Last updated: 14th August 2019

Are you struggling with SEO, or consistent, high-performing blog posts? Then you might want to break away from the keyword analyser tools you’ve been using…. and master topic clusters!

Um, what are they, do I hear you ask?!!

Trust me, when I first read about the topic cluster model I thought I’d have to rearrange my whole blog.

And write a whole host of blog posts completely new to what I’ve already covered. And then some more.

But the topic cluster model is actually a lot simpler than that.

AND it caters for a changing SEO landscape (thanks, Google…).

In the following blog post, you will gain an understanding of the topic cluster model’s purpose, its benefits and drawbacks, and a rundown on how to develop content using this model. 

The Topic Cluster Model

The topic cluster model was first set out by Hubspot Research in 2017, to address the noticeably changing consumer search behaviours.

People stopped typing mismatched keywords. Instead, they asked Google complicated and specific long-form questions.

Companies and blogs were finding it difficult to rank for specific keywords because of these changes. They therefore started providing concise and in-depth answers to show on the SERPs. 

Hubspot Topic Clusters Maria Prendeville Blog

The topic cluster model focuses on topics rather than keywords.

Instead of having a million different blog posts with varying keywords, this model focuses on a broad topic or “pillar” page with multiple posts, or “clusters” linking that main topic.

Readers can search for the broad topic and read the main pillar page. If they need detailed information, they can read the cluster posts.

Sounds cool, huh?!

The pillar page discusses the topic broadly and doesn’t go into too much detail. But it has hyperlinks to the other clusters, which ensures the whole topic is connected. Therefore all the information is easily accessible for the reader. 

Who Uses The Topic Cluster Model?

Moz’s Beginner Guide to SEO is an example of the topic cluster model in action, with the pillar topic being SEO. It covers everything, from SEO 101 to measuring SEO. As you can see from the main page, there are links to all of the cluster pages where they delve deep into a specific topic. 

Now, the topic cluster model certainly isn’t for everyone. Topic clusters take time and a lot of resources to research. You should design in as concise a way as possible to ensure you cover everything for your reader.

Of course, it might not be for you if your industry is EdTech, or you provide a time management tool. Time management can reach as far as productivity, which brings a whole new bunch of ideas along with it that might not be worth covering in your series.

With regards to education technology, a broad topic might be “Class Feedback”. But when you search and refine feedback, there isn’t actually a lot to talk about in different clusters

If you’re still undecided on topic clusters, let these pros and cons help you draw conclusions.

Benefits of The Topic Cluster Model

1. Establishes Authority In Your Niche

You’ll be the baddest boss 😉

You will spend a lot of time deciding on your broad topic. Once that’s done, pick your specific, actionable content in the clusters to fill out the main topic. 

Say what?!

Covering a broad topic in your niche with lots of umbrella clusters shows your audience how well-versed you are in that area.

When readers see how much information you have put into one place for them, you will quickly become a go-to for this topic. With lots of easily accessible links across clusters and the pillar page, the reader will go to you for valuable, actionable content

2. Topic Clusters Boost SEO

When Google crawlers are trawling through websites, they may not rank your posts. This could be due to mismatched links or lots of keywords. Another factor could be not having a formal structure to your blog.

Topic Clusters makes crawling a lot easier for these bots.

Bots can recognise clusters that connect to the pillar page because they are relevant, specific and actionable for the reader.

The significant relationships between the links allow the bot to crawl cleanly and give you the SEO green flag. 

3. Repurposing Options 

Because of the vast amount of information in each cluster, there are multiple opportunities to develop this content.

You can create infographics for social media channels relating to the pillar topic. Readers can share videos and podcasts discussing various strategies used in the clusters.

Using Twitter plugins, your readers can “click-to-tweet” parts of your cluster posts to boost conversation among followers.

All these methods that can further entice new readers to join in. This allows for evergreen content and keeps it relevant to your industry

Spiderman Topic Clusters Maria Prendeville Blog
A happy spiderman crawling through your topic clusters….

4. Magnify KPIs

You’ll achieve business goals through boosting reader engagement, organic search results and newsletter sign ups.

This goes back to displaying your knowledge as a key leader in your industry; if you can show this through key pieces of content then your reader base should expand. 

Disadvantages to The Topic Clusters Model

As with all advantages, there are disadvantages too. The topic cluster model isn’t for every company’s content marketing strategy, so pay heed to these points as it mightn’t be worth your team’s investment.

1. Large Time Investment

Developing a topic cluster model is no walk in the park.

We will divulge the ins and outs of the model further on, but it isn’t a matter of picking a random topic and a bunch of smaller topics related to it.

It needs to be relevant, evergreen and cover everything in exact detail.

As previously discussed, topic clusters take a lot of time and planning.

They are usually better suited to large companies, with teams of digital marketing experts to explore the topic. 

2. The Topic Cluster is Too Niche

Your pillar topic needs to be all-encompassing and create enough content for around 10 – 20 cluster topics.

If your pillar page can’t create enough clusters, then it isn’t worth your time.

You need to give your reader a lot of information at one access point for it to succeed. 

3. The Topic is Too Extensive

Ok ok, so it’s like the Goldilocks principle in that the topic must be juuuust right!

If it’s too broad, then the topic won’t land in the SERPs pages because you’ve focussed on too many factors and it strays from your niche.

The topic needs to be broad enough that all of the clusters make sense and can hone in on one sub topic.

4.  Product Page Competition

Google may see you’re discussing topics relating directly to your product and think these pillar pages are doing very well. This could hinder the performance of your product pages.

