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Topic Clusters: Maximize Your Content’s SEO Performance

hub and spoke model

Ryan Stewart

I have an unhealthy obsession with being considered the world's BEST internet marketer. I'm highly active on social media and love a good debate.

Google’s algorithm favors topic-based content.

This has pushed SEOs to explore topic clusters as a means to organize and relate content across a website.

It’s a technique involving a single page (pillar) containing in-depth information about a certain topic, while internally linking to pages (clusters) related to the topic.

 

topic cluster model

 

This way, topic clusters provide you with two major benefits:

  • User experience (UX) advantages
  • SEO benefits

On the UX front….

Topic clusters help users to navigate through the nooks and crannies of a given topic, giving them a super engaging and fulfilling experience on your site. It provides enough details regarding the topic, and they won’t have to keep searching around.

On the SEO front

Search engines are all about providing the best content available on any given topic to searchers.

It’s probably not news to you that Google, in particular, has rolled out an algorithm update that supports ranking topic-clustered pages higher as they generally provide in-depth content.

They believe that the more internal pages you link to about a certain topic, the more knowledgeable you are about it since you have so much content on the topic.

Now let’s dive deeper into how topic clusters work.

 

 

How the content model works

Topic clusters are made up of pillar (or hub) pages, and cluster (or spoke) pages:

Pillar pages: These pages (or website sections) cover large topics that are essential to business operations. These are called “pillars” because they are foundational for your business – these are the concepts that all your brand’s content will stem from.

Cluster pages: They are pages you link to from a pillar page to share more in-depth info about the pillar page topic. With its own URL, it can also rank for long-tail and more specific keywords. The clusters support the pillar and explore all possible options for traffic and engagement.

 

pillar cluster model

Generating ideas for your website “pillars”

Keep in mind, pillars are organizational and conceptual, they’re not always driven by keyword data.

I ask myself 2 questions when defining pillars for clients:

 

I’ll be illustrating some examples using a consulting client that provides mobile veterinary services.

 

1. Does the pillar map back to your product / service?  

There needs to be a direct line between your pillars and your business. We’ll be using these pillars to create “cluster” topics in perpetuity, so it’s critical to ensure our content has economic value to the business.

 

topic cluster modelIn this case, we landed on 5 pillars that were fundamental to this brand’s content success:

  • Pet health
  • Pet training
  • Local guide (aka discussing pet recommendations in local markets they operated in “best dog beaches in Miami”)
  • Vet services
  • Pet medications

Each of these 5 pillars gives us a plethora of content to create underneath (i.e. clusters), but also maps back to the brand’s core service of providing in home veterinary care.

2. Does your business have the right authority to be talking about those topics?

Google wants to rank content that’s created by experts. This helps them to ensure they’re providing people with in-depth and useful content on their search engine.

They rightly believe you shouldn’t start creating content on topics that are unrelated to your area of expertise — because publishing content on such topics would mean you’re only doing so for the sake of just driving more traffic to your business; it would mean you have no real expertise in what you’re creating content about, so you can’t help people with it.

What makes you an expert in the eyes of search engines is content depth, and implementing topic clusters on your site will show them your content pieces have such depth.

However, the concept of topic clusters and how you use them is not one-size-fits-all; it will change depending on what you sell on your website or whatever it does.

So let’s look at some examples of how that happens.

Examples of pillar content and cluster pages

Remember, you need to select topics that map back to your product — so your content can attract the right traffic and customers you want to do business with.

To do that, you need to identify topics that support the core services or products you sell.

B2B example – digital agency

We provides 5 services: social, PPC, SEO, design, and website development.

 

B2B example of a digital agency

These five services are the heart of the business and we need to identify what the pillars of each them are. Put another way, we need to identify the topics that would help us generate leads for each of these services.

For example, to generate leads for our SEO services, we need to discover the topics that make up SEO, or what our potential clients might be looking to learn about SEO and create content on that.

Our potential SEO clients want to learn topics like:

These are all clusters under one pillar: technical SEO.

This way, we’ve found a pillar for our SEO services and its related topics.

But that’s not all.

To reap SEO and UX benefits from creating content on this pillar and its related clusters, we’ll need to link to all these cluster pages from our tech SEO pillar page.

pillar page links

But ultimately, we want to interlink our pillar and core service pages.

This is because while our core service pages might not rank since they target highly competitive keywords, interlinking them with our cluster and pillar pages will help path potential buyers through to (the core) pages that will convert them.

Plus, as mentioned earlier, those interlinks will help us demonstrate to search engines that we know tech SEO deeply and that will help our site rank better for keywords related to SEO.

