How Do Content Clusters Strengthen SEO?
Content clusters use topic modeling and internal linking to improve your content's user experience and boost your search performance. Here's how it's done.
by Courtney Herda
Content clusters go beyond merely inserting keywords in content and hoping Google will bite. Instead, a content cluster SEO strategy uses topic modeling and internal linking to improve the user experience of your content and boost your search performance.
Over the past couple of years, our team has implemented this strategy for many clients, which is why we’re excited to share the in’s and out’s of how content clusters work — and explain how they strengthen your SEO efforts.
Table of Contents:
- What are content clusters?
- What is a pillar page?
- What is cluster content?
- What are internal links?
- The origin of content clusters
- How to build content clusters
- Maintaining content clusters
- Are content clusters right for my website?
- Content cluster FAQs
What are content clusters?
The best way to explain what a content cluster does is to illustrate the difference between a site with content clusters and a site without content clusters.
Without content clusters, there’s a good chance that your SEO content creation efforts involve shooting in the dark and hoping something will stick. Perhaps you come up with a vague content idea or an aspirational keyword you want to target in a piece of content, and just go for it. And you do that again and again and again for different ideas and keywords.
Before you know it, you’ve amassed a vast, unorganized archive of blogs on all different kinds of topics tangentially related to your services or industry. If you could physically scoop them up and lay them out on a table, it’d probably look like this:
Even without a cohesive content strategy directing their focus, there are undoubtedly quite a few gems in there. And yet, Google still doesn’t seem to recognize as an authority in your industry or reward you for the high-quality content you’ve produced.
Meanwhile, a site using a content cluster model has a significantly more intentional and impeccably organized approach to SEO content generation:
The diagram above shows that the content cluster model comprises three main components: pillar pages, cluster content, and internal links. This structure helps organize content so that Google (and online users) can easily understand and navigate.
What is a pillar page?
Your website’s pillar pages are individual web pages or hub pages, which cover a particular topic in a way that’s both broad and to-the-point enough to build authority on its subject matter – while still leaving you the room to create supporting articles, blogs, and guides that expand on the topic.
You can use pillar pages to host your own media (embedded videos, blogs, guides, reports, etc.) – see SiteCare’s Learn page as an example – or serve as a resource page to link out to useful content on a topic. You can also turn your main service pages into your pillar pages.
At SiteCare, we have developed pillar pages to support our WordPress maintenance and Inbound marketing services pages. These are both broad topics, making it impossible to cover either of them in detail on one dedicated page. This leaves us wiggle room for creating our content clusters.
What is cluster content?
Cluster content is the supporting content pieces that you develop around your pillar pages. You can think of them as content silos that build on all possible sub-topics for each pillar page topic.
For SiteCare’s WordPress pillar page, for example, we have written several more detailed content pieces (which we call our “sub hub” pages) to focus on sub-topics like:
- WordPress Themes
- The Ins and Outs of WordPress Security
- The WordPress Maintenance Starter Guide
- WordPress Plugins 101
- Best WordPress Hosting Provider in 2021
The diagram below illustrates how we build content around our WordPress pillar page and use internal links to connect them.
What’s the best way to decide on sub-topics for a pillar page?
While we will touch on this in more detail later on in this blog, a quick note is that great content ideas often come from finding out what online users are actually trying to learn about the topic themselves.
We use Ahrefs, Quora, Google Answer Boxes, Exploding Topics, and UberSuggest to research these top questions.
What are internal links?
Internal links (or hyperlinks) are what thread your various content piece together. Implemented as an on-page SEO technique (see what we did there?), they help your readers navigate your site to find relevant information on the same topic. Hyperlinks also help Google’s bots easily crawl and index your site – increasing your chances of getting higher page scores and having your content ranked high up on a search engine results page (SERP).
What are some best practices for internal links?
The following is a summary of some best practice suggestions (dos and don’ts) from the likes of Neil Patel, Moz, Search Engine Journal, and Ahrefs:
- Avoid linking images. According to Patel, it’s better to use anchor text instead, as we have done in this sentence. When linking anchor text, make sure it’s clear why you used that phrase, word, or sentence. If you link to content that doesn’t support your anchor text or add value to the user, this decreases trust for your online users and Google.
- Prioritize linking to content not easily found on navigational menus. This is called “deep linking.” If you consider why you’re using internal links in the first place, linking to your navigation menu is a throwaway link. Google bots and end-users need help navigating your site beyond what is seen on the ‘surface’ level.
- Don’t go overboard with internal links on one page. While most SEO specialists can’t really quantify what Google considers “too many” internal links, he says keep it down to between three and four. Moz seems to disagree and allows 150 and below. This includes footer links and menu links. Perhaps a good rule of thumb is to keep the reader first and foremost in mind when adding links – do they really want to wade through 150 hyperlinks on one page?
- Direct valuable links to the most important pages. Why? According to Search Engine Journal, this concentrates link value, sending these page link authority, or link equity, which is a signal to Google (and other search engines) that that page is quite important.
- Always keep an eye out for the health of your internal links. Hyperlinks can break or direct to unimportant pages that don’t add link authority, says Ahrefs. You could also be missing opportunities to add links to pages without any internal links, which we call “orphan pages.” Ahref’s Site Audit tool can help you crawl your site to find and fix all the above.
When they’re working together in a content cluster model, these three components above – pillar pages, content clusters, and internal links – allow you to cultivate an impeccably organized and high-quality collection of content that is useful to your customers and is extremely easy for Google to crawl.
