Just recently, HubSpot published a brilliant study on topic clusters, which is the latest trend in content marketing. Within the study, they say that topic clusters are “the next evolution of SEO”. They aren’t the only ones who have been talking. Other articles have referred to topic clusters as “the new keywords”, and in some cases, it’s referenced as an “earth-shattering” evolution of search engine optimisation and inbound marketing.
So, with all this buzz around topic clusters, you’re probably wondering what exactly are they, and are they worth your time? This article will take you through everything you need to know about topic clusters, and why you should care.
What are topic clusters and why should I care?
In basic form, a topic cluster is a way of grouping content. It consists of a core topic, known as a “pillar page” and related subtopic content pages. These content pages then link back to the pillar page (core topic) and to each other.
What is a pillar page?
A pillar page is a long-form content page that covers a broad topic and is packed with information. The HubSpot article, for example, contains a pillar page topic of “content marketing”. The cluster content pages then cover more detailed content and topics that fall under the umbrella of that specific pillar page. So, in the HubSpot example, the content pages could include things such as “content planning”, “blogging”, and “buyer personas”.
This is a brilliant way to group content and helps to organise concepts, but the reasons it’s very effective goes beyond just that.
Google RankBrain, Keywords and Machine-Learning
The actual evolution of the cluster tactic was a result in a shift in how search engines function. Over the past few years, we’ve seen how Google has begun to shift its focus to machine learning. This basically means that a computer teaches itself how to do a task, rather than a person or program showing or prompting them. Google using its machine-learning artificial intelligence system, known as RankBrain, Google now has the power to pull better search results based on abstract concepts, synonyms, and natural languages. Below we consider this in action.
Let’s consider a simple query from a music fan of Lady Gaga. This fan may want to know her age, so decides to simply “Google it” for the answer. As users of search engines, we’ve learned to ask questions in fragmented and short phrases. So, the individual may type in “Lady Gaga age”, and the search result could be:
However, now Google has got even smarter. So, it will produce the same search results, even if the question is asked in a more natural language way. This basically means the individual could type something in which they would normally “speak”, such as, “How old is Lady Gaga?”. Thanks to Google’s smart algorithms, it can result in the same correct search results.
But, what does this actually mean for content marketers?
It means that they need to turn their focus to becoming the most relevant content resourced around a specific topic, rather than just focusing on keywords. Being able to rank for a specific keyword is no longer going to be enough as Google can now understand the intent behind natural language search queries. This means they will show results based on the website that has the most credible sources of information available.
This is a good strategy because it allows us to respond to the evolution of search engines but in a very smart way. Some tactics are more effective than others when it comes to content marketing, but topic clusters incorporate many of the most effective content marketing tactics into one beautifully cohesive strategy.
Creating a content strategy that builds topic authority
Content marketing isn’t very effective unless you’ve implemented a proper strategy. That’s why it’s important to structure any efforts of content into quarterly strategies that allow our clients to centre around a specific topic. Writing a series of specific blog posts that relate to a more general topic tends to help clients build more authority around that topic.
For example, a campaign involving a motorhome company may choose to focus on a general concept such as “Purchasing a motorhome.” In this case, individual blog post topics may cover things such as “should I buy a motorhome?” or “A guide to buying a used motorhome”.
The use of the topic cluster model then takes this campaign one step further. Topic clusters mean you would still write the same blog posts as normal, but you would also create a pillar page on “buying a motorhome”. Then, you would link all the related blog posts that you are writing, to that one pillar page.
This is a brilliant method of building topic authority on your website. By organising your content in this form, it allows Google to crawl through your content much more seamlessly and quickly. They will be able to recognise and understand the relationships between the topics, which will increase your authority.
Showing Expertise with long-form content
Marketers tended to focus their content on optimising for an exact keyword. This resulted in an influx of articles online in an attempt to rank for a specific search query- but the problem is, most were unhelpful.
Since search engines have become smarter, marketers have had to evolve and grow to create content that’s genuine and actually provides useful information to a searcher's query.
Marketers are now focusing on the quality of their content and their usefulness to an audience - and that’s what Google cares about. This typically results in more longer-form content. HubSpot has said that the most effective length of a blog post is around 2,100 words and should take approximately 7 minutes to read. This is actually a lot longer than the previous 800-word rule of thumb. However, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean you should just ramble on in order to up your word count. We need to have the interest of the people reading in mind and adapt to create content that is a genuine help to our potential audiences.
Topic clusters put priority on long-form content with a weighted pillar page. On the pillar page, you should cover the main topic in great detail. Basically, the richer and more helpful the content, the better for you.
Broadening search visibility with long-tail topics
By addressing more niche topics that are less competitive, you present yourself with a great opportunity. Optimised blog posts about the right long-tail topics can gain extremely impressive website traffic.
Long-tail topics are a vital component of the overall topic cluster method. Any content pages need to focus on narrow topics as this improves the visibility of your website for specific terms whilst still providing visitors with relevant information.
Building your internal link strategy
Your internal link strategy will play a large role in how search engines can and will make sense of your content. By linking one page to another, you’re allowing them to know that this page relates to another page. By creating a solid internal linking strategy, you bring structure and order to your website which helps boost your overall website too. So, if one blog topic succeeds, it can reward linked topics with a higher placement in search engines.
Content pillars have an internal link strategy built in. All the various content posts will link back to the pillar page with the use of one hyperlinked keyword. The effect of this would look like this:
- Search engines would see that content within a website has a semantic relationship to each other.
- Search engines would also see that the website contains lots of knowledge around that specific topic.
This will, of course, result in a boost in the position of your website as it is providing a wealth of information.
A side benefit of the topic cluster strategy is that it will keep your blog posts in the centre and focused. This is because they are linked to the pillar page, so won’t get lost in the blog section of the website. This, in turn, increases your blog efforts as there is increased exposure of the content.
The final verdict
So, is the topic cluster method a good one? Yes! It helps with content marketing strategy organisation, uses marketing best practices, improves your position in search engines, and organises a wealth of information which can only help your visitor. This is an evolution of how smart marketers should be responding to search engine updates.
Remember, that topic clusters will also be as good as your content strategy. To see the success you need proper research, and organisation.
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