In November 2020, I wrote an article about creating a topic cluster boosting my website traffic by 1000%.
The article was a huge hit.
Also, I got a lot of feedback and questions about this SEO tactic and what are topic clusters.
Today, I would like to share the most common questions I’ve received.
Hopefully, you will appreciate my answers as well.
Table of Contents
What is a Topic Cluster?
A topic cluster is an SEO tactic or way to structure pages within a website. The pages are grouped around related content. Altogether they cover a broader topic.
For example, if you’re writing about “Tomatoes“, you could create several pages about the variety of tomatoes, harvest techniques, and why not include some recipes. Basically everything related to tomatoes that a tomato lover might search for.
The pages are considered part of the same topic cluster because they are related to “tomatoes“.
By following this tactic, you create pages focused on a specific topic, increasing the chance of each page being found organically.
As you can understand, the goal is to have a set of pages related to a main topic, and the ensemble will span across many searches (or search intent if you want to sound fancy).
Overall you gain authority on a specific topic. We can speak about topical relevance.
What are the main components of a Topic Cluster?
From an information architecture perspective, the main components of a topic cluster are the following:
- A pillar page is located at the top of the cluster and introduces the main topic
- The pillar page links to the cluster pages
- Each cluster page details one part (a subtopic) of the main topic
- Internal linking structures the cluster
- Hierarchical URLs reinforce the semantic of the cluster
The way you link pages together and the hierarchical URLs are key components of the cluster. It signals to search engines that these pages are part of the same ensemble and increase your topical authority.
The picture below describes a topic cluster.
What is a Pillar Page?
The pillar page is the top page or homepage of your topic cluster. It is basically the starting point of the cluster and introduces the main topic broadly. From the pillar, you must be able to visit all the cluster pages detailing a part of the main topic.
In the content of the pillar page, you should elaborate on the main topic and introduce each single subtopics of your cluster.
What I tend to do is to start the pillar page with an introduction of the main topic. I cover the main questions people asked: the usuals “What”, “Why, “How”.
Based on the topic, you could give more context, background or historical information. It is up to you.
After the first few introductory paragraphs, you could write one paragraph per sub-topic—just an overview, including a link to the subpage.
If you are too lazy, you could list all the subpages. It should also work.
How long is a Pillar Page?
2’345 words. No, I’m kidding.
For the length of the pillar page, it is up to you.
There are no rules.
Write as much as needed as long as the main topic is introduced and the sub-topics are covered to a certain extent.
By the way, this rule applies to the cluster page. In case you want to ask how long a cluster page must be?
If you share the picture above on social media, tag me, and you will win something. No kidding.
Why using Topic Clusters in your SEO strategy?
Because it works and drives organic traffic.
Okay. Maybe I should develop a bit more.
As you create a large set of pages around a core topic, you will naturally be visible across multiple search queries and intent. It increases your chance to be found organically for a specific topic.
For example, I increased my organic reach when I split a long-form into a topic cluster.
Before the update, I had 53 keywords in the top 10 of Google. After the update, I got 268 keywords in the top 10. So an increase of 400% of my organic reach.
This means that my pages were more often seen, found and clicked on Google Search.
Below are some statistics comparing the update of a long-form content into a topic cluster.
With a topic cluster, you increase the opportunity to have several pages on the first page of Google for a topic and its adjacent searches. You could target head terms and as well long-tail searches.
Also, the way you build a topic cluster helps you designing the information architecture properly or the structure of your website and pages. Your cluster pages focus on a specific topic, and this structure will help avoid keywords cannibalization.
It seems that Google is keen to have a website well organized.
Imagine you are a robot just for a minute. What will you prefer: something well organized or a messy website.
The recommended hierarchical structure of a cluster helps search engines understand your content better.
Finally, topic clusters are an excellent way to set your authority on a particular topic.
Imagine if I have a website about vegetables and a vast topic cluster around the tomatoes… What will people think? This guy knows stuff in vegetables, but he has a lot of expertise with tomatoes…
So you could highlight a specific aspect of your business or product by investing in a topic cluster.
How to build a Topic Cluster?
This question might deserve a dedicated post. However, I will share with you the main steps.
Also, you can read this article explaining how to create a topic cluster from a long-form and get some nuggets there.
