What Are Topic Clusters (And How Can They Boost Your Traffic)?
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What do you think when you hear “topic clusters”?
Your initial thought might not be “the future of SEO and content strategy.”
That’s okay. It’s probably not the first thought your competition has, either.
And that’s where the opportunity lies for you and your brand.
In this post, we’re going to cover exactly what topic clusters are and how you can leverage them for your brand. A few key benefits here include:
- Higher rankings, traffic, and conversions.
- Greater authority with your audience.
- Improving the results from every piece of content you publish around a given topic.
Download Your Free Topic Cluster Keyword Research Template
Building effective topic clusters requires careful planning and thoughtful execution.
With so many different moving pieces in the process from idea to implementation, you’ll likely find yourself looking for help along the way. With these free templates, you’ll be able to create everything you’ll need with ease.
Download this bundle now and you’ll get:
- A Topic Cluster Keyword Research Template to store your topical ideas and keyword data.
- A Marketing Calendar Template to plan out all your content.
- A Latent Semantic Indexing Infographic explaining how to use secondary keywords to create content that thoroughly covers a complete topic.
Grab your freebies quick, and then let’s get down to learning.
What Are Topic Clusters?
A topic cluster is a group of interlinked web pages. They’re built around one piece of pillar content targeting a broad topic, linked to several related but more narrowly-focused pages.
Seem complicated? It’s more simple than it sounds. Here’s a visual guide to what a topical content cluster might look like:
For further explanation, watch this excellent brief video from Hubspot:
Why Are Topic Clusters Important?
Once upon a time, marketers could win by targeting a single keyword per page.
Now, targeting entire topics is the key to success. There are a few primary reasons for this:
- Personalized search has made keyword rankings more fluid. Since Google tailors search results to individual users, keyword ranking positions are harder to calculate across the board.
- Search engines are better at understanding semantically related concepts. Advanced search algorithms are now better at understanding when multiple search terms are actually about the same thing. This means a piece of content targeting one keyword may rank for several other related terms.
- Google (and other search engines) want to provide users with authoritative and trustworthy results. One way to show your authority to people and bots alike is to consistently create useful and accurate content around a topic, rather than one-off pieces targeted to particular keywords.
Collectively, this means sites that feature multiple pieces of content thoroughly addressing a given topic will generally outperform those with fewer, less authoritative pieces. As a result, the implications of this for marketers are clear.
You need to be focusing on the big picture (and that means thinking topics).
The benefits to this approach are numerous, too. Here are just a few:
- They keep audiences on your site. If you have tons of content related to your visitor’s interests, they’ll be more likely to stick around (and potentially purchase from you).
- When one piece does well, every interlinked page does better, too. Creating content around a topic often improves the search rankings of other similar content that’s already on your site. In some cases, this can lead to owning multiple SERP positions for a single keyword.
- They help bring in more traffic. As a result of increased rankings, you’ll bring in more visitors. And as we’ve established, they’ll be more likely to stick around on-site. This builds a positive feedback loop of increasing traffic and conversions.
Sounds too good to ignore, right? That’s because it is (and fortunately, we’re here to show you how to achieve these benefits yourself).
What Do Real-World Topic Clusters Look Like?
It’s easier to emulate something you can actually see, right? So, let’s take a look at two examples of sites applying this principle so you can learn from their approach.
Example 1: Jeff Goins Guide to SEO
Jeff Goins is a highly successful writer and marketer who understands how to present content in a way readers and search engines love. His beginners guide to SEO is a great example of this.
First, we’ll look at the URL of his pillar content. It’s targeting a nice, broad topic (SEO guide):
The body content is crisp, concise, and well-written. It summarizes the main topic and touches on some basic high-level questions a reader might have:
Then, at the bottom, he has internal links to several pieces of related content targeting narrowly-defined subtopics around his pillar content:
Each of these pieces of sub-content is internally linked to one another, too:
Example 2: Moz Beginners Guide to Content Strategy
The Moz brand is synonymous with search engine optimization and content marketing itself. They’ve spent years establishing themselves as a leading industry authority. So, it’s no surprise to see them utilizing topic clusters effectively on their site.
Take a look at their Beginner’s Guide to Content Strategy. It’s similar to the example from Jeff Goins above. Instead of being a series of interconnected blog posts, though, it’s built with a collection of pages directly on their website.
The first page targets a simple question: “What is content marketing?”
