Updated Jan. 11, 2021
Do you struggle to create engaging content that lands you in those high-value top spots on Google?
You’re not the only one.
Luckily, there is a way to solve that problem and create content that Google loves – all while building a library of content useful to your target audience.
How? By using the topic cluster model.
What is the topic cluster model?
The topic cluster methodology, also known as the pillar-and-cluster technique, was detailed by HubSpot Research in 2017. It’s used by both B2B and B2C organizations to streamline their content marketing strategy.
The search engine optimization strategy focuses on topics rather than keywords.
Instead of creating one master guide that hits several keywords, a topic cluster model is an intent-based approach. It simplifies blog archives by featuring content around one central topic – referred to as the pillar page or post.
Several supporting blog posts (or clusters) are planned, written, and published from this pillar post. These cluster posts explain sub-topics based on the pillar topic and generate internal links to the pillar page.
The structure of your topic clusters turns out looking something like this:
Using the topic cluster approach requires treating your blog differently because it doesn’t follow the traditional blog publication approach.
The organized structure of pillar-and-cluster content proves to Google a semantic relationship between each page. Its RankBrain algorithm considers this. Content and SEO strategist Michael Keenan explains:
“A cluster is a strategic, living artifact that prioritizes and communicates search engine authority – it tells Google you are the best resource for a topic. Clusters are successful when they offer reliable answers to searchers’ questions, provide unique perspectives, and are organized around a pillar page or landing page.
They are particularly helpful for small- to mid-size businesses who want to rank for competitive keywords but don’t have a strong root domain just yet.”
The bottom line is topic cluster models cater to Google’s latent-semantic-indexing algorithm, encouraging each topic in the cluster to push up in the search engine ranks.
It’s not just HubSpot that’s seen results from this strategy. Ninja Outreach ran an internal linking campaign, similar in format to the topic cluster model, which led to a 40% increase in organic traffic.
These discoveries highlight the impact that internal links can have and argue a strong case for the topic cluster method – hence, it’s one of the most effective strategies.
Fancy getting in on the action? Here’s how to use the topic cluster approach to create high-quality content that ranks in organic search.
1. Decide your core topic
Pick your pillar page – the main topic around which you’ll build content clusters.
Do this by brainstorming to create a list of relevant topics. You could also use these five underrated ways to find content ideas.
Don’t pick these topics based on guesswork. Look to your buyer personas for assistance. What type of content are they looking for? Which of their pain points can you address through content? Which search queries are they using to find your competitors?
If you’re a digital marketing agency, your idea list might look a little like this:Content marketing to get leads Promotion of blog posts through social media Email-generated content ideas
You need one overarching topic – the common theme that runs across all three of those bullet points. In this example, content marketing strategy would be a great pillar topic.
The framework works for any industry. With my business, Peak Freelance, my customers want to know how they can become a freelance writer. I created a pillar page on the topic, linking to clusters for sub-topics my audience would want to read more about:
For starters, the authority of a web page is now a more important signal in the ranking. If you’re doing a search for DIY shelving, the site behind the image is now more likely to be a site related to DIY projects.
The same still applies today in 2021. It all boils down to user experience.
If you pick a strong topic cluster that underpins the foundation of your business, and you have content around that topic on your site, you give searchers (and search engines) an easy way to navigate your library of content.
If you pick a strong topic cluster that underpins the foundation of your business, and you have content around that topic, you give searchers an easy way to navigate your #content, says @EliseDopson via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
2. Do keyword research to define your clusters
You have the list of topics from your brainstorm – many of which now fit neatly as clusters. Don’t stop there. Dig deeper to create a bigger list of cluster content ideas for your pillar page.
Enter keyword research.
Head over to Answer the Public. Type your overarching topic to find a list of long-tail keywords to fuel your cluster ideas.
Here’s the result for “content marketing strategy:”
Notice how many questions it lists?
Each keyword phrase relevant to “content marketing strategy” can act as a cluster page if it’s meaty enough to act as a standalone blog post.
Here are a few relevant results from my Answer the Public graph and the cluster pieces they could inspire:“How to present content marketing strategy” could become a page on how to present a content marketing strategy to your boss. “How to create content marketing strategy” could become the post, “9 Tips to Create a Content Marketing Strategy that Helps You Get Results.” “What does a content marketing strategy look like” could become the post, “How to Structure Your Content Marketing Strategy + 7 Examples from Leading Agencies.”
