Content marketing and SEO go hand-in-hand, like fries and a milkshake or peanut butter and jelly. It’s not the brightest idea to do one without the other. The issue is that SEO is a dynamic and tumultuous enterprise. As the rules of the SEO game continually shift, your content marketing strategy needs to similarly adjust. Enter: topic clusters.
Topic clusters and pillar pages are an adaptation to shifting trends in search engine queries and the underlying algorithms that direct the ranking of search engine result pages (SERPs). Before diving into the latest content marketing model, let’s take a look at the history behind pillar pages and topic clusters.
Evolutions in Search
In the early days of the internet, using search engines precisely was a skill set of its own. Back then, popular engines like Altavista, Yahoo, and Google functioned on keywords and operators (“AND” “site:” “+/-“). Before Ask.com evolved into its modern iteration, it used to be called “AskJeeves,” where you typed your queries in the form of questions like:
- “What is inbound marketing?”
- “How can you tell if your boyfriend is cheating?”
- “What’s the cheapest way to build an e-commerce website?”
- “How many tacos is too many tacos?”
- “Alexa, when did people start treating Google like a magic 8-ball?”
At the time, this was revolutionary and competed with leading search engines. In the present day, not so much.
Even before the proliferation of digital assistants like Siri and Alexa, there was an upward trend of people using full phrases in search queries. Google search algorithms started adjusting to this as early as 2013 with the Hummnigbird update. Five years later, from a development and SEO standpoint, it’s now standard that users type full-phrase search queries on a massive scale.
Reflections in Content and SEO
SEO practices have always been tied to content marketing. When keyword search was the standard for search algorithms, content strategies reflected this with keyword loading. Any published content had a minimum number of keyword iterations. In fact, the entire approach to creating a post often revolved around a single keyword or variation of it.
Keyword targeting has always been one of the challenging art forms of content marketing. It’s not easy to incorporate concise key words into an organically-crafted piece in a way that’s subtle. Moreover, because of the countless variations of a query on the same topic, many online resources are plagued by redundancy.
New Horizons: Topic Clusters
This changed when Google developed phrase algorithms, which parse based on topic in order to discover trends across and within user queries. At this point, the algorithms are smart enough to make out the underlying intent of a search and deliver results based on topic. This change in SERPs prompted content revolving around clusters and pillars. And this is your new workflow panacea.
The concept behind the topic cluster model is topic-based content generation. In a nutshell, your website includes a pillar page that provides a broad overview of your niche linking to multiple content pages that constitute clusters of topics. The clusters branching from the pillar page link back in turn.
The model has three major strengths:
The two-way linking strategy of the topic cluster model boosts SERP ranking via increased interlinking
Outperformance in one branch (one piece of content) from the pillar page boosts the pillar and, thus, the whole cluster
Topic cluster organization allows for variations of keywords and phrases within individual posts while still maintaining an overarching structural hierarchy to content strategy
In short, the cluster model boosts ranking synergistically by tying all pages back to the pillar, and the structure allows you to address long-tail keyword variations while staying organized.
Model in Action
Let’s say that you’re promoting a detailing and repair shop for classic cars. The keyword-centric content strategy would have you spread out dozens of individual pieces of content. It would look something like:
“Cleaning vintage leather”
“Bodywork on Mustang Fastback”
“Frame repair for classic cars”
“Getting rid of old car smell”
The two issues here are that (1) content branches in a way that’s difficult to track and organize, and (2) there’s a redundancy–bodywork on Mustang and frame repair.
The topic cluster model starts from pillars that encompass the broadest terms possible, which we’ve already defined as detailing and repair for classic cars. These two overarching topics would constitute a pillar page, which could either go into sub-pillars or start branching on their own. You would have one long piece of content going over general repair and maintenance, and that would branch into the specifics. Now you would have one subsection for frame repair that includes a link to the Fastback specifically, as well as any other model or keyword variation. Body work could be included as a subsection of the main pillar page for repair or link to its own separate sub-pillar page.
Your cluster hierarchy structure would look like this:
Content falls under the umbrella of each subsection with corresponding two-way links in the pillar page. Using the topic cluster model, we’ve organized our content library for a hypothetical business into a manageable, dynamic, and optimized workflow. That’s the benefit of working with pillar pages to implement your own content strategy.
One Topic Cluster to Rule them All
There are many strategies for boosting SERPs, but one truism that hasn't changed since the beginning of SEO practices is that content typically leads the way in results. Topic clusters are the latest iteration of a long-evolving trend toward more organized and useful information targeting the end user. And though the initial time investment may be a large one, it may end up being one of the most lucrative investments you make into your SEO efforts—after all, clusters fit Google's broader goal of organizing the world's information. It's likely topic clusters will be part of content SEO efforts for the long-term rather than being a two-year trend.
Invest now, become an authority in your subject matter, and enjoy many years of benefits.