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how to create topic clusters to improve SEO

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Digital marketing gurus tout topic clusters as “the next evolution of SEO,” “the new keywords” and “an earth-shattering evolution” in online marketing.

In the topic-cluster model, a single “pillar” page acts as the main hub of content for an overarching topic. Multiple pages related to that topic link to the pillar page and to each other.

The link organization signals to search engines that the pillar page is an authority on the topic, causing the page to rank higher over time for its particular topic. The structure also allows search engines to crawl websites more easily, prompting better rankings.

Many companies are quietly reconfiguring their webpages to adopt the topic cluster strategy, asserts Mimi An, who leads market research and competitive intelligence at HubSpot. A HubSpot experiment, An notes, showed that more inter-linking improves search results and increased page views.

The topic-cluster model adapts to the latest changes in search engine algorithms. Instead of entering fragmented keyword queries to search engines, people now tend to enter complete, often complex, questions. Search engines updated their algorithms in response to those changes in consumer search behavior. Search engines can return better results by understanding the context and intent of users’ search queries by analyzing past searches, understanding synonyms and comprehending natural language. SEO, digital PR and marketing personnel are revamping their tactics to stay abreast with the latest search algorithms.

Not a Passing Fad

Are topic clusters just a passing fad?

“I don’t see this as a passing fad but more so an evolution of how smart marketers are responding to search engine updates,” writes Winston Chenery at Whittington Consulting.

But, as with any marketing tactic, your results with topic clusters will only be as good as your strategy, Chenery says. Success with topic clusters requires proper user research, organization, and commitment.

Steps to Creating Topic Clusters

Instead of first listing keywords to target, list topics or “pillars” associated with your product, says Drew Fortin at HubSpot. Then list long-tail keywords associated with those particular topics with the help of a keyword research tool. About five to ten long-tail keywords can support each pillar.

Build pages for each topic and write blog posts that focus on a long-tail keyword and link to the pillar topic page. That will enable the entire cluster to gain traffic when a post performs well in search results. Remember to blog primarily for your audience, not search engines, Fortin says. Avoid keyword stuffing: Not more than three or four mentions of the long-tail keyword per post.

To organize and create topic clusters, map out five to ten core problems your customer faces. Use surveys, interviews and secondary research within online communities to gather the data if needed. Group each of the problems into broad topic areas.

Cover the overarching topic in great detail on the pillar page. The more helpful and in-depth the content, the better, Chenery says. Address more niche, long-tail topics that are less competitive in blog posts that link to the pillar page.

Add links from pillar pages to blog posts to ensure they won’t get lost in the blog. This helps increase traffic to the posts.

Consider creating a spreadsheet to track content, links and keywords within a topic cluster.

Link posts with each cluster to boost SEO. “By providing more links and relevant content, you are encouraging researchers to keep clicking through your website,” advises Danielle Russell for the Builder Funnel blog. “You are building a web of relevant content.”

Track and analyze. After you’ve created a topic cluster, connect it to a campaign to track your marketing efforts. This will allow you to analyze how a specific topic cluster performs in terms of leads and traffic and help reveal how many leads the topic drives, says Myriah Anderson at Impact Branding.

Bottom Line: The topic-cluster website structure can substantially improve search engine results and page views. Some digital marketers praise the strategy as the next evolution in SEO. While it may not be earth-shattering, even skeptics may wish to consider the tactic. To be effective, it requires extensive research, top-notch writing and detailed organization.