An Essential Guide to Topic Clusters
Everyone knows content is important. But it has been a long while ever since the methodologies underpinning content strategies have changed.
Topic clusters are a new way of doing things, designed by HubSpot and earmarked to make quite a big impact. “The next evolution of SEO”, in their words.
By the end of this guide, you’ll understand what the fuss is about.
We’ll introduce topic clusters and the idea behind them, explain how they will improve your website content, and how to make a topic cluster strategy.
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 which links to related cluster content.
This image sums it up best. It's one you'll see frequently when researching topic clusters:
Pillar content is a long-form content piece which outlines a broad topic. "Cooking meat", for example.
The individual pieces of cluster content linked to from pillar content are shorter and dig deeper into more specific aspects. Say, "how to spatchcock a chicken". Or, "meat and wine pairings".
The idea behind topic clusters is that, with smarter search engines and intent-based search, SEO should focus on topics rather than keywords.
Why the focus on topics rather than keywords?
With Google's adoption of a phrase-based interpretation of search queries and the advent of machine learning, 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 comfortable searching with fragmented demands - "pizza near me", "taxi number".
We understand that Google will interpret the intent behind these searches, cross reference it with information on our location, search history, and so on, to deliver relevant results. We don't need to search "cheap taxi company Manchester phone number" any more.
Topic clusters bake this assumption into content marketing strategies and allow websites to structure their content in a more intuitive way while staying visible in search results.
Why should I use topic clusters
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.
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:
- To improve your site's architecture
- To make it easier for people to discover related content
- 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 desired content.
Instead of trawling back through years of blog posts or navigating via internal search, users and crawlers can follow a 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
- Now homepage -> topic -> specific aspect
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 internal linking structure was improved with the implementation of topic clusters.
How to create a topic cluster strategy from scratch
Going back to our cooking 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 "cooking meat", "cooking fish", "cooking veggies", "cooking techniques".
Cluster content could be as follows. We'll give 4 examples for each, a properly implemented topic cluster content strategy would have many more:
- How long do you cook meat
- How should meat be cooked
- What are the methods of cooking meat
- Will cooking meat kill all bacteria
- What is the best way to cook fish
- How do I make sure my fish is cooked
- How do you cook fresh fish
- How do you cook fish in the oven
- What is the best way to cook veg
- How do you cook fresh vegetables
- How long do you cook vegetables
- How do you cook mixed vegetables
- What is Sautéing
- What is Searing
- How do you separate an egg
- How do you shallow fry
We'll be honest here: for the first three, we just plugged each of those terms into Google and lifted the top four questions from the 'People also ask' section:
These are questions people are asking, in the language people are asking in. For “cooking techniques” we rejigged content from the Wikipedia info box at the top of Google for the same reasons.
HubSpot has a sniff 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 turn existing 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 or rewritten completely. Consider this a worthy sacrifice.
A few bonus tips
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.
Best get cracking!