How Topic Clusters Boost Rankings

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You know, for quite a while now, search engines have been shifting their attention to topics.

And it’s all as a result of changes in our search behavior. That’s why SEOs begin to focus on developing topic-clusters, and as Matthew Barby explained itowning topics not just keywords in SERPs.

But I admit, the whole concept of targeting entire topics rather than specific search phrases might seem a little odd.

Particularly, since we’ve been focusing on the latter for so long. And so, in this post, I decided to shed more light on the idea of topic-based content for SEO. I’ll also show you how to develop topic clusters that boosts search visibility.  

Interested? Let’s take it from the top.

Why Topics

Take a look at the recent Google’s algorithm updates, and you’ll see it.

It’s clear that the search engine has been focusing is on gaining a better understanding of queries users type into the search box.

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’ve 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.

Now, we’re waiting for the launch of the mobile-first index, that once again takes into consideration a modern user’s behavior.

And needless to say, we search differently too. 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 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, it works!

Here, just 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. And so, the next logical step is to start organizing information into topics that match the search query.

Enter Topic Clusters

As you may have already deducted, this strategy puts topics, rather 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.

Here, let me explain this further.

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.

And 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 never be interlinked together. And that’s in spite of them covering the same topic.

Topic clusters change that approach.

But before I tell you more, let me show you proof that this strategy works.

In one of her amazing presentations, Hubspot’s former growth marketer, Anum Hussain, recounted the teams 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.

(image source)

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?

So, let me show you how does this interlinking looks like in practice.

Creating 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 more or less 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 include 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.

And since each of those assets extends the topic from the pillar page, it makes sense to interlink them together. 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.

After all, it clearly shows that users get a breadth of information from the pillar page.

You can figure out these other topic ideas based on search volume – to make sure you’ve covered the most relevant content users are searching for. Here’s an example of “unique gifts” as the main topic and the different ideas of based on search volume you could write about “baby ideas”, “christmas”, “birthday”, “wedding”, on and on.

seoClarity makes this really simple to research using our Search Volume tool so you can quickly understand what topics to prioritize to create pages for what’s missing.

word cloud describes search volume

How to Create 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. So the biggest question is figuring out what topics you should create topic clusters on.

And the simplest answer is – 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 don’t.  This offers quick insights 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:

How 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:”

How to identify those questions?

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.

Because, it’s no longer about dominating keywords but entire topics. And after reading this post, you should have a good idea about how to utilize topic-based content for SEO, and develop topic clusters that boost your visibility.

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  • hamza
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    Very nice article. It contains complete information.

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