By Elise Dopson published October 30, 2018

How to Get Ranked and Read With the Topic Cluster Content Model

Do you struggle to create engaging content that lands you in the top spots of Google?

There is a way to solve that problem, and create content that Google loves, while building a library of content that’s super useful to your target audience.

That way? The topic clusters model.

Topic cluster model explained

The topic cluster methodology, also known as the “pillar-and-cluster” technique, was first detailed by HubSpot Research in 2017. It’s used by both B2B and B2C organizations to streamline their content marketing strategy.

An SEO strategy that focuses on topics rather than keywords, the model is an intent-based approach that simplifies blog archives by creating content around one central topic – referred to as the “pillar” page or post.

Pillar-cluster #content technique is #SEO strategy focused on topics, not keywords, says @EliseDopson. Click To Tweet

Then several supporting blog posts – clusters – are written to explain sub-topics based on your pillar content and generate internal links to the pillar page.

The structure turns out looking a little something like this:

Image source

Using the topic cluster approach requires treating your blog setup 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 (catering to its latent-semantic-indexing algorithm) and encourages each topic in your cluster to be pushed further up the search engine ranks.

After running this strategy on its blog, HubSpot proved more internal links led to a higher placement on the SERPs:

Image source

That discovery is why the topic cluster method is quickly becoming one of the most effective content marketing strategies.

Fancy getting in on the action?

Here’s how you can use the pillar-and-cluster approach to create content that ranks in organic search.

1. Decide on your overarching topic

Pick your pillar – the primary topic around which you build topic clusters. Makes sense, right?

It’s easy to do, too.

Brainstorm to create a list of relevant topics. Look to your buyer personas for assistance. What type of content are they looking for? Which of their pain points can be addressed by your organization through content?

If you’re a 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

Those bullet points are cluster-type topics. You need one overarching topic – the common denominator for all three.

In the example, the pillar topic would be content marketing strategy.

Google recently announced a shift in the way their algorithm works. A spokesperson said:

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.

If you can think of a strong topic cluster that underpins the foundations of your business, and you’ve already got content around that topic elsewhere on your site, you’re already on the right path.

Think of a strong topic cluster that underpins the foundations of your business, says @EliseDopson. 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 leave it there though – you need to dig and compile a bigger list of the cluster content you can create for your pillar page.

Enter keyword research.

Head over to Answer the Public and type your overarching topic to find a list of long-tail keywords that could fuel your list of ideas.

Use @answerthepublic to find a list of long-tail keywords that could fuel #content ideas, says @EliseDopson. Click To Tweet

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 sufficient to act as a standalone blog post.

Here are a few relevant inquiries from my Answer the Public graph, and the cluster content they could inspire:

  • How to present your content marketing strategy could become a page on how to present a content marketing strategy to your boss.
  • How to manage your content marketing strategy could become the post, “9 Ways to Manage Your Content Marketing Strategy and Stay on Track for Your Goals.”
  • How to improve your content marketing strategy might be a page on easy-to-do tips to improve your content marketing strategy.

Another option 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, type a prefix (such as why, how, or when) before your topic in a Google search, and browse the auto-populated suggestions that Google recommends:

Boom – there’s another bunch of clusters you could add to your list.

Finally, head over to LSI Graph and double-check you’re not missing any glaring opportunities:

Add each relevant keyword you’ve found throughout this process to a spreadsheet.

If you’ve got 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 intent. Users searching for either phrase likely are looking for the same content so they can be grouped into the same cluster and still cater to Google’s LSI algorithm.

It’ll save time, improve your SEO, and make sure you’re focusing on one of the most valuable content strategies of all: user intent.

3. Write your cluster pages

Now you’ve got your list of cluster pages, it’s time to move on to the fun part – creating the content.

Sounds self-explanatory, right?

The process for writing cluster pages is similar to writing a standard blog post, but with two exceptions. Your content should:

  • Not mention anything (in detail) covered on another cluster page
  • Dive deep into that topic rather than taking a generalized approach

Follow general best practices for writing epic blog content – like posting long-form pieces, adding unique data, and inserting relevant visuals – but always make sure your topic cluster page brings something unique.

In other words: Don’t let it be a repeat of another topic. That’s why you’ve got several different pages.

Here’s a great example of a cluster page from HubSpot:

Instead of taking a generalized approach and covering things like why PR is important, HubSpot dives into building free buzz with a PR campaign.

And, guess what? It’s linked to from its PR pillar page:

That’s how you do it.

Follow this process and write a comprehensive blog post for each topic cluster. Make sure each page is optimized for SEO by including the long-tail keyword in your:

  • Page title
  • Heading tags
  • Image alt text
  • Body copy
  • Meta title and descriptions

And you’re halfway there.

4. Write the pillar page

With your collection of topic clusters ready, you still need the pillar page – the broad view on the overarching topic – so you can incorporate the internal cluster links.

Again, writing a pillar page is similar to writing a blog post with a few key 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 sub-topics in detail.)
  • Usually extremely long-form (3,000-plus words)

To see this put into practice, browse Typeform’s customer success pillar page:

You can see how this page acts as an overview for everything related to customer success without exhausting one specific area.

That’s what you’ll need to do with yours, too.

Confused as to why I recommended writing the pillar page after the topic clusters? Surely, it makes sense to write the overarching topic first and then do a deep dive into the specific, right?

Don’t write your pillar page first. Do the cluster topics first, advises @EliseDopson. Click To Tweet

Not necessarily.

Diving straight in with the pillar page is a problem for one reason: You don’t know how detailed you’re going to get with each topic cluster yet. That means you:

  • Can’t write an overview without running the risk of duplicating points
  • Can’t add placeholders for internal links

Leave the pillar page for last.

5. Add internal links between pillars and clusters

The final thing you need to do after publishing your pillar and cluster pages is to add internal links in each piece of content. (That is the point of this model, after all.)

Just 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:

By the end, you should end up with a structure that looks something like this:

Image source

Those internal links now provide Google spiders with an easy way to find, crawl, and index your topic clusters, and bring stronger SEO power to your pillar page.

Final thoughts

The topic clusters model is a fantastic way to organize your content, while helping both users and search engines to easily navigate through your site’s content.

Remember to choose a strong topic, write your pillar and cluster pages methodically, and add internal links to connect each page.

It might take a while to get a topic cluster boxed at the top of Google results, but just like all content marketing strategies, the best results come from a time and effort investment.

Please note:  All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team.  No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Technology is a cluster of the content marketing pillar. Sign up today for updates on how to better attack this cluster topic at ContentTECH in April in San Diego.

 Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Elise Dopson

Elise Dopson is a freelance writer for B2B SaaS and eCommerce companies. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter--which she uses way more than she’d like to admit.

Other posts by Elise Dopson