Among other forms of content marketing, clustering has emerged as the predominant approach in search engine ranking strategy.
But before we dive in, let’s discuss some ‘search’ ideas that are changing content marketing.
Then, we’ll see how they can boost your rankings.
User intent is what users are looking for when performing a given search query. To remain relevant, your content must meet ‘searcher task accomplishment.’
Content clustering is a topic modeling strategy that entails one or more pillar pages with internal links to articles that cover subtopics in more detail.
This model provides for a content experience that is broad and deep. Breadth is typically the reference of coverage at the site or group of pages level, measuring the amount of coverage. At the page level, breadth refers to the intent targets addressed, while depth addresses the comprehensiveness.
Connecting the dots between user intent and content clusters will tell you what to write about to engage readers in an area that also serves the purpose of your website.
It combines breadth and depth to hit relevant search metrics, defining content goals around what users seek, while also creating awareness about your products or services.
Our goal here is to generate organic and recurring traffic that will drive your sales or marketing numbers.
Understanding User Intent
High-quality content requires more than just the right keywords. It must satisfy a searcher’s wants and needs.
If the title of an article appearing in a SERP seems interesting but fails to deliver what the user was seeking when making that query, they will quickly move away from that page. As a result, its ranking will suffer regardless of keyword usage.
Part of Google’s algorithm measures user click-through rate and time spent on-page, which tracks the amount of time a user spends on the page on which they landed.
This is the test of user intent. It’s a crucial rankings factor.
Topical Authority Through Content Clusters
Successful content planners today establish topical authority through comprehensive coverage of a given subject.
This image below illustrates a simple topic cluster:
The subject, in this case, is ‘Content Strategy.’ In the center of the image, we see a homepage. This is linked to three different nodes. Each node is a pillar content item that should cover one major aspect of the subject ‘Content Strategy.’ In turn, each of these notes has a set of cluster articles, each of which should cover one component of the node topic.
A barebones content plan, with some obvious pieces missing, might look as follows:
Domain - Content Strategy. (.com)
Node 1 - Information Architecture.
Cluster Article 1.1 - Title - ‘How To Develop a Topic-Centered Keyword Strategy’
Cluster Article 1.2 - Title - ‘Topical Authority is the New Keyword Research’
Node 2 - Content Creation
Cluster Article 1.1 - Title - ‘A Foolproof Guide to Long-Form Content’’
Cluster Article 1.2 - Title - ‘How to Bridge the Gap Between Your Data and Content Teams’
Node 3 - XYZ
Using this model, one can publish a series of content items that hit relevance metrics both broad and deep. This is partly due to the search advantages of having a networked site architecture and to meeting search intent. This is known as a form of integrated content marketing.
Note also that the titles are informational, educational or awareness based. These articles are intended to instruct readers on how to solve a problem and thus increase the site’s content authority. They’re not just portals to a sales opportunity. However, once they meet search intent, product links strategically placed on those pages will likely be more successful.
Your visitor can read about a specific interest in your focus topic. Alternatively, your user can start from a more generalized search, both of which foster interest and movement down the proverbial marketing funnel.
Why Does Content Clustering Work?
Clustering helps Google’s search algorithm identify a site as having content that is highly relevant to a user’s search. This is because Google now has - as another part of its algorithm - a matrix of related subjects for any given search.
Yes, Google has a topic clustering algorithm.
If you have an article that adequately covers each of the essential subjects related to a specific topic, your site’s relevancy will be considerably boosted.
Whenever you get visitors on one of the sites in a cluster, it can raise the ranking of the entire group and consequently your domain as a whole.
This helps satisfy search requirements of implicit intent as well as direct intent.
Implicit user intent includes all the questions a user might be interested in that weren’t necessarily part of the initial search.
Ideally, your targeted intent should derive from a search query closely related to whatever revenue generating solution your business can provide.
Providing internal links from one page to another in your cluster will give users the opportunity to engage with your subject matter on a horizontal level, as per the images below. If desired, there should also be links to sales portals to products or services that relate to the content provided.
On the left, we see a basic clustering architecture, where users can follow links to other second-level content items. On the right is a content cluster with links from a pillar page directly to subtopic articles. Ideally, the two models above are combined. This site architecture creates an interwoven user experience where cluster articles link to one another as well as to their pillar page.
Long-form Content Focus
A standard content plan begins with a pillar page that covers your subject matter comprehensively.
Although we recommend a minimum of 1,000 or 1,200 words, the average top ranking site for any given search has around 1,700 words.
Long-form content is indeed one of the primary keys to success, irrespective of the SERP you want to want to capture. However, it’s also important to remember that your content won’t succeed by just being long. It has to be high-quality to meet business goals.
