Topic Clusters are the Future of SEO for 2018 and Beyond

With every breakthrough in technology, culture and human behavior undergo tectonic shifts. German historian, Wolfgang Behringer, argues in Communication Revolutions: a Historical Concept that the advent of new tools of communication restructures the ways we interact and perceive the world around us. For example, he claims that the rise of the postal service implemented a universal time, shortened perceived spatial distances and coalesced isolated communities. Take this idea into 2018, following the ability of the mobile phone to connect with anyone around the world in seconds. Technology has indeed reshaped the ways that we think and interact with our surroundings.


And the reshaping hasn’t stopped. Since the internet began, its one constant is that it’s constantly changing. And so have internet consumers and their behaviors. Just think of where memes and hashtags started and how they are now a critical part of internet pop culture and our daily lives.

So what does this have to do with SEO?

As technology changes the way that people use the internet, so must a successful marketing strategy adapt to meet needs and behaviors. Search engines are getting smarter and the people using them are getting better at finding the content they want, and so long-tail keyword content production is kind of in the stone age of SEO.

Current SEO strategy has inbound marketing teams loading their company’s website with blog after blog of content that uses different combinations of roughly the same long-tail keyword searches in an effort to cast a wide net over search engine users. This technique worked…for a time. But now that Google is using new algorithms and software for their web crawlers and content ranking system, these websites are left with an unorganized graveyard of underperforming content that actually negatively impacts their search engine credibility.

There are 2 major elements responsible for why traditionally successful SEO tactics are a thing of the past.

1. Googling has changed

Where before Google was ranking content by the relevancy of keywords and exact phrase matching, Google now filters content by the intent of the material offered. In October of 2015 Google incorporated a machine-learning component named Rankbrain into its search engine filtering algorithm. Over the course of the past three years, Rankbrain has tested endless searches and has gotten more sophisticated with the way it aids content filtering. When someone searches on Google, their inquiry now goes through an interpretation model that applies factors like the location of the searcher, past behavior of the searcher and which words of the query actually reveal the searcher’s true intent. All of these factors lead to a more advanced, specific and accurate search result catalogue. So, because of factors like a searcher’s location, history and intent, even if they type your clever long-tail keyword, you aren’t guaranteed a spot at the top of their search results.

2. Searchers have changed

Now that Siri and Alexa actually understand what people are saying to them, people won’t stop asking them things. In fact, a study in 2016 showed that 1 in every 5 Google searches was a voice search through a mobile device. That’s huge, and it’s not slowing down.


Google Voice Search Queries

The reason for the spike in popularity is because of Google’s leading search algorithm, Hummingbird. Hummingbird was the overhaul of the core search filtering algorithm that, in addition to focusing on the searcher’s intent, analyzes conversational phrases and full sentences instead of direct keyword matching. That’s how when you search, “Where can I buy a bicycle helmet?” you get a customized map of your city and links catered to your bicycle needs. Your local bike shop didn’t write a blog titled “where can I buy a bicycle helmet,” Hummingbird just knew what you meant.

So, how does this change SEO strategy?

Just a few years ago, SEO teams would isolate 10 to 20 big keywords relevant to their industry and try to monopolize on them. But now, there are thousands of long-tail variations of just about every keyword configuration possible being searched every minute and from all over the world. Filling your website with blogs trying to keep up with the keyword prevalence isn’t enough to keep your website performing as a top ranking site anymore. Though some of the best strategies of traditional SEO are still worth it (especially those related to local, voice and video search) it's time to start thinking ahead.

Technology has changed the culture of SEO from keyword to topic cluster.

The future of content strategy is going to focus on brand visibility across several recognizable core topics that directly relate to your industry's buyer personas. The way to do this is by restructuring your site’s architecture.

Your website probably has one page holding all of your relevant content. This is how websites begin, but as you produce more content, your site starts to clutter and becomes a graveyard of underperforming content that will eventually be lost to potential readers through Google’s algorithmic filter. This is what your bad architecture probably looks like.

Bad site architecture

The solution is to overhaul your existing content storage structure to focus on a range of core topic areas, thus creating a more efficient information architecture.

But what does that mean exactly? It means organizing your content around the core content of your company allowing you to manage internal linking between content, boost all of your content’s search ranking and allow viewers of your page a cleaner user experience.

