As Google sharpens its sword in its unswerving drive for more accurate search results, the topic of user-intent has come under intense focus.
User-intent has been a buzzword for several years as businesses strive to give potential customers exactly what they want when they want it. Do you just want information, or are you ready to buy? Do you need to compare this product with others, or are you looking for reviews?
The testosterone-laden arm-wrestling for the top spot on page one has never been more intense. This has given rise to a new SEO methodology known as topic clusters.
What Is A Topic Cluster?
A topic cluster is an SEO model that uses a single, central subject around which all related content is based. This content is known as a pillar page (or post) and covers a single topic in detail.
Supporting content is created as subtopics of the pillar page which further expound on associated elements, and these each link back to the pillar page.
The topic cluster model works with Google algorithms, specifically those related to latent semantic indexing (LSI), to logically and contextually tie information together. It’s in this way that the machine brains can determine what the human brains want.
Figure 1 Image Source HubSpot
What Is A Pillar Page?
A pillar page covers a core topic that is relevant to your user persona, that is current, and that has enough “meat” in it to facilitate a decent number of linking articles.
A good pillar page will:
- Be a long-form piece, possibly around 2000 – 3000 words
- Contain enough information to satisfy readers at any point in their buying journey
- Be easy to navigate, perhaps with a table of contents with internal links appearing on top of the page or as a floating menu on the side
- Be informative and factual with little fluff and sales copy
- Offer real value to readers
- Answer commonly asked questions
HubSpot confirms this.
“A pillar page is the basis on which a topic cluster is built. A pillar page covers all aspects of the topic on a single page, with room for more in-depth reporting in more detailed cluster blog posts that hyperlink back to the pillar page. Pillar pages broadly cover a particular topic, and cluster content should address a specific keyword related to that topic in-depth.”
How Do I Create a Killer Pillar Page?
Developing an effective pillar page may well require that you go back to the drawing board and brainstorm ideas with your team.
You will be looking for a topic that is broad enough to support multiple blog posts. It will also be a subject that addresses a key problem for your customers, which talks to a pain point that your product or service can solve. Alternatively, it could be one of your foundational services.
This page will also need to be based on words and phrases that enjoy sufficient search traffic and that you would like to rank for.
There is no room for guesswork in this process. It can take a while to gather the information you need to choose the best topics supporting your business goals.
Starting at the End
Many marketing agencies have found that the best pillar pages can be determined by first researching the subtopics or cluster pages.
Why is that?
Firstly, researching search volume on a relevant keyword will guide us to how important this niche topic is to a customer. Secondly, it will highlight other areas (breakout searches) that are as relevant or even more so than what we were initially researching.
Lastly, it will clearly show us if the pillar page we chose is broad enough to support many cluster pages. In some cases, the pillar page may work better as a subtopic and fall under a broader topic. (We’ll look at some examples in a minute.)
What Is the Purpose of a Topic Cluster?
In a nutshell, topic clusters help search engines to make the right connections.
The smart use of anchor text and hyperlinks between pillar pages and cluster content forms an organic creature held together with common sense, consistency, and context. A well-designed topic cluster allows any content element that is ranking well organically to boost the entire cluster’s ranking.
Another key benefit of using topic clusters is that you will never again be left scratching your head while trying to develop engaging and relevant content. Your research will highlight those essential long-tail keywords which indicate user-intent and allow you to create focused content that answers a single relevant question.
Why Are Topic Clusters Important?
Topic clusters are a smart yet simple way of tying your brilliantly written content together into a single, cohesive, and logical thread for Google to follow.
For years, search engines have been evolving into organisations that are trying to understand the intent behind the question or search query. As these algorithms developed alongside other technological advancements (such as voice search), an increasing need to understand natural conversation semantics to deconstruct and answer the query correctly.
Tying online content together with the search query and the assumed intent became critical.
Developing topic clusters helps these algorithms find the right match between what they think the user wants and what you are offering.
What is Semantic Search?
Moz answers this question beautifully.
“The word “semantic” refers to the meaning or essence of something. Applied to search, “semantics” essentially relates to the study of words and their logic.
“Semantic search seeks to improve search accuracy by understanding a searcher’s intent through contextual meaning. Through concept matching, synonyms, and natural language algorithms, semantic search provides more interactive search results through transforming structured and unstructured data into an intuitive and responsive database. Semantic search brings about an enhanced understanding of searcher intent, the ability to extract answers, and delivers more personalized results.”
How Do You Create A Topic Cluster? An Overview
So, you’re ready to build a killer topic cluster. Where do you start?