Let’s pick a concrete example with a topic cluster around “Buy a home in Dallas” to make it easier to follow.
(We spoke enough about tomatoes).
Step 1 – Define your main topic
Our main topic is already chosen, “Buy a home in Dallas“.
It is an excellent main topic as it is broad enough to let us find subtopics.
A recommendation is to pick the main topic with enough search volume and broad enough to find subtopics.
Based on the authority of your website, you could pick a more or less competitive core topic.
Step 2 – Define the subtopics or questions around the main topic
Think about what people are searching for when they are looking to buy a home in Dallas.
- Is Dallas a good place to live
- The best neighbourhoods to live in Dallas
- How to buy a home in Dallas
- What is the price of a house in Dallas
- Cheap houses for sale in Dallas
- New homes for sale in Dallas
- And more…
By doing this, you could figure out the main questions a potential buyer can ask himself. Basically, you put yourself in the buyer shoes.
I don’t want to speak about personas and stuff like this now, but it is basically what you should do: Understand the searcher, his intent and journey across the SERP.
Step 3 – Dig more into each topic and do keyword research
From the list of topics you identified, you can develop a bit of each of them. If you know how to write for SEO, you could follow some best practices.
- Search what are the main keywords related to each topic
- Analyze the SERP to understand what content is ranking first, the content format, and the semantic used.
- Prepare an outline or content brief per subtopic.
You might even figure out that a subtopic could also have subtopics.
For instance, for the topic “The best neighbourhoods to live in Dallas“, you could expand and detail the city’s main area in the context of buying a house.
Note: We will detail in another section keywords research best practices.
Step 3 – Create one page per topic
If you did your homework, you must have a detailed content brief per topic.
Create dedicated pages with the support of your editorial team, freelance or write them yourself as I do.
Step 4 – Create the pillar page
I recommend writing the pillar page at the end. It is like writing the glossary of a book.
Better to do it once you know all the content.
For the pillar, I don’t want to repeat myself here, or just a little bit:
- Introduce your main topic, “Buy a home in Dallas“
- Then follow with a paragraph for each subtopic
Step 5 – Internal linking
Do not forget to link your pillar page to every cluster page and each cluster page back to the pillar page.
You could also link the cluster pages together when it makes sense.
Some experts have fancy techniques of internal linking. Follow them if you have time to waste.
Step 6 – Hierarchical URL structure
I don’t have data supporting that it’s better to have a hierarchical structure. But this is what I recommend following.
What does it mean?
Each cluster page URL is prefixed by its parent: The pillar page.
Step 7 – Redirect to your money pages
Most of the traffic might come from the informational pages of your topic cluster. Indeed, there might be more competition for transactional pages.
Your goal is not only to generate traffic but to convert this traffic. So it would be best if you guided the visitors to your product or service pages.
In our example, informational pages are typically pages about a topic such as “Is Dallas a good place to live” or “How to buy a home in Dallas“.
Our ultimate goal will be to redirect the traffic to transactional pages such as “New Homes” or “Cheap Homes“.
To do so, the design of the page plays a key role. CTAs, links or other elements could be leverage to achieve our goals.
Please note that your transactional pages, a.k.a “the pages where people will convert or buy“, won’t necessarily be located within your cluster. This is fine.
But still, you could include transactional kinds of pages in your cluster.
We could imagine that, for our example, the pages “New Homes” or “Cheap Homes” display the most recent ones, and a complete listing is available somewhere else in the website tree.
How to choose the right keywords for your Topic Cluster?
As you have to write several pages related to the same main topic, keywords research might become quickly overwhelming. Anyway, there are ways to make your research easier.
User Journey Based Keywords Research
What is behind the fancy term: User Journey Based Keywords Research.
It is mapping topics and keywords to the different steps of a customer journey. If you are in B2B, this could work pretty well.
(It’s already what we have done with the previous example.)
To make things easier to understand here is another concrete example.
- I’m the managing director of an SEO agency.
- My target customers are SMBs and Solo-entrepreneurs willing to boost their online visibility
- The customer journey is super simple and has the phases: Awareness, Consideration, Decision.
- I want to boost a specific service of my agency: SEO Content Strategy
If I want to create a topic cluster boosting the search visibility of one of my services, I will have to think about the most common questions a potential customer could ask at each step of his journey and then build a list of topics and keywords.
