Mastering SEO through the Topic Cluster Model
July 6, 2020 | by Timothy Wier
Modern marketing requires a modern approach to SEO. In the past, backlinks, traffic, and page load speed were enough to rank a page for a particular search term.
While these on-page SEO tactics are still important, there’s a more foundational piece that’s essential to any modern SEO strategy: domain authority.
A high domain authority for each of your core topics is the key that opens the door to future SEO success. Here’s why that’s the case:
- On-page SEO matters, but Google will only prioritize those pages if your domain has a high authority on the topic.
- Backlinks matter, but only if you’re building backlinks from other authoritative sites, which will only happen if you have a high domain authority.
- Page load time matters, but if the content you’re loading isn’t authoritative, then no one will read it, and you’ll get low time on page and high bounce rates.
Simply put, the SEO strategy that centers domain authority as a core KPI will be the strategy that wins in 2020.
The best and most effective SEO strategy for driving your domain authority is the topic cluster model. This post will walk you through a brief description of what this approach is, and some tips for mastering it.
What is the Topic Cluster Model?
The topic cluster model is a modern approach to SEO that focuses not only on individual page rankings, but on driving a website’s authority on a particular core topic or set of core topics.
The easiest way to understand the topic cluster model and how it works is by looking at each of the three components of a topic cluster and how they fit together.
The pillar page is the central component of the cluster. It provides the foundation for the whole strategy.
A pillar page is a content-rich, highly authoritative piece of content on a core topic that is both highly relevant to your business and customers, and has a high search volume. It’s designed to demonstrate to both users and search engines that you have the depth of knowledge necessary to address this topic.
For an example of a pillar page, check out The Startup’s Guide to Hiring a Content Agency.
Whether these are blogs, landing pages, or other pieces of web content, supporting content is designed to dive deep into the subtopics that connect to your core topic.
From an SEO perspective, these are typically long-tail keywords that are less competitive and, thus, have a lower search volume. However, you should be able to deploy shorter pieces of content against these topics, meaning you’ll be able to theoretically rank for more of them faster.
This is the most important part of the topic cluster, because it turns a disparate smattering of content and structures them to drive tangible results:
- Your supporting content starts to rank for long-tail keywords, driving traffic to those pages and, likely, other pages on your website.
- The hyperlinks between the supporting content and your pillar page drives traffic from a low competition page to a high competition one.
- As more traffic is driven to the pillar page (assuming it’s all positive engagement), then your domain authority around that core topic increases.
- Finally, traffic flows both ways, which means that once Google recognizes you as an authority on the core topic, and thus your supporting content becomes more competitive.
The end result of this process is that for each topic cluster you publish, that’s one more area where Google will see you as an authority, making them more likely to rank your content on their search result pages.
5 Tips for Mastering the Topic Cluster Model
1. Choose a meaningful core topic.
If you’re going to invest in building authority around a core topic, your topic cluster should be designed to drive a return on that investment. This success rests heavily on your topic selection.
For starters, your core topic should be highly relevant to your buyer personas, particularly when they’re actively researching a problem that your product or service solves. The more relevant it is to your personas’ needs and questions, the more likely the topic cluster will attract an audience of potential customers.
When you pick your core topic, make sure it’s one you’re able to address in depth. You’ll be creating many pieces of content around that topic, both in the form of blog posts and supporting content as well as your pillar page, and each one should ensure an educational and helpful user experience.
Additionally, you should choose a broad topic that will bring in a significant amount of traffic to your website. Generally speaking, your core topic should bring in upwards 300 average monthly searches.
Topic selection is a critical component of an effective content strategy. By taking steps to ensure the topic drives the performance metrics you’re looking for, you increase your overall chances of driving a return on investment for your business.
2. Align supporting topics with long-tail keywords.
While your core topic should focus on a highly competitive keyword that will boost your overall domain authority, your subtopics and supporting cluster content should instead focus on long-tail keywords that are easier to rank for.
The reason is this: your supporting content is meant to drive traffic to your pillar content and, over time, build your overall authority. That can’t happen if they aren’t generating that traffic.
Thus, you want each of these subtopics to be something that you have a shot at ranking for.
While selecting your core topic may seem straightforward, your supporting topics may present more of a challenge. Here are a few tips for finding these topics:
- Use a keyword research tool like Ubersuggest (free!), SEMRush or ahrefs to find long-tail keywords that have a semantic relationship with your core topic
- Brainstorm engaging content ideas based on your company’s value proposition and the unique benefits you offer to your customers
- Listen in on customer conversations and identify the questions they’re asking the topics they may be interested in (They Ask You Answer)
Above all else, your supporting topics should be both interesting to your audience, and connected to the core topic. That way, when someone reads it, they’ll both engage with the material, and also be enticed to click through to the pillar page.
Both of these actions are necessary for your topic cluster to generate results for your business.
3. Repurpose existing content.
The topic cluster model requires you to create a significant amount of content in order to be effective. However, this takes time, energy, and effort on the part of your team.
That’s why if you’re looking for some quick results, you should consider repurposing existing content.
It’s often easier to edit and re-optimize something than it is to write something brand new, so you can do more in less time.
While not every company is going to have a backlog of archived content, if this is something that’s at your disposal, here are some steps you can take to repurpose it:
- Re-optimize an existing webpage around a target keyword/subtopic. Avoid changing the original URL if possible, but if you make sure to include a 301 redirect.
- Update your content to ensure the information is up to date.
- Consider whether a particular piece of content aligns with the questions, concerns, and expectations that your buyer persona has when visiting your site. Make adjustments if there are discrepancies.
- If you have thin content, make sure to enhance and fill it out with more detail and substance.
When you need quick wins with minimal effort, content repurposing is a great place to start out.
4. Create new engaging, helpful content.
Once you’ve gotten a head start by repurposing existing content, you need to create some pieces that are new, as Google prioritizes fresh content over older posts.
There are a wide variety of types of content out there, but when you’re building a topic cluster, here are the ones you should focus on:
- Blog posts for each of your subtopics, providing detailed information on the topics at hand
- Landing pages that lead to downloadable content offers
- Pillar pages optimized around the core topic, which is the core piece that drives your site to rank for the short-tail keyword.
While you should focus on developing quality, helpful content, the more new content you can create, the faster you will get your pillar page and topic cluster to rank for those key core topics.
5. Always, always, always include internal links.
Without internal links, the topic cluster model simply doesn’t work. The whole point of structuring your content this way is to connect your subtopic pages to the pillar content, which in essence converts low competition traffic into a high competition.
Additionally, internal linking is a key factor in Google’s determination of your site authority. If you can get Google to recognize that you’re an authority on your core topic, it only helps increase the authority of each individual web page.
The topic cluster model requires a lot of work to get off the ground. But once you do, you’ll start to see your inbound traffic and search engine rankings increase over time, establishing you as a true authority in your industry.
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