What are Topic Clusters? (How They Improve SEO)

Jonas Sickler SEO Manager
Key Points
  • Topic clusters are groups of related content that collectively cover a broad subject area.
  • Content clusters provide contextual support for other pages within a group. They also create a strong internal linking framework to help users (and search engines) find your content.
  • Topic clusters allow you to cover broad subjects and dominate keyword categories in organic search.
  • For best results when creating topic clusters, avoid keyword cannibalization, link silos, and narrow pillar pages.

Sometimes SEO fads bubble up and cause a big stir, but they ultimately fizzle out. Remember LSI keywords? How about the Skyscraper Technique? Although you might be tempted to lump topic clusters in with these fads, don’t count them out just yet.

Topic clusters are about to make a massive comeback.

I’ll explain why later in the post. First, here’s a quick recap for anyone who isn’t familiar with the topic cluster model.

WHAT ARE TOPIC CLUSTERS?

Topic clusters are groups of related content that collectively cover a broad subject area. The topic cluster model is built on a hub-and-spoke framework, and each cluster has three essential components:

  • One broadly-focused pillar page
  • Multiple in-depth cluster pages
  • Strategically-placed internal links

Content clusters provide contextual support for all pages within a group, while also laying the foundation for a strong internal linking structure.

The concept of SEO topic clusters isn’t new.

In fact, WordPress introduced something similar nearly 17 years ago with categories. But, Hubspot took topic clusters to the next level in 2016. Since then, the idea has seeped into the lexicon of content marketers and powered efficient SEO strategies.

However, the subject has matured a lot since its inception. So, graphics like the one below aren’t as relevant as they used to be:

Hubspot topic cluster image

Don’t get me wrong. The above graphic from Hubspot is a decent visualization that underscores a basic topic cluster strategy. But, it fails to illustrate the significance of internal linking, which I’ll get to shortly.

I like the following graphic much better because it shows you how to strategically interlink cluster pages with one another as well as with the corresponding pillar page. Shoutout to Gillian Schneider for her design below.

what are topic clusters

Why topic clusters matter to SEO

Do you manage content creation, SEO, or digital marketing? Then you need to pay attention to topic clusters because they drive the KPIs we report against.

Do you measure keyword rankings, traffic, or conversions? How about engagement or pages per session? The topic cluster model makes both your SEO program and your content calendar more efficient to help you squeeze every drop of value out of your digital marketing efforts.

Want proof?

We doubled down on the topic cluster model on the Terakeet blog, and our organic traffic increased by 276% in six months.

how topic clusters help SEO

I’m a big fan of asking why. So, here are four reasons why cluster content is important to SEO.

Google is investing in topic and passage comprehension

Google dropped some major SEO bombshells recently. First, they announced a breakthrough in ranking technology that helps the algorithm determine the relevancy of specific passages within the overall page. Second, they advanced their ability to understand subtopics around a broad interest through neural nets. Here’s Google’s announcement which I highly recommend you read.

Sound familiar? Those advances are precisely what topic clusters excel at. They organize information around broad topics and link out to more detailed information from relevant passages.

Google is very excited about these breakthroughs, and they believe the technology will considerably improve user experience.

Graphic analyzing topics of webpages

When Google invests in something that drives search and improves UX, you should take notice.

Topic clusters enhance context, relevance & authority

Imagine you have a page on your website about the color of jaguars. How will Google know whether your page is about the paint shades of the new F-TYPE, the jersey colors of the men’s basketball team, or the amount of melanin in the fur of the South American panthera onca?

Context.

Obviously, Google extracts meaning from on-page elements, including page title, URL, subheadings, passages, and sentences. But, Google also draws insight from those elements on the pages that link to your content, as well as the anchor text of those links.

So, topic clusters are like concentrated buckets of relevance. They help search engines understand the context, relationships, and hierarchy of each page within a family of content. And that’s incredibly helpful when your pages are more nuanced than the jaguar example above.

Furthermore, content clusters emphasize your breadth of coverage (or lack thereof). For instance, if you have ten related, interlinked pages on your website that completely cover a topic, Google will view you as more of an authority than if you only have one piece of content about the subject.

Expertise, authority, and trust (E-A-T) are vital to search rankings in many industries. Therefore, it’s wise to invest in a content strategy that amplifies those intangibles.

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Content clusters improve keyword research

Many SEOs do keyword research wrong. Some target only the most competitive keywords with massive search volume. But, they fail to consider how specific keywords relate to each other, or how they work together to move potential customers through the buyer’s journey.

As a result, their websites become incoherent, and they struggle to rank well for anything. By solving one problem at a time without considering the entire journey, users are left wanting more.

