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How Content Clusters and User Intent Affect Content Strategy

10 min read

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. These pages leverage 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. At the page level, breadth refers to the intent targets addressed. Depth addresses the comprehensiveness.

Connecting user intent with content clusters tells you what to write about. This is the type of content that engages readers in an area that also serves your business goals.

It combines breadth and depth to hit relevant search metrics. Plus, it creates awareness about your products or services.

It’s important to define content goals around what users seek. The goal is to generate organic traffic that drives your most critical metrics.

Understanding User Intent

High-quality content requires more than just the right keywords. It must satisfy a searcher’s wants and needs.

Imagine seeing an interesting title in the SERP. You click on the link but quickly realize it doesn’t match what you expected when you made your query. Immediately you hit the back button and 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.

This is the test of user intent. It’s a crucial rankings factor.

Topical Authority Through Content Clusters

Successful content planners 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 covering one major aspect of the subject. In turn, every node has a set of cluster articles. Each of these articles covers 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 articles that hit relevance metrics both broad and deep.This is partly due to search advantages of having a networked site architecture. Meeting search intent is also a significant factor. This method is known as a form of integrated content marketing.

Note also that the titles are informational, educational or awareness based. These articles instruct readers on how to solve a problem. Thus they increase the site’s content authority. They’re not just portals to a sales opportunity. Once they meet search intent, strategically placed product links will likely be more successful.

Why Does Content Clustering Work?

Clustering helps Google’s search algorithm identify sites with highly relevant content. 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.

Articles that adequately cover all the related subtopics help boost your site’s relevancy. When you get visitors on a page in a cluster, it can raise the ranking of the entire group. It can also raise 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 which might interest a user. They don’t have to be part of the initial search.

Ideally, your targeted intent derives from a search query closely related to your offer. Take a look at this example of building a content plan with topic clusters.

Internal links within your cluster let users engage with your subject matter on a horizontal level. See the images below. If desired, include links to products or services that relate to the content provided.

On the left, we see a basic clustering architecture. Here, 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 into a site architecture creating an interwoven user experience. Cluster articles link to one another as well as their pillar page.

Long-form Content Focus

A standard content plan begins with a comprehensive pillar page of at least 1,000 words. Keep in mind that the average top ranking page for any given search has around 1,700 words.

Long-form content is indeed one of the primary keys to success. That’s 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 identifying a list of topics in your pillar page that deserve in-depth coverage. These reveal areas for further blog posts on relevant content.

Some SERP ranking universes are much more competitive than others. So pick a subject where you have enough resources to compete.

Competitive subjects are not always the best starting point. So think again if you’re strapped with a small content budget. Instead, target search queries that have less popular interest. Often they are quite valuable. Although they represent a narrower market segment, they have 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 begins with the audience. 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 we’re creating a brand new site. Our goal is to establish topical authority around the subject of technical SEO.

We’re going to start with a pillar page of around 2,000 words. This page will cover all essential components of technical search. Then, we’ll 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):

Technical SEO

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 exploring these subtopics in much more detail.

At this point we’ve mapped out the desired subject areas of a content strategy. Now we need to think about structuring 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 by deriving titles (at least in part) from specific semantic searches. 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 posts a quick read-through. Remember, these are the top ranking articles for this search. In most cases they rank well because they provide the answers visitors are seeking.

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 need to ensure our article signifies to search engines that it provides useful and actionable information. 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.

Use this process to bridge the gap between user intent and content clustering. Make sure to do it with all your articles. 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. It’s like those long-tail keywords sought by a much tighter user segment.

Ten articles could potentially be supplemented by another 100 content pieces. This content hub would add further depth and relevance to your domain.

As you formulate and execute your plan, keep a content inventory with detailed data about all your articles and what they cover. That will help you conduct better cluster analysis.

Be sure to include items in the planning phase, what is being created and what is published. Track the publication date and subject matter for each post. This will help organize your content strategy holistically and prevent publishing redundant content. You don’t want these superfluous pages 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. Instead, focus on topic clusters that satisfy search intent.

What you should do now

When you’re ready… here are 3 ways we can help you publish better content, faster:

  1. Book time with MarketMuse Schedule a live demo with one of our strategists to see how MarketMuse can help your team reach their content goals.
  2. If you’d like to learn how to create better content faster, visit our blog. It’s full of resources to help scale content.
  3. If you know another marketer who’d enjoy reading this page, share it with them via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

John is a Content Strategist at MarketMuse providing strategic deliverables to enterprise clients using AI and machine learning technology to increase organic traffic.  You can follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.