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Topic Cluster Optimization

6 min read

Let’s talk about topic cluster optimization — what it is, why you need it, and how to do it. If you’ve hit a plateau with your on-page optimization, this will give you a leg up on the competition. Without further ado, let’s get to it!

What is Topic Cluster Optimization?

Topic cluster optimization takes a similar approach to content optimization but expands it to the site level. In addition to using a topic model, it also includes relevant keywords, and important questions that people ask when searching on the subject.

Whereas content optimization looks at just one page, this type of optimization looks at how well you address these topics across multiple pages.

Topic Cluster Versus Content Cluster

Topic clusters take a topic-first approach looking at all the topics related to a subject. As a result you may find that a topic is not covered at all, is covered by a page, or is covered by multiple pages.

A topic-first approach includes relevant topics that aren’t ranking.

Content clusters are page-focused and typically account only for the highest-ranking topic on each page. It’s very easy to miss topics where you don’t rank and difficult to see the ones that may not be the highest ranking on any page.

Topics that don’t rank are typically ignored in a content cluster.

In this simple example you can see that a topic that doesn’t rank the highest or rank at all ends up getting missed. That’s a critical oversight.

How Topic Cluster Optimization Offers a Competitive Advantage

Most content marketers optimize a page for a specific topic. They’ll do this repeatedly until there’s nothing left to do with that page. If they’re not successful, usually they move on to another page or try building some links.

But there’s two problems with that process:

  1. The “other” page may have nothing to do with the current one. Often it comes from a list of quick wins that are rank-based. Their’s a disadvantage to this approach that we’ll discuss in just a minute.
  2. Link building just doesn’t have the power it used to. As Dmitry Dragilev explained when he was previously on our show, “you can’t use links to muscle your way into the SERP anymore.” 

Topic cluster optimization is a better approach to content optimization — a situation where 1+1 = 3. Here’s why.

When you focus on improving the quality of your coverage on a specific subject, it reflects well on your brand. You’re raising the bar for helpful content, enhancing the story of your expertise — and who doesn’t like doing business with an expert?

You know who else likes expert level content? Google.

But you need to look beyond the page because we’re in an era where one page is no longer enough to rank. And optimizing random pages on your site is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

If you’re using a list based on raking or traffic, it’s still random — there’s no semantic relationship between those pages.

If you have a list of pages in your content cluster, that’s better. But you’re still probably missing out on a lot of important topics. So let me show you how to solve that problem.

How to Optimize Your Topic Cluster

Optimizing a topic cluster is easier said than done. Or just easier if you use MarketMuse. But I’ll show you both methods, starting first with the manual way.

The Manual Way of Topic Cluster Optimization

  1. Make a list of the current pages in your chosen cluster.
  2. Use your favorite SEO tool to get all the ranking topics for the first page and export it. That export should have the topic and URL — optionally, monthly search volume and keyword difficulty if you rely on those metrics for decision-making.
  3. Open the spreadsheet and add the topics, keywords and questions you want to make sure get coverage, even if you don’t rank for them yet.
  4. Add monthly search volume and keyword difficulty to the entries in the previous step, if you’re using them.
  5. Associate each topic, keyword and question added with a specific page in the cluster. If no page covers that topic, leave it blank.
  6. Repeat steps 2 through 5 for each page in the cluster.
  7. Create a new master spreadsheet.
  8. Import the first file.
  9. Repeat importing each file until there are none left.
  10. Remove all duplicates in the master spreadsheet.

Congratulations, you’ve finally created your topic cluster. Use this list to prioritize your optimization efforts in bolstering your coverage. That may mean updating existing pages and creating new ones too.

Oh, I forgot to mention one thing.

You’ll need to do this for every cluster on your site.

Just one final thing before we move on. This is not set and forget. To keep it current, repeat this 10-step process everytime you want to optimize your cluster. That could be once per year or multiple times.

I have no idea how long this process will take because frankly I just don’t have the patience — it could take hours, days, and even weeks depending on the size of your site.

Using MarketMuse to Optimize a Topic Cluster

Remember how I said earlier that topic cluster optimization is easier said than done? Here’s the easy part, at least if you use MarketMuse.

  1. Enter the topic of your chosen cluster in Research.
  2. Wait 90 seconds give or take.

That’s it, you’re done!

Analyze your topic coverage, whether you rank or not.

Oh, I forgot to mention. Just like the manual method, you’ll need to do this for every cluster on your site. That’ll be another 90 seconds.

Of course, every so often you’ll want to take a look at the topic cluster to see if it’s worth another round of optimization. That will cost you another 90 seconds.

I know. Ninety seconds here, 90 seconds there — pretty soon we’re talking minutes!

Just like the manual method, you have a list to prioritize your optimization efforts. That may mean updating existing pieces of content as well as creating brand new pages.

Take Away

Topic cluster optimization requires two things — a topic model (along with related questions and relevant keywords) and a list of pages which are supposed to cover those topics. If doing this manually, make sure to pull a list of all terms for which each page ranks and not just the top ranking term. If you’re not using MarketMuse, you’ll need to take a manual approach — the disadvantage is that you won’t immediately see the gaps in coverage. So you’ll need to dig a little deeper to find those.

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.

Stephen leads the content strategy blog for MarketMuse, an AI-powered Content Intelligence and Strategy Platform. You can connect with him on social or his personal blog.