Skip to Content

How to Work Topic Clusters Into Your Content Strategy

10 min read

You’ve bought into the notion that topic clusters are the way to improve site authority and organic visibility. Great idea, but now what?

How do you work topic clusters into your content strategy?

Read on to discover how to get from where you are to where you really want to be, in the most strategic manner.

Topic Clusters and Content Strategy

The very first step in implementing topic clusters is to take stock of your present situation. Perform an inventory or assessment of what’s working today. Look at this both from a keyword and concepts perspective.

What’s in your existing content inventory that has any degree of authority, based on current performance?

Here’s a shortcut.

Look at each piece of content to determine the terms for which it currently ranks. If you have a lot of untrackables or hidden keywords (the not provided type), identify the concepts to which the traffic maps.

There’s no way around it. You need to audit your entire content inventory, as well as the topics that are currently driving organic SEO traffic.

Look at what’s currently driving traffic. Look at the content about which you’ve tried to write. Think about the stuff for which you want to be known.

The state of your content is the sum of what’s working today and what’s not, from an organic search perspective. That’s what you’re telling the world.

Think of it as if somebody was looking at all of your content as a mass and giving it a grade. That’s what a search engine does; it gives you credit for effectively being an authority.

However, there will be gaps in the story your site tells. You’ll be missing relevant content.

Look at your information architecture. How are your pages grouped? What are the topics for which you’re aiming?

Build out what those things are and cross-reference against what is performing.

You also need to look at your content without analysis and performance to say what’s good, what’s bad. What have you done a good job with in regards to structure, organization, and comprehensiveness?

Based on all your topics, what do you care about as a business? Where do you want to be performing better?

For the stuff that’s performing well, how does that align? Is it stuff that you actually care about, or is it all random stuff that just happens to rank well in search queries? Are there significant gaps between those things?

Content Creation for the Buyer’s Journey

Now you need to get the lay of the land on each topic.

Which ones are performing really well in organic search? For how many individual keywords are these pages and blog posts performing? Are those words aligned to satisfy the users intent?

As you go through these top content items, determine whether they’re genuinely pillar content candidates or support pages that happened to do well. You’re actually drawing out all the pages that relate to a topic and figuring out if they answer specific user intent or are they cross intent.

A mistake many content strategists make is that they solely focus on building pillar content to the exclusion of everything else. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell the story of their expertise because it doesn’t dive deep enough.

In the transition to thinking in terms of pillar content and supporting pages, look at what you’ve accomplished and where the holes exist. If you’re not telling the story across the buy cycle and the user intent targets, then you’ve got gaps in the narrative upon which you’re an expert.

What’s often forgotten in the overall scheme of things is intent mismatch. So you may have content that performs relatively well for a keyword. However, it doesn’t satisfy a user who would search for that and click on your page that requires action.

So either you improve the existing page to support that or build a supporting infrastructure to round that out. Make sure you provide the value that you’re currently being credited for but now don’t. That’s the key.

Yet many people make that mistake. They don’t want to build that auxiliary support page on something for which they already do okay. That’s a terrible mistake because you’re making this about you and not about the user.

You always want to be thinking about whether you’re satisfying what they want with this content.

When you do this evaluation, you’re taking all your existing content on these topics and looking at related issues to determine if you have coverage in these areas.

If I have no coverage on anything one tier away, that tells an awkward story. Focusing on topic clusters requires figuring out these unique projects and then understanding how they’re connected. For example, if we tried writing about a broad topic like video marketing, it wouldn’t do well. As a content strategy blog, it’s not where our demonstrable expertise resides.

Incorporating the Cluster Model

If the stuff you’re performing well for is wholly separated from what you care about, that presents another dynamic.

If 90% of your traffic is isolated to a few pages, your path will be a different path than someone who has a lot of stuff working, where the highest priorities are unclear.

If all you’ve done is target long-tail keywords in the past, you’ll have a whole bunch of “teeth” sitting around. Now take those content teeth and assemble the jaws.

