In April 2020, I ran a small SEO experiment with a blog post and transformed a long-form article into a topic cluster (also called content hub).
The goal: I wanted to see if I will get more traffic by splitting the long-form content into a set of smaller pages linked together and organized hierarchically in my website.
Each newly created page will focus on a specific section and a subtopic of the initial article.
I don’t want to keep the suspense too long (any way you’ve read the title, so you know the end of the story.)
Indeed, it was a successful update of a long-form article into a topic cluster.
Before the start of the experiment, the page generated about 50 page views per week.
Now the topic cluster makes almost 2’000 page views per week and generated 16’000 page views between May 2020 and October 2020.
It is a growth of 1000% compared to the four months before the update.
This section of my website is now generating 10 times more visits, and it keeps on growing.
You can see that the results are amazing, a couple of week after the update I got an increase of impressions in Google Search (for the pages of the cluster) and more visits to my website.
At the end of the article, I will share more statistics, the number of keywords won, the ranking of the page on Google, and the traffic growth. (If you are a data nerd, you will love it).
But before, let me give more details about the process:
- How I analyzed the long-form article
- How I defined the topic cluster model
- How I used Google Search Console to unveil opportunities and do keyword research
- How I managed the internal links between the cluster pages
- How I published the page and handled the redirection and deindexation in Google
If you dont’ know yet what is a topic cluster and if this SEO strategy is worth it, this article will give you insights and a step by step approach.
Finally you will learn how to create topic clusters and boost your traffic.
Table of Contents
What is a topic cluster?
A Topic Cluster (also called Content Hub) is a set of web pages within your website organized around a specific topic. Each page covers a particular sub-topic in-depth. The pages are all linked together to shape the topic cluster.
A topic cluster model is made of the following elements:
- The main topic defining the purpose of the topic cluster
- The pillar page acting as the top page of the cluster
- The subpages covering subtopics and are related content
- Internal linking structuring the cluster
- Hierarchical URLs reinforcing the semantic of the cluster for the search engines
To create a topic cluster model, you need to start with a core topic. Obviously this is the main theme of the topic cluster.
Then, each cluster page is articulated around the core topic and offer an in-depth perspective of an associated subtopic. In other words, each page of the cluster focused on a specific search intent.
The central element of the topic cluster model is called the pillar page. It is “the homepage” of the cluster. It introduces the main topic and redirects to the sub-topics via hyperlinks.
The pillar page doesn’t have to be necessarily very detailed as each subpage will cover a specific aspect of the central theme. A good practice is to explain a few elements of the main topic and explain what the reader will find by browsing the cluster pages.
Every subpage of the topic cluster model redirects to the pillar page. Also, a subpage could have subpages. However, do not dive too deep into the site structure. Limit yourself to 3 levels.
These sub pages or cluster pages could be blog posts or any other kind of content on your website. There are related content and together cover a broad topic.
Finally, all pages are linked together in a more or less strict way.
This is how a Topic Cluster looks like.
If you want to go further, follow the link to understand in more detail what is a topic cluster. Or stay here to learn more about the SEO experiment.
What is the purpose of a topic cluster?
A Content Cluster has two purposes.
Firstly, it offers the reader an organized view of a topic. The reader can start from the beginning and go through all the sub-content to get a comprehensive understanding of the main topic.
Also, each cluster page can be viewed independently of the rest of the hub.
For instance, if you create a topic cluster about “SEO Best Practice“, you could offer a subpage about “Link Building“. Someone could be only interested in this blog post and ignore the rest of the hub.
User experience is everything, and it should drive the way you structure your topic cluster model. Consider the buyer’s journey and all the stages of the funnel from information to decision.
By mapping your blog posts, topics, and content against the customer journey, you offer a holistic view of a topic and are visible at several steps of the buyer’s journey and you increase your brand visibility in the SERP.
The second purpose of topic cluster is to be optimized for search engines.
Let’s called it SEO Topic Clusters: a group of pages linked together that helps the bot crawling a site and get a better understanding of what topics are covered.
Each cluster page is more aligned with the user intent. Each page targets a precise set of keywords and drives particular traffic (or answer a specific search intent.)
In other terms, each cluster page target a long-tail keyword and the sum of all the pages and their related content helps you to cover a large variety of search queries around a topic. You offer a broad and holistic view of a topic with this SEO strategy.
