How to Use Topic Clusters for Content Planning
If you read our recent SEO Guide for Beginners, you’ll have already an understanding of the importance of on-page optimisation when it comes to blogging. But, have you considered how to plan the content that you write about? If you want to boost your position on search engine results pages, you need to be thinking in terms of pillar content and topic clusters.
What is the pillar and topic clusters technique?
Traditionally, businesses have created blog posts based on a list of keywords that they want to rank for. But, search engine algorithms now demand more from your content strategy. They favour topic-based content that indicates relevancy rather than a collection of blog posts about isolated subjects.
The pillar and topic clusters technique ensures that your content assets meet algorithm requirements. The ‘pillar page’ provides the overview for any given topic and from that page you create a series of blog posts that expand on the information provided in the pillar page. Each post in this ‘topic cluster’ links back to the pillar page, and the pillar links out to each post in the cluster. It sounds complicated, but it’s not when you visualise the concept.
It looks something like this:
A seasoned blog will be made up of several clusters:
Why does this technique boost SEO?
Google and other search engines give merit to web pages that provide high quality content that is relevant to a search term. Search engines are becoming incredibly smart at doing this. They can detect pages that are semantically related to each other using latent-semantic-indexing.
What does this mean in plain English? If your pillar page is highly relevant to a search term and it has reciprocal links with other relevant pages on your site, those pages will also earn link juice. It also means that none of your pages will compete for search terms because they are all focused on a different, but related, search term. Bingo.
Are there any other benefits to using this method?
Definitely. Aside from significantly boosting your chance of ranking high for your chosen search terms, the pillar and topic clusters model can:
1. Increase the amount of time visitors spend on your website
Creating topic clusters organises your content, making it easier for your website visitors to find the information that they need. Each post ushers the reader to explore other relevant pieces of content. This positive user experience will increase the amount of time that visitors spend on your site, giving you a better chance of conversion and sales.
2. Builds authority and trust in your brand
A website that contains incredibly useful and relevant content gives visitors confidence in your brand. You are demonstrating that you understand both your customers’ needs and your subject.
How to implement the pillar and topic clusters technique
STEP 1: Identify a topic that you want to rank for
It’s time to brainstorm. You need to find an overarching topic that will appeal strongly to your target audience. Base it around one of their main pain points. What questions do they need answers to? What are they searching the net for? Where are they in the buying cycle?
Let’s imagine you’re a meditation teacher (not such a random occupation, it’s what I do in my spare time). Many people that are considering taking up meditation want to have a better understanding of what it is. So, a good overarching topic might be “What is meditation?”.
Whatever topic you settle on, it will form the basis of your pillar post, but don’t start writing it just yet. You have more research to do and cluster content posts to write first.
Why not dive straight into writing the pillar post? Because you can’t determine the content of this overarching piece until you know what cluster posts you’ll be writing.
STEP 2: Choose your content cluster titles
There are a few awesome (and free) tools you can use to determine your cluster content titles. Use all three of the tools below to make sure you gather plenty of keyword ideas:
Pump your main topic into the search bar and watch the magic happen. This powerful tool will generate a large amount of related search queries that can inspire your titles.
Here’s the result for “What is meditation?”
Get the king of the web to tell you what to write about. Simply type in your pillar topic in the search bar and see what other suggestions pop up.
Use this gem to mop up any straggling keywords that you haven’t previously identified.
Now that you’re armed with an extensive list of keywords, paste them into a spreadsheet and start making sense of them. You don’t want to use all of them as similar keywords will target the same user intent. You want to choose a selection of keywords that target different user intents that are related to the same overarching topic.
Once you’ve worked out what to include, you should end up with a content plan that looks a bit like this:
STEP 3: Review your existing content
Before you start writing new content, run an audit on your existing content. Check to see if you’ve already created posts that could serve as cluster pages. Identify what adjustments you might need to make to these pages, such as referring to and linking to the pillar page.
STEP 4: Write your cluster posts
When you write your cluster posts, you should follow the usual best practice for blogging, such as:
Aim for long-form content
Keyword placement in:
Image alt tags
Title tag and meta description
Use of semantically-related words
Add concept-enhancing visuals
Illustrate with examples
In addition, also make sure that you:
Provide deep coverage of the subject — you’re aiming to build authority and provide content that is highly relevant to the search term.
Stick to this topic — don’t go into detail about any subject covered by another cluster page. Simply refer to related subjects and link to the relevant page. Keep every page unique.
STEP 5: Write the pillar page
You can now create your pillar page, based on the cluster content that you have selected. Again, follow good practice for blog writing and also:
Keep the detail extremely broad — this is the overarching page, so save expanding on ideas and concepts for your cluster pages.
Write at least 3000 words — the post needs to contain lots of useful and relevant information to rank high in search engines. The higher it ranks, the more authority it will pass on to its cluster pages.
To get some inspiration, check out Hubspot’s 7 examples of pillar pages.
STEP 6: Add your links
The only thing that’s left to do is link all your content together with hyperlinks in the body copy of each post.
Make sure that you:
Link individual cluster pages to other relevant cluster pages
Link each cluster page to the pillar page
Link the pillar page to each cluster page
Check that all links work before publishing
A note on logistics
In an ideal world, you’d have a team creating your content in one short, sharp hit. However, if you’re flying solo, you might see a few difficulties with the order of the steps above.
1: It could take a few weeks to pull all the content together, but you need to pump out content every week.
To overcome this, you can bend the ‘creating the pillar last’ rule. For the solopreneur, it probably makes more sense to write the pillar content first. The important thing is that you still plan all your cluster content before writing anything, so that you have a framework to work from. You can then publish the pillar post, followed by a different cluster post each week.
But, this creates difficulty number two:
2. You can’t create all links in advance, because you haven’t created all the content yet.
There is the potential to forget to link to and from content that you have already published, so you need to be vigilant. When you write each new cluster post, check and double check that everything links together as it should before publishing. When you’re planning your content strategy, it may help to create a checklist that displays all the links that should be contained in each post.
The topic cluster model will help you to organise your content for the benefit of search engines and the visitors to your website. This can boost your search visibility, provide a great user experience and build trust in your brand.
This method relies on:
Choosing a strong topic that addresses your target audience’s pain points.
Adhering to best practice for writing blog posts.
Linking each piece of content appropriately.
And remember, SEO is a long-term strategy. It could take you weeks or even months to see the full results of your efforts and that top spot on Google. To help speed up the process, make sure you allocate resources to promoting your content.