How Topic Clusters Can Improve Your Content Marketing
In SEO, we talk frequently about the importance of content being detailed and original and targeting the right keywords to get ranked. This is necessary for your website’s success, but it isn’t sufficient. To create a killer content marketing strategy for your SEO, you have to start building more complex content structures in the form of topic clusters.
The term itself seems to hint at what I’m talking about, but let’s get more specific. Where you likely already know that an individual piece of content needs to be authoritative and relevant to rank well, you may not know that such content has even better chances of ranking highly if you attach it to a group of thematically related content pieces called topic clusters.
What Are Topic Clusters?
A topic cluster is a hierarchy of content that is all focused on one general subject. The main content piece in a cluster is called the pillar content. It summarizes the subject while calling attention to various subtopics associated with the main idea.
The pillar content becomes part of a topic cluster when you begin adding supporting pages–in the form of blog posts, usually–under it in the hierarchy. These pages go into greater detail on the subtopics that were perhaps only mentioned on the pillar page.
The final component of an effective topic cluster is to interlink among the pages using relevant keywords. The pillar page can point down to the supporting pages for more details on a subject tangent. The supporting pages should link to one another and back up to the main page to keep users moving throughout your site, learning progressively more about your business as they read.
Provided you properly employed the keywords and topic research you wanted to use in your content, you should begin to see some traffic increases to your new topic clusters. That’s because Google’s search algorithm will recognize the nice, clean, top-down content architecture you’ve created and reward you for it. Further, the interlinking you did when writing the content will share ranking authority among the pages and tell Google these pages are all included in one cluster.
All these elements together represent a recipe for healthy content rankings on your website.
How Are Topic Clusters Structured?
Before getting more granular on some crucial components of topic clusters, let’s briefly examine how an effective topic cluster would look. For this, we will use the real-world example of “medical malpractice law.”
Let’s say that a law firm practices only medical malpractice. Its website would represent this with an authoritative page discussing medical malpractice generally. It would state what it is, the conditions necessary for a lawyer to consider an action malpractice, and how a law firm would prove malpractice in court.
In the interest of being comprehensive, this main page might also briefly cover topics such as the types of medical malpractice, what constitutes malpractice and what does not, the doctoral duty of care, the generally accepted standard of medical care, the concept of informed consent, tort law, birth injuries, medical malpractice claims, medical malpractice by state, lawsuit damages, pain and suffering, and lost wages.
You can see that the subtopics above are all important parts of the overall subject of medical malpractice. Each is definitely worth at least a mention–if not a paragraph or two–in the main medical malpractice page. However, that pillar page would not have the space to discuss each subtopic at great length. Doing so would likely make the page tens of thousands of words and risk having the content trying to rank for too many keywords and topics (more on this later).
For this reason, the law firm would be wise to create a sizable topic cluster around its main service, so that each subtopic serves as its own supporting page. With all these pieces of authoritative content now created, the right kind of internal linking structure will direct both Google and the website’s human visitors all over the cluster. This will keep users on the website while showing Google that all of these pages are related and important.
Key Points of Topic Clusters
We now know what topic clusters are, how they can help your website’s SEO, and what a topic cluster actually looks like on your site. However, there are some other vital components of topic clusters that you should keep in mind when creating your content so that this whole enterprise actually works in your favor.
Write for Topics, Not Keywords
Google’s search technology changes rapidly these days. From the Hummingbird update of 2013, to the 2015 acknowledgement of RankBrain, to the BERT update of 2019, Google’s language processing power is doing incredible things in 2020.6
That means Google is particularly adept at reading into the exact phrasing and implied intentions of search queries. Use an alternative word here or there in your search terms, and Google could produce an entirely different set of results.
This is why it is critical that you focus on topic research and keyword intent for your clusters rather than trying to stuff in all your keywords like it’s 1999. You can perform topic research with tools such as SEMrush or BuzzSumo, or you can simply mine the SERPs to see what Google is presenting for a certain query. The better your topic cluster’s supporting pages answer specific questions users are asking, the better chance the pages have of getting ranked highly.
Don’t Try to Rank for Too Many Keywords
I mentioned earlier that I would be returning to the idea of trying to rank a page for too many keywords. I also just made a crack about the antiquated late-1990s SEO practice of keyword stuffing. If you aren’t yet sold on the idea of topic clusters and how all the work that goes into them can actually pay off for your business, then I hope the following information changes your mind.
It just isn’t a good idea to try to rank a single pillar page for a laundry list of keywords, even if they are all thematically related to your main idea. As I stated in the previous section, Google in 2020 thinks about topics and intentions over keywords. It is not enough to place some keywords in your content and expect the online traffic to come tearing down your My Cart page to make purchases. Google reads keywords as signals that tell it about the subject of a content page, but the natural language of your writing goes deeper and tells Google all the remaining details.
It comes down to this: let’s say you do end up writing a 30,000-word pillar page about medical malpractice and every tangential subtopic relating to it. Let us also assume you insert a few hundred keywords into that one page. This is perhaps an extreme example, but I’m trying to win over the devil’s advocate.
If you do this, then Google will crawl the page and probably determine that it is about nothing rather than something. Why? Because you stuffed your way through the content. How will Google know how to rank that page if the content is targeting 200 keywords and addressing 25 topical questions? It would be confusing for a person to navigate such a page and discover what it really has to offer. The same applies to Google and all search engines as they attempt to figure out which search queries would match up well with this mini-encyclopedia you’ve created.
The superior alternative is to create topic clusters.
See how I brought it all back to that? I’m actually hoping to get this page ranked for “topic clusters,” myself.
Topic Clusters Are Here to Stay
In conclusion, it’s worth mentioning that the topic cluster model of SEO content is a relatively new institution. Digital marketers have always had to adapt how they work as Google gets smarter. Topic clusters are essentially the latest iteration of those adaptations for SEO content.
Who can say what the next major Google update will present to us content marketers? Whatever it is, it will surely encourage us to get even better at what we do. In turn, we can provide even more helpful, useful experiences for people online.