Search engine optimization (SEO) and content go hand-in-hand. It’s almost impossible to make progress in SEO without a solid content strategy serving as your foundation, and any reasonable content strategy should at least give you some SEO benefit.
However, several factors are making it increasingly difficult for amateur content developers to see the SEO results they want. For starters, Google is introducing updates that refine its algorithm and allow it to evaluate the quality of content more stringently. Hummingbird, from 2013, introduced semantic search, which practically eliminated exact match keyword consideration in favor of considering context and meaning. Since then, synonyms and contextually relevant phrases greatly increased in importance when optimizing for strategic keywords.
Additionally, the SEO industry has become incredibly competitive, with millions of websites often fighting over the same groups of keywords and phrases. This makes it increasingly hard to stand out, and nearly impossible to rank for the most hotly contested phrases in an industry.
How can you combat these effects and improve your SEO results?
One solution is using topic clusters, a content-focused strategy that can help you rank for highly competitive head keywords and accessible long-tail keyword phrases simultaneously.
If you want to remain competitive in 2020, and maximize your SEO results, you need to include some variation of the topic clustering strategy.
We’ll start with a high-level overview. What are topic clusters, and how can you use them for SEO?
A topic cluster is an assortment of individual pieces of content that are all relevant to the same overarching theme or topic. Working together with an anchoring piece of content, usually called “pillar content,” your topic cluster will yield much better search engine ranking results than a conventional content strategy.
Your pillar content for a given cluster will work as a functional overview of a broad topic. You can think of it as the center of a wheel, with each piece of topic cluster content serving as a spoke in that wheel. The pillar content is meant to provide a comprehensive overview of your chosen topic, with each of the “spokes” covering some aspect of that topic in much greater detail.
For example, let’s say you’re a digital marketing firm. You might create a pillar piece of content covering the topic of “onsite SEO.” This article covers all the important aspects of onsite optimization, from a somewhat high level. It also links to a variety of other pieces, which cover more specific aspects of onsite SEO in greater detail. For example, you might link to pieces on topics like “how to audit your current onsite SEO,” “how to increase your site speed,” “technical onsite SEO for beginners,” and “how to write better onsite content.”
Each piece of cluster content should attempt to target a long-tail keyword phrase, while your pillar piece of content targets a more competitive head keyword. Each of these keyword terms should be at least somewhat relevant to the others.
By the end of your strategy, each of your cluster content pieces should rank highly for their low-competition, “low hanging fruit” keywords, all while lending support to lift your pillar piece of content beyond where it could rank on its own. Google will come to see you as an authority on this central topic because of your work throughout the cluster, and you’ll likely earn more backlinks as a result as well.
So what are the benefits of using topic clusters for SEO?
These are some of the best advantages:
If you’re going to be successful with topic clusters, there are a few important aspects you’ll need to nail:
Let’s turn our attention to pillar content. Your pillar content will serve as the anchor and foundation for your entire topic clustering strategy, so it’s important to get right.
Once you have a piece of pillar content in place, your next job will be developing a topic cluster hierarchy. You know you’ll be creating many pieces of cluster content feeding into your main pillar piece, and each of those will focus on a different long-tail keyword phrase.
But how can you tell which phrases to target, and in which order to write them?
Let’s start with the question of targeting. Each of your cluster pieces should target a long-tail keyword phrase that meets three important criteria. In order of priority, from highest to lowest, these are:
With your keyword research, you should be able to generate a list of at least 4-5 pieces of cluster content. For some topics, you’ll be able to generate a list of dozens.
You’ll want to develop all of these posts eventually, but the order can play a role in your success.
Obviously, you’ll want to start with your piece of pillar content. This is going to serve as the anchor for your entire strategy.
From there, you’ll want to follow the “domino” theory. In this model, you’ll start with the most accessible long-tail keyword phrase—the one with the least competition, even if it has a small search volume. Develop the post associated with this term, promote it, build links to it, and in relatively short order, you should rank higher in SERPs for this term.
Then, move to a post for a term with slightly higher competition. You can perpetuate the momentum from your first, smaller post, and hopefully, climb ranks quicker with this one. You’ll follow this pattern moving forward, writing posts with higher-volume and higher-competition terms, and accelerating your propensity to rank.
You can see why this is called the domino theory; you’ll start with something small, then allow each of your posts to feed into the next, like falling dominoes building momentum.
Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you have a multitude of high-ranking posts all feeding into your pillar piece. Think of this as the biggest, heaviest domino in your line; with enough momentum from your established cluster pieces, you should find it much easier to rank for the highly competitive, head keyword phrase associated with your pillar piece.
When developing topic cluster content, one of your highest priorities will be optimizing for a specific long-tail phrase. However, you should also think about the qualitative aspects of your work. In other words, don’t just write for search engine algorithms; you also have to write for humans.
One of the most important concepts to master here is user intent. In other words, why are people searching for these keywords, and how can you serve their needs? For example, if you’re optimizing a post about “how to change a bike tire,” you can reasonably conclude that the searcher is trying to directly get a step-by-step guide, or other specific information, about how to change a bike tire.
However, other topics are more ambiguous, and may appeal to a broader range of user intent. For example, if a user is searching for “rattling noise in car engine,” that user might be looking to diagnose a rattling engine, but they might also be looking for potential solutions, where to find a mechanic, and more.
User intent is difficult to measure or predict in concrete terms, since it’s a somewhat subjective consideration. However, you can use demographic research, keyword research, and surveys to back your ideas and come to a better conclusion about what people want from your content.
You’ll also need to improve the quality of your content in other ways.
As an amateur content creator, starting with a single topic cluster, along with a single piece of pillar content, is probably your best approach. But as you refine your strategy and expand your SEO efforts, you may want to expand your horizons.
For example, you may want to “stitch” together multiple topic clusters, creating a kind of mega cluster.
It’s easiest to understand this with an illustration. Let’s say you create a pillar piece of content about “Facebook marketing,” with topic clusters on things like “how to create a Facebook business page” or “how to target a specific audience with Facebook advertising.” You can also create a pillar piece of content on “LinkedIn marketing” with topic clusters on things like “how to expand your professional network on LinkedIn” or “how to use LinkedIn for executive recruiting.”
With these topic clusters fully fleshed out, you can attempt to join them together under an even broader umbrella; for example, you can create a new piece of pillar content on “social media marketing” in general.
You can also expand your topic clusters in the other direction. You can almost always find more granular, detailed posts to add to the spokes of your topic cluster wheel.
Ultimately, through topic clustering, you’ll be able to create intricate webs and hierarchies that keep all your pieces of content in close contextual relevance with each other. Over time, that should bring you much better SEO results, including higher rankings and better traffic streams.
Are you interested in overhauling your SEO strategy? Or is your onsite content strategy in dire need of a strategic update in the form of topic clusters? Contact us today to learn more about our SEO services, or for a free quote!