At the awareness stage, a potential customer has some pain points and starts searching for a solution that could lead him to my service. He could ask for:
- How to get more visitors to my website
- How to be seen on Google
- How to write better content for SEO
- Why does SEO matter for SMB
At the consideration stage, the prospect is now aware that some agencies provide services to help him. He is ready to explore every potential solution
- What are the SEO services for SMB
- What is an SEO strategy
- Should I invest in Content or Backlinks
- How a content writer can help me
- Best SEO agency near me
- Best SEO agency for SMB
- How to choose an SEO agency
Finally, at the last step, the prospect is ready to make the purchase with the agency (or almost). He could ask questions such as:
- What is <the agency> SEO process
- What are the client references
- How do <the agency> price
Unfortunately, the customer journey is not linear, but by following this approach, you could structure your cluster around the main topics and questions a prospect asks.
This approach will increase your chance of being seen and found while a potential buyer navigates the web from his pain points to a solution.
From the questions and topics discovered, follow up with some keywords research to fine-tune your cluster structure.
From the main topic to the long-tail keywords
Here I would like to describe a more traditional approach. You start from your core topic, and you drill down every keyword possible.
Your main topic represents your seed keyword.
It is usually short and is made of one or two terms. For example, if we would like to create a topic cluster about the main topic, “SEO for Beginners“, the seed keywords will be “SEO beginners“.
From then, use your favourite tool such as Ahref or SEMRush to get a list of keywords related to your main term. Dig down to get a reasonable amount of long-tail keywords as well.
Finally, you should get a list of keywords that you could map against the different subtopics of your cluster.
If your list is not too long, you could easily do this by hand or use a keyword clustering tool to help you with this process.
How to publish and promote your Topic Cluster?
Obviously, to publish, you should hit the publish button of WordPress or your CMS. Here my point is more about how to communicate about your brand new cluster.
You could share the pillar page with your audience on social media and regularly promote a cluster page. This should work well.
I also like the approach of Brian Dean. He has three content hubs on his website, and to announce an update, he is creating a dedicated blog entry about the latest news on his cluster.
The blog post highlights what you will find in the cluster and has a prominent CTA redirecting to the pillar page.
The content of the clusters, meaning the pillar page and the subpages, is never displayed in his blog listing. The only visible entry is the announcement blog post.
By doing this, his blog post listing is not flooded with content from the cluster.
What tools can help me to cluster keywords?
Keyword clustering tools can help you automate the process of grouping keywords together based on search intent.
The following tools can help you with this:
These tools work more or less the same way.
You enter a massive list of keywords, and the keyword clustering tool will automatically group keywords.
The grouping is often made by checking keywords showing similar results on Google.
In other words, when two keywords display more or less the same results on Google (70% to 80%), the keywords will belong to the same group.
The rationale behind this is when keywords show a similar SERP, meaning a similar search intent, they correspond to a similar (search) need.
Some keywords clustering tools will sprinkle some fancy AI magic and other NLP on their process to improve outcomes.
I recommend that you leverage the output of these tools to define your cluster’s pages or validate a manually made grouping.
How to link pages within a Topic Cluster?
Internal linking is a crucial aspect of topic clusters. You should definitely do the following:
- From your pillar pages, link to all the cluster pages
- From a cluster page, link back to the pillar page
Additionally, you can link the clusters pages together.
My advice is to link when it makes sense for the user; just link if you think a piece of information on another page is essential.
Do you want an example?
There is a logical suite for my topic cluster about Google Analytics and Tag Manager, as the cluster is made of several tutorials.
I link one tutorial after the other. In the conclusion of each page, I invite the reader to continue with the next step with a link to the following tutorial.
Below is a representation of the topic cluster.
For the anchor to a page, use an exact match anchor, including a keyword mapped with the target page. Don’t always use the same keyword but vary. It will feel less spammy.
Also, you can use a more generic label such as Read More or a CTA image if it makes sense. It won’t hurt your SEO if you do this from time to time.
In my previous example about the Google Analytics content cluster, the pillar page links to the subpage with a bold CTA. And it’s okay.
Below you can see how I link back to the pillar page, and to the next cluster page from the conclusion of the article.
What mistake to avoid when creating a Topic Cluster?