Another pillar under our SEO service is “link building,” and topics relating to it (which our potential clients are looking for) include:

But again, we’ll interlink all these pages with our pillar and core pages.

 

interlinking pillar with core pages

 

However, in this example, we’ve only covered creating content on two pillars — link building and tech SEO — that are closely tied to our SEO services page.

But there are several other pillar and cluster topics under these two topics, and with a bit more keyword research we can identify them and create content on each of them. Of course, we’ll also link them back to our core services page so they can impact our traffic and revenue.

Now, let’s talk about results; how has all of this helped Webris.org to rank on Google?

Using the topic cluster model described above, we’ve been able to rank our article about technical SEO audit — an 880/mo volume keyphrase.

 

webris google ranking

 

Also, since SEO isn’t the only service we provide, we follow the same process to find pillar and cluster topics that are closely tied to the other services we provide and create content on them.

 

B2B example – technical SEO agency

Let’s say you operate a more technical agency, one that’s a bit different from what we do here at WEBRIS. This is going to change how we structure our topic clusters in this example.

The services offered would be focused on helping businesses with technical marketing, functional design, and automation. These three services direct the content we want to be known for at the agency.

technical seo agency example

Through our content, we want to show potential buyers that we’re technically efficient at design, marketing, and automation.

So we’ll draw out our topic clusters from these core services.

For example, under our technical marketing service, SEO (again) is a pillar. But this time, since we’re looking to display our technical marketing expertise, we’ll be focusing on even more in-depth technical SEO topics (than we did with Webris) like:

  • Data scraping
  • Reporting solutions
  • Python for SEO
  • Scaling link outreach
  • SEO tools

But also under our technical marketing services is social media. So we’ll look at technical topics that we can talk about under social media, like:

  • Funnel building
  • Remarketing tactics
  • Lead capture email sequences
  • Creating custom Facebook conversions
  • Facebook pixel set-up guide
  • Social media tools

So, again, we’ll link to these two pillar and cluster pages from our core technical marketing page.

pillar cluster example

 

So you can see how, even though Webris and FTF are similar businesses, our pillars and clusters model has changed because of the difference these businesses have in terms of goals.

But that’s that for B2B examples of topic clusters. Let’s see some ecommerce examples.

Ecommerce example – Blue Bottle Coffee

Blue Bottle is a coffee retailer, selling coffee and brewing items online. They also have physical locations where they sell these items offline.

So this means the three core aspects of their business are coffee, brewing, and locations.

coffee shop pillar cluster example

We’ll show you how we’d help build their topic clusters around these core business areas if we were strategizing for them and how they’re doing it on their website.

Let’s start with how we’d do it for them.

One of Blue Bottle’s pillars is brewing. We know this the same as one of their three core business areas, but it’s okay if your pillars exactly match your core business areas — as long as they’re really pillars of what your business does.

So once we’ve identified brewing as a pillar, it’s the same process like in other examples above, we’ll find clusters around it. Clusters around the topic include:

  • Make cold brew at home
  • Using a French press
  • Coffee for holidays
  • How to make Nitro Cold brew
  • Compare coffee grinders

coffee shop pillar cluster example 2

 

These clusters are highly targeted long-tail keywords that people are searching for, and they could generate lots of highly relevant traffic for Blue Bottle. That traffic might not drive conversions at first, but it can drive high conversions from remarketing campaigns or even paid search. Remember, you’d also need to link all of those cluster pages back to the core brewing page so that it improves UX and search rankings.

However, we’ve found that many brick and mortar stores find it hard to generate content that’s relevant to their local customers. So let’s look at how we’d generate cluster topics for Blue Bottle’s location-related products.

Let’s say they have physical stores in five different cities, how do we create a pillar page for their location-related products?

First, we’d set up subfolders for each of those cities. Each subfolder would have category pages (like you have them on WordPress), and within those categories, we’d have content about:

  • Things to do in X area (where X is the city your business is in)
  • Local interviews/podcasts
  • Events in X area
  • Influencers in X area
  • Coverage of X event
  • Local partnerships

coffee shop pillar cluster example 3

This would help us capture the interest of people who like to explore fun things in the areas where Blue Bottle have their local stores.

After that, we can then run a retargeting campaign on Facebook, targeting people who have read our local-based content.

Specifically, we set this campaign to show up in their Facebook feeds when they’re within a one-mile radius of a Blue Bottle store. The campaign will show them video ads that persuade them to stop by while they are around, and this works really well.

We’ll of course also link all the cluster pages to the core location-related page to help it rank for highly competitive keywords.

So that’s how we would structure topic clusters for Blue Bottle if we were working with them. But let’s see how they’re actually doing it themselves.

