When it comes to Search Engine Optimization (SEO), the competition is fierce. You want donors, volunteers, and potential partners to find your organization at the top of the page. Google’s goal is to help the user find what they’re searching for by showing them the page that has the most relevant, authoritative content. That might look like the latest research on early childhood education or a guide to impact investing. Enter content marketing.
Consistent creation of relevant and valuable content (about the topics within your expertise) will be the best way for your target audience to find you on Google.
You may have heard of content marketing. In fact, you may already have a content marketing strategy. But, what is often overlooked is that how the content is organized is equally important as the content itself, especially when it comes to SEO.
Enter the topic cluster strategy — a way to create a network of strategically mapped, interlinked content that signals to Google your organization is an expert on a certain topic and deserves a top place in search results.
In this post we will explain what a topic cluster is, break down the key features and give you a step-by-step guide for how to get started.
What Are Topic Clusters?
Put simply, the topic cluster model is a way of organizing your site’s content pages (ie. insights, stories, blog) using a cleaner and more deliberate site architecture. Without it, content is spread out and difficult to navigate, with no obvious linking framework.
Topic clusters provide a structure. A single “pillar” page (symbolized by the circle at the centre of each cluster) acts as the main hub of content for an overarching topic. Multiple related content pages link back to the pillar page and to each other.
As you create this network, it signals to search engines that there is real breadth and depth to your content, which gives the pillar page more authority on the topic and makes it more likely to appear in search results.
Features of a Topic Cluster
A topic cluster is composed of four main elements:
A pillar page
Pillar pages provide a comprehensive take on a topic and help users easily find the information they came for. Also known as cornerstone content, they provide breadth, and link to relevant pages (cluster content) to add depth.
Subtopics are the middle layer of topic clusters. The content of the pillar page is broken up into different sections, which will be labeled with subheadings. Each subheading has the opportunity to become its own page, a subtopic (or a theme) in your topic cluster. Subtopics should all link back to the pillar page.
Cluster content makes up the majority of your content and goes into more specific detail about one aspect from your pillar page. Every post will be directly related to either the pillar or the subtopics and thus always be no more than two clicks away from the pillar.
Using hyperlinks to connect content is the key to this strategy. As well as bridging posts that would otherwise be islands, links also provide equity. As every page links back to the pillar page, links pass on those pages’ equity and increase the pillar’s chances to rank highly for its competitive keyword.
Links also show that two pieces of content share a semantic relationship.
How to Build a Topic Cluster
There are many approaches to building your topic cluster: you can look at your existing content or focus on what you want your organization to be known for. Our recommendation is to start from your audience. What do they want to know and what do they need help with? Make sure you’re always creating content that’s relevant and helpful to them.
Define your topics: Firstly, decide the topics on which you want to be seen as thought leaders. Consider the big problems your target audience wrestles with and the core issues your organization is tackling in the world. You want the topics to be striking, relevant and trending in your area.
Think about the user—your ideal audience—searching your topic. Would your pillar page answer every question this person has on the topic AND at the same time be broad enough to inspire a large number of additional posts or stories?
Brainstorm your subtopics: Subtopics are often the forgotten part of a topic cluster but they’re the pivot points: the specific way your organization helps communicate the big topic of your pillar. Subtopics help users better understand the different components of the big issues, but they also form the roadmap to explore these in depth. For example: renewable energy, sustainable development or environmental conservation could all be subtopics for the pillar page of climate change.
Map your cluster content: Your cluster content is made up of the individual posts that bring your pillar and subtopics to life. These can be stories, research, listicles, roundups, guides, interviews, resources, podcast episodes, etc.
Build pillar pages: Once you’ve mapped out your content, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and start writing. We recommend you start with your pillar page. Create an outline that covers the topic comprehensively (hint: your outline should look a lot like your topic cluster, with the topic in your heading and your subtopics as your subheadings). Because a pillar page answers a topic comprehensively, it might speak beyond your organization’s scope on the topic, but it should reflect your philosophy on it.
Write subtopic pages and cluster content: Subtopics aren’t just themes, they are their own pages too. These are similar to pillar pages but the topic itself is much narrower.
Cluster content is a regular blog post: it provides you the opportunity to take a subject and really dig in.
Link, link, link!: Links are the keys to success in this strategy. Every piece of content in the cluster should link back (naturally and relevantly) to its subtopic page which should link to the pillar page.
It’s this hierarchy that helps make the pillar pages an authority on a subject.
Additionally, pillar pages and subtopic pages will also link inward, inviting users to explore the topic in-depth and stay on your page- another way to rank highly with Google.
Keys to Success
Identify 3-6 topic clusters to focus on:
Keep the number of topic clusters manageable so you can commit your resources to building them properly.
Mind map your topic clusters:
Mind mapping is a technique that allows you to come up with different words and phrases that connect to your initial topic—much like topic clustering itself. Brainstorming this way should give you ample topics for future content strategy and planning.
Use keywords in titles and subheadings:
Implementing keywords into your pillar content and subtopics is important for your SEO strategy. Use your subheadings to clearly communicate to both readers and search engines what that section is going to cover. You can still be playful and creative—just not at the expense of clarity.
Evaluate what works:
As you’re building your topic clusters, take the time to see what works, what doesn’t work, what questions you’re getting based on the blogs and what opportunities those present for future posts.
Measuring the success of topic clusters
This is a long-term strategy. Most likely, you won’t see results right away. Calculating the return on investment when it comes to content marketing can be tricky as it isn’t always clear. You’re building your reputation and authority over time.
But when you do (and you should) analyze how your topic clusters are helping you reach your goals, look at each cluster as a whole, not just individual posts. Here’s why:
Maybe each post gets only 1 visit a day. That seems unimpressive. But let’s say you have 20 posts in a topic cluster, that’s 1 visit per day times 20 time thirty days. Do you know what that adds up to?
That’s 600 monthly visits. As time goes by, evergreen posts that are interlinked will continue to grow, which means that success becomes exponential.
It's time to move on up
Upgrading to a topic cluster strategy will help you attract more organic web traffic and be able to produce better, more effective and readable content. Let’s summarize the benefits:
Topic clusters allow you to organize your blog more efficiently by providing an overall structure for your content.
The cluster structure allows you to better plan your content calendar, avoiding any gaps or repetitions.
Linking relevant pages together helps users find other content that might interest them.
Topic clusters improve your SEO and help show that you’re an authority on the topic with comprehensive content.
The increasing complexity of SEO can be intimidating but we are here to help. Chat with us about solutions for your organization.