Do you sometimes feel that you’re writing posts that disappear into a large internet sized hole never to be seen and clicked on again? It is possible to write every post and know that it will work because it fits into a strategy that will work. While we don’t think topic clusters are the end of SEO they certainly are having one hell of an impact. We know this from personal experience so we’ll cover what’s happened with us, and then show you Leslie Ye’s advice. She worked for Hubspot in using topic clusters to grow traffic by 50%
How topic clusters are improving Upscope rankings
Upscope has been recently using topic clusters and it’s surreal.
Personally, I’ve never made stuff that went to the 1st page on a google search for important keywords but go look at https://blog.upscope.com and then do a google search for items like Intercom app, or cobrowsing.
We’re an add-on for Intercom so we wanted to show up for ‘intercom’ related searches and we’re starting to feel embarrassed at how our dumbass posts appear so often on page 1.
We’re even getting to page 3 for a topic cluster we should suck at like ‘customer success software’.
I mean, we haven’t even done the topic clusters properly.
We’ve half-assed most of them. It can’t be luck. Something is working. It’s that strategy thing and topic clusters appear to be a great strategy.
Fast simple explanation of the basics of topic clusters
This article and the embedded video gives you the basics. After seeing that, come back to read this page and the details will make more sense.
Leslie Ye, Senior content strategist at Hubspot, talks incredibly fast and you barely need to read the transcription as she has packed in 3 hours of reading into 30 minutes in this incredible video. I put the speed on 0.5 and I still struggled to keep up trying to summarise all of Leslie’s wisdom. Below I’ve taken out key points that I can take onboard.
Summarised transcript of the key 10 minute section
- The initial problem and how Google PageRank works
- What are topic clusters.
- How you can do it on your site.
The initial problem
Don’t let your SEO juju spread out across too many posts
PageRank is Google’s official term for what very technical and savvy marketers like to call SEO Juju.
The more PageRank your page has the more likely it’ll be at the top.
When you look at a typical site the home page starts at the top and has the most page rank because the home page links down to the the lower pages.
When you move from the first level to the second level, your SEO juju gets redistributed among every single link on that page. All those subsequent links link to other pages and so on, so forth.
Hubspot’s SEO juju was spread out across 14,000 posts
Hubspot had a link to the Hubspot blog. The blog linked to subsections. Then you’d get to the blog posts.
We were publishing at a crazy level for 10 years. We have an eco-system of 14,000 posts. That Pagerank is being sliced and diced a million ways.
Some pages will then have 0.1 pagerank of the original.
A lot of pages are fighting for attention. Google does not know what the most high value pages on your site are.
When you come up against a competitor with a better organised site, you automatically lose out.
All that work goes to nothing.
This is a pic of how hubspot re-organised its content. Topic clusters!
The home page will link out to 10 to 15 topic clusters and so that second level, you’re immediately getting to those high value content pages which you’re writing to rank for high level competitive key words.
That pagerank is getting distributed among fewer pages.
A topic cluster is just a set of pages.
At its heart, a content cluster is just a set of pages. There is no crazy coding or whatever.
You have this central pillar page and you have it surrounded by cluster pages.
Those cluster pages are sub-divisions of that head term.
For example, Orthodontist blogging has a page that’s talking about the best varieties of toothpastes to buy. Each subtopic could be variations of that topic.
Best toothpaste for those with sensitive teeth.
Best toothpaste for people who are prone to cavitities.
All these things riff off that central keyword but dive in deep into that one specialist part.
Use 15 to 20 cluster pages per topic pillar page
What you then want to do is pick supporting content. 15 to 20 posts (20 to 30 depending on the size of your site). Those are called cluster pages and then the page rank is distributed form your pillar pages down to those pages.
So way fewer levels, it’s a much cleaner architecture. It’s must easier for google to see that this cluster is relevant to this keyword. Because you have more PageRank it becomes easier for your entire cluster to get that rank.
Keep doing the on-page optimisation
On page optimisation still matters, don’t stop doing that stuff.
Topic clusters give your content strategy power.
Back in 2007, all this SEO stuff was new. That stuff only gets you a seat at the table, it does not get you a level up, everyone is doing it, the cat is out of the bag. Most people are not architecting their site this way.
Internal linking matters. Keep it in the family.
Second thing to know.
