WHAT IS A TOPIC CLUSTER?
A topic cluster is a way of grouping content around important areas of your business. How does it help SEO? The logicality and orderliness of it make it good for SEO. As a VERY broad rule of thumb, if a website – its content and presentation – is good for the reader, then it’s likely to be good for SEO. Search engines work on that very basic premise. It’s the fine-tuning over and above that which will give your website the edge.
The topic cluster model is best understood through a simple visualisation (below) where it is compared to a more traditional content and website architecture model.
Whilst the topic cluster model looks different from the traditional content hierarchy, there are important parallels which are important in themselves. This is GOOD NEWS to a business that is probably not looking to change their website right now. A focus on the principles of the content cluster model can be applied to most websites today. If any reader updates their own website and knows of Yoast, the SEO plugin for WordPress, you will already be familiar with the methodology of deciding whether your new page or blog post is going to be a cornerstone one or not. It means the same – cornerstone is the same as a pillar. If you don’t update your own site or you do but you don’t utilise Yoast, then read on…
So what’s behind the topic cluster model
SEO is behind it and it was a response a few years ago associated with Google’s Rank Brain algorithm; in fact, it was being discussed even before then as the concept of the semantic web has been evolving for many years. Search engines have simply responded to consumers’ behavioural changes and you will know from your own search behaviour that you’re capable of posing some quite complex questions, assured (most of the time) that you’ll get a selection of pretty accurate answers. Searchers may use different phrases or attempt to explain or find the right word to discover what they want. Search engines are better able to make connections and understand the topical context of the question asked. They recognise the ‘intent’ of the searcher, even if they haven’t typed in ‘the right’ keyphrase.
So how does content pillar and topic cluster work?
The pillar topics are the most important parts of your business; the areas where you have superior knowledge and they’re likely to represent the very essence of your company and why it was formed. It is also likely that these topic pillars – if each is given a name – are searched for online. Take the core of your business – let’s use brewing as an example. Brewing is what you do (if you’re a brewery of course), but that’s a little generic as there are many types of brewer. So you’d make your pillar just a little more specific, say craft brewing. By picking something like this, it’s broad enough to touch on much more detailed sub-topics related to craft brewing (clusters in the diagram) but not too broad in that there is at least the distinction between a traditional brewer or home brewing. That one pillar alone informs the search engine and the reader exactly where your (one of your) area(s) of expertise lie(s). If you’ve linked all of your subtopics (pages) back to the relevant pillar, search engines can follow this (as can the reader) and most importantly, recognise that you’ve covered the topic in full and are therefore an authority on it. (Informative, relevant content in-depth with orderly linking = better ranking).
Further pillars are then chosen. You can imagine that a manufacturer may have different technologies that would become the pillars or a distributor could easily select 4 or 5 core areas and then group sub-topics around the respective pillar. Each pillar has to be capable of supporting quite a few subtopics or clusters, for these each link back to the pillar, adding to its authority. It is not just the pillar page that stands to get a better ranking, all subs pages are likely to benefit too.
What are the parallels with the hierarchical model?
The classic way of thinking about website and content structure was keyphrase led, with your main business areas as top-level content (those pages appearing in your main menu bar typically or one click away). This thinking is still basically there but it has evolved to be just a little more sophisticated:
Keywords or phrases still play a part in overall strategy but topics are now the umbrellas based around the very core of your business, with sub-topics or clusters planned in advance. It’s topic and clusters first, based on what’s important to your business. Key phrases come second. That’s not to say that you can’t add a sub-topic that does capitalise on a keyphrase (if it is genuinely relevant and appropriate for your business and if it relates well to the parent topic).
The pillar/cluster set up creates orderly linking. If you look back to the diagram, a traditional approach was to create a blog post and then choose the best page (most relevant) page to link it back to. You can imagine links going every which way on a website (if links are even made), which can be confusing to a search engine and reader. By thinking through your business and how you want to be represented as ‘the big picture’, you an start to find pillars that really do allow you to ‘own a “sphere of influence” on the internet’, to coin the words from Hubspot.
How to apply the thinking to a typical hierarchial CMS website:
The least disruptive way is to audit what you have and write down your ideal pillars. These may be existing pages either at top level 1 or level 2 (in the menu dropdown) or they may not exist. If they exist, leave them where they are and sketch out your clusters. If these clusters are existing pages or a handful of blog posts would suit the cluster, then ensure links go back to your pillar page. (Use Yoast to set the pillar page as cornerstone). You may find that you need to build up your pillar page to be more substantial.
If a good pillar page for you doesn’t exist, then you have the option of creating a page (if you’re able to on your website) or, even easier, create a substantial blog post as the pillar page and check it as cornerstone content with the Yoast plugin area on the editing page. Then link all related sub-topics to this blog post.