Establish your product pages individually by using different words and URL titles.

Figuring out your audience’s search intent can also help clarify your product page formatting so there is no crossover. 

Topic Clusters Wine Not Maria Prendeville Blog
A cluster of grapes because….. wine not?! 

How to Apply The Topic Cluster Model to Your Content

1. Decide on Your Pillar Topic

The key ingredient when implementing the topic cluster model is having a strong core topic that is central to your niche.

Without this, the model just won’t take off. 

Analyse your market through buyer personas; what are their big pain points?

What do your customers regularly search for in relation to your business? If you look at your FAQs, you might be surprised by common questions that are asked in your industry. Is there an overlap?

Is it broad enough for one topic to cover it, but can divide into individual sections?

Look at Your Audience’s Search Intent

You might think the options are endless when deciding on a pillar topic…
Answer the following questions and you’ll know if you can cover it all or not!

What are they looking for in relation to your website and brand, product pages? Are they interested in content about your product, or general industry information?

Now, this might all seem overwhelming but worry not! You’ll have a lot of these answers already from previous market research. It’s just a matter of digging a little deeper to find your audiences deepest needs.

You might start to notice a trend. Perhaps your customers all ask unique questions about a specific part of your service. If you can make this connection, then you may well have found your overarching topic. 

Make sure to write down any and all information you find in relation to your own business and this topic as you go along. All of these pointers will prove useful in your cluster content too.

Because there can be overlap between clusters, it is good to use tools that are visual. You’ll clearly see when topics are concise, and when they’re very similar and aren’t enough to fill a whole topic cluster model. 

2. Carry Out Keyword Research

When you’ve decided on a pillar topic, then move onto your keyword research.

This can help break down the clusters into sizeable chunks. Making sure they are relevant to your business and what your target audience search for. But are enough to write individual blog posts on and not overlapping is imperative. 

Keyword research can help with finding what questions your audience are asking, and can also help you form headlines for each of these clusters. 

Using tools such as Answer The Public, Google Analytics, Buzzsumo and good ol’ Google Search Engine can help you form long-tail keywords for this topic, producing off-the-cuff content for your clusters. 

If you notice a lot of similar questions, or there aren’t a lot of search results showing for the keywords you’ve chosen, it might be time to reassess. 

Are you typing in the right keywords? Go back to your buyer persona and see are you using the correct words and variations to get content.

It might be obvious that there isn’t a lot of interest in this topic. Or the topic cluster model might be a long stretch for your content marketing strategy.

In that case, go back to the drawing board and look at what you have so far. Maybe writing a few long-form blog posts is all this topic needs.

3. Write The Cluster Pages 

Once you have your main topic with in-depth keywords branching from it, you can then begin writing these pieces!

If the cluster page overlaps with anything else in the hub page, it loses its fluidity and readers may become confused about the current page they are on.

The key goals for the cluster content are:

  • Making clear points in each of the pages
  • Offering a deep dive into that particular subject
  • Providing beneficial and actionable information to the readers.

The topic cluster is after all, like a manual all about that topic, covering each aspect with precision.

Each cluster page must link back to the pillar page (making it easier for crawlers to spot the linkages).

They must be formed in a typical blog-post manner; a clickable headline, clear formatting, images, alt-text and statistics to back up whatever evidence you produce.

What applies to blog posts also applies to topic clusters; check out this article on content strategy mistakes before you go full-throttle with your topic clusters!

At the end of production, check the URL so that it isn’t too long and links back to the pillar post. 

Like any other blog post, having clear Call-To-Actions (CTAs) at the end of your blog post to further engage the reader is a must, or you risk them leaving your website.

Before any topic cluster discussing, I’ll need a coffee!

4. Write The Pillar Page

You might be thinking why on earth should I write the pillar page AFTER the cluster pages?!!

It makes sense to base the cluster pages on what’s written throughout the pillar page…. But this can actually make your time spent writing a lot less focused. 

When you put all of your written clusters together, you can write a brief summary on each which can then be compiled and used in your pillar page. 

You won’t dig too deep into a topic on the pillar page when you write them first, as it wouldn’t make sense for it to be detailed on the main page. 

You speak about the overarching, broad topic on the pillar page, pulling snippets from the clusters and ensuring you’ve linked to all of the respective clusters in a clear manner for the reader to easily move through the clusters. 

Once the pillar page is written, go through all of your content again.

See to it that all of the links work, there is no overlap of topics in the clusters and that the pillar page acts as the cornerstone.

5. Track The Progress of The Topic Cluster 

Like any other piece of content you produce, it is important to track it’s progress after publication.

Reassess your goals and have the tools and strategies in place for adequate tracking and receiving feedback from your readers. 

If you are tracking how readers go from one page to another, I would suggest using Google Analytics as you can track pages in a detailed manner. Ensuring the URLs contain keywords means you can also see how every page with that particular word does with regards CTRs, read-time and other key factors. 

Tracking social shares can also give you insight into whether people thought your topic cluster was worthy of showing others.

If you have a lot of social shares it might be worth reaching out to those people to thank them for helping you, everyone loves a cute thank you message in their inbox hey!

More coffee, yes it’ll definitely be needed for the tracking stage too!

Is The Topic Cluster Model Right For You? 

If you follow the above steps, it should be obvious after step 2 whether or not you can find a broad topic in your niche to investigate

If done correctly, the topic cluster can provide you with invaluable lessons about your industry and also boost your content through the rankings.

Choose a broad, well-searched topic and brainstorm with your team to find what suits your customers and industry best, give it time and you’ll be topic-cluster-commanders in no time!