Examples of topic clusters
If you are in the SEO space, you might know Brian Dean. He built an incredible content hub around search engine optimization best practice with 50+ pages.
Here the pillar page of the SEO Content Hub.
Another great example is the Chatbot guide from Drift. The pillar page is rather long and redirects to each subpage via internal links in the content body and as well via links from a TOC-liked menu.
Have a look at the content hub here.
The French cloud computing company, OVH created a great content hub about public cloud offerings and the cluster pages span across the entire buyer’s journey.
For instance, you will find a page about cloud computing explaining what is it and the advantages for a business. This is a perfect “Top of the funnel” content driving traffic to their site. Then the reader is redirected to related content focused on their solution.
Finally, I can already show the content cluster I’ve built and the result of my experiment. I’ve built one around the main topic Google Tag Manager and Google Analytics setup.
The purpose of this hub is to explain how to configure and work with the tools from Google. Each cluster page is a tutorial on a specific part of the configuration. The tutorials are created around the user journey and start with the installation of the tool and finish with advanced configuration.
The pillar page links to all chapters of the tutorial and each chapter link back to the pillar page—additionally, a chapter link to the next chapter of the tutorial.
More detail about internal links building later in the article.
Since you saw the final result, let’s see how I transformed a long-form tutorial into a topic cluster.
The experiment: Clustering a long-form content
If you follow my blog (and if not, please subscribe here), you might know that I’m a big fan of long-form content.
Indeed, my usual article is long, more than 3’000 words and covers a topic in depth.
If you want to see an example of a long-form article, I invite you to read this one about the Core Web Vitals (a must-read for any SEO specialist, open it in a new tab, read it later and share it with your network – thanks 😉 ).
So now, you know what a long-form content is.
So what is this SEO experiment?
Long-Form Content Clustering: Breaking apart a long-form article (3000+ words) into a set of smaller pages to build a SEO topic cluster.
In a nutshell, I will divide into smaller chunk a tutorial about Google Tag Manager and Google Analytics.
But why doing this?
I had the feeling that some parts of the initial article were under-exploited.
A person that is only looking for a small part of the tutorial (like setting up Goals and Event with Google Analytics) might feel overwhelmed by the length of the content and won’t necessarily scroll to the very bottom to read the part he is looking for.
My point is that, even though the tutorial is comprehensive and could be read entirely in one shot. It might be helpful to offer only a subsection of the tutorial in a more digestible way.
Then the reader could decide to read the complete tutorial or just the interesting part (for him).
The main driver for this change was to offer a better user experience before trying to optimize anything for search engines.
And what about the search engine.
Do you think that Google is reading the whole article?
It sounds silly. Google is indexing the whole page.
But what about the ranking? For which keywords does the article (passages) rank?
I’ve noticed something. The first sections of the tutorial ranked better than the later parts.
Also, SEO experts recommend putting your main keywords early on your page to be sure to rank for it.
So does it mean that Google bot is too lazy to go through the entire article? And I will rank only for content that is at the beginning?
It’s time to investigate. Let’s analyze the long-form article and its keywords.
For which keywords do my article’s “passages” rank in Google’s top 10?
As the article is made of 5 distinct sections, I could easily see what keywords are connected with a section.
I won’t describe the whole process here, but to achieve the following, I used Google Search Console and mapped the keywords with sections of my article.
The results are astonishing, the more you go down in the article, the less you find keywords in the top 10.
The first section got 59% of the keywords in the top 10, then the next section got 35% of the keywords, the third section got 6%, and the last section got zero keywords in the top 10.
As you can see, there are some things to improve. The last part could deserve more visibility in the search engine as well.
So now that you get the genesis of this experiment let’s dig in the real stuff…
Create a topic cluster step by step
Now I will explain how to create a topic cluster. Or at least how I did it !!
The starting point is a long tutorial (3’000+ words) about Google Tag Manager and Google Analytics.
The page is not existing anymore, so the picture below illustrates the article and its table of content.
The page was created on the 30th of May 2019 and had 3500 words. Before it was unpublished, it generated 57 keywords in the top 10 of Google and 1600 pageviews (mostly organic) from December 2019 to April 2020.
Before doing any change of the page, the very first step is to understand the structure and especially how people find the page from Google.