That’s a common query. Using Moz’s own Keyword Explorer, it looks like it gets a decent amount of search volume:
The page is comprehensive (over 2,000 words—while word count doesn’t matter too much, it does indicate this is an in-depth piece). It also links to other relevant pages that help answer the searcher’s question:
Near the bottom, each page in the guide makes it easy to navigate to the next one (the internal link in the button also shows search engines that each of these pieces are related):
At the very bottom, you can easily access every chapter in the guide. Again, those internal links help show search engines these are all connected, with topically relevant keywords on each page covering an entire subject (content marketing):
If you read the title of each chapter, you’ll notice each one tackles a different piece of one core topic. Many of those pieces also ranks well in organic search. Here’s an example of a search for “content ideation” (which is chapter 5):
This illustrates a clear benefit to building dense topic clusters: when one piece succeeds, it pulls up the rest of the cluster with it.
Getting Started: Selecting Topics
Let’s get down to business and figure out how you can build topic clusters yourself.
The first step is to identify topics that are relevant to your brand and audience. These could include:
- Problems your audience faces. What do your potential customers need help getting done?
- What you want to be known for. What topics do you want to be the Internet's top authority on?
- Things people use your products for. What do customers buy your product to accomplish?
These are a few simple examples.
Brainstorm Topics Like a Genius
If you need to generate tons of ideas fast, try our simple three-step brainstorming process. Here’s how it works:
- Gather your team and spend ten minutes writing down as many ideas as you can think. Don’t worry if those ideas are good (yet). Just get them out there.
- Spend another ten minutes scoring those ideas. Nominate one team member to gather everyone’s responses and read them aloud (while keeping the original contributor anonymous). Then, have everyone on your team rate each idea on a three-point scale. 3’s are awesome ideas you need to act on, 2’s are okay (but need some work), and 1’s are duds.
- Spend the final ten minutes of your meeting narrowing down unanimous 3’s. These are your very best ideas and the ones that should get top priority for consideration.
This process will consistently yield tons of great topics in a short amount of time.
Next, Start Doing Keyword Research
If we’re targeting topics, does that mean keywords no longer matter?
Not at all.
Keywords remain as important as ever. When it comes to building out topic clusters though, the key is to create multiple pieces of content with different keyword phrases that all revolve around one central theme.
To do that, we’ll need to select a core keyword topic for our pillar content, and several related terms for other pieces of supporting content.
Here are a few different ways to start this process:
Use Keyword Explorer in Ahrefs
This is quickly becoming one of our favorite keyword tools here at CoSchedule. For the purposes of this post, there’s one specific feature that’s super helpful, too. That’s the ability to identify parent topics related to specific keywords.
You can probably see where this is going.
If you have a paid Ahrefs account, find the Keyword Explorer, enter a topic, and click the magnifying glass button:
Next, you’ll see a variety of different data for your keyword (including search volume, difficulty, and other things typical with most keyword research tools). However, you’ll also see the parent topic for that keyword:
Let’s dig in even further to find more related keyword ideas:
Based on this quick research, we now have:
- A primary topic (identified as the parent topic in Ahrefs). This could be something we’d consider building a piece of pillar content around.
- Tons of related keywords. These are all more narrowly targeted sub-topics we could create related pages for and internally link them together around our pillar content.
But, how do you do this research without a tool like Ahrefs? Never fear! There are a lot of different approaches you can use (and the best process may differ depending on what kind of content you’re creating—website resource pages, blog posts, or something else entirely).
Use LSI Graph and the Adwords Keyword Planner
This tool makes it quick and easy to spin off tons of related keywords from one topic:
This gives a good list of keywords. However, it doesn’t tell us how often people search for each of these terms. So, swipe all these ideas and paste them into the Google Keyword Planner:
Now, you’ll be able to get a loose estimate for how often each term gets searched (this can help you prioritize which ones to target):
Next, you can find even more ideas in the Keyword Planner by clicking on Ad Group Ideas:
Group Keywords Together Around Topics
You should now have plenty of keywords to choose from. To use them for building effective topic clusters, we’ll need to group them together by topic. This involves:
- Identifying a core keyword.
- Listing related keywords around sub-topics.
Let’s start by building out a spreadsheet and setting up columns like this:
Next, fill in each column with the keywords you’ve uncovered (plus their search volume, difficulty, and anything else you’d like to sort them by):
In this hypothetical example, we’ve prioritized keywords by:
- The core topic. This is a broad keyword spanning an entire concept.
- Subtopics sorted by search volume and difficulty. This is one way we can prioritize which content we’ll create first, second, third, and so on.
While we touched on this a little bit earlier, you may still be wondering how to identify a core or parent topic. Since it might help to look at some more concrete examples, we’ll start there.
Let’s say you work at a marketing agency. Your top client is in the financial services industry. After meeting with them, you learn they want to promote their retirement saving services.
So, you start brainstorming content you could create around that topic to help establish their authority.
In this case, your parent topic might be “retirement planning.” This is a broad topic that’s likely highly competitive. However, it’s a core piece of anchor content you need before you can start targeting content toward more detailed subtopics (which might be less competitive and easier to rank on).
