A data-driven SEO guide to topic clusters to increase your organic traffic

The topic cluster approach to organizing web site content for SEO has been around since 2017, but not many blogs and websites have taken this approach, even three years later, and this is a mistake on their part.

Those who have applied this approach for a cleaner and more crawler-friendly site architecture have reaped the benefits by ranking on the first page of Google Search. After all, as user search behaviour changes, so does Google, and search engine optimizers will have to adapt by using topic clusters tactics.

In this guide, I’ll explain why topic clusters are as important as keyword optimization and need to be part of your SEO content strategy through examples backed by data and case studies. Finally, I’ll show tried-and-true content cluster techniques that you can apply ASAP.

What are topic clusters?

Topic clusters are a way of arranging content on your website, where you interlink similar pages around one umbrella topic page.

This topic page is called a pillar, and the branches of subtopic pages that link to it and vice-versa are called cluster pages.

For example, you’ve produced some articles on email marketing.

You can link these articles together by creating a pillar page called the definitive guide to email marketing and interlink these articles as topic clusters with the pillar page and with each other.

By arranging these topic clusters together, you are telling Google to analyze these pages as a whole, and over time, Google will collectively rank your pages higher for the keywords and topics you’re tackling.

Now, there are different ways of organizing topic clusters, so throughout this article, I will be introducing the different methods and how they can boost your content marketing efforts.

Changes in user search behaviour and Google’s core updates

Timeline

First mentioned by Hubspot Research in 2017, content clusters are a way for search engine optimizers to accordingly adapt to changes in user search behavior and Google’s algorithms.

One important change in the search landscape, for example, is the emergence of voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri, which answered full questions using Google Search.

In fact, over the years, Google Search has become much more effective and powerful when it comes to answering full questions, and thereby long-tail keywords, through a series of core updates that eventually led to the importance of organizing content into topic clusters.

In 2013, Google released the core Hummingbird update. It was named after the bird because the changes enabled Google to become faster and more precise than ever before when answering queries. In this update, Google began parsing out phrases rather than keywords and finding the semantic relationships between the phrases.

Then, in 2015, Google released the RankBrain core update. This is essentially Google’s machine learning algorithm that helps the search engine interpret context and meaning behind long-tail search queries and the questions that people type in Google.

For example, thanks to this update, searching for something as simple as coronavirus will prioritize localized results (i.e. local news on the coronavirus).

It is also important to note that since 2012’s Penguin update, Google has introduced a set of spam factors, which include keyword stuffing (adding keywords in places where they shouldn’t be) and getting backlinks from suspicious domains. If a website is caught spamming, Google penalizes it by not allowing its pages to rank on search.

Keyword optimization isn’t enough

Therefore, as you may have probably figured out by now, with these major updates, in terms of creating SEO content, there has been a growing emphasis towards answering phrases, questions and long-tail keywords, as opposed to just stuffing an article with the right keywords, in hopes that it will get ranked on Google.

Here’s a screenshot of when you search for content strategy.

TOPIC clusters

There’s a whole section called People also ask right after the first result.

If you create an appropriate strategy using topic clusters, you can reach the top of search rankings by deliberately answering one of the questions in this section!

This is something most SEO writers don’t realize when they create content, and it can be an absolute gold mine.

But this also leads to my 2nd point: Google is going towards the way of prioritizing websites that tackle topics and long-tail keywords, instead of short-tail ones.

As such, while finding the relevant keywords are still an important part of SEO (don’t get me wrong), clustering your content into searchable and overarching pillar topics will mean that:

(1) People will have a lot easier time reading through articles with similar topics, and this may encourage them to stay on the website.

(2) Google will be able to more appropriately index similar content topics together.

(3) Google will come to identify you as an authority on the topic(s)

SEOs have figured out that Google prefers to rank domains that are perceived to be authoritative than those that aren’t, and in SEO, authority as a ranking factor is based on 1. the number of articles that you produce on interconnected topics and 2. high-quality links that you get for these topics.

