What Are Topic Clusters?

Your website is live and ready for traffic. You know your niche well, and you have a long list of ideas to write about. A few times a week, you sit down to draft the next blog post and…you freeze. Part of the problem is that you don’t know how to answer the question, “What are topic clusters?” You’re not even sure what a topic cluster is.

It feels like there are too many ideas pin-balling around your brain. You write about one topic, then hop to another the next day. There are a lot of articles on your website, but they feel random instead of cohesive.

Here’s what’s happening: You don’t have a sound content strategy. And coming up with one can be more complex than developing the actual content.

The solution? Topic clusters. Here’s how it works:

  • Choose a main topic.
  • Create a pillar page for that broad topic.
  • Develop subpages about related topics.

By structuring your content this way, your website will attract more organic (i.e., not paid) traffic. On top of that, it can also help with your content marketing.

What is a Topic Cluster?

The term “topic clusters” refers to the content that surrounds a main topic. The pillar page for that main topic is used to link to and from those topic cluster articles.

This graphic does a good job of showing how pillar topics and topic clusters (your subpages) relate, and how everything relates to your website:

Graphic that shows the flow to explain what are topic clusters.

What Are the Elements of a Topic Cluster?

The pillar page is at the center of your topic cluster; think of it as the hub for everything related to that subject. It should link out to all of the related subpages for that topic.

Note that the pillar page will broadly cover the entire topic without comprehensively covering any one subtopic.

A topic cluster subpage is an article that goes more in-depth on a specific aspect of the pillar topic. It should link back to the pillar page.

What Are the Benefits of a Topic Cluster?

There are a lot of benefits to using topic clusters when creating your content strategy:

  • Organization: Pillar pages and topic clusters keep your website organized and topics closely connected.
  • Content Production: Once you have a pillar page in place, creating the subpages is a lot easier because you’ll have already done a substantial part of the work.
  • Thorough Content: Topic clusters help you identify and fill in content gaps while at the same time avoiding overlapping or repeat information.
  • SEO: With an internal linking strategy, topic clusters will eventually improve your website’s SEO because you’ll build authority over the main topics.

How to Create Content Clusters

Don’t be discouraged by the process of creating a topic cluster content strategy. The time you spend now will pay off later when developing the content is uncomplicated and methodical. Here’s how to create content clusters and get yourself on the right course:

Choose Your Main Topic

What are the core topics related to your website? What topics is your audience most interested in? Start there when choosing a main topic to focus on for your first pillar page.

You don’t want to go too broad. For example, if you run a travel website, “travel” is too enormous a topic for a pillar page.

Think of going one level down. What are the next topics you’d focus on? Looking at your site navigation may help. For example, a travel website may be organized like this:

  • Destinations
  • Planning
  • Packing
  • Transportation
  • Saving Money

Those are still too broad for pillar pages, but they’re getting you closer. Let’s look at the packing topic. That can be broken down into subjects like:

  • Air travel requirements
  • Luggage recommendations
  • Packing hacks
  • Travel-friendly items

Those are all excellent pillar page topics. You don’t want to niche down much more because you need a pillar topic that can be broken down into subtopics. If your pillar topic is too specific, you’ll have difficulty creating branch-off articles.

For example, if you choose “air travel requirements” as your pillar page, a topic cluster example may be one of the following:

  • Airline-approved dog crates
  • Can you bring [item] on a plane?
  • Travel-sized liquids

But if you were to pick one of those topics as your pillar page, you’d be far more limited in spinoff topics to write about.

Vetting a Pillar Page’s Value

If you want to make sure that your pillar topic has enough subtopics to cover, you can use a keyword planning tool like Surfer . Here are just some of the keyword cluster results for “luggage recommendations”:

Topic cluster examples from Surfer tool.

There are more than enough suggestions on the results page to create a rich topic cluster strategy. You could even use one of these clusters as the pillar page and build topic clusters from there. For example, “best luggage brands” could be its own pillar page with topic clusters that go deeper into the different brands you recommend.

However, you may discover that the pillar topic isn’t large enough to develop into enough topic clusters. For example, the results for “air travel requirements” aren’t nearly as promising:

Topic cluster examples from Surfer.

There are fewer clusters overall when compared to the luggage results, and even the most relevant ones aren’t targeted enough. We may be able to use the “air travel requirements” topic with a different pillar topic, though.

Let’s say you want to write about the JetBlue airline on your travel website. If you search for “JetBlue rules” in Surfer, you’ll see results that relate to air travel requirements, like:

  • JetBlue carry-on policy
  • JetBlue disability seats
  • JetBlue pet policy
  • Traveling with an infant on JetBlue
  • Unaccompanied minor on Jetblue

You could create a pillar page for “JetBlue rules” and use these topics as spinoff clusters.