Topic clusters should have an internal linking structure.
Those pages within the topic cluster should only link to each other and to the pillar page.
Backlinks are valuable. When you’re linking in a cluster, you are keeping it in the family, you’re telling google that this cluster is valuable and all these posts relate to that one topic.
Google can only do so much when it crawls a site it’s not an omnipotent force.
Google can only crawl your site in certain detail. It can’t read a blog post and understand a site the way a human does. Backlinks are one of the most important signals. Google uses click through rate as a proxy for it’s value.
The rules of building a pillar page
Broad, not exhaustive.
It has to address every facet of a topic to some extent. It should be the authority.
People should be able to come to that page and say “I feel comfortable about reading this page on e.g. landing pages and understanding the basic components of landing pages” and come away from that page feeling relatively informed on that topic.
Because it is so broad, you want to write it in a way that attracts other sites to link to it. Backlinks are one of the most effective ranking signals you can give to Google.
It can be relatively shallow.
The cluster pages are where you dive into the long tail keywords / questions that people have.
Optimise for questions. Search is getting more and more conversational. People are asking Siri for things. They’re talking to google the way they talk. Rather than optimise one term and hammering that term, optimise for those questions. Optimise the human variations for what people are looking for when they come to your page.
The last thing you can do is, once a pillar page is really set, then you can distribute that pillar pages page rank. It means you have a little bit to spare. You can therefore link out to a new cluster from that pillar page. That’s something you can do as a longer term play to set yourself up for future success.
How you can you do it on your website?
If you’ve got a smaller site, start doing this now, the fewer pages you have to manage the faster you can get up and running.
Define topic clusters
Things that are in your space that you don’t have a specific offering on. Things your users care about.
Features / angles path. Take a look at your product and offerings and what specific problems your features solve. Figure out related topics and from there you can go one level further.
Another angle is the ‘consumer demand’ path. Think about who you serve. What do they care about? Is it related to the service you offer? An orthodontist is someone who aligns teeth etc but does not do dental cleaning or hygiene. But if you’re in the area you should be writing about everything related. If you do that, you’ll be the authority.
Tag your posts
(note, this is only really necessary to read if you have lots of existing blog posts)
This is only really difficult if you have a big list of blog posts and you need to organise them. You need to tag them to a topic cluster. This was quite a problem for Hubspot as they had 14,000+ posts and so 400 identifiable clusters.
Keep the group doing it very small. So you’re on the same page and keep categorisation relatively consistent.
This tool saved my life. SEMRush.
Take those urls you have for the blog posts and feed them into SEMRush. It helps you rank the URLs and see where the low hanging fruit is and where the gaps are. It audits the health of your site.
Add internal links
Pick your pillar page, define clusters, make sure all clusters link back to pillar page.
Look at 3 or 4 pages that provide the most value.
What’s going to be the continuation of that story?
How do you keep them on the site. Be strategic about what posts you’re linking to. It’s about that reader experience.
When you’re optimising. Remove other internal links. A lot of people ask so remember, when you’re linking, do 1 link per 150 words, don’t go crazy.
Update historical blog posts
Update them because google awards freshness as well as the value those old posts may have anyway. When you see posts that are out of date but have evergreen content, you can re-optimise them, republish them.
There are areas you have not written a lot. You have to own your entire space. The topic cluster shows you where the gaps are. It allows you to prioritise how you’re going to fill those gaps.
How do you track the ranking of your posts over time?
Use AccuRanker. We track the health of the pillar page as a proxy for the health of the entire cluster.
We use 3 different factors to measure performance: Volume of traffic, is it going up. Relative rank. Click through rate.
2 years ago when I was new at Hubspot and writing 7 days a week and had no idea of progress. I was guessing and checking and that’s frustrating.
The worst thing to feel like is to feel like you spent a week on something but there was no strategy and you end up doing stupid shit that wastes time.
You can’t align vectors if you don’t know the universe you’re in.
Now, every post that we write, has a purpose. We know if it’s mean’t to be a pillar page or supporting page. We know what to look for, including the early indicators of success. You get more control. Thank you.
Want to see something to kick your ass and motivate you? : Why some people are years ahead in marketing and distribution
Also see some key advice by Neil Patel on avoiding writing like you did in college for teachers who are not there anymore. It’s included in his 10 steps to promote your content.