A case study on the effectiveness on interlinking content pages

Anum Hussain, an ex-senior growth marketing manager at Hubspot, did an experiment on topic clusters, and she found out that interlinking similar articles and turning them into topic clusters resulted in better search engine rankings and, of course, more search impressions.



She also revealed that articles with tackle long-tail keywords were much likelier to show up on the first page than those that didn’t. Below is a presentation on her findings.

Topics Over Keywords: An SEO-Driven Approach To Content Marketing from Anum Hussain

How to develop a plan for topic clusters

SEO isn’t hard. The results just aren’t tangible from the start, so if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can easily mistake assumptions for best practices. This applies to content clusters. It’s fairly simple enough once you’ve learned the basics, but you need to learn them in the first place, before applying them.

With that said, here are best practices to help you how to correctly organize content clusters.

I’m going to assume that you’re a scrappy startup without a fancy CMS for your content strategy, so begin your process of creating topic clusters by arranging them inside a spreadsheet. Here’s one below that you can download by subscribing to our newsletter ;).

Topic clusters template

Let me go through the sections:

  1. The ID column helps you more easily identify pages by using numbers instead of their whole name or URLs.
  2. The URL and Article name sections are self-explanatory. If you want you can even simply hyperlink the titles.
  3. In the Keyword targeted section, you include all the relevant keywords your articles are supposed to target and the keywords they’re ranking in.
  4. The section SEO organic traffic (monthly) will show the brutal truth on whether your content is ranking or not. You can use Google Analytics to see your monthly traffic coming from Google Search, but you can also use SEO tools to see the monthly organic traffic. This column is very important, as it shows you which articles you should prioritize or even rewrite to rank better.
  5. The section Pillar title is the name of the pillar page you want to cluster your articles around. You can even add an ID section for these if you have so many pillar pages.
  6. The section interlink topic clusters also help you see which articles are clustered together. Instead of typing in the names of the cluster topics, you can put the IDs.

But of course, there’s always the question of how you should create your content hierarchy. Clustering topics together is the easy bit, but creating SEO content hierarchy requires some digging on best practices to be effective.

Creating topic hierarchy

Having this hierarchy depends on:

(1) The main topic/long-tail keyword you’re trying to rank in (e.g. Instagram guide), its volume, and keyword difficulty.

(2) The volume and keyword difficulty of the keywords of your topic clusters.

Your content pillar is normally a difficult long-tail keyword topic that you can rank in with amazing articles that solve the same problem but in a variety of ways (e.g. SEO).

If you have existing articles that should be more interlinked with a few minor edits, then great. But what if you want to create new topic clusters from scratch? What are the ways can you arrange your topic clusters and pillars?

Well, it’s quite hard to describe creating and arranging content clusters without examples, so let’s delve into 3 case studies and see how they’ve used different topic cluster approaches to reach their SEO objectives.

Approach #1: long-form guides to rank in several keywords

Pretty self-explanatory. This first approach to creating topic clusters involves getting a bunch of related articles and turning them into one long-form article.

For instance, take this massive email marketing guide from OptinMonster, a lead generation software to help increase website conversions.



The article goes through the ins and outs of email marketing. It begins with email marketing basics, from defining email marketing to the basic steps in an email marketing campaign, and progressively delves into more intermediate topics, like on how to grow your email subscription list.

Here’s its clustering structure:

Email Marketing Made Simple: A Step by Step Guide [+ Examples] –> PILLAR TOPIC

(1) Why Email Marketing?

(2) Getting Started

(3) Growing Your Email List

(4) Choosing an Email Service

(5) Segmenting Your Email List

(6) Improving Email Open Rates

(7) Automated Email Marketing

(8) Frequently Asked Questions

When creating topic clusters, you basically need common sense to guide you throughout. I mean, an email marketing guide needs to start by explaining what email marketing is, not with the Frequently Asked Questions section!