Carry Out Keyword Research

Once you know your pillar topic, you can research keywords. You may already have a lot of your topic clusters figured out, but this part of the process can help you hone in on them even more.

Warning: Don’t jump right into creating your pages! This is the step that will make a huge difference in your SEO and how comprehensive your content is.

Using Google for Keyword Research

One of the most effective keyword research tools is completely free because it’s the king of search engines itself: Google. Here’s what to do:

Step 1: Use the Google search bar to see the autocompletes for your main topic.

Let’s continue with the “best luggage” topic cluster example. If you head to Google and type “best luggage” in the search bar, you’ll see a number of autocompletes come up:

Google auto-complete searches.

There are some great ideas in there for subpages:

  • Best luggage for international travel
  • Best luggage brands
  • Best luggage sets
  • Best luggage for European travel
  • Best luggage tags
  • Best luggage scales

Step 2: Explore the People Also Ask section.

If you hit Enter and search for “best luggage,” then scroll down the page, you’ll find the People Also Ask box. There are more ideas here to use as subpages:

People Also Ask section on Google.

If you click the arrow to the right of a question, the section will expand to show you more related queries.

How to expand the PAA section on a Google search results page.

Step 3: Check out the Related Searches box.

If you keep scrolling, you’ll see the Related Searches box with even more to consider:

The Related Searches section on the Google results page.

Using a Paid Tool for Keyword Research

There are a lot of keyword research tools out there to choose from. Many of them will have a limited amount of free access, and you’ll have to pay for a plan to get all of the insights available.

Here’s an example of what the Ahrefs keyword generator shows you for free:

Free keyword search results from an SEO tool.

That may be more than enough for you. Or, you can upgrade. The cost for these tools is usually on the high side. Ahrefs, for example, starts at $83 per month if you pay for one year in advance (a total of $990).

Here’s an example of what you can get with a paid account. We’ll be using Surfer SEO for this. While Surfer is primarily known as a content optimization tool — it helps you write optimized content that can compete well — it also has a keyword research feature.

For the search term “best luggage,” there are 97 related clusters. You can filter them by intent, search volume and other options. You can also see the cluster’s monthly search volume and difficulty level.

Here are just six of the clusters that Surfer returned:

Surfer SEO topic clusters.

If you open up a cluster, you’ll see all of the related keywords. The “lightweight” topic cluster example has several ideas that you could create subpages from:

  • Best lightweight luggage for international travel
  • Lightweight checked luggage
  • Ultralight luggage

These could all be subtopics of your “best luggage” pillar page.

Overall, there’s a ton of information here to work with. You can come up with ideas for your topic clusters, and you can even jot down ideas for future pillar pages and topic clusters.

Performing Competitor Research

You can also perform competitor research to analyze what your competition is doing and what they’re not doing.

Since you want to thoroughly cover a topic, you won’t only focus on what the competition is missing. However, knowing what your audience wants and isn’t getting can help you prioritize which topic clusters to start with.

You could use a tool like Keyword Gap from Semrush, which lets you see the keywords you’re ranking for that your competitors are missing (among many other insights).

Results from the Keyword Gap tool from Semrush.

However, the data you can use with the free plan is limited, and the cost to upgrade starts at $100 per month.

If you’re not ready to invest in a pricey keyword tool, another way to see what your competitors are missing is by reading the comments on their blog posts or social media. You can get a feel for what the audience wants to know that the brand isn’t covering yet.

Outline Topic and Content Structures

This two-step approach will leave you with a general flow of topics from the pillar page down and outlines for each piece of content you’ll create.

Creating the Topic Structure

By now, you probably have a long list of subpage topics that will branch off the pillar page. The next step is to create outlines for the pillar page and the subpages (and sub-subpages).

This example from Semrush starts with a pillar page about SEO and then branches off into primary and secondary clusters. The connecting lines are internal links that go back and forth between the pages.

An example of pillar pages and topic structures.

Outlining Each Subpage

Next, outline each piece of content. Each outline should include:

  • Title
  • Headings
  • Primary and secondary keywords
  • Word count target
  • External links to competitors

You can do this on your own using your best judgment, or you can use a tool to help guide you. Here’s how a tool like Surfer can help you outline your subpages. We’ll continue with the example from above.

Let’s say your pillar page focuses on the keyword “best luggage.” One of your primary subpages may be about “lightweight luggage.” You can use the Surfer Content Editor to write an article with the main keyword of “lightweight luggage” and secondary keywords you choose.