Step 1 – Understand the content structure and user intent
The first thing to do is to read the article.
You need to understand
- The structure of the article,
- What the main topic is
- And what sub-topics have already been covered.
In my case, it was a straightforward step, as I wrote the tutorial.
But if you are not the author and must audit the content, I recommend to put yourself in the reader’s shoes.
The second step is to understand user intent.
Think user-first, see the content from the user experience angle:
- What lead the user to the content
- What he tries to achieve
- How could you improve his overall experience
In my case, I identified some topics of the page at this stage.
- The main topic of the page is Google Tag Manager and Analytics
- A user lands on the tutorial once he has the following actions to perform
- Installing Google Tag manager with Analytics
- Setting up environments in GTM
- Setting up multi domains with GTM
- Configure goals and events with Google Analytics
The next step is to use the data to understand the main topic and subtopics in detail.
Step 2 – Define the topic cluster with Google Search Console
Google Search Console (GSC) is a great free SEO tool to understand how your website is performing and what user queries lead to impressions (and clicks) of your pages on the Google SERP.
Also Google Search Console is a great tool to do some keyword research and this is what I’ve done here.
At this step, GSC is helping me to:
- Get an overview of every keyword showing up in the Search for the tutorial
- How people search for the topic
- And what improvements could be done on the content
What I’ve done?
In Google Search Console, I filtered the search results by Page and entered the URL of the page to analyze.
And then I click the Export function to get all the data in a Gsheet that I could manipulate.
On the first tab of the Sheet, you find all the queries with impressions and other data.
I filtered all the keywords by impression.
Why impressions and not clicks? Click shows me when people click on my article.
Impressions show me new opportunities.
As you can the page was often printed on the users’ screens for the terms including “tutorial“, but I didn’t get a lot of clicks.
Maybe something to do with this information later.
And now, what to do with this list?
I went through all the keywords and associated each of them with the topics already identified previously.
It helps me to build a view like the one below—a cluster view of the keywords for a specific sub-topic. At then end I’ve got 5 sheets with keywords categorized per sub-topic.
This preparation work is crucial. It will help me later on when I rewrite the article and headings.
If you want to automate this process, try the keyword clustering tool of thruuu. You can start for free and cluster up to 500 keywords as a trial.
Step 3 – Do keyword research and find new opportunities.
When you write for SEO, an essential step is to do some keyword research. In our case, Google Search Console gives us a good indication of the way to go and the keywords to use.
Also, with GSC you could identify new opportunities. While doing the topic mapping, if you see a bunch of keywords not mapped, it might mean that you unveil a new subtopic.
Another advice is to analyze the trends from the SERP, understand the articles at the top of Google Search and what topics they are covering.
With thruuu, a free SERP analyzer, you will get a complete overview of the pages from the Google search result.
You can understand in one view the structure of each article, the number of words, the associated research and more hidden data like the page performances. It helps you with your keyword research around topics and search intent.
Step 4 – Split and update the content
Now that we have our cluster ready, keywords found. It is time to structure the content cluster.
I followed the topic cluster structure defined earlier:
- One pillar page
- And one page per subtopic.
Finally, I have to create five new pages.
The Cluster Pages
For each cluster page, here the main actions performed:
- Copy the corresponding content from the initial tutorial
- Rewrite the page title and headings
- Rewrite an introduction and a conclusion
The main effort stands in the rewriting of the introduction and conclusion.
I have to keep in mind the user journey. A reader could come from the main parent page of the tutorial directly from Google. I have to invite him to continue reading the next chapter of the tutorial.
The Pillar Page
The pillar page took me more time to create, as it needed more new content.
My approach was to answer the most common questions about the topic such as
- What is Google Tag Manager
- What is Google Analytics
- What is the difference between the two tools
- And if you can use both of them together
After these 700 words of introduction, I link to each chapter of the tutorial.
Titles and Headings
Titles and headings is a critical part of the update.
I used the list of keywords to find what could suit the user expectation and what are the search trends.
The main title of the page helps to improve the CTR and then page headings give a good indication of the content of the page. These elements must be aligned with the user intent otherwise he will bounce back and leave the page.
The term “tutorial” was identified as a good opportunity from the data collected by Google Search Console. I added it to the main title of the pillar page.
Step 5 – URL and navigation
Defining URLs and navigation is another critical part of the creation of a content cluster – maybe the most important.
Navigation is vital, as stated by the Search Console help: “The navigation of a website is important in helping visitors quickly find the content they want. It can also help search engines understand what content the webmaster thinks is important. Although Google’s search results are provided at a page level, Google also likes to have a sense of what role a page plays in the bigger picture of the site“
Please note: “Google also likes to have a sense of what role a page plays in the bigger picture of the site“.
Here my approach:
- Each page will contain its target topic in the URL
- The pillar page URL will prefix each subpage
Below, the final URLs structure.
To finish with the user experience and navigation within my website, I tried something unusual.
The pillar page is located in the top navigation (under Martech Resources). Then each chapter of the tutorial is a blog post.
Why I did this?
I assumed that somebody could visit the tutorial from the navigation and then start looking at the subpages.
Or he could be on the blog and look at more articles and read one article about Google Tag Manager.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. The navigation must stay easy to understand by the user. In most of the case, he will land after a search from Google and ignore the navigation menu.
Step 6 – Internal links
Linking the pages together let you shape your topic cluster and build a strong internal linking structure.
Some experts state that a topic cluster model must work like this:
- The pillar page links to all the cluster pages
- Each cluster page links back to the pillar
In my case, I did the following.
The pillar page links to all chapters. It makes sense, if you arrive on this page, you might want to have an overview of the offering and what tutorials are available.
As you can see, the anchor text is generic and uses a “Read More“. The CTA is necessary; a user has to read more.
If you look at the subpages, In the conclusion of the article I explain that the article is part of a more extensive guide (in case the reader just landed on this page) and also I invite him to do the next step of the tutorial.
Each anchor is an exact match of the topic of the linked page.
Each chapter follows the same approach. A subpage leads to the next step of the tutorial. That’s why the shape of the hub is circular.
A note on the last chapter of the tutorial, it offers links redirecting to all pages of the cluster.
I think it makes no sense: Somebody reaching the last step doesn’t need to go back and start over. However, it didn’t hurt to keep it like this.
Step 7 – Publish, redirect, unpublished and deindexed.
Finally, we are ready to publish.
I get five new articles ready to be published, and one to unpublish.
This is what I’ve done:
- Publish the main pillar page
- Publish subpages
- Unpublish the long-form content
- Redirect the long-form URL to the pillar page URL
- Index the new content with GSC
For the redirection, I did a 301 redirect between the (now) old page long-form page to the pillar page.
How to de-indexed the old page?
Indeed I did not mention this in my checklist, because Google will do its job and will deindex the page.
Keep in mind that if you perform a 301 redirect, Google will forget about your old content and replace it with the new one (this may take more or less time).
Also, backlinks always work with 301 redirections. Any links to your previous page will redirect to the new one.
Result and data
The updated tutorial was published on the 4th of May, 2020.
I was amazed to see promising results a couple of weeks later. I received more traffic from search engines.
In October 2020, the cluster is generating about 2000 pages view a week. To compare with the previous long-form tutorial, it was struggling between 50-80 page views per week.
For the data nerds, I compiled additional data for a period of 5 month, between May and October 2020. I’ll let you do your analysis.
And here you can find the traffic for each page of the cluster for a period of 5 months between May and October 2020.
Finally, you remember that one section was generating almost no keywords in the top 10; it was the section about “Goals and Event”.
Now it is one of the best performing chapters in terms of traffic.
Regarding keywords, it also improved a lot, as you can see the query “set up events in google tag manager” jumped from the 25th position to the 10th in average.
Is it worth creating topic clusters?
Yes… The result speaks for itself.
However, I don’t think that every long-form content can be transformed into a Topic Cluster. The tutorial was an ideal case.
Keep in mind the following when you plan a content update or a creation of a Topic Cluster
- What is the purpose of your hub and is it aligned with your audience buyer’s journey
- Analyze the data to define the sub-topics
- Define a neat internal linking structure and URL hierachy
- Take en extra effort to rewrite title and headlines
Overall, if you provide something consistent, comprehensive and meaningful, you will get great results and boost your SEO strategy.
I hope that you have a lot of ideas and that my experience will help you to restructure your website and create your next Topic Cluster.
Do not hesitate to share your results with me.