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 pillar 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 search 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.
What Are Topic Clusters?
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 pillars should rank highly for their low-competition, “low hanging fruit” keywords, all while lending support to lift your content pillars 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.
The Benefits of Topic Clusters for SEO
So what are the benefits of using topic clusters for SEO?
These are some of the best advantages:
- Head and long-tail keyword optimization. This strategy allows you to take advantage of both head keywords and long-tail keyword phrases simultaneously. Head keywords tend to be short and broad; they have the benefit of offering very high search volume, but they’re also incredibly competitive. By contrast, long-tail keywords tend to be longer and more specific; they’re not competitive, so they’re easy to rank for, but they also have a lower search volume. Head keywords require a lot of time, effort, and patience, as well as a huge volume of relevant content. Long-tail keyword phrases are easy and convenient, but individually, they can never be as powerful as a head keyword. With pillar pieces and your entire topic cluster, you can get the best of both worlds.
- Feeding high search volume results. The most lucrative positions in SEO are the top-ranking positions for highly searched keywords and phrases. The downside is that it’s incredibly difficult to attain these positions. With topic clusters, you can optimize your entire pillar page content strategy to “feed into” the pieces most likely to achieve these feats. In other words, you’ll be pumping up your best content and greatly increasing your chances of getting to those sought-after high-ranking positions.
- Internal linking and user retention. Creating content clusters allows you to foster better internal link building and optimize for user retention. Readers who peruse your pillar content will naturally want to follow links to your complementary, more detailed subtopics. Conversely, readers who stumble upon your niche content will naturally want to read more about the “big picture” of the topic. Ultimately, this strategy helps you keep users on your website, which is valuable for increasing conversions; it’s also useful for lowering your bounce rate and positively affecting other important onsite behavior metrics.
- Authority and reputation. Writing pillar page content in the form of a topic cluster will increase your authority—both in the subjective sense, and in terms of domain authority as considered by Google. In the former case, readers who follow your pillar page will quickly learn that you’re an expert in this field; they’ll have high-level and low-level content to review, and given enough time, will think of you as the thought leader in this area. In the latter case, your pillar page will be much more likely to attract links and social shares, ultimately increasing your domain- and page-level authority.
- Development flexibility. While there are some best practices that everyone should follow, for the most part, topic clusters are a flexible and versatile strategy. You can optimize your approach for your unique pillar page and SEO goals; for example, you can choose to focus more heavily on cluster posts if you’re interested in fast results, or funnel more heavily into a pillar piece if you want the long-term benefits of optimizing for a head keyword phrase. This is also a strategy that supports long-term development and growth; you can create new topic clusters at your own discretion, and keep building upon what you’ve already started.
Keys to Success With Topic Clusters
If you’re going to be successful with topic clusters, there are a few important aspects you’ll need to nail:
- Keyword research. Your choice in keywords will have a dramatic impact on your bottom-line results. If you choose a head keyword that’s too competitive, your ambition may be your downfall, preventing you from achieving your full potential. If your long-tail keyword phrases are too low in search volume, or if they aren’t relevant to your pillar piece, it could compromise your results. Be thorough in your keyword research, and be selective in your keyword target choices.
- Quality content. As with most SEO strategies, it’s almost impossible to make progress without the backbone of high-quality content. Even the best-structured topic cluster is going to fail if it’s unable to win the favor of your readers. Great content is unique, eloquent, detailed, comprehensive, and valuable to readers. Anything less will not help you.
- Time and perseverance. When writing shorter blog posts optimized for long-tail keyword phrases, you can typically see results quickly. In some cases, you may gain ground in the SERPs in a matter of weeks, or even days. However, topic clusters are an intensive long-term strategy overall. It often takes many months of effort to build the authority and content presence necessary to rank for those hotly contested, high-search volume head keywords. You’ll need to be prepared to invest the proper time, and persevere beyond the initial hurdles you’ll inevitably face.
How to Create Pillar Content
Let’s turn our attention to creating 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.
- Start with the right head keyword. For most SEO service campaigns, the heart of the topic cluster lies with the pillar piece and the head keyword associated with it. Accordingly, your choice here is pivotal. Make sure you choose a head keyword that’s highly relevant and valuable to your brand, specifically. It also needs to have high search volume; this is the time to be ambitious. However, it also needs to be a realistic target; if you’re going to be directly competing with thousands of brands that have already spent decades achieving positions for this term, you may want to find a better target.
- Prioritize evergreen content. Also, you should set your sights on evergreen content, if possible. Evergreen content should remain relevant indefinitely, for a period of at least many years. Topic clusters are a long-term strategy, so to get the most out of them, you’ll need to create pillar page content that can go the distance. Be prepared to revisit your pillar pieces as new information comes out, and try not to date your pillar page content with references to current events or temporary developments. If you want to write about newsworthy topics or current trends, keep these pieces of content as cluster pieces or secondary works.