You could use SEMrush or Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer to find cluster ideas, too. Both churn out a list of related keywords along with their search volumes.
The parent topic column in Ahrefs is a quick way to list potential cluster pages:
Another way to find cluster topics is to head straight to the horse’s mouth and ask Google to recommend topics that could form your cluster pages.
To do this, add a prefix (such as why, how, or when) to the topic in a Google search and browse the auto-populated suggestions. You can see sub-topics that searchers are likely to look for:
Finally, head over to LSI Graph and double-check that you’re not missing any glaring opportunities:
Add each relevant keyword found throughout this process to a spreadsheet.
If you have hundreds of new keywords to target, awesome. But don’t fall into the trap of treating each one as an individual page.
Similar keywords – like “defining a content marketing strategy” and “how to create a content marketing strategy” – have the same user or search intent. Searchers for either phrase are likely to be looking for the same content. These terms can be grouped into the same cluster and still cater to Google’s LSI algorithm.
3. Write your cluster pages
It’s time to move on to the fun part: creating the subtopic pages.
Sounds self-explanatory, right?
Writing cluster pages is similar to writing a standard blog post with two exceptions:Do not mention anything in detail covered on another cluster page. Dive deep into the subtopic, focusing heavily on the keyword
In other words: Don’t let a cluster page be a repeat or too similar to another cluster page. That’s why you publish several cluster pages.
In this example, PR Fire could have written about a page about public relations is important. Instead, it created a cluster piece to target a related long-tail keyword phrase – how to write a press release:
This article also includes an internal link to another subtopic – newswires – from the keyword that I highlighted in the box below.
The company’s public relations pillar page also links to this cluster content using exact match anchor text:
That’s how you get the most from the topic cluster approach – internally linking to the cluster from each pillar page.
As you write an in-depth post for each subtopic, make sure to optimize the page for SEO by including the long-tail keyword in the:Page title Heading tags Image alt text Body copy Meta title and descriptions
Do all this, and you’re halfway there.
4. Find existing content to update
You’re not alone if you don’t have the time or resources to invest in a lot of content creation.
CMI research shows that 58% of B2B companies have less than one full-time employee dedicated to content marketing.
You can still use the topic cluster model because you don’t always have to create content from scratch. You likely already have a library of blog posts that can be polished and republished as a cluster page.
Do a simple content audit by searching your site for topic-related blog posts you could refresh. Search “site:yoursite.com + keyword” to see all the posts on your site on that topic:
The best part? Your existing pages may already be valued in search rankings. By refreshing them to be more in line with your pillar topic and adding internal links to and from the pillar page, you could boost rankings for other pieces in that cluster, too.
5. Write the pillar page
Again, writing a pillar page is similar to writing a blog post with a few differences. Pillar pages are:An overview of one broad topic (Don’t go into too much detail about one aspect of the topic. Link to the cluster pages to explain subtopics in detail.) Usually long-form (3,000-plus words)
To see this put into practice, browse Typeform’s customer success pillar page:
This page acts as an overview for everything related to customer success – without exhausting any subtopic.
Wondering why I recommend writing the pillar page after the topic clusters? Surely, it makes more sense to write the overarching topic first, then do a deep dive into the specifics, right?
Diving into the pillar page first is a problem for one reason: You don’t know yet what the subtopic clusters are and how detailed each of those posts will be, meaning you:Run the risk of duplicating points. Cannot add placeholders for internal links to the cluster pages.
Trust me, it works.
6. Add internal links between pillars and clusters
After publishing your pillar and cluster pages, the final thing to do is add internal links to each piece of content. (That’s the point of this model, after all.) Head back to each topic cluster and link to the pillar page where appropriate.
Here’s how JSS Manufacturing adds those links in its cluster content:
If you tackled the topic – what is content marketing – here’s what the topic cluster would look like:
Those internal links now provide all those Google spiders with an easy way to find, crawl, and index your topic clusters. That brings stronger SEO power to your pillar page.
Get your clusters together
The topic cluster model is a fantastic way to organize your content. It’s an SEO strategy that helps both users and search engines to easily navigate your site’s content. Remember to choose a topic in which your target audience is interested. Then, craft your subtopic cluster content and create your pillar page methodically. Finally, add internal links to connect each page.
It might take a while to get a topic cluster boxed at the top of Google results for your chosen search terms. Like all inbound marketing strategies, the best results come from an investment of both effort and time.
All tools mentioned in this post come from the author. Please add your tool suggestion (your company’s or another’s) in the comments.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute