Building a comprehensive topic cluster requires more than simply linking a few pieces of content together as an SEO hack. A solid content strategy lays the groundwork to make certain your content covers all possible angles of a given topic.
Only then can you create a linking plan that ensures search engines understand how these pages are related, establishing your topical authority.
What Does Comprehensive Content Look Like?
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s first define what we mean by “comprehensive.” A simple definition of the term is: complete, including all or nearly all elements or aspects of something.
At MarketMuse we have a method of objectively measuring content quality. We call it the Content Depth Score. Here are the scores for the top ranking pages for the topic “How to Build a Topic Cluster.”
Just like blog posts should comprehensively cover a topic, so should a cluster. After all, that’s the point of creating them!
The Purpose of Topic Clusters
Clustering topics help establish your site as an authority on a particular subject. That influence translates into higher search engine rankings and more targeted organic traffic; the goal of inbound marketing. Great for your business, but what about your audience?
By completely covering all aspects of a topic, you’re sure to match all possible search intents for every conceivable place in the buyer's journey. So no matter what terms a searcher uses to describe your topic, they will find one of your pages that best suits their need.
Couldn’t you just accomplish that objective with one massively long page? No. Here’s why.
Your audience doesn’t always appreciate wading through 10,000 words just to find the one snippet of information for which they’re looking.
I do get it though.
With all the talk among SEO professionals about how long-form content ranks higher in search engines, it’s natural to want to increase your post length. However, that’s a slippery slope with no end in sight. Whereas five-hundred-word posts used to be the norm, now we’re looking at 1,000 - 2,000 words and more.
But guess what?
Search engines don’t care about the length of your post. They care about its’ comprehensiveness and how well it matches search intent. Every post doesn’t need to be epic content, but it does need to be high-quality content.
In Outside-In Marketing, co-authors James Mathewson and Mike Moran relate how one year IBM produced 300 30- to 40-page whitepapers that went on to receive 150,000 downloads. However, as they concede, times have changed, and people are less willing to plow through lengthy material.
They go on to say that “content experiences that succinctly answer the questions implicit in the queries will win better ranking positions.” That’s even more reason to start focusing on clusters of topics as opposed to individual pieces of content.
Topic Cluster Example
Take for example the topic of content strategy, a subject upon which entire books have been written. One post isn’t going to thoroughly cover the issue, whether it’s 1,000 or 10,000 words longs.
It’s better to tackle something this significant by breaking it into smaller chunks of content using pillar pages and supporting material.
With a topic as vast as this, there are numerous opportunities for pillar pages, such as “information architecture.” Supporting that pillar page could be additional pages covering related topics such as “topical authority” and “topic clusters.”
Components of a Topic Cluster
Looking at this example, you’ll notice there are four components required to create a content cluster:
Home Page - The subject matter for which you want to be recognized as an expert.
Pillar Page - A broad topic related to that of the home page.
Cluster Content - Supporting content that relates to the pillar page.
Hyperlinks - Link content together in a manner that shows the relationship between the pages
Although it may appear deceptively simple, the way these components fit together can be quite complicated. Let’s look at what you need to get started.
How to Build a Comprehensive Topic Cluster
There are two ways to build out a topic cluster. Either you build from existing content, or you start from scratch. The only difference between the two is that in one case you need to create the content.
So let’s look at leveraging existing content to discover how to organize them into topic clusters that make sense and build authority. To do that, you’ll need to take a look at your existing content inventory.
Review each piece of content to determine its topic and relationships to a particular cluster. At this point, we’re not worried about whether each article is a pillar piece or supporting content. We just want to group things together as a first pass to get an idea of the number of clusters with which we have to work.
Next, take a look at the articles within each cluster to determine a content pillar or the potential for one. Avoid making decisions based on traffic. Instead look at the content and the keywords for which they rank to pass judgment.
Pillar pages are focused on broader topics than the content that support them. Although typically long-form content, their coverage of the subject tends to be broad but not deep. One or more content clusters can fortify these pages.
Supporting pages have a propensity to focus on long-tail keywords. They explore a subtopic in much more detail than is possible in a pillar content piece, appealing directly to specific buyer persona.
Now that your content is organized into content pillars along with supporting pages, it’s time to link these related pieces together to form a cluster.
Every supporting page within a topic group should link to the corresponding pillar page to form a content cluster. Supporting pages within a cluster can also connect to each other, creating a web of interconnections. Unlike the “content strategy” example above, linking can get quite complicated.
Topic Cluster Link Building
Linking between supporting pages and pillar content goes both ways. Pillar content, by nature, covers a wide range but doesn’t go deep. So you’ll want to link to those supporting pages that explore related topics in depth. Likewise, supporting content should link to pillar pages to further cement the relationship.
Internal links show search engines how individual pages are grouped to form a topic cluster. No links, no cluster.
Link structures come in three basic forms. The one-to-many relationship is what you see when linking a pillar page to numerous supporting pages. The many-to-one connection occurs when many supporting pages link back to the pillar content. A many-to-many relationship happens when you inter-connect various supporting pages to each other.
If you’re building content clusters on the blog of an eCommerce site, be sure to link back to the most important page on the eCommerce platform, typically a category page. You want all that authority you’re building on your blog to have an economic impact.
Here are a few things to remember:
- Make sure that at the very least, each page in a cluster links back to its corresponding pillar page
- Linking isn’t just for new blog posts. Remember to go back to older content within the group and update the links wherever appropriate.
- Ensure that those links occur within the content in order to emphasize the relationship. Site-wide links, like those in headers, footers, sidebars or menus don’t carry the same weight in the eyes of search engines.
An assumption underlying this process is that you have all the content required, it just needs to be properly organized. In practice, you’ll find that you have gaps in your content where pillar pages are in need of updating or are simply non-existent. The same situation applies to support pages.
In that case, you’ll need to determine the extent of the gaps, the resources necessary to fix them, and the priority for producing the required content.
The key to building topic clusters comes down to strategy and planning. Stop viewing posts as individual elements, instead, look at them as pieces of a more prominent structure.
Organize your high-quality content around specific themes and create supporting material to explore related topics in further detail. Use in-content links to make the relationship between pages explicit to search engines.
This way, you'll build authority and rank better in a greater number of search queries.