SEO. They help organize your content into relevant buckets, ensure you target the right keywords, and improve internal linking. While they aren’t incredibly tricky to implement, they do require search engine optimization expertise to get the best results.Are you ready to take your SEO to the next level? Send us a note and we’ll set up a call.

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