Topic Cluster Architecture looks like this: a set of “pillars” circumvented by similar, expounding sub-topics. Once you have determined your industry's strongest, most fundamental core topics, choose a piece of content covering a broad overview for topic; this will be your pillar. The pillar should be a highly trafficked, evergreen page that converts your leads.

SEO and Topic Clusters by Hubspot

From your pillar you will have “cluster content” or subtopics. These will be your blog posts focusing on more specific content surrounding your core topic and will link to your pillar through a hyperlinked keyword. Imagine your pillar as the keyword, and your sub-topics as the long-tail keywords. 

For example, let’s say that you run an online office health forum and you’ve noticed that a lot of your trafficked content revolves around office space productivity. Now that you are restructuring the architecture of your website, you would want to make Office Space Productivity one of your pillar pieces of content. Now, the rest might look something like this: 

boosted workday cluster

Since all of these blog posts relate to Office Space Productivity, it makes sense that they all feed back to a hub page that will convert your lead as well as offer the lead the additional value of the other related posts.

But there is more value than the way an internet user navigates your page. The cluster organization signals to search engines that your website offers in-depth information on the topic of Office Space Productivity, and that you are an authority on the subject. This allows website crawlers and the updated algorithms to give your website a high ranking. And, if one piece of your cluster content performs highly, all of the other pages that link to the same pillar also receive elevated search rankings. That’s something completely revolutionary to SEO, and something that will have you focusing on the content that your targeted audience cares about instead of producing repetitive content fighting over obscure keywords. 

Now, let’s get started on making the first topic cluster for your website.

Creating a Topic Cluster Plan

Finding your pillars

When you’re creating a topic cluster plan your first step should always be to ask yourself, “what are the 5 to 10 problems that my company’s buyer persona has that we help them through?” This is how you can identify what your clusters are. Most likely, your company doesn’t just help with one problem. If the core of your company is in selling office supplies, then you probably help buyers when they are looking for ergonomics chairs, aesthetic lampshades, utilitarian desks, quirky gifts and productivity-influencing items for their office.

If you already have content on your website, you should sift through your top performing pieces and organize them into the different “buyer problems” that your company serves. These will be your pillar content, and will connect to all of the sub-content related to them. 

*Note: The Pillar content should bring in a large sum of new leads every month. A great piece of content for a pillar can often be a tool page because these are often shared a lot and frequented at all stages of the buyer’s journey.

Creating a Cluster

Now that you have your broad topic pillars, it’s time to create your cluster. The cluster is going to be several blogs or pieces of content that branch out of your pillar connected via an internal hyperlink in both pages. So in order to ensure that your topic cluster is working for you, you should do internal and market keyword research to determine what blogs you should add and write.

Keyword research allows you to find what people are searching related to your pillar content. This is helpful for determining which of your content is best suited for your cluster, and where holes exist so that you can write new content to feed your cluster. Make sure to use tools like UberSuggest to find related search terms that you may have missed and SEMRush to see how your market competitors are ranking for each term.

When you’re doing your keyword research, make a large list of sub-content related to your pillar and create a document to keep track of the cluster you’re creating. Once you have a large list, use Google’s Keyword Planner and Hubspot’s Keywords Tool to refine your terms into a concise and impactful list of content for your cluster. This content strategy will give you the opportunity to create a schedule of necessary content that your marketing team needs to produce for each cluster.

If your website is already rich with content that you are organizing around your selected pillars, these keyword tools will help you to find your related content and insert new keywords and active hyperlinks that link back to your pillar. This will set your cluster in motion, and you will see the SEO lead generation start to take effect immediately. The easiest way to create this cluster is through the automated clustering Content Strategy tool which is available to all Hubspot users. Here’s a Story Block Pillar that we created in the Hubspot portal:

Story Block Inbound Marketing Topic Cluster in Hubspot

The future of SEO and inbound marketing is in creating content that your ideal customers really want to see. Ultimately, this transition in how search engines read and rank content is giving search power back to internet users. That means that past strategies like creating content designed to be read by web crawlers won’t work anymore. This intelligence boost has search engines reading the intent of your page instead of the quantity or uniqueness of keywords.

When you’re writing content, write it for a human. Don’t worry about cramming in long-tail keywords. Just make sure that your content is relevant and that your information is unique and tackles specific “buyer problems” that people would love to see.

This transition from keyword focused content to topic clusters will have you creating more meaningful content, which in turn will have your website ranking higher in search engines, have your customers experiencing a higher quality of service and will have your website’s organization pushing your content creation forward in a way that serves your company better.