Once you’ve created this content, those subtopics might include things like:
- How to save for retirement? <<< This offers a solution to a problem
- Which types of retirement plans are available? <<< This provides consumer information
- When should Millennials start retirement saving? <<< This answers a common question
And so on. These are all more narrowly focused subtopics related to your primary topic.
Start Planning Topically-Themed Content
Now you know what topic you’ll be creating content around. Congrats! You’re on your way to outranking your competition and being known as the authority in your industry.
But first, you’ll need to actually create that content.
So, we’ll start by determining which types of content you’ll produce. This could include:
- Website pages. These might include articles within a resource hub or learning center.
- Blog posts. Commonly, this means one core post with several interlinked posts.
- Microsites. An entire mini-site dedicated to one topic could be successful (if microsites are a part of your strategy).
- Videos. This could potentially be a series of videos tackling all aspects of a topic.
Each piece will need a promotion plan to raise awareness of your content too. That could include:
- Social campaigns. Coordinated messaging across channels can help spread your content and reinforce your message.
- Email. With 4,000% ROI (no, really) email promotion is a no-brainer.
- PPC and social media ads. Depending on the type of content you’re creating (and your budget), paid promotion might make perfect sense.
We won’t go into the nuts and bolts of content creation in this post. For that info, we’ll direct you to the following posts and resources:
Map Content To Your Marketing Calendar
You’ll need to plan one piece of content per keyword you’ll target within your topic cluster. To do this, it helps to map out each piece on a marketing calendar.
First, figure out how long it’ll take you to create each piece. This will help you set realistic deadlines. To this quick, follow this process:
- Determine how long it takes your team to complete an average piece of content. You can ballpark this if you’re short on time. Alternately, consider using a time-tracking tool like Toggl to determine average time per task and team member.
- Plan out each task that needs to be completed to produce each piece of content. It might help to list these tasks on a checklist that includes the team member responsible for each item, and the time each should take. In CoSchedule, you can build checklists called Task Templates and save them to reuse later:
Next, start planning all your content on your calendar. Create one entry per piece of content. To do this in CoSchedule, start by clicking a day (which should be your deadline) on your calendar:
Then, select the type of content you’ll create.
Once you’ve selected a content type, give it a title and select a team member to “own” responsibility for that content:
Click the “Create” button and apply a Task Template:
Then, once one has been applied, it’ll look like this:
Then add the rest of your content to the calendar on the appropriate deadlines:
Eventually, you’ll have the content for your topic cluster planned and organized all in one place. This makes it easier to intentionally create the content you need to keep your entire team on the same page.
If you don’t have a CoSchedule account, you can grab a free content calendar template here (or use the one included in the template bundle included in this very post you’re reading). You can also make your own checklists using Word, Google Docs, Evernote, or even pen and paper.
Effective Content Structure for Strong Topic Clusters
Before you can publish all the awesome content you’re creating, though, you’ll need to know how you’ll structure your topic cluster. There are several ways to do this, but they all revolve around the principle of internally linking several pieces of content around your topical pillar content.
Let’s think back to the examples from Jeff Goins and Moz that we looked at earlier. One was set up with a series of blog posts, and the other was a set of website articles. Both are examples of two approaches that can work. Which one you choose will depend on:
- Whether you have a blog (separate from a business website). Not every company has (or necessarily needs) a blog. You almost certainly have a website, though.
- The capabilities of your CMS and development team. Do you have the power and authority to create new pages directly within your marketing team? Or, will you need the help of a designer and development team to build these pages? This may impact how elaborate your topic cluster can be.
Now Create More Authoritative Content Around Key Topics
Utilizing topic clusters sounds more complex than it really is. If you’re capable of planning several pieces of content around one idea, making it presentable, and linking it all together, then you’re capable of putting this principle into practice.
To recap what you learned, let’s touch on a few key points:
- Topic clusters haven’t replaced the need for keywords. Rather, they’ve pushed marketers to rethink keyword research, going beyond lone terms and thinking more broadly about topics as a whole.
- Creating multiple pieces of high-quality content around one topic helps establish authority. This one may seem somewhat obvious, but having multiple pieces of content targeting different aspects of a single topic shows people and bots alike that you’re a useful resource. That leads to more rankings, traffic, and conversions.
- This isn’t difficult stuff to implement. Sure, creating several pieces of longform content will take time. So will all the planning and research phases involved. But, if you were going to create multiple pieces eventually anyway, why not build them all around one topic, and completely own it on the web?
Hopefully, we’ve been able to clarify a somewhat new (and somewhat murky) topic for you. If you have questions, though, other people probably do too. So, drop us a comment below and help get the conversation started!
August 28, 2017