If there is one thing an online entrepreneur learns after a short time in the game it’s that, when it comes to SEO, nothing ever remains the same for long. Though keep in mind that quality content never goes out of fashion. It’s the manner in which the content is presented that often changes. The particular actions you took last year to rank for favored keywords needs to be tweaked this year to stay in search engines’ good graces. So what’s the update this year? Topic clusters gathered around “pillar” pages.
Never heard of it? Don’t worry. We’ll explain it all. Keep reading.
Topic Clusters Model
Luckily, the theory behind topic clusters is so easy, yes, a caveman probably could do it. It goes like this: What’s your website’s general topic? Let’s say, for discussion’s sake, it’s musical instruments. Using the new model, you would create a central or pillar page that serves as a general introduction and links out to other content pages, each dealing with a more specific segment of the broad topic. Visually, you could conceptualize it as spokes on a wheel radiating out from the central hub.
Let’s pretend these are our sub-topics:
The critical factor in creating your cluster the way Google likes it lies in the linking. To set all this up you would have links going both ways between the sub-topic pages and the pillar page. This is a deliberate, organized approach to content design that establishes pillars as the authority on the topic, which is something Google loves to find.
If everything goes according to plan, over time the pillar – with its supporting content pages – should move ever higher in the SERPs.
Why Topic Clusters? Why Now?
As much as the online marketing industry likes to poke fun at Google, we should keep in mind that nothing the company does is without reason. There are two major developments that have served as the driving forces behind this latest shift in SEO best practices. Let’s take a look at each in turn.
Search Habits: The internet is not a static entity. It has matured, evolved, and grown more sophisticated over the years. This reality has not been lost on the people who use it. These days, rather than typing fragmented keyword queries, we know that entering a sophisticated question that makes semantic sense is fine. The focus is shifting from specific words to complete phrases and sometimes more than one in the same search.
Artificial Intelligence: The only reason the internet can understand and accurately process the more complex phrases mentioned above is that artificial intelligence in the form of algorithms is becoming quite adept at figuring out what a phrase means. For better or worse, this genie is out of the bottle and it’s never going back in.
A modern search algorithm can parse a search phrase for the intent behind the words. It does this by analyzing and organizing past searches and delivering more targeted results than ever before. This is machine-learning at its finest.
Old School Optimization
The obvious question becomes, “How are topic clusters different than last year’s SEO strategies?” As far back as 2013 with the Google release of the Hummingbird Update, we saw an algorithmic switch from a keyword-centric search process to one that focused on phrases. At that point, the old way of organizing a website’s content became yesterday’s news.
Remember back in the old (or not so old) days when the phrase “content is king” began circulating? Website owners took the suggestion literally and took to cranking out content pages as fast as their fingers would type. At the time, with the new emphasis on natural writing without a bunch of keyword-stuffing, this seemed like a good thing. It still is.
The problem soon followed, however, that a website like HubSpot ended up with probably millions of separate content pages but no real organization or linking structure. This didn’t give the Google crawling spiders much to work with. The end result was that HubSpot – and many others like it – ended up with content that was all over the place, making it difficult to be seen (and subsequently awarded in the SERPs) as an authority. The reality, of course, is that HubSpot is a legitimate authority on a variety of topics but a lack of a cluster linking strategy and pillars with associated sub-pages made it hard to tell.
SERP Benefits from Using Topic Clusters
The bottom line consideration is what search page rank benefits would SEO topic clusters offer for your website? We thought you’d never ask. Here’s a short list:
1. Search Engine Optimization: Let’s start with the most obvious. Clustering topics with proper links is what Google wants you to do, so you’d be well advised to comply in order to gain or even maintain search page results. While you might not be actively penalized for failing to embrace the new idea, other websites that do will likely be rewarded and leapfrog past you on the page.
2. Featured Snippets: Snippets are those little clickable one-line answers that are featured above everything else in search results. While no one but the Google braintrust knows exactly how they are chosen, the bottom line is that it is golden online real estate if you can get it. We can glean that they appear to be taken from web pages that directly answer a search query. The good news is that by clustering content, each of which addresses a single question, around a pillar page, you should increase your chances of being featured as a snippet.
3. Close the Deal: Hopefully, it is obvious at this point that a clustered website creates a sense of order and ease of navigation that allows a visitor to find exactly what they want in a shorter amount of time. That’s a good thing! Less frustration on their part should lead to more sales (or sign-ups or whatever your website’s purpose is) and money in your pocket.
4. Make Old Content New Again: Let’s quickly revisit the HubSpot example from earlier. Before topic clustering, content from years back was essentially invisible, buried beneath tons of new content and lost for eternity to the effect of disorganization. By creating clusters of related content, you essentially resurrect posts that have fallen off the radar by grouping them with other similar content and applying a coherent linking strategy. If you have lots of content, this will be some work getting it all clustered but once those Google ‘bots start noticing, we bet it will all be worthwhile.
Will topic clustering be the end game for the Google algorithm? That enormous snickering you heard in the background was the rest of the world. Of course not, but this looks like one of the foundational ideas that will stick around, even if the details change. What we’re saying is that clustering your topics will NOT likely turn out to be a waste of time next year or whenever the next major Google update arrives. So, what are you waiting for? Get to it!