Topic Clusters – The New SEO Strategy
There aren’t many things content creators and content marketers despise more than vying for the same keywords as their competitors. Looking for ways to land on the first search engine results page (SERP) is never-ending work. Yet, the very nature of content marketing requires us to put forth these efforts.
Search Engine Watch reports that 90% of people only view and click on search engine results listed on the first page, and 33% of traffic goes to the top spot. Traffic on the second search results page drops off by 95%. These stats are staggering and they perfectly illustrate why creating strong SEO strategies is essential.
Evolution of Algorithms and Search Behavior
It’s hard enough to gain first page and first slot placements on search engines, but constant changes to search algorithms adds another set of challenges. Google updates its core search algorithms a whopping 500-600 times per year forcing content managers and creators to continually reassess their strategy, in order to drive targeted leads to their websites.
In addition, the way people search has changed. At one point, keyboard typing and small mobile screens necessitated the use of brief keyword choices when searching. If a user searched ‘car loan’, these two words would suffice for getting relevant search results. This is no longer the case – larger mobile screens and voice capabilities from Siri and Alexa have all but eliminated the necessity for brevity. A search for email marketing might now look like, ‘best email subject lines’, ‘2020 trends in email marketing’, or ‘effective email marketing landing pages’. These long tail keywords have gained in popularity as content marketers have discovered that 50% of all searches will be voice generated by 2020. People speak differently than they type, which makes longer keyword phrases more relevant. These longer phrases bring in fewer users to websites but more targeted leads.
Introducing Topic Clusters
Topic clusters are groups of interlinked web pages built around a subject relevant to a brand. They consist of three elements: a pillar topic, related in-depth pages, and hyperlinks.
The topic cluster begins with the pillar topic, which is an overview or broad description of a subject. It is followed by a group of more narrowly-focused pages that relate to the topic using long tail keywords. The pillar links out to each of the narrowly-focused assets, and all of the more detailed content links back to the pillar page.
The cluster tells search engines that the pillar page is an authority on the topic, thus giving it more weight. By creating a ‘one stop shop’ on topics, searchers are provided with a better experience and a decreased need to visit multiple sites.
Successful Topic Cluster Users
When converting your content to incorporate topic clusters, you only need to start with 2-3 pillars, so it’s worth the investment of time and energy to make them really stand out. Below are a few examples of brands that are crushing topic clusters:
Typeform is a SaaS brand that has not only created well-organized topic clusters, but has made them beautiful. Their cluster on brand awareness is laid out with both aesthetic design and readability in mind. Their pillar page also includes a table of contents that informs users immediately that they can read deeper into topics.
Help Scout developed a topic cluster on email marketing with an airy design that’s easy on the eyes. This is an immensely useful resource. It’s easy to navigate, and allows the user to download a PDF version, which is very convenient for the reader, and a great way for Help Scout to capture leads.
Population Healthier was created by Athenahealth as a piece of sponsored content published in The Atlantic. This interactive article has a nice menu that provides links to deeper articles. Its placement as sponsored content is also both creative and strategic, as it lets them tap into The Atlantic’s audience.
All of the examples above are well thought out and designed to succeed. Because they are also full of useful and well-rounded information, it makes each one an effective resource for anyone researching their respective topics.
Additionally, internal linking between pillar and topic pages demonstrates to search engines that the content has a semantic relationship. You want Google to understand your keywords are related to one another.
How to Create Topic Clusters
There are two routes to follow to develop topic clusters: reorganizing existing content, and creating new content. Both are valid and can be used simultaneously.
Reorganize Existing Content
If you have a blog or website section of articles and resources, perform an analysis and see how some or all of your content can be grouped into topics. You may not already have every element, and it could be wise to add a pillar topic if you find your existing content is too detailed. Or, you might have your pillar but only two detail pieces. By reorganizing the content you already have, you could be well on your way to launching your first topic clusters.
Create New Content
Knowing your target market is key to driving the results you want. Take a hard look at your customers and prospects. What are these targets looking for? What needs do they have that your brand can help fill?
Once you’ve chosen your pillar topics based on your target audience, keyword research is necessary to choose which long tail keywords are related to your pillar content. Wordtracker is a free keyword research tool that will help get rid of the guesswork. If your pillar content will be about ‘buying a car’, enter that term into Wordtracker and filter for SEO. You’ll find a long list of potential detail content such as ‘buying a used car’ or ‘leasing vs. buying a car’.
Throw aside the old belief that the shorter the keyword phrase is, the better. Digital marketing guru Neil Patel writes, “The longer the keyword, the easier it is for you to rank well for that keyword.” Additionally, research shows that 64% of searchers use four or more words in their searches.
Once you have your keywords, create content based on these themes, build links, and launch! Your content can be made up of articles, infographics, or videos. Providing a range of content supports searchers who may prefer videos to articles, or vice versa.
Given that search engines are complex, and that change is their motto, businesses must always focus their energy on content strategy. SEO strategy will always be shifting, but the one given is that Google will always value relevant information. Keep a close eye on how people want to discover and digest information, because user behavior guides algorithms.
Ideally, come up with questions your prospects might have and develop content to answer their questions. Choose topics and long tail keywords you can build relationships between. Using email marketing as an example, one cluster might concentrate around a beginner’s guide to email marketing, while another one might be for people who are already using email marketing but want to increase success.
The Bottom Line
While keywords will remain critical to SEO, long tail keywords have a broader and deeper value for brands. Topic clusters do not abandon keywords, but instead incorporate them in a new way of organizing content on a website. The priority is shifted to broad topics instead of just keywords. If this method is followed, content is organized to better ensure your target audience is quickly getting the answers they’re searching for while online.
Over time, the long tail keywords will do the heavy lifting and also help the pillar content earn a decent rank for its generalized topic and keyword.
At the same time, this boosts your search ranking, which results in increased traffic, leads, and customers. The best thing about topic clusters is that you’re no longer competing with your own content for readership — each piece of content supports the other. Topic clusters are invaluable – they support customers’ purchasing decisions by bringing them straight to your expertise.
Deborah was the kid who would rather write book reports and essays than play ball during recess. Although she didn’t score many points with her peers, it did lead to her career creating content for TV, radio, print and new media for companies as varied as Dooney& Bourke, Panera Breads, Visa, SUNY Ulster and Hudson Valley Federal Savings Bank.
She is also a principal of small packages – a digital design company, and past partner/marketing director of whatis.com, the world’s foremost reference on information technology. And, her love of food enabled her to become a contributing editor of both Gourmet Retailer and Food Distribution Magazines.
Deborah has a bachelor degree in fine art from the Hartford Art School, University of Hartford and a masters in higher education administration from Stony Brook University. When she’s not writing, her love of quilting, furry animals, friends, and family sustains her.