The next step is to identify a list of editorial topics covered in your pillar page that deserve more specific in-depth coverage on their own. These reveal areas for further blog posts on relevant content.
It’s often helpful to pick a subject area that more or less has the level of competition you’re willing to invest enough resources in to be successful. Some SERP ranking universes are much more competitive than others.
If you have a small content budget, competitive subjects are not always the best starting point. You’d want to target search queries that have less popular interest, but are nonetheless often quite valuable, as they represent a narrower market segment that will bring with it greater enthusiasm and a higher conversion rate.
A typical content plan might include one pillar page and ten content items.
So, let’s look at another content plan.
New Content Strategy
Content strategy starts with taking into account the reader’s experience and meeting his or her needs.
Think about reverse engineering your content based on what the reader seeks.
Part of content strategy involves setting a goal for each piece that supports the site as a whole.
So, let’s imagine that we want to create a brand new site that attempts to establish topical authority around the subject of technical SEO.
We’re going to start with our pillar page and aim for around 2,000 words that cover, in a general sense, all the essential components of technical search. Then, we’re going to select ten(ish) subtopics and generate an article on each of them.
Here’s a basic framework for a cluster model:
Level 1 (pillar page):
Level 2 (cluster page focuses):
‘SSL,’ ‘Rendering,’ ‘Indexation,’ ‘Crawling,’ ‘Internal Linking,’ ‘External Linking,’ ‘Page Speed,’ ‘Structured Data,’ ‘Status Codes,’ ‘Taxonomy,’ ‘Content optimization,’ and ‘Site structure.’
The pillar page (node) should cover each of these subtopics briefly, almost in summary, one by one.
The content clusters should be articles that cover each of these subtopics exclusively and in much more detail.
Now that we have the desired subject areas of a content strategy mapped out, we need to think about how to structure each article so that it meets a specific user intent.
Keep in mind, this stage of planning needs to happen before pen meets paper.
A great way to meet user intent is to derive titles (at least in part) from the specific semantic searches that users make. This helps cater to various buyer personas.
You could try experimenting with different queries on your subject to see what comes up.
If we’re doing an article on ‘Rendering,’ we definitely want ‘Rendering’ in the title. A Google query for ‘Rendering in Search’ yields many articles whose content will reveal the typical user intent for that search.
It helps to give these a quick read-through. Remember, these are the top ranking articles for this search. Unless they’re ranking only due to powerful domain authority, the content of these articles will provide the answers users are seeking when performing that search. Otherwise, they wouldn’t occupy a top ranking.
This particular user intent is slightly intuitive. These articles provide tips for optimizing rendering, getting rid of rendering problems and related issues. An article has to answer the same questions as those explained by top-ranked items in this SERP if it is to perform well.
We’d need to ensure our article signifies to search engines that it provides useful and actionable information to readers on this subject. This is what will keep readers on the site.
Only secondarily can we push a product or service in which a reader might be interested.
If you go through this process with all your articles, you’ll be bridging the gap between user intent and content clustering. Your click-through rate will increase dramatically, and your bounce rate will drop. Social media engagement will increase. Your site architecture will speak Google’s language. You’ll have good internal links that increase the likelihood a user stays longer on site.
Because your content is actually useful, it will enjoy a higher probability of getting quality backlinks. Plus, you’ll be catering to your buyer’s journey by providing desirable points of entry to your marketing funnel.
This concludes the discussion of an integrated content strategy based on user intent and content clustering. However, if your goal is to create a ton of content pieces, you’re invited to read on.
Deep Clustering and Internal Organization
If you want to go further, each article can become a cluster node in itself. Here, you have the opportunity to provide extremely in-depth content that will likely speak to far narrower user intent, tantamount to knocking out long-tail keywords sought by a much tighter user segment.
Ten articles could potentially be supplemented by another 100 content pieces, creating a content hub that adds further depth and relevance to your domain.
As you formulate and execute your plan, it helps to keep organized with a content inventory that has detailed data about all your content pieces and what they cover for better cluster analysis.
This should at least include what is currently in the planning phase, what is being executed, what has already been published, when it was released and the subject matter covered in each content item. This will help you organize your content strategy holistically and help you to prevent publishing redundant content (which can result in different pages on your website needlessly competing for the same traffic).
Some planners use a content server for this purpose, but often, a spreadsheet is enough. Keeping this data in a live document will also help you focus your efforts around new important topical clusters for expansion.
If you’re interested in outsourcing your planning, a document like this dramatically helps when performing a content audit.
So if you're struggling to establish site authority, step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Stop obsessing about pages and keywords and start focusing on topic clusters that satisfy search intent.