An engineer-turned-marketer who loves technology, writing, and learning.
Contains an over-abundance of enthusiasm.
An oxymoron wrapped in a paradox.
She has spent 10 years in digital marketing working with digital agencies, as an independent marketing executive, and is currently the VP of Marketing at Playwire. You can follow her writing here.
Why topic clusters work
The all-powerful Google machine has built their algorithm for the searcher. They are all about trying to surface the most useful, helpful, and accurate content to a user. Accuracy is a fun thing on the interwebs, the Wild West where anyone can say anything.
So in order for Google to trust you enough to think that what you have to say will be both helpful and accurate, they are looking for signs of expertise.
In real life, you’d recognize an expert as someone who has both a depth and breadth of knowledge on a subject. Take a neurologist for instance: you’d expect them to have a breadth of expertise across medicine as a discipline as well as deep expertise on neurology as a specialty.
This is sometimes referred to as the “T” model:
Topic clusters are simply a way of making your own “T” model clear to Google so that they are more likely to trust you on a particular subject.
How topic clusters are structured
At their core, topic clusters are then a collection of information to display both your depth and breadth of knowledge on a subject.
Your depth of knowledge is shown by a long-form piece of content (typically 4,500 words or more) targeted at a more general keyword. This is generally referred to as Pillar content.
Your breadth of knowledge is shown by a collection of sub-topic blogs (typically 1,000-1,500 words or so) targeted at more specific keywords within the topic area.
You must then correctly inner-link all of this content in order for Google to have the best chance of connecting it all together and understanding it. Your pillar must link out to each of your sub-topic blogs and each of your sub-topic blogs must link back to your pillar, creating a hub and spoke inner-linking architecture.
There are a lot of more advanced tactics you can (and should) add into this mix, but that is where the basics begin. And getting the basics right first will be the most important part of success with this strategy.
Strategies often die on the vine
Let’s be clear: by now most content marketers know they should be using topic clusters, and they likely have a pretty good idea of what they are. So I’m not really telling you anything you don’t already know when I tell you that you should use them.
Where I have seen marketers fail time and time again with topic cluster strategies is in execution. They’ll build a beautiful plan that dies somewhere during execution.
And it is pretty easy to understand why. Topic clusters take a bit of time to finish, and it is really easy for two things to happen:
You forget important tasks you have to come back and do after content gets launched.
You get distracted with other content requests that inevitably come in.
The most common mistakes I see happen in execution are:
Simply not finishing the content: This is the classic case of building a plan only to leave it sitting on a shelf. Content production is a practice you have to grind at every day, and you have to be consistent. Just checking off this basic item gets you most of the way there.
Linking strategy gets left out: In order for a topic cluster strategy to work, the appropriate inner-linking architecture must be completed. This means *remembering* to come back and link things up after all the content is produced. This may sound small, but it is the straw that will quite literally break your strategy’s back.
Lack of ongoing optimization: You aren’t done once you hit “publish”. Much like children, where you must still raise them into productive members of society after they have been born, giving birth to a new piece of content is only the first step. You must continue to optimize and improve that content for it to truly live up to its potential.
It’s all about building a repeatable process for execution
What I’ve seen to be the true mark of marketers who can make topic clusters work for them and drive great results is a consistent and repeatable process for executing them. Having a very clear process, timelines, and (most importantly) reminders that tell you when to go back and do small tasks are a HUGE help in ensuring success with this strategy.
Because a topic cluster often takes more than a full month to complete (depending on your content production volume), it is really easy to forget to go back and do the little things that will make the most impact as your content is published piece by piece.
Do you know if it is working?
Another common road-block for marketers when executing content strategies is getting buy-in from others. By their very nature, topic clusters are a long term play. And, when things take a while to work, people get nervous or impatient and often abandon the course.
Understanding what leading indicators to look at, and how to judge if a topic cluster strategy is showing the signs that it will be successful early, is key in helping to communicate upward and outward.
A word of warning, all of the information that follows qualifies as super keyword nerd stuff, so if you want to back up and get more guidance on keyword research as a whole first, you can always check out this guide I wrote on how to do keyword research.
Over the production of MANY topic clusters, I’ve gotten down a pretty good formula for reviewing results to see if things look like they are headed in the right direction. I measure both the projected success of a topic cluster as well as the ultimate results in an ongoing manner:
Leading Indicators: Start by looking at leading indicators that the strategy is working.
Initial ranking for sub-topic blog keywords: Expect to start to see some of the smaller volume, more detailed keywords you targeted for your sub-topic blogs to show up somewhere in the rankings (I use SEMRush to keep track of all my rankings). This should start to happen somewhere in the first month or two. The higher your domain authority, the faster it will happen.
Increased ranking for sub-topic blog keywords: In the first couple months, you should be watching for these keywords to climb in the rankings, moving farther and farther up in the listings.
Potential initial ranking for cluster or pillar keyword: After some time, you can expect to start to see your topic area keyword, or pillar keyword, somewhere around months 2-4, depending on how competitive the keyword is and your current domain authority.
Key Results: Keep track of key metrics and results to measure success and ROI.
Sub-topic blog traffic: After you start to see your sub-topic blogs climbing in the rankings, you should start to see measurable organic traffic coming in on those pages.
Pillar traffic: In a similar fashion, as your pillar keyword rises in rankings, you should start to see measurable organic traffic to that page.
Cluster traffic: I measure the success of a cluster from a traffic perspective by looking at the traffic to ALL of the cluster. Keep in mind that one blog may really take off, and some may get very little traffic. But the success of those that do take off in traffic is because of the entire cluster, so don’t abandon the ones that aren’t getting much, they are still a vital part of the overall strategy.
Looking for guidance?
Are you looking for guidance on how to build a repeatable process that truly works? I’ve taken every lesson I’ve learned executing topic cluster strategies over the last 10 years of my career and built the ultimate playbook for those looking to learn. Take a tour through my online course and get access to all the templates I use myself.