Some experts believe that topic cluster is an exact science and recommend a strict internal linking.
You might have heard about this guy telling you to add a link in the second paragraph of the third cluster page to the sixth page of your cluster.
Well, you know my point. Indeed internal linking is essential.
But don’t overengineer your topic cluster linking.
A typical mistake is to follow bad advice, which will lead to extra work bringing no benefits.
I believe in the 80-20 rule in SEO (and overall). You should apply this rule when creating a topic cluster.
Another mistake related to internal linking is siloing.
Who said that a topic cluster should not link to another part of your website? Who said that links within a cluster should stay in the cluster to create a silo?
(Maybe the same guy as before).
I don’t recommend doing this, but you can prove to me that I’m wrong (and show me how to link to your money pages).
Finally, another mistake is to create too many pages that cannibalize each other. In other words, they target keywords with the same intent.
I repeat myself: Apply the 80-20 rule.
You should rather create two topic clusters than trying to over-optimize one single topic cluster.
Think always effort vs gain.
When do Topic Clusters NOT work?
Topic Cluster is a pretty powerful content format and website structure. We have seen some advantages already.
But when in which case, it doesn’t work or when you should avoid investing in this strategy?
Let’s answer this now.
For long-tail keywords or very niche topics or low search volume
If your topic is already too narrow such as “The best backpack for travelling in Switzerland in summer“, It will be complicated to write a topic cluster.
Sure, you could do one. But it won’t make any sense to invest time and effort in such an approach.
Long-tail and narrow topics often correlate with low volume. In this case, long-form content, very comprehensive, will do the job to help you hit the first page of Google.
When it’s not about your core business or main services
Topic clusters are so powerful that they could also impact how Google and your customers see your website.
Google needs to associate your site with some topics, and a topic cluster could give the wrong indication to Google.
My point is: Avoid creating a topic cluster about something that is not key to your business or your domain of expertise.
Of course, the topic cluster might work and drive traffic, but it will be counterproductive.
I can take my own example (again).
My experiment of splitting a long-form tutorial into a topic cluster was a (successful) test.
Thanks to this change, I’ve got more traffic but for a topic that is not my main centre of interest.
Indeed, I don’t want to be seen as an Analytics expert.
Now a significant portion of my traffic is generated by a topic cluster about “Analytics”. I even get people asking me advanced questions about Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager.
Even though I have more blog posts about content writing or SERP analysis, the Analytics topic is still the most prominent.
Sound obvious as a tip but focus your effort on topics related to your core business.
Great Examples of Topic Clusters
I’ve found great examples of topic clusters that I would like to share.
Also, some of these examples were shared by my great subscribers. So if you want to be featured, join the list.
Dog-Friendly Vegetables Hub from Raw Bistro
The target audience of Raw Bistrot is keen to understand what’s best for their pet.
The pillar page starts with explaining how to prepare vegetables for dogs and then details some of the best veggies for dogs. The main page links out to subtopic pages like “can dogs eat broccoli” that go into the specific vegetable in much more detail.
Each subpage links out to Raw Bistro’s product pages that contain these healthy vegetables. It is a great way to introduce the readers to Raw Bistro’s products (and drive traffic to the money pages.)
The clusters pages are not hierarchically below the pillar page but on the same level. However, it doesn’t impact the performance.
As you can see below, the statistics are impressive:
- Nearly 600,000 visitors to the “hub” Dog-Friendly Vegetables page alone
- More than 60,000 visits to the subtopic pages “Can Dogs Eat ____?”
SEMRush guide from The Marketing Introvert
The cluster is all about SEMRush, the famous SEO tool.
I like the way the pillar page is built. It starts with the most common questions someone can ask about SEMRush.
Also, the pages provide a table of content elements on the left-hand side, showing the structure of the guide.
Finally, the section Use Cases gives the guide even more depth and offers a rich experience to the reader.
Content Hubs from Backlinko
Brian Dean is a reference in the SEO space, and his website is well structured.
On backlinko.com, you will find three content hubs about SEO. Well, you won’t find them directly in the navigation of the website. The only way to land there is from a search.
You can visit a topic cluster about SEO Marketing here.
The user interface is remarkable, and you can easily navigate the various topics. The cluster is organized around main categories. Each of them is a pillar page on its own.