Keep in mind; there could be significant gaps that are blind spots in your coverage. However, the biggest thing is just getting started with what you think you should be building and cross-referencing with the present situation. That gives you a lot of insight on the topics that you need to cover adequately. It’s a simple yet effective content marketing strategy.

I like to make out a hit list of page characteristics or page data sets for which to look. There may be long-form content that I spent some money on, and they’re just not doing well.

Do they have a support structure? Where are they in your sitemap? Where are they in your infrastructure?

Perhaps some pages are thin, but they do well, almost punching above their weight. Why is that? That’s something always actionable.

Look at the subjects your site ranks very well for and how are they clustered. What about the stuff that you’re on page two through five? What are the characteristics of those topics? What about things for which you want to rank, but don’t?

That’s another sequence to get started thinking about.

Another situation to consider is pages that rank for precise queries but don’t rank for more general topics.

So if I write an article that says “what is potato blight,” and that page only ranks for “can I eat potatoes inflicted with blight?” It’s a signal that it might have been optimized for the wrong words or it could be intent misfire. Intent mismatch takes many forms.

Creating Strategy Maps

Once you understand where you’re at versus where you want to be, it’s time to start planning. Now you build out a blueprint to attack the stages of the buying cycle and the user intent profile. You want to provide a resource for somebody within that journey. That’s progressing from understanding the topic to understanding the decisions someone needs to make, understanding purchase goals, and troubleshooting goals.

This gets into the marketing funnel and what questions are out there. What are the keywords about which your target audience care? How do they connect to the intent and how have I answered them?

That doesn’t mean to go and create content about that question. It means to determine if you have answered those elegantly within this cluster. I’m if not, then figure out how to work it into an existing page or build content that speaks specifically to that issue.

If you put out high-quality content every time you attack a topic, whether it’s supporting content or a pillar page, you give your site best chance.

“The best you can do with content is to provide the best content.”

For example, let’s say you have a great piece of content that ranks for 2,000 words and the page is 3,000 words. It’s got some highly important keyword variants for the core topic. It’s ranking 8th to somewhere on the second page for those terms.

That’s called variant targeting. You haven’t addressed question thoroughly but answered it enough to do okay. Now go in and add content that elegantly covers that specific profile. When you connect those things, it creates a better user experience.

Now the question is whether to update the existing page or build a support page.

You can always do both. You can create a support page that appeals to a different user group, make it more focused, or speaks to a separate audience (i.e., social media).

If you’re deciding whether to break content up into 500-word posts or write one 3,000 word post, look at the competition and where you’re at today. Maybe you shouldn’t do both, so get creative.

There’s a lot of different content types and audiences. So there’s an opportunity to build out content in a manner that continues to tell the story that you’re an expert. What you want is for your audience (and search engines) to consume all that content and realize that you are indeed an authority on the subject.

The more content you create around related and adjacent concepts, the more credit you gain as an authoritative figure. That’s the secret.

Content marketers have tried writing about unrelated topics in the past, but it doesn’t work. If you get lucky and it works for one reason or another, you have to build infrastructure around it. That’s what that auditing process will uncover; where have you gotten lucky.

The type of site you’re running also factors into the equation. Is your blog separate from the rest of your site? Are you an e-commerce site? Are you a publisher or focused on news performance? Are you focused on being an authority site?

For instance, you may identify a page that’s doing really well. It’s actually really weak, but you can’t touch it. Those kinds of situations happen all the time, as in the case of a category page on an e-commerce site. How do you address that situation?

If your e-commerce category page ranks well for “top sneakers” adding a cluster of content on your blog won’t work if they’re not integrated.

Despite all various situational hybrids and nuances, for the most part, you’re taking stock of where you’re at and what performs.

Does it match your business goals?

Research intent variants, topics and related topics to determine your strengths and weaknesses. Look for the gaps. Prioritize projects to build out in chunks that tell more of the story that you’re an expert.

Co-founder & Chief Strategy Officer at MarketMuse

Jeff is Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at MarketMuse. He is a cross-disciplined, data-driven inbound marketing executive with 18+ years of experience managing products and website networks; focused on helping companies grow. You can follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.