They have actual pillar pages for their coffee, culture, and community (which seems to represent their location-based content), and lab notes (which covers all their content on brewing).

 

pasted image 0 31

 

So Blue Bottle is doing an amazing job with their topic clusters.

In fact, they have pages that correspond to each of these categories and pillar pages on their homepage.

Let’s run through another ecommerce example and see how they’re structuring their topic clusters.

Ecommerce example – Laces Out

We worked on a store, Laces Out, that just has one product to sell: shoelaces. That’s all they were selling. We couldn’t get too fancy and just had shoelaces as the pillar.

Also, it’s important to note that when you have one or just a few pillars to structure your content around, you don’t have to try too hard to force pillars where there are none.

Simply identify the pillars and clusters that are tied to your core products or services and create content based on that. However, you could come up with abstract pillars and clusters that aren’t a part of your core but are still closely related somehow. We’ll expand more on this in a bit.

Back to our shoelace store example. We simply had to look for clusters around shoelaces and we came up with:

  • Shoelace replacement guides
  • Lacing tutorials
  • Specific sneaker styling
  • Sneaker shoelace sizing
  • Lacing styles

But we wanted to rank for more relevant keywords. So we thought of a pillar topic that was abstract and wasn’t at the core of what the shoelace store sells but is still closely tied to it.

We came up with sneaker culture.

It’s not what the business sells, but it was closely tied to it.

So we found cluster topics related to sneaker culture:

  • Sneaker maintenance
  • Best [sneaker]
  • Sneaker release calendar
  • Fake vs real sneakers
  • Best sneakers of 2018
  • [Sneaker] on feet

We created content based on all of these and, of course, interlinked them with the core pages we wanted to rank for.

lacesout pillar pages example

Here’s how all of that looks on the website; you can see the shop, sizing guide, release calendar, and guide pages that all our pillars and clusters link to.

 

pasted image 0 28

 

The content we created had lots of relevant images, were in-depth, and they ranked pretty well for the keywords we created them on.

For example, Laces Out has three pages that take #1, #2 and #3 position of Google for Jordan 1 laces; the third page is a blog post, titled “5 Ways to Lace Your Nike Air Jordan 1 Sneakers.”

 

pasted image 0 37

Ecommerce example – Ardent Cannabis

Ardent is a cannabis company that sells a decarboxylation machine.

At its core, the business is an expert in cannabis research, cannabis usage, and cannabis recipes, and we had to help them communicate to cannabis users that Ardent will help them get what they need out of their cannabis.

So we created pillars out of those three core areas and identified their respective clusters:

ardent pillar cluster example

Here’s how all of that looks on the website; you can see the three pillar pages:

 

pasted image 0 40

 

When you click through each of the pillar pages, you’ll find all the clusters under them. For instance, here’s how the Recipes page looks:

 

pasted image 0 35

 

You can see all the content on the cluster topics we found for the Recipes aspect of the business.

Lastly, you might have more than one business you’re working on and want to use topic clusters on.

Cross-domain content strategy example

If you have more than one business to create content clusters for, simply identify the topics you want each of them to be known for and list them out, like so:

cross domain content strategy example

This will help you keep things organized, and then you can go ahead and work on their topic clusters individually as you’ve seen in the examples above.

 

Final thoughts

Generally, you want to use topic clusters to help path both users and search engines through pages on your site.

More importantly, you want your pillars and clusters to demonstrate that you have in-depth knowledge about what your business does, so people and search engines can trust your brand and product.

Last, but not least, you want to start building your topic clusters early so you can build on them as you grow.

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Comments

  • Tanzeel Butt Says

    Awsome really awsome Guide. In depth with examples. Thank you so much.

  • Troy Says

    Thanks for this info.

    Would it help (or hurt) if those clusters were in the drop down in the navigation?

    • i used to believe that top level navigation links were treated as the most important, but some guidance from google came out stating those links were not treated with more weight than internal links from your content.

  • Maria Says

    Great info. Thank you.

    Can one pillar link back to multiple of our core offerings?

  • Patrick Carver Says

    Thanks, Ryan. Have you found an ideal number of cluster articles to develop in order to get movement? How comprehensive (i.e. length) are you going on that content? Thanks!

    • its less the macro (ie how many total) and more about the micro (ie how good each cluster page is). this is just a framework for organization, we dont want to take our attention off the fact that each cluster page in itself should stand on its own as a rankable, awesome asset. In other words, it should only take 1 cluster page to rank, but the more you stack the better.

  • you’re welcome!

  • Rein Says

    Hi Ryan! Great stuff as always but I’d like to point out that the table of contents is not working properly. Is is intentional?

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