- Explore a topic in detail—but not too much detail. Your pillar piece should be the centerpiece of your topic cluster, so you’ll want to explore your broad topic from start to finish in some detail. You should give readers a comprehensive overview of the subject at hand, leading into all your sub-pieces. However, you don’t want to provide too much detail in this piece; otherwise, your readers will have no reason to consult your cluster topics. Additionally, if you spend too much time in the weeds, you may end up cannibalizing some of your most valuable keywords.
- Include multimedia content. Strong pillar pieces are usually complemented with multimedia content, including images, gifs, short video clips, or even audio. These elements make your piece more robust, more impressive to average readers, and potentially more authoritative in the eyes of search engines.
- Aggressively optimize. Make sure your pillar content is optimized for search engines, including several instances of your head keyword in many different forms; include synonyms and contextually relevant phrases throughout the piece. You’ll also want to include a handful of important long-tail keyword phrases to pepper in throughout your work—just be careful not to over-optimize and jeopardize the value of your cluster pieces.
- Routinely promote. Make sure you’re utilizing offsite SEO strategies in addition to onsite strategies. If you want your headlining pillar piece to be effective, you need to spend time promoting it. Circulate it on social media, try to stimulate conversation around the piece, and build links to it whenever you can. Keep promoting it throughout the development of your strategy so you can make it increasingly present and relevant.
- Revisit and adjust. Writing a pillar piece isn’t a one-time deal; you’ll need to revisit and adjust your work regularly if you want to get the most value out of it. Fill in new information and new details as you learn more about this subject, and make sure it remains up-to-date. You’ll also need to build in new internal links and new references paired to the new cluster topics you introduce. Additionally, as you collect feedback on the piece and analyze the results of your campaign, you may tweak the content of the piece to be better optimized for your goals. Check in monthly, or whenever you publish new cluster content.
Developing a Topic Cluster Hierarchy
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 pillar pages 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:
- Relevance to your pillar content. This is crucial. The cluster topics you choose should all be directly relevant to your pillar content; otherwise, you’ll defeat the purpose of the strategy. If there’s a long-tail keyword phrase you want to target that isn’t relevant to your pillar piece, consider incorporating it into a different topic cluster.
- Competition/ranking accessibility. Next, consider the level of competition for your cluster topics. Ideally, you’ll want to choose long-tail keyword phrases with the least amount of competition; lower competition means you’ll increase your search engine rankings much easier.
- Search volume/popularity. Finally, you’ll need to consider search volume. Search volume reflects the number of searches made for this term; the higher the searches, the more traffic you’re likely to attract with your targeted piece. This is valuable, but it’s still a secondary priority to relevance and competition; after all, search volume doesn’t matter if you’re nowhere near the top rankings for a given term. Feel free to give search volume a higher priority when choosing pillar content, since you’ll have more time and resources to develop it.
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 blog post for a term with slightly higher competition. You can perpetuate the momentum from your first, smaller blog 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.
User Intent and Topic Cluster Content
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 blog 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 pillar content.
You’ll also need to improve the quality of your pillar content in other ways.
- Length. As mentioned previously, your pillar piece should be something like 3,000 to 5,000 words, with some topics requiring even more length. Cluster topics can afford to be shorter, but they still need to offer sufficient length to interested readers. The exact length should be dictated by the nature of the topic; some topics will naturally require more explanation than others. However, you should aim to write posts of at least 1,000 words when possible.
- Detail. You’ll also need to provide sufficient detail in your cluster posts. Remember, your pillar piece will be providing a general outline of a given topic, so you’ll need to fill in more of the details with your peripheral posts. Make these pieces more valuable by including more hard numbers and statistics, or by illustrating your pillar content with helpful visuals. If you can include original research, do it.
- Value. Next, you’ll need to consider the overall value provided by this piece. Every person who encounters it should walk away feeling like they’ve gained something by reading it. Do you offer a piece of information that can help this person achieve their goals? Are you helping them make an important decision? Did you provide them with a critical resource? There are many definitions of “value” to strive for, but make sure you’re optimizing for at least one of them.
- Interlinking. Internal linking is a huge factor for success in a topic cluster strategy, so don’t neglect it. Each of your cluster topics should link back to the relevant pillar piece. Your pillar piece needs to link to each of your cluster topics. Even your cluster topics should be linking to each other, when relevant. You don’t want to spam your posts so they’re overpacked with internal links, but you should also strive to build a tight internal link network that keeps people reading your pillar content.
Stitching Multiple Topic Clusters Together
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 pillar 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 pillar 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 pillar 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 and link building strategies? 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!
Industry veteran Timothy Carter is SEO.co’s Chief Revenue Officer. Tim leads all revenue for the company and oversees all customer-facing teams for SEO (search engine optimization)
- including sales, marketing & customer success. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO & Digital Marketing leading, building and scaling sales operations, helping companies increase revenue efficiency and drive growth from websites and sales teams. When he's not working, Tim enjoys playing a few rounds of disc golf, running, and spending time with his wife and family on the beach...preferably in Hawaii.
Over the years he's written for publications like Forbes
, Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, ReadWrite
and other highly respected online publications. Connect with Tim on Linkedin
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