What does a content cluster look like?

If you don’t have a content strategy in place, or only create content as and when the mood strikes, or don’t know what you’re going to write until you sit down to do it, then your content structure might look a bit like this:

It’s hard to see a pattern here. Google won’t see one, either — so it’s going to have difficulty determining how much of an authority you are on each topic. A great blog post might rank for the keyword it targets, but the rest of your content isn't likely to see much benefit.

But when you structure your content like this, it all starts to get a bit clearer:

This structure makes the hierarchical relationship between pages more obvious, and helps you build topical authority — much in the same way that we opt for relevant sites when link-building. If you have a constellation of connected pages on the same topic, all linking back to your pillar page, you'll see ranking uplifts on a topic level, rather than a page level.

Why should you structure content in clusters?

Traditional keyword research for SEO is on its way out. Not only has Google taken steps to make keyword data less readily available for uses outside of Adwords, but the way people search online has changed, and so Google’s algorithm has adapted to reflect this. Marketers therefore need to evolve their strategy to ensure their content can be found online. This is where content clusters come in.

Over the last few years, people have moved away from searching for fragmented keyword queries in Google, towards posing more complex questions written - or spoken - in natural language. In turn, Google has evolved to take these search trends into account to deliver more accurate results, notably in the form of the Hummingbird and RankBrain algorithms, first launched in 2013 and 2015 respectively.

Plus, tracking rankings on a keyword level isn't as effective as it once was — with Google personalising search results using location, recent searches, device, etc., the accuracy of keyword-focused strategies has declined. By grouping your keywords by topic, and tracking rankings at a higher level, you can get a better read on how you're performing in the SERPs.

So, content clusters work on several levels:

  • A more hierarchical structure is better for SEO, and helps Google to identify the relationship between pages
  • The structure of content clusters makes you think in topics instead of keywords, which has much more long-term value
  • Creating a page within a content cluster will help you improve rankings for the topic as a whole, while writing a lone blog post targeting a specific keyword will only help your rankings for that page
  • Measuring performance on a topic level is more accurate than worrying about individual keyword rankings
  • By thinking in topics, you're thinking more like a human, which will help you write content that users care about

How to create a content cluster

Firstly, you can drop keyword research — at least in the way you're used to doing it. While it's absolutely worth checking the traffic potential of your pillar topic, your supporting content should be chosen based on what your audience is interested in, and what they want to know.

Generally, search queries can be split into three types: transactional, informational, and navigational. SEOs have been thinking of keywords in this way for over a decade, and while voice search has added extra layers of complexity to this model (namely, the different ways people phrase searches depending on whether they're using the web or a voice assistant) the basics remain the same:

  • Transactional - Queries like 'buy standing desk' or (more recently) 'tickets for James Bond film tonight' which signal purchase intent
  • Informational - Queries like 'how much do cats eat' or 'weather forecast for Norwich'
  • Navigational - Queries like "Netflix website" or "Siteground login" used to navigate the web

While your product pages are likely to take care of any transactional queries, and navigational queries are likely to take care of themselves, your content marketing efforts should aim for the informational queries.

Make sure you cover ground evenly, though — it's easy to focus on the bottom of the funnel (creating content about your product or service) but that's not going to help get people into the funnel in the first place.

A very basic way of thinking about funnel content is this:

  • Top of funnel: For people who might never have heard of you, and don't yet care about your offering
  • Middle of funnel: For people who are realising they need something like what you offer, but haven't considered getting it from you
  • Bottom of funnel: People who know you can offer them a solution (or product) and are considering you as an option

Most people will naturally gravitate to writing bottom of the funnel content, because it's a) what they're most passionate about, b) what they know best and c) seems like it's more likely to result in a conversion. And it is, but that's no use if you're not bringing in users in the first place.

Have your target customer in mind, and consider what they may be searching for online that you’d be in a position to answer. A great tool for this is AnswerThePublic.com. Simply type in a broad keyword that would describe your product or the market you’re in. The tool then provides you with who, where, what, why, when style search queries based on Google’s data.

Another tool worth using is Buzzsumo: by gaining insight into what the top-performing content around a particular topic, you can spot gaps in the market (as well as get a better idea of what kind of content ignites best).

Secondly, think about how you’ll cluster your content to capture these queries. The key is to consider the types of topics you want your business to appear for, rather than individual keywords.

Next, map out a content plan for a particular topic that would be relevant. Plan out a main pillar page, covering that broad broadly, and in-depth. Then brainstorm articles covering subtopics or longer-tail searches based on data you’ve found in AnswerThePublic and other research about what your audience are interested in.

When picking a pillar topic, consider:

  • Am I interested in writing about this topic long-term, or is this just a passing interest?
  • Does my audience actually care about this topic? How do I know?
  • Are my competitors investing more time/money into this than I can, and if so, is there a way I can work smarter?
  • Is this topic large enough to form a pillar, or do I need to think bigger (conversely, is it too broad)?
  • Can I create top-, middle- and bottom-of-funnel content for this topic?

It's important to be confident in your pillar choices before you start creating content, as it can save you a lot of time and energy later down the line.

You'll also want to keep your pillar topic updated — and while your cluster content should also be well-maintained, think of your pillar as your hero piece — it really needs to be the best it can be.

As you publish each subtopic piece in the cluster, link back to the pillar page using relevant anchor text. The result of this is a clear path back to the pillar page, helping to signal which page you want to rank for broader search queries around this topic.

Want help getting started? Take a look at our content marketing services and drop us a line when you're ready to talk.

Come here from the Content Marketing Masterclass? Here's the slidedeck we presented on content clusters!