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What are Topic Clusters?

12 min read

A topic cluster is multiple pieces of content grouped by a shared topic and related subtopics. As a whole, these pages offer comprehensive coverage of a specific subject. That enables visitors to satisfy their search query while visiting your site.

Your rankings are suffering, and you’re not getting the traffic you thought you would. You’ve optimized your pages using every trick in the book. You’ve gone after less competitive keywords, and still, nothing works. It feels like your content marketing strategy is stuck in the mud, wheels spinning with no forward progress.

If you’ve been publishing content based solely on individual keywords, it might be time to start thinking about topic clusters. Topic clusters are the not-so-secret weapon that content strategists are using to lay claim to high rankings in search engine results pages.

But first, let’s define what we mean by topic cluster. While we’re at we’ll also offer up a definition of content cluster and how it differs from a topic cluster. And of course, we’ll provide some topic cluster examples and a few content cluster examples as well, for comparison.

What is a Topic Cluster?

Topic clusters take a topic-first approach looking at all the topics related to a subject. To do that you need to build out a topic universe of all everything semantically related to the main subject of the cluster. These show all the possible topics to cover about a specific subject.

Think of this as your theoretical topic cluster.

At MarketMuse we create this using the Topic Model, Variants, Related Keywords, and Questions asked.

Some consider the topic universe to be more of an aspirational goal. On a practical level, it’s more important to understand how well you cover the cluster and what gaps need to be addressed.

To understand coverage across your site, we take that list and focus on the one’s that are important to you. We find those in your inventory and the provide you with insight on Search performance, personalized metrics and other data.

In this example of a topic cluster for “content marketing” we can see that Content Marketing Insititute has good coverage site-wide with 937 results. Those are topics related to content marketing that are covered across one or more pages on its site.

  • 15% of the results are in the top 3 positions
  • 42% are in the top 10
  • 65% are in the top 20

It’s important to note that the 937 results is not the number of pages on the site. Rather, it’s the number of topics around the subject of content marketing, that are of interest.

In some cases, like for the term “best content marketing books”, there may be only one page targeting it. but for a term like “content marketing”, there will naturally be multiple pages covering the topic, each from it’s own unique angle.

Topic Cluster Examples

Let’s take a look at a couple more topic cluster examples — each one using a different website. We’ll use MarketMuse Reflect to gain insight into how well each site covers their respective cluster.

In this example, for the topic cluster “product experience,” we can see that the site has far less coverage. Pendo only covers 66 topics semantically related to the subject “product experience” across their entire site.

In this case:

  • 1% of the results are in the top 3 positions
  • 10% are in the top 10
  • 35% are in the top 20

Pendo has built up a fair amount of Topic Authority built up around the subject of customer experience. However, Personalized Difficulty for many of the results indicate they face significant headway in expanding this cluster.

Here’s another topic cluster example, this time for the subject “sharepoint services.”

This site offers slightly more coverage than the prior example. But more importantly, they have better performance:

  • 3% of the results are in the top 3 positions
  • 26% are in the top 10
  • 44% are in the top 20

What is a Content Cluster?

Before we compare topic clusters and content clusters, let’s take a minute to offer up a definition of a content cluster. When people talk about content clusters they’re literally talking about groups of pages centred around a specific subject.

A content cluster consists of three components:

  1. A pillar page on a core topic. This page should cover a wide range of user intents. That will give readers enough value to make them click through to the appropriate next piece of content for them no matter where they are in their buyer’s journey.
  2. “Cluster” or supporting pages that cover related topics in more depth. A cluster page tends to have a narrower focus on a specific user intent. This approach isn’t just “find a long-tail keyword and write about it.” It’s about going deep on a particular topic.
  3. Internal linking between all of the pages. Links from the cluster pages to the pillar pages are a signal to search engines that the pillar page is the most important in the group. Links from an authoritative pillar to cluster content pass authority to the rest of the cluster. Each link should also have an appropriately descriptive anchor text. This description helps search engines better understand what’s “behind” every link.