This structure is prevalent in many long-form guides, because it makes sense and helps the reader who knows nothing about email marketing get more familiar with the topic as they read along.

Here’s a glimpse of the relevant keywords the blog ranks in:

As you can see, they are more or less surrounding the same topic that is email marketing. A long-form guide allows you to rank in related keywords in ways that a short article won’t be able to do. But this is not the only way to rank, as you will see in the third approach!

As Ahrefs indicates, it gets more than 13.5K monthly visits every month, which amounts to $210K in traffic value. This long-form approach is what many blogs do nowadays to make sure that they rank in relevant keywords!

Approach 2: tiering pages and using internal linking to increase organic traffic by 40%

NinjaOutreach is an outbound marketing software to help businesses generate leads through prospecting and outreach. In 2017, the founder Dave Schneider and SEO manager Tarek Dinaji did a massive internal linking campaign to increase their organic traffic.

This involved separating their content pages into 3 different tiers:

(1) Tier 1 articles were top money pages that gave them good traffic and brought in actionable visitors that converted.
(2) Tier 2 pages were attracting good traffic for various search results, but not giving the expected results that they were meant to have.
(3) Tier 3 pages were some of the lowest-performing content on the site that doesn’t rank well and only attracted the occasional reader.

With a bit of math and other types of data analysis involved, they then proceeded to link Tier 2 pages to Tier 1 pages, and link Tier 3 pages to Tier 2 pages. Tier 1 pages were then put in highly visible spots on the websites, which included the footer. Otherwise, they also created subcategories for Tier 1 articles to make them more prominent.

When creating the links, they made sure that the articles were topically related to one another to avoid getting penalized by Google and that they got the SEO juice that they wanted. But if there were articles that didn’t have any topical relation to other articles, they’d include sections, such as You Might Also Like This Article and Related Articles.

They saw the full results of their experiment after 3 months, and the numbers speak for themselves.

Their organic traffic shot up by 40%, without any kind of aggressive content creation. This meant that Tier 3 articles that were just on the website with low engagement rates contributed to increasing website traffic just by becoming better organized.

The key takeaway here is that you by creating a more organized site architecture that links together content with similar topics, you can boost your SEO rankings without doing much content work (assuming that you already have existing content that ranks, of course).

Approach 3: website ebooks that rank #1 on Google

Finally, there’s the website ebook approach expertly executed by Moz, one of the best SEO tools on the market. Moz did an ebook called Beginner’s Guide to SEO, which ranks #1 for the keyword SEO.

The ebook is massive and covers a wide variety of SEO topics across its 18 chapters. Here below is its SEO monthly traffic do the talking:


Ahrefs indicates that Moz gets a whopping +155K monthly visits on this ebook alone, and it’s probably more than this if we include keywords that Ahref’s might have missed!

Like the long-form approach, this ebook tackles the same topic pillar (SEO) under different angles (SEO strategy, brand-building, Local SEO, etc.). But instead of creating one long-form article, it nicely breaks its content down into different chapters.

In terms of site architecture, the chapters are also located in the same subfolder/subcategory that is “/beginners-guide-to-seo/”. This is an extremely important step when making a website eBook like this and have it gather SEO traffic. Otherwise, Google won’t be able to correctly identify your chapters as interlinked.

The advantage of this format is that t is very readable and guides the reader through the different chapters. Readers can skip certain chapters over others, bookmark what they want to read next, and figure out which chapter of the guide they’re in to read later. And when readers like to read the content and stay on the page for long periods, this tells Google that this is high-quality content and should get a leg up in terms of search rankings. While there are many ranking factors to appearing on the first page of Google Search, it never hurts to optimize your blog for reading.

Using the chapter format, you can also dive deep into certain subtopics and optimize it for that niche. At the same time, you can include chapters that might be a bit bad in terms of SEO, but contains lots of value and can turn a visiting reader into a subscriber through great content.

It’s a win-win situation.

Too long; didn’t read

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