Note that the secondary keywords should naturally relate to one another and meet your audience’s expectations. They should also be worded sensically. Even if a term is searched for often, if the wording is clumsy or grammatically incorrect, it’s going to weaken your content.

Selecting secondary keywords in Surfer.

Surfer analyzes the competition to help you create content that has a chance of ranking highly. There are suggestions for headings, plus topics and questions to cover. Some of these recommendations may also make great subpages.

Topic and question suggestions from the Surfer Content Editor.

The Content Structure section tells you the best word count target, plus how many headings, paragraphs and images the article should include. As you write, it’ll let you know how close you are to these goals.

Surfer's suggestions for content structure.

In the Competitors section, you can see the competing pages that are worth linking out to.

Competitor analysis with Surfer.

You can use all this insight to develop a content outline that will best serve your audience.

Create and Optimize Your Content

Depending on how skilled you are at writing and your background in creating content, this will either be the easiest part of the process for you or the hardest.

If you need guidance, there are a lot of articles out there about how to write great content. Here’s one from Neil Patel and another from Yoast to get you started.

Your content has to check a lot of boxes. It should:

  • Engage your core audience.
  • Include images optimized with alt text.
  • Naturally incorporate SEO instead of keyword stuffing.
  • Resolve the pain point in a straightforward way.
  • Stand out from the competition.

Don’t spin what others have written and call it your own. You can look to the competition for ideas about what to cover and to get your wheels spinning, but ultimately, your content has to be yours, not a ripped-off version of someone else’s. And it’s always smart to use a plagiarism checker like the one from Grammarly to ensure that you haven’t inadvertently stolen someone else’s words.

Lastly, your content should be high-quality. Instead of relying on filler and wordiness to hit your word count, focus on value. This isn’t the place for creative writing. Instead, you want to answer the question or solve the problem you’re posing in the most digestible and readable way possible. Hemingway is an excellent (and free) resource for trimming the fat from your writing, and the Yoast plugin for WordPress has a readability checker.

Publish the Content

It’s finally time to publish your article! You’re not quite done, though. There’s another extremely important step: adding internal links.

Topic clusters and internal linking are closely related. Because the main topic and the topic clusters revolve around the same subject, there are many opportunities for internal linking. This provides readers with more context and keeps them on your site longer.

Every time you add a subpage, you’ll need to link back to the pillar page and then link from the pillar page to the subpage as well.

Measure the Results

After planning and executing your strategy, you have to measure your results. Then, taking the analytics into consideration, you can plan and execute again. Rinse, repeat.

Google Analytics is one of the best ways to check out your website and webpage traffic — and it’s free. MonsterInsights has a great explainer of how to use Google Analytics to keep an eye on your traffic.

Note that Google updates your analytics every 24 to 48 hours, so it won’t pay to check a few hours after you post an article. You can look at your analytics on whatever schedule works best for you, such as once or twice a week.

Give your strategy some time, though. You don’t want to be tweaking it so often that you never get a chance to see its true performance. Decide how often you’re going to revisit your plan, such as monthly or quarterly.

Regularly Updating Your Content

Even content that ranks highly can still be improved. Make it a habit to update your content to give it a boost while making it more relevant and targeted to what your audience wants.

If you’re wondering how often you should update your web content, there’s no straight answer. Generally speaking, you should update your pages as often as they need to be updated. So, even if you posted an article last week, if something in the industry changed to make the info outdated, that article needs an update ASAP.

On the other hand, if you posted an article last month that’s performing well, you may want to leave it be for another two months to see how it does, then head in to make minor changes.

Use your best discretion, and always have a cycle of updating your content.

What Are Topic Clusters and Keyword Cannibalization?

Keyword cannibalization is when too many pages are optimized for the same keywords. Google doesn’t know which content is most important, which can impact your rankings. If you notice that certain pages are ranking for the wrong keywords or competing with one another, do the following:

Go over which pages are ranking for which keywords, then update accordingly. A common problem is that your pillar page will rank for too many long tail keywords that you want your subpages to rank for.

Add keywords to your titles and headers to better optimize them and signal to Google what the page is about.

Check that most internal links on the topic are pointing to the pillar page, not the topic clusters.

Final Thoughts About Creating a Topic Cluster Content Strategy

Topic clusters allow content creators to streamline their strategy, spend less time producing articles, and develop a more comprehensive website overall. Organizing your content ahead of time means you’ll move forward with a plan of action instead of feeling lost about the topics to focus on.

Internal linking is a huge component of topic clusters. Use Link Whisper to speed up the process.

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