In the following section, we will focus on how structuring a topic cluster with WordPress.
How to create a Topic Cluster with WordPress?
I’ve got many questions about how to organize a topic cluster within WordPress.
First, I will share the way I do it and the plugins I use.
Secondly, we will discuss other approaches, their pros and cons.
Page for Pillars, Post for Cluster Pages
On my blog website, I organized one topic cluster the following way:
- The Pillar Page with the type Pages
- The Cluster pages with type Post
To keep a hierarchical URL structure, I use the plugin “Permalink Manager Lite“.
For every cluster page, I prefix their URL with the pillar page URL.
It was straightforward to follow this approach and set up a topic cluster without changing many things in WordPress.
Also, I initially followed this way because I wanted the cluster pages to be listed under the blog section but not the pillar page. Using the type “Post” helped me to do this.
Post for everything
I’ve another topic cluster on this website where I use the type Post for everything, even for the Pillar Page.
I’m still using the plugin “Permalink Manager Lite” to manage the URL of the pages.
I’ve followed this way because initially, the pillar page was a blog post. Also, I still wanted that the pillar page can be found under the blog post section.
Pages for everything
By default, WordPress will structure the content of type Page and its children in a hierarchical way. Meaning the parent slug will prefix the child slug to create a well-structured URL.
With this approach, you don’t need to use any other extra plugin to manage the URL.
Creating Topic Clusters using category
WordPress offers a way to categorize your blog posts and then have a category page listing all the related blog posts. With this scenario, the category page will act as your pillar page.
To use this mechanism, you need to:
- Define a clear taxonomy
- Categorize all your blog post
- Change the permalink setting in WordPress to prefix each post with their category
- Allow search engines to index the category page
For the permalinks settings:
- Go to Settings/Permalinks
- Select Custom Structure
- Enter /%category%/%postname%/
Then you should be able to see your cluster under the URL <yourdomain>/category-name.
Page vs Post vs Category: What’s better for a Topic Cluster
When we compare the approach described previously, it is evident that the category approach is more scalable.
Each time you add new content to your cluster, you only need to categorize it and then it will be added to the right place.
The Page approach also scales pretty well and doesn’t display content under the blog page of your website.
The category approach also requires that you define your taxonomy carefully beforehand and start your WordPress website directly with the right permalink setting to avoid breaking anything.
You can do this better when you start a website with a topic cluster model in mind.
This is one reason why I didn’t follow this approach.
For my website, I didn’t want to change the permalink setting and break something.
In my opinion, the approach to set the URL with the Permalink Manager plugin offers more flexibility. Also, I know that my topic cluster will never have more than ten pages, so it is manageable this way.
Another point with the category approach: The category page is your pillar page.
So it means that you need to be able to edit it. Not every WordPress theme offer this capability.
Usually, a category page only lists the blog posts. You could, of course, have a custom theme or install a plugin to let you create custom category pages.
This is another reason what I decided not to go this way. With a page as a pillar page, I got more flexibility. I built the pillar the way I like and defined the internal linking my way.
To summarize, if you plan to create hundreds of pages in your cluster, maybe think about it and define a proper taxonomy and flexible category pages in WordPress.
Should you put your Pillar Page and cluster pages under the blog section?
Yes and No.
It depends on your goal and what user experience you want to offer to the reader of your blog.
Initially, I’ve built two topics clusters: One about Google Analytics and a second about Web Stories Builders.
Every page of the topic clusters was displayed under the blog listing. Once you visited the blog section, it gave the wrong impression, and other key contents were not visible enough.
My goal was to show more diversity in my content and other topics such as SEO copywriting, Core Web Vital guide and SERP Analysis. I removed some content from the blog listing.
To do so, I use the plugin WordPress Hide Posts. With this plugin, you can hide some posts from the listing. I was able to do some cleanup, and now my blog section gives a better idea of the kind of content I share.
For my next cluster, I might use only pages and a separate blog post to announce the new content on my blog. (As explained in a previous question).
One side note: these changes didn’t affect my SEO.
I consider that it could affect how my reader understands my blog, my content, and myself.
Topic clusters are a great way to build a website, drive traffic and set your authority on a topic.
Hopefully, these questions and answers will help you to build effective SEO and content strategy.
If you have more questions, leave a message in the comment section, and I will come back to you asap.