Remember the good old days of SEO and content marketing? Before the many Google updates, SERP display changes, and when just a few of us content creators actually cared about digital authority. Well, my friends, that’s just not how it works anymore, and that’s a good thing.
For so many years, we’ve known the importance of high-quality content, not just for your SERPs, but also for your users. But, it turns out how you give the users that content, how the content lives and breathes on your site, well, that matters too.
Today I’m going to discuss a really ‘sexy’ topic — website architecture and content clustering. Are you with me? Well, let’s get started then.
I started my journey into SEO and content strategy as a writer many years ago. It didn’t take long for me to realize that to create high-quality content that readers wanted to read and Google wanted to rank, I’d have to know a bit about SEO factors, digital authority, and what really makes an article good, right?
Without adding a whole lot of ‘fluff’ right now in this introduction, let’s just say once I saw how powerful SEO could be for growing a site quickly, I was hooked. Everything I’ve learned about SEO, site architecture, structuring, internal linking — it all comes from pulling the hard yards on the front lines. Nothing I will share with you today is based on theory. These are the actual practices we put into place in every site, and they work no matter what your niche.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of site authority and structuring, I want to give you some quick wins because I’m here to help.
1. Remember who your site is for.
I see a lot of content creators these days spending way too much time on the technical SEO strategies and not enough time giving their readers what they want and what they need. Our focus has always been on user intent, and let’s face it; that’s what Google wants too.
User intent means creating content that asks and answers the questions the reader is looking for and not adding a lot of fluff just to fill the time. It also means structuring your site in a way that readers can get both instant answers (low-hanging fruit) and more in-depth answers as they dig deeper into your content.
Our readers are at the heart of everything we do at Center Keel Media and Venture 4th Media. No amount of technical SEO can overcome a poorly structured site that does not think about how real people are using, reading, and interacting with your content.
2. Let the experts in!
One of the easiest, most effective ways to get high-quality content is to hire subject matter experts. This is why our tagline for our website incubator is “Connecting Experts to Answers,” and we live by that. If someone is going to write about whiskey, well, they better have an affinity for scotch and know the difference between whiskey and whisky.
For too long, writing ability alone has ruled as the most essential quality to have when it comes to high-quality, high-ranking content. While writers do need to write, we have found that a good editing team can overcome a somewhat clunky writer. However, a flawless writer cannot ‘fake’ expertise in a niche, and readers can tell the difference between an expert and an imposter!
When Google rolled out its now infamous Quality Search Guidelines and EAT update last year, many sites (especially in the health and wealth verticals) suddenly tanked. While there have been some fluctuations and improvements in the algorithm and what constitutes ‘authority’ content, the foundational principle stands the same – users and Google do not want ‘fakers.’
To improve digital authority and subject matter expertise overall, we’ve implemented a lot of strategies across the portfolio, even hiring credentialed subject matter experts in the health and wealth verticals to medically and factually review our content. This allows us to become more resilient and responsive to Google updates while also maintaining editorial integrity with our readers.
3. Implement smart, strategic keyword research from the start.
While I’m not going to get into specific keyword research tips on a topical level, I do want to talk about the importance of keyword research from the get-go when planning your sites. Knowing the subject matter, topics, and clusters of content you want to have on your website is so essential from the beginning.
I mean, how do you expect Google to see you as a subject matter expert if you don’t know what the subject matter is?
This might sound like an obvious tip here, but I’ve seen many well-meaning content creators do just the opposite. You’ve all seen the ‘throw it at the wall and see if it sticks’ approach when it comes to content, right? Well, perhaps in the early days of blogging and content creation, that worked. And, sometimes with a lot of passion and hard work, a blogger who loves the topic they are blogging about can get ‘lucky’ in Google with this approach.
Yet, we’re not here just to hope and pray that our content will rank someday. Strategic keyword research and planning not only saves you money and time, but it’s also the path of least resistance to where you want to go.
There are a lot of fantastic keyword research tools out there to get you started. I personally love Ahrefs, which allows you to do the vital competitor research before you build and to see if you even have a fighting chance of ranking in Google at all.