Conversely, other SEOs nibble away at long-tail keywords with miniscule search volume that overlap significantly. Initially, they may rank well because of low competition. However, duplicate, low-quality content will eventually begin to cannibalize their rankings and boil away their traffic. Even worse, the few visitors they get will begin to lose interest due to redundant content.

Needless to say, both of those approaches are wrong because they exist in a vacuum.

When you take a topic cluster approach to keyword research, you naturally begin to group terms into buckets. So, rather than hand off a massive list of keywords to your content team, you can present them with an organized list of keywords grouped by blog post, topic cluster, and blog category.

As a result, your existing content strategy will be more unified, and specific pieces of content will resonate better with customers. More importantly, your content team will love you for it.

Topic clusters improve UX & conversions

People turn to Google for answers. Maybe they want to know the average MPG rating of an SUV. Perhaps they’re wondering if it’s better to buy or lease a new vehicle. Or, maybe they just want to know which VW models come with a CD player.

When you understand why and how your personas search, you can map their queries to pain points and intentions. You’ll know where they are in the conversion funnel, and how to move them to the next stage.

Topic clusters allow you to predictively build content around a core topic that solves multiple pain points for several different buyer personas at various stages of the funnel — without cannibalizing your own keywords.

As a result, you’ll be able to anticipate your users’ follow up questions and provide the right content at precisely the right moment. This keeps users engaged with your content rather than sending them back to Google for answers.

Think of it like this:

Users should enter your website in one stage of the funnel, and exit deeper in the buyer’s journey. When you repeatedly solve potential customers’ problems, they will begin to seek you out when they’re ready to convert.

Topic cluster example

There are many different variations on the pillar-cluster model. One example is an ecommerce category page that organizes products into subcategories and links out to those pages. Another example would be a knowledge hub page that breaks down various types of life insurance and links out to blog posts or guides about those subtopics.

Here’s an example of a topic cluster we built on the Terakeet website for our Advanced Guide to Ecommerce SEO.

We touched on product and category pages in two sections of this pillar page, and in both cases we linked out to a more in-depth blog post about those topics.

In the section about creating a checklist, we linked out to our SEO checklist cluster page.

example of topic clusters

The guide is incredibly extensive. It also covers keyword research, competitive analysis, on-page SEO, link building, and much more. Within each subheading, we linked out to the corresponding blog post. In return, we linked back to the ecommerce SEO blog post from each cluster page where it made sense.

How to create a topic cluster SEO strategy

It’s vital to stay organized when building an SEO strategy, and content clusters force you to get your ducks in a row. Here’s how to get started.

Create buyer personas and map the customer journey

A buyer persona is a fictional representation of an ideal customer. Marketers use personas to refine their marketing messages and create more personalized campaigns.

Personas help you segment your audience by common attributes, and that allows you to craft content that addresses specific pain points. Depending on your industry, you may need to create several different customer profiles. If you need help getting started, check out these examples of buyer personas.

Once you know who your audience is, you can more effectively guide them on their path from awareness to conversion. Customer journey mapping enables you to remove friction points and be top-of-mind at each point in the decision tree. Then, you can fill any gaps in the process with cluster pages so you don’t miss big opportunities.

Do keyword research around topics & search intent

The true power of topic clusters is about maximizing market share by dominating entire keyword verticals in the search engine results page (SERP). Although volume is important, it’s not the only attribute to consider when doing keyword research.

Think about the problems potential customers may want to solve and how they search for solutions. How do their questions change as they progress through the funnel, and what actions are they likely to take at each stage?

Top-of-funnel queries are more general and informational. Middle-of-funnel searches become more comparative. Bottom-of-funnel search terms tend to be specific to brands, products, or services and reviews.

So, don’t get completely hung up on volume. Instead, target keywords with varying search intent to capture interest throughout the customer’s journey. We explain more in our post about ToFu MoFu BoFu here.

So, don’t get completely hung up on volume. Instead, target keywords with varying search intent to capture interest throughout the customer’s journey. We explain more in our post about ToFu MoFu BoFu here.

After you identify your priority keywords, organize them into buckets. Although tedious, I recommend searching each term in Google and mapping it to a head term. This helps you bundle long-tail keywords around a single parent term that represents a cluster page. Then, group each cluster page under a single pillar page. Finally, you may also want to group multiple pillar pages under a single blog category.

Write your cluster pages

man doing SEO copywriting

Good news: all the hard work is done! But don’t just send your keyword groups to your content team. The order of execution is important.

Think about hierarchy and write the foundational content first. When you begin with the most detailed cluster pages, you’ll know exactly how to reference them throughout your clusters. Conversely, if you draft higher-level pages before you understand the basics, those pages and sections might feel like placeholders that don’t provide users with true value.

