For quite a while now, search engines have been shifting their attention toward topics instead of keywords.

This comes as a result of changes in user search behavior. Now, SEOs are focused on developing a topic cluster strategy; and, as HubSpot's Matthew Barby puts it, SEOs want to own topics, not just keywords in the SERP. 

For many content marketers and SEOs however, the concept of targeting entire topics rather than specific search phrases might seem a little odd.

We’ve been focusing on standard keyword research for so long! Any change to the status quo is of course going to feel difficult. In this post, I shed some light on the idea of topic-based content for SEO, showing you how to develop a topic cluster strategy that builds authority in your industry, which in turn improves search visibility for your website. 

Why Choose Topics Over Keywords?

Take a look at any of Google’s algorithm updates in the last 6 years, and you’ll see: the search engine is focused on improved understanding of queries users type into the search box.

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In 2013, the Hummingbird update allowed it to process semantic keywords. The update helped the search engine provide results to what it deemed "conversational search" and better understand the words in the search query.

Two years later, we learned about RankBrain. This machine learning artificial intelligence helped Google to sort through and learn from search results, and serve better answers to queries it has never heard before.

Then came the launch of the mobile-first index, once again taking into consideration a modern user’s behavior.

In the past, searching used to be all about keywords. It didn’t matter what information you needed to find - a auto repair shop to fix your car, new running shoes to buy or information about a historical fact - you used short and highly-defined phrases to get to your answers. You may have searched for “best tire shop,” “running shoes” or “battle of Waterloo.”

Today, however, we've swapped those keywords for very intentional questions.

We ask Google “where to fix a flat tire?” or “what are the best running shoes for a beginner?” We also pose complex questions or give scraps of information, expecting the search engine to process them, and still give us the information we seek.

And, not surprisingly - it works!

Take a look at this example:

Google evolved its algorithm to be able to understand the context and intent behind the search query, matching it with available information to provide the most relevant search results. The next logical step is to start organizing information into topics that match the search query.

SEO Topic Clusters Defined

As you may have already deducted, this strategy puts topics, rather than keywords in the SEO focus. It’s all about organizing a site’s architecture and bringing related content together to form a cluster around a specific topic to boost its authority, and in turn, rankings.

Typically, we organize information on the site using a hierarchical model. A home page sits on top, followed by different layers of content, each going deeper into the structure.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this structure, it misses out on one important factor - collecting related content together. For example, your blog posts might reside at the same level but may never be interlinked together - in spite of them covering the same topic.

Topic clusters change that approach.

Let me show you proof that this strategy works.

In one of her amazing presentations, HubSpot’s former growth marketer, Anum Hussain, recounted the team's struggle to scale content production to boost search visibility.

(I won’t go through the whole experiment, you can read about it in detail here).

What’s important is that they discovered a particular strategy to have worked incredibly well; and that strategy was linking together related content, and pointing it to the main page they were promoting.

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As she describes:

Let’s say we previously wrote a blog article on being “The Slytherin’s Guide To “Parseltongue" and another post on the “10 Habits of Highly Productive Hogwarts Founders.” By linking our complete Site Page to these relevant blog posts, we saw a similar result as the previous learnings: ranking higher in SERP.”

Incredible, right?

Allow me to show you how interlinking looks in practice.

 

The Structure of Topic Clusters

When creating a topic cluster, you collect all relevant content around a pillar page that, as HubSpot puts it:

[...] definitively -- yet broadly -- outlines the topic.”

In practice, it looks something like this:

At the center of a cluster sits a pillar content. This page should include a broad information of the cluster’s topic and links to each of its other elements. Each cluster page, however, should cover a single aspect of the content mentioned on the pillar page in depth.

Let’s take “link building” as an example topic.

The pillar page would contain broad information about the whole concept of building links and mention various ideas around it. Cluster pages, however, would expand each of those concepts into a full-blown content. For example:

  • Link building strategies,
  • How to measure links strength
  • What links are safe in 2017
  • Link building management
  • Link worthy content types
  • Building more deep links to product pages
  • Trimming and managing link portfolio
  • Penalties for having poor links
  • How to spot a weak link
  • What links work best for eCommerce sites, etc.

Since each of those assets extends the topic from the pillar page, it makes sense to interlink them together through the implementation of internal links. By doing so, you help search engines to index those pages in the context of a semantic relationship between them. Plus, you send a strong authority signal about the content the cluster covers, demonstrating the breadth of knowledge that stems from the pillar page.

You can figure out these other topic ideas based on search volume to cover the most relevant content users are searching for. One example of this is with a main topic of "unique gifts" and, looking at the different ideas of content based on search volume, you could write about "baby shower gift ideas", "christmas", "birthday", "wedding", and so on.

seoClarity makes this really simple to research using our all-encompassing Topic Explorer feature so you can quickly understand what topics to prioritize to create pages for what's missing.

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In the above image, we see the summary of search volume based on related terms to "unique gifts" - this is a gold mine for our content strategy!

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We also have a word cloud view for users to understand the volume of possibilities from a visual perspective. The terms in this word cloud form the possible topics for us to consider in our content marketing.

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What's more, the landscape view provides users with a topical path to discover new areas of content that may have been previously unconsidered. 

How to Create SEO Topic Clusters

You already know the structure of a topic cluster. You know what content you need to create or gather from existing resources to create it. The biggest question that remains is figuring out what topics you should use to create SEO topic clusters.

The simplest answer is this: create topic clusters on whatever your audience constantly seeks more information about. To help you with that, let me show you two approaches that will help you identify that without any guesswork.

Strategy #1: Identifying Content Gaps

The term “content gap” describes keywords or topics that your competitor ranks for and you do not rank.  This offers quick insight for opportunities to create or optimize content based on what your competitors have visibility on and you do not. From there, you can understand the traffic potential for those opportunities to decide what to prioritize. 

Just take a look at the content gap between those two domains:

To identify the content gap, seoClarity offers a dedicated Content Gaps tool that allows you to compare up to five domains.

Strategy #2: Researching Your Audience’s Most Common Questions

This strategy works particularly well for identifying individual cluster assets, apart from the pillar content. Because you see, questions your target audience asks in various places online suggests what individual cluster pages you should create.

Just take a look at this list of questions associated with the topic “link building:”

You can identify those questions in a few ways. You could do it manually, by researching sites like Quora, Yahoo Answer and many others. Alternatively, seoClarity includes “Content Ideas” tool that automates this process and delivers insights from a plethora of sources.

Closing Thoughts

Search engines are shifting their focus to topics. And this, in turn, changes how SEOs must think about online visibility.

It’s no longer about dominating keywords but instead about gaining authority over entire topics. After reading this post, you should have a good idea about how to utilize topic-based content for SEO, and understand how to develop topic clusters as part of a content strategy aimed at boosting your overall search visibility.


Editor's Note: This post was originally published in November 2017 and has been updated to reflect upgrades in our platform and technology.