So far, you should have the following information:
- A list of your customer’s pain points
- The products or services that you offer that can assist in solving their problem
- A list of keywords and phrases that you want to be found for and that are relevant to your business
- A list of semantically similar words and phrases to the keywords that matter to you
- A list of questions that your customers commonly ask
- A good idea of the current traffic volume that exists for the words and phrases that you would like to use
Piecing it Together
- The questions and long-tail search terms that you have collected will form the subtopics or cluster pages of your topic cluster. Collect these into logical groups so that they make sense to you and your team.
These are your pillar pages.
- You may have three pillar pages, or you may have a dozen. What matters is that they are relevant and will support extra content from your subtopics without duplicating information and becoming repetitive.
- Develop your pillar pages with SEO in mind. They are going to be long and topical with high-quality images, logical subheadings, and useful information.
- Link out your pillar pages to your cluster pages using accurate and consistent anchor text, and with each new piece of cluster content published, ensure that you link the main point back to the pillar page.
An Example of a Topic Cluster
Yes, this is a lot of information, and it can be tough to put it all in the correct order, so let’s work with a hypothetical company for a moment.
Let’s assume that you have a building and construction company.
You know that your customers do a lot of research before choosing a company and that pricing is a significant concern. The buying cycle of a customer from initial research to signing a contract with you is around 4 – 6 months. They want to know that they’re working with a company that’s experienced, reliable, and trustworthy.
You want to answer all these questions and ensure that they are satisfied with your knowledge and experience.
Your research has uncovered some commonly asked questions such as:
- How do I verify a builder?
- What is NHBRC certificate?
- What questions should I ask a builder?
- What insurances should a builder have?
- What documents do I need from a builder?
- How do I choose a good construction company?
Cornerstone Pages/Pain Points
Based on this in-depth research you decide that your pillar pages are going to look something like this:
- Project Management
- Turnkey residential construction
- Drafting and submission of building plans
- Alterations and renovations of existing buildings
These topics highlighted above are an excellent place to start when developing your cluster pages. Potential customers seek information before taking the next step, which allows you to position yourself as an authority in this area.
Pillar Page Subheadings
At this point, you will start seeing the difference between the value of a pillar page versus a cluster page. You wouldn’t, for example, choose a pillar page on builder insurances, as this is a fairly narrow topic that can be covered in a simple article.
Therefore, your pillar page of Turnkey Residential Construction will consist of subheadings such as:
- What is turnkey residential construction?
- Why choose a turnkey solution?
- What is the process of building a home?
- What are some of the challenges when building a home?
- What insurances and certificates are necessary?
- What to do if you have a problem with your builder.
As you can see, your pillar page’s subheadings will broadly cover many of the questions listed above.
The question relating to the NHBRC will link out to an in-depth article on what it is, what it covers, how to register, how long it lasts for, and what your builder needs to do to conform to these requirements.
Topic Clusters and SEO
As you develop both your pillar and cluster pages, you will need to ensure that each of them is individually optimised for search.
The frequently asked question noted above, “What is NHBRC certificate?” is ideal as a long-tail keyword that should appear in your page title, headings, alt image tags, meta title and description, and obviously within the text of the article.
Your heading could be something like, “What is an NHBRC certificate, and why is it important to homeowners?”
Semantic text that you can use in your article may be:
- National Home Builders Registration Council
- Homebuilding regulations
- Building certificate
- South African builder’s council
Your anchor text would be the NHBRC certificate, and it would link back to your pillar page on Turnkey Residential Construction. The subheading in your pillar article dealing with insurances and certificates would refer to an NHBRC certificate’s requirements and link out to the cluster page.
Summarising Topic Clusters
Topic clusters are a logical and coherent SEO methodology and a way to create and present information that is:
- Easy to follow
- It covers all points of the buyer journey
- Clearly shows search engines contextual relationships between content
- Assists in generating relevant content
- It is easy to scale in terms of SEO
- Positions you as an authority
- Focuses on the key areas that your customers are interested in
Topic clusters are not easy to develop as an SEO strategy because there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each industry, indeed, each company, will have its unique focus and business goals which need to be factored in when crafting a solid, working topic cluster.
The upside of this model is that it brings us one step closer to correctly interpreting the fickle world of user intent and, subsequently, offering the most valuable and relevant information.
If your business is battling to rank organically, and you’d like to harness the power of this powerful internal linking SEO weapon, please feel free to contact our friendly and knowledgeable team.