Content Cluster Examples

Here’s an example of a content cluster for the subject “content marketing”. It’s uses the same site (Content Marketing Institute) as the topic cluster example we saw earlier.

The example was created by manually reviewing the primary page for content marketing and mapping out all the internal links within the content portion of that page. Each one of the supporting pages is identified by its page title.

Note that only the first level of the cluster is shown. Mapping out the next level would be absolutely crazy. Each page you see on the map has around 15 internal links, making the result very unwieldly to display.

A website without a blog is an online brochure, one with very low domain authority and rankings

This next instance of a content cluster is for the term “product experience,” using the same site that was used in the topic cluster example. In this case, I’ve mapped out subsequent levels for just a small fraction of the cluster.

Last is the content cluster example for sharepoint services. Actually, it’s not a cluster at all. It’s just one page with no internal links to other pages on the site.

content cluster example for “sharepoint services”

While MarketMuse revealed other pages covering topics related to sharepoint services, they were not connected.

Content Cluster vs. Topic Cluster

Some people would say that there’s no difference. Those people would be wrong. A content cluster is based on the page, while a topic cluster is based on the topic. It’s a difference of perspective, one that leads to unique insights.

Naturally, when thinking about building out a cluster, you think in pages. For example, a content cluster around content marketing, may need pages that cover:

  • Content Marketing Strategy Best Practices and Tips
  • Techniques and Tools for Engaging Content
  • Content Distribution: Maximizing Reach and Engagement

From a site architecture perspective, it’s necessary to know what pages you have and how they’re connected. But that page approach isn’t going to be very helpful in understanding how well a site covers a specific topic.

Why You Should Consider Topic Clusters

In my opinion, taking a topic-first approach is the best way. Because, if you want to do any sort of evaluation you need to know:

  • What topics are being covered site-wide?
  • What pages are covering those topics?
  • How are those pages performing in search for those given topics?
  • How much Topic Authority do you have around those specific subjects?
  • How difficult will it be to improve your coverage of those topics?

The only way to understand the performance of a content cluster is to analyze it as a topic cluster.

The SEO Impact of Topic Clustering

Correctly implemented, topic clusters can have a significant impact on SEO results in two ways. First, there’s an increase in site authority and overall page ranking that is conferred to sites that comprehensively cover their chosen topic(s).

Although we’re just speculating, it does make sense. Google’s stated intent is to provide relevant results that match search intent—making use of topic clusters to thoroughly cover a subject tips the odds of achieving a high ranking in your favor.

But really, it’s not speculation. At a minimum, internal linking helps distribute PageRank thus improving the SERP performance of pages that might otherwise not do as well.

Let’s take another look at the content cluster example mention previously that wasn’t really a cluster after all. It was just one page that didn’t link out to any other pages on the domain. Here’s a traffic analysis — the last few years have not been kind to this page. Yet another reason to pay attention to proper internal linking.

Traffic to sharepoint services page

No doubt, on-page SEO efforts are becoming increasingly more important. That’s good news for both you and your audience! In fact, the focus on improving user experience is widely recognized as an essential SEO strategy.

Topic clusters are useful regardless of your site’s size. If you want your site to grow, get started using topic clusters today. Keep in mind that the impact of content organization increases with the amount of onsite content. In theory, more content means greater possible coverage of a topic. This assumes that each post is, in fact, in-depth content.

Creating topic clusters isn’t tricky. Covering all of the possible user intents as are relevant to your business is undoubtedly a lot of work, but executing based on the framework we’ve described above isn’t above the talents of a determined content marketer.

Getting Started With Topic Clusters

Topic clusters can be powerful when implemented correctly. Start small and focus on producing quality content. Organize your existing content and look for potential pillar pages. Improve those as required, and link it all together. 

Then move onto creating topic clusters as part of your regular publishing activities. Soon, you’ll have a content hub with high-quality, organized content that makes it easy for users and search engines alike to find your content.

If you’re wondering, “what impact can this really have for me?” – we’ve got you. Check out this case study where our friends at Yello used MarketMuse to build an authoritative content cluster that drove organic traffic success, elevating their brand profile for the long haul. 

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.