The Importance of Topic Clusters
Updated 25 September 2020
Topic clusters are something which have many names. Topic hubs, hub and spoke content, content hubs, pillar hubs and I’m sure there are many more names to call them.
For the sake of this blog though, we’re going to call them 'Topic clusters'.
What are topic clusters?
Alright, enough about the names, what actually are topic clusters?
This is the definition I've been using for a while now:
“A topic cluster is a group of interlinked pages on a website which talk about different areas within the same topic.”
The pillar page
Normally, a topic cluster has a 'core' page, also known as a pillar page. An evergreen page which will be about the short-tail keyword, the generalised subject. It covers a lot of aspects of a topic on a single page, with more in-depth information in the detailed cluster and target pages, which are linked to from the pillar page.
A good example of a pillar page is this page from Help Scout, talking you through 'Acquiring customers using email'.
A cluster topic page for the topic cluster focuses on providing more detail for specific long-tail keywords, related to the main topic. They are informational pages. Normally, they are blog articles or FAQs, which are generally shorter articles which interlink between each other, where relevant, and also link back to the pillar page.
For example, this cluster page by HubSpot 'How to build free buzz for your business with a PR campaign' links to (and from) the pillar page about “Public Relations”.
Similarly focusing on longer-tail keywords and answering questions, target pages are usually linked to decision stage content pieces. These tend to be product or services pages, where purchases can be made and contact with the business can be made.
This target page by Milroys gives you the option to buy whiskey tastings at home, with clear CTAs and ways to get in touch.
Why do we need all these different pages?
So, we have pillar pages, cluster pages and target pages. Why? Well, let’s take a look at the buyer’s journey. Now, there is plenty of information about the buyer’s journey around, so if you want to really dig into that subject, head on over to Google.
In short, when we (anyone) buy something, we subconsciously go through several steps before we decide to purchase. From choosing to buy home-brand over another brand’s cereal to buying a car, we go through some steps to come to that decision.
Although the fundamentals of buyer journeys have largely remained consistent, the number of potential touchpoints within them have increased significantly over the past few decades. The two diagrams below show simplified examples of the touchpoints involved in typical buyer journeys then, and now.
Typical buyer journey 15 years ago:
Typical buyer journey now:
More often than not, buyer journeys consist of lots of different steps, doing research, looking for social validation and expertise from a company, but we tend to divide the buyer’s journey into these three steps:
- Awareness - the buyer realises they have a problem, but can maybe not quite formulate what the issue is yet.
- Consideration - the buyer defines their problem and researches options to resolve the issue.
- Decision - the buyer has chosen how they want to resolve the problem and are “ready to buy”, looking for comparisons, budgets and testimonials.
By creating different types of pages, to answer different types of questions, we can help people find the answers they’re searching for more easily. Whether the queries are very broad or very specific, how much information we want to share and what the goal of the page is, this all influences the type of page we create to make it as relevant as possible for the visitors to your website.
Why should you consider implementing topic clusters?
The idea behind these pages, interlinking and offering information across the buyer’s journey, is that we create an internal infrastructure.
This internal infrastructure is useful for both the users and search engines crawling your website.
It’s important to keep your potential customer front of mind. Sure, we want pages to be ranked on that coveted top spot, but if your pages are riddled with internal links and CTAs, it might make the page hard to read. Thanks to thorough keyword research, you may be writing for search engines, but not for the people visiting your website. Think of your users first. Write really great, unique, content for them and fulfill the intent that they are seeking. In other words - Answer their actual questions.
In a time where the answers are at everyone’s fingertips, make sure that you are creating content for the users of your product, not for an imaginary audience (or yourself, or search engines).
Structuring your content into topic clusters can help users. Once they are on your website to get their question answered, you can guide them to more, relevant, articles, becoming an expert on the topic and front of mind if or when they are ready to make a purchase.
In fact, recent algorithm updates like E-A-T and BERT have seen a real shift in how Google understands natural language and wants to make sure it ranks reputable sources at the top of search results. Creating topic clusters shows there’s a relationship between content. That helps search engines understand that you are an expert in this topic and will start to rank other pages for relevant queries too.
Internal links means sharing link equity across the website. It’s important to make sure that the internal links are pointing to live and relevant pages, so regularly auditing your internal links (using a tool like Sitebulb) is important.
How to pivot from keyword research to topic clusters?
Keyword research is a well known way to create content strategies based on search volume and is certainly a good start to understand what people are searching for. Usually, keyword research is broken out into several tabs to keep track of the different core topics. And there you have it! You already have the start of topic clusters.
Those tab names, describing what topic queries are there, those are the basis of your pillar pages, your broad, general information. Divide the keywords you have in those tabs into informational cluster and target “buckets” and you can start seeing whether you have any gaps. No consideration stage content/queries for a certain subject? I’m sure you can find some relevant information to share!
How to track your topics
When you start implementing topics on your website, this is possibly easiest done making use of folders. So your topic pillar page will be: example.com/topic/ and your cluster pages may look like example.com/topic/cluster/ (or different for specific product pages, depending on your website’s structure).
To keep track of how your traffic changes, making sure you are sharing relevant information and have got it sorted from a technical point of view as well, keep this in mind:
Use Google Analytics
Annotate when topic cluster pages go live, to keep track of how traffic changes to your website. Categorising your topic clusters into topic folders, like described above, will also help you report on performance for specific topics using filters in Google Analytics reports. You can see where people resonate best with your content and learn how to expand.
Doing regular audits of your internal links is one thing - but making sure you create hubs the way you are intending is another. Making use of Sitebulb’s Crawl Map visualisation tool, you can see exactly how search engines find pages AND how you have structured your website to ensure relevant pages are linking to one another.
Keep answering questions. It’s honestly the best advice I can give you. Chat to the customer service team and business development team to understand which questions they get asked the most. Ask your customers how to improve what you share (by doing short surveys, or by talking to them). Use tools like Also Asked or Answer the Public to find further topics Google sees as relevant, based on your query.
Maret is an inbound marketing consultant and founder of Mobe Digital. You might catch her speaking at the likes of BrightonSEO where she focuses on joining up technical and on-page SEO, with content, and marketing automation. When not poking around the internet, she does energetic stuff that puts us to shame, with her CBO, Bramble (who happens to be a spaniel pup).