I also love using MarketMuse to discover the sub-topics and keywords I will need to rank for that surround my core intended topics (we’ll get into that more later).
4. Keep your cool despite the many Google updates.
There are so many factors that can determine your rankings. Google updates are just one of them. Yes, a Google update can shake things up a bit, but good content will always float to the top eventually.
If you create content for your readers first, and not for Google, the updates will become less and less significant over time. I have seen many updates come and go and trust me when I say that good content does rise to the top, eventually.
5. Let the data drive your content decisions.
After you have hired the subject matter experts (or are one), created a decent keyword strategy for the topics and ideas you want to write about, you need to start getting the data! That’s the fun part.
Once your site is up and running, one of the most important keys to growing a site is knowing how to let data drive your decisions. In our website incubator, we use the data constantly to help us make our ‘next move’ decisions. Because, after you’ve done the keyword research, structured the site correctly, created killer content, you have to wait and let the data tell you what to do next.
Data is always good. If your content isn’t ranking, that is good data. These are signals that can help you either optimize or improve or pivot and change. We love to use tools such as MarketMuse to show us where we have content authority and where we have content gaps. This allows us to create more targeted content moving forward and may even reveal some topical authority we didn’t know we had.
Of course, there is an art to reading and interpreting the data which comes into play. Still, if we remember our core principles of ‘user intent’ and intention, data becomes easier to analyze. Digital authority is all about sending the signal to your users and to search engines that yes, this is a cluster of topics you know something about. Remember, more keywords do not necessarily mean more relevant traffic.
I like to think about digital authority as much more than a metric you can see in Ahrefs, and more about the entire approach you have with your site, from site organization to content creation. Before you write your first blog, you must know precisely for what you want to achieve recognition — that’s how you start to build digital authority.
One of the reasons I love working with our incubator sites is because we get to structure and plan the website of our dreams from the beginning, and we’ve seen some fantastic results so far. The websites where we implement these clustering and interlinking strategies from the start pick up keywords quicker. This gives us data that much quicker to keep producing the right kind of content.
One of the questions I get asked a lot from content creators is how much content should I publish to start getting some traction? Well, it varies for every niche, but I can tell you that it might not be as much content as you think. I have worked with many website creators who think they need to launch a new site or a new vertical on their site with thousands of pieces of content. With a properly structured site and a clear plan, you can put less content out into the universe and see if you’ll get some traction sooner.
Of course, using a tool like MarketMuse can also help you decide the ‘how many pieces of content do I need?’ question. If you really need to target a specific vertical or topic, MarketMuse is a great tool to see how you stack up against your competitors and where you might want to create new pieces of content, or how many articles you might want to create to ‘cover’ that topic vertical properly.
The Importance of Site Structure
What is the first thing any well-meaning content strategist tells someone about how to rank better in Google? If you create great content, your users will find you. Well, I wholeheartedly believe in the power and necessity of high-quality content (it is one of our foundational strategies after all). Still, I also know that great content is not the full picture when it comes to traffic, growth, and rankings.
Great content is foundational, yes, but how you structure that content on your site is the game-changer. Again, if we keep the user in mind, every category, page, and article on your website should be logical, easy to navigate, and help the user find more of the information they came to your site to see. That’s really UX design in a nutshell for me.
There are three main strategies that we implement in every site we create, pillar pages, topic clusters, and interlinking. Together, these three components provide the necessary foundation for great content to thrive.
Pillar pages are the main pages or big topics that we want to be known for. We used to think of these as category pages. For years, that is how many of us structured our websites. Back then, we had main categories and subcategories, but we have found that it isn’t necessarily the best way to present content to your readers today.
Today, we have replaced the main category pages with pillar pages and the child category pages with child pillar pages, and this is the most effective website structure. Gone are the days when readers are just given a listing of articles that belong in that grouping — pillar pages allow you to create quality guides about a big topic which enables you to link out to other supporting articles on your site.
An example of the central pillar page is our Best Wine Subscription and Wine Club page from one of our incubator sites. This is the parent pillar page that we link out to all of the supporting reviews, comparisons, and best-of lists within the main topic. On this site, you can also see we have several child category pages as well.