Ironically, it’s often harder to write cluster pages than pillar pages because you need to go deep on the details. So, check out our post about SEO copywriting if you feel stuck.

Although it’s best to thoroughly plan clusters in advance, you can always go back and do a content audit around a particular topic to look for opportunities. As you discover additional search queries about related topics, brainstorm new content ideas and add web pages to fill the gaps.

Write your pillar pages

You’ll probably be tempted to write your pillar page before you finish the cluster pages. That’s understandable because it’s the high-volume, shiny object.

But, fight the urge!

You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to build out a comprehensive pillar page when you lay the foundation first. More importantly, you won’t run the risk of going too deep on the pillar page and cannibalizing the search rankings of each cluster page.

Keep your pillar pages broad. Touch on all the subtopics, and include your most punchy sound bites. But, don’t cover anything too thoroughly. Instead, use CTAs and enticing internal links to push readers to your cluster pages if they want to learn more.

what are internal links

Stop for a moment.

This part is critical. Topic clusters get their power from internal links. So, the more strategic you are, the more effective your clusters will be at driving traffic and conversions.

I wrote extensively about internal linking here. I highly recommend you bookmark that post if you want to avoid some common pitfalls and misinformation. If you don’t have time to read it now, here’s the TL;DR.

Internal links serve multiple functions in SEO. But, they have two very important jobs when it comes to topic clusters. First, they provide search engines with more context about your content. And second, internal links share PageRank among the URLs within a cluster. So, if a few pages attract tons of backlinks, they’ll pass the value along more efficiently to the other pages in your clusters.

The most important thing to remember about adding internal links between pages in a topic cluster, is to add them where they’re most relevant. If you mention a keyword several times on a page, but you have one dedicated section all about that subtopic, that’s where you should add the link.

Again, I go into much more detail in the post above, so check it out if you want the whole enchilada.

Topic cluster mistakes

The two biggest mistakes people make when building topic clusters are content flooding and siloing.

Let’s start with link silos. This is when SEOs intentionally don’t link between different topic clusters in order to concentrate relevance. The problem with this strategy is that it fails to capture valuable internal linking opportunities that pass along PageRank and context.

Beyond that, topics simply don’t exist in a vacuum. Everything is interconnected, and tangential topics help Google understand the relationships between different clusters.

The other mistake to avoid is content flooding. This is when SEOs create too many blog posts that target very similar keywords. For example, they might build out a pillar page around the keyword email marketing. Then, they’d create cluster pages like:

  • 7 Effective Ways to do Email Marketing
  • 10 Email Marketing Methods You Can’t Ignore
  • How to do Email Marketing in 2019
  • Ways to do Email Marketing in 2020

Each of those posts target the same general keyword, how to do email marketing. As a result, these pages will compete with each other for rankings, which is also known as keyword cannibalization.

To avoid content flooding, always build cluster pages around unique search terms with a variety of different search intents. When in doubt, Google your keywords to make sure the SERP is different from other terms in your cluster before you draft the content.

Final thoughts

If your marketing team already spends a significant amount of time blogging, then topic clusters are worth the investment. They help search engines comprehend your website, and they show customers that you understand their needs by providing relevant content throughout the buyer’s journey.

When you fully adopt a topic cluster model, your content marketing strategy becomes more organized, efficient, and sophisticated. High-quality, long-form pillar content captures searchers at the top of the funnel. And cluster content pages target related keywords around more specific topics in the middle and bottom of the funnel.

Furthermore, search algorithms are getting better at understanding the semantic relationships between subtopics and main topics. Therefore, if you invest in topic clusters, your search engine optimization efforts will also see a boost.

Ultimately, pillar topics align your website’s content with your inbound marketing goals so users get a more holistic brand experience that just feels right.

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What is a topic cluster?

Topic clusters are groups of related content that collectively cover a broad subject area. The topic cluster model is built on a hub-and-spoke framework which includes pillar pages, cluster pages, and internal links.what are topic clusters

How do you create a topic cluster?

1. Choose a broad subject area for your topic cluster.
2. Do keyword research to uncover the entire market opportunity.
3. Group keywords into buckets for each cluster page.
4. Write the cluster pages first. Then, write the pillar page last.
5. Add internal links between all pages in the cluster.

Why are topic clusters important?

Topic clusters are important for several reasons:
1. They provide search engines with more context about your content.
2. Topic clusters improve internal linking to pass PageRank and relevance signals between URLs.
3. They showcase your breadth of coverage, enhancing your authority on a topic.
4. Topic clusters improve use experience by anticipating a searcher’s next steps and providing the right content at the right moment.