Part of your wireframing process should be to map out both the parent pillar pages and the child pillar pages as well as finding those supportive articles that will bolster these core pages. Pillar pages should be the main topics you want to be known for and are typically the higher competitive, yet much higher search volume keywords. The rest of the content you will create should support and bolster the topic you want to be known for on these main pages.
For example, on our Vino del Vida site, we couldn’t just publish a ‘best red wine’ article and suddenly become the authority on all things red wine. That would be a little tough from the beginning, but that’s where we want to get to eventually. That’s why we created a red wine pillar page (in the dropdown menu) and supporting content that helps bolster these key pages.
Of course, we also want to be known to have expertise in many other varieties of wine, so we created many topical pillar pages, such as Best Malbec Wine, where we interlink supporting malbec wine articles directly to it. This allows the reader to have a quick overview of a topic, but also to take a deep dive into more relevant content in a natural way, which leads me to topic clusters.
Clustering your articles around the main topics and subtopics for which you want to be known is a super powerful strategy. It allows you to keep creating the low-competition, long-tail keyword articles but gives you a chance to shoot for the stars as well.
There are many ways to cluster the topics on your sites, and the more you can interlink the relevant articles together, the more information you allow the user to access. When I talk about clustering, I am really talking about internal linking or connecting your articles based on key topics — both the subtopics and the main topics.
For example, on our wine site, we not only have topic clusters on white wine and red wine, or malbec wine or shiraz, we also cluster our content within those sub-topics as we keep creating new articles. The more content you create, the more critical it is to keep organizing your site architecture around core topics for which you want to be known.
Interlinking: Why Internal Linking is So Vital
We are obsessed with interlinking because we’ve seen firsthand how quickly the proper interlinking strategy can help grow a site. We like to link both up and down the site silo structure, from pillar page to child pillar pages, to articles and then back up from articles, to child pillar pages, to pillar pages. When we have established a cluster of content around a certain sub-topic as well, we also interlink those articles together.
Interlinking should never be a one-and-done process either. It is something that we have made a part of our creation and optimization processes, and we continue to see the results. One of the great benefits of interlinking is that you are establishing your digital authority on your own site, so the reliance on backlink outreach is diminished.
Do You Need Backlinks? A Somewhat Controversial Opinion
For many years, our fearless leader, Ewen Finser, talked about how we never implemented any backlink strategies, yet we’d always get backlinks. Today, he is still talking about how you don’t need backlinks to grow a site. High-quality content will get backlinks organically, I’ve seen that happen, but excellent quality content + interlinking is just as effective as a solid backlinking strategy.
You are building that digital authority within your own content, and you are giving the users what they need and what they want. The more helpful your site is, the more authority you will have. It’s that simple.
Some Tools to Help
I love Sitebulb’s site visualization tool that gives me a visual hierarchy of our site so we can see how well structured and interlinked it is (or is not). Ideally, we like to have all of our content within two levels of the homepage.
You can see visually in this example of a newer site how we structure and interlink our sites:
I’ve already discussed MarketMuse a few times here, but it is one of my favorite tools as a content strategist and can be such a powerful tool even in the early stages of site creation. MarketMuse can help you prioritize the content you need to create from the beginning and help you make decisions throughout the life of your site on where you can build next. That function alone can save you thousands of dollars in content costs and gives you the edge on building topical authority that much quicker.
Of course, our team still really loves to use the optimization tool as well — it’s always a hit around these parts.
Google Search Bar
Around here, we are obsessive about internal linking. We don’t just interlink from pillar page to article, but we also build internal links from article to article within sub-topic clusters. An easy way to make sure you are internally linking these smaller clusters is to use the Google search bar. type in: site:yoursitename.com: cluster topic. This allows you to get all the relevant search results quickly so you can interlink them.
Conclusion: Moving Forward
Today’s site creators have to endure a lot of changes, but one thing remains the same. If someone is passionate about a topic, someone will be searching for great content about it. As content creators, we cannot forget who we are serving. If you can connect the right subject matter experts to the answers people are looking for; you’ll always have a winning combination.