Those internal links, in particular, are what indicate to Google that there is a relationship between all the linked content. And when all of that linked content is brimming with high-quality content, it demonstrates to Google that you possess a breadth of expert knowledge on a particular topic. That kind of authority and quality is what gives you a boost in search rankings.
Before we dive further into the specifics of how our team plans and builds out content clusters, I think it’s important to highlight the “why” behind choosing this strategy in the first place.
The origins of content clusters
It’s no secret that Google’s algorithm is always changing — it’s a reality that keeps SEO professionals like myself on our toes at all times. But over the past several years, there has been a seismic shift in the evolution of Google’s algorithm. This shift boils down to the following: If you’re not putting users first, Google’s not putting you first, either.
In the early days of SEO, search engines would return results based solely on keywords. Unfortunately, this keyword-focused algorithm eventually led to some bad SEO behaviors (commonly referred to as “black hat” SEO).
Keyword stuffing is probably the most well-known example of black hat SEO practices. While it’s essential to include keywords in your content so that users can find relevant, high-quality content, the practice of recklessly stuffing keywords into content typically means you’re not writing for the user — you’re writing for an algorithm. And generally, that type of content is
The Rise of Google RankBrain
Returning search results full of low-quality and keyword-stuffed pages flies in the face of Google’s goal of bringing the best and most relevant search results to their users. That’s why Google has spent years tweaking its algorithm to reward content that prioritizes user experiences and anticipates user intent. One of the most groundbreaking ways they’ve accomplished this is with the introduction of a new machine learning technology called Google RankBrain, which expands the scope of how Google indexes and evaluates pages for ranking. Keywords do still matter, but now they are just one piece of the pie.
In Moz’s excellent primer on Google RankBrain, they explain how this technology has completely changed the SEO game:
“Pre-RankBrain, Google utilized its basic algorithm to determine which results to show for a given query. Post-RankBrain, it is believed that the query now goes through an interpretation model that can apply possible factors like the location of the searcher, personalization, and the words of the query to determine the searcher’s true intent. By discerning this true intent, Google can deliver more relevant results.”
This means that if you want your site to perform well in search engines, you need to be prepared to help Google in its mission to provide relevant, high-quality results.
At SiteCare, we’ve helped our clients do just that by working with them to roll out a topic modeling strategy that we call content clusters. Content clusters use strategic internal linking to connect topically related content on your site. These connections are one of the factors that Google RankBrain analyzes when it evaluates the quality and authority of your content during a crawl.
How to build content clusters
Now that you understand why we recommend this type of topic modeling strategy as part of our SEO strategies, let’s dive a bit deeper into the step-by-step process for planning out and building a content cluster strategy.
1. Analyze goals & conduct keyword research
Before we touch any content, we perform a thorough analysis of the client’s business goals and conduct keyword research to align with these goals.
- What are they hoping to accomplish with a more targeted SEO content strategy?
- Are there specific keywords or service areas they want to focus on more than others?
- What conversion goals are most important to them?
Once we’ve established those goals, we have a solid foundation to start our content audit and build out our clusters.
2. Perform a thorough content audit
If we’re working with a website that already has a fairly extensive archive of content, performing a content audit is critical. During this audit, all existing blog content is inventoried, and — taking into account the client’s goals — we group them all by topic. These topics we identify become the clusters, and any content pertaining to a specific topic becomes the topic’s cluster content.
What is a content audit?
A content audit is done to evaluate the content on a website to find out if it’s contributing to a site’s overall performance. This content isn’t only your posts and pages, but also your metadata, such as your title headers, and meta descriptions.
Every piece of content on your site should work to:
- Increase traffic to your website;
- Help you rank on search engine results pages (SERPs);
- Support existing content (through internal linking) and increase the time spent on your website and the number of pages visited;
- Assist conversions and sales;
- Encourage returning visitors;
- Grow brand awareness through social shares.
Here are some tools that you should use to conduct a content audit
- Google Analytics
Google Analytics is a popular web analytics tool that you can use to track set metrics for each page on your site to confirm if content needs to be removed, repurposed, or updated.
- Screaming Frog
Screaming Frog is another site audit tool that integrates into Google Analytics and Google Search Console, and can help you find duplicate content, slow-loading pages, broken links, and blocked URLs. It analyzes your page titles and metadata for improvements and collects data about site visitors, impressions, and conversions.
The best part of Screaming Frog is that you can collect all your data needed in one place. This makes it easier to analyze the content and plan what your next steps should be.
- Google Search Console
Google Search Console is a tool that monitors how your site performs from a search perspective. For a content audit, Search Console can help you understand where your content ranks (i.e., average position), what the click-through rate (CTR) is for each article, and how many clicks or impressions each page gets in search.
- Ahrefs or SEMRush (or any SEO specific tool to which you have access)
Ahrefs and similar SEO tools help you uncover how many backlinks each article or piece of content has linked to it from other sites. Backlinks are still critical for SEO success, so it’s important to know how many inbound links each content piece has, and whether or not these links are quality (i.e., coming from a trusted website with high domain authority) and relevant.
3. Establish pillar pages
Now that we have identified the cluster topics, the next step is to designate a pillar page that will connect all the content within a cluster together.
To recap, a pillar page is essentially the cornerstone or hub of a cluster — it serves as the map that connects all other content in the cluster. Unlike the rest of your cluster content, a pillar page is much broader in scope so that it can adequately link to and touch on every facet of the cluster.
Sometimes you might need to create a pillar page from scratch, but sometimes you can revamp an existing article in your cluster that already possesses some of these “broader” qualities. Trying to choose the right pillar page from your existing cluster content? A search volume analysis can help you identify high-performing posts that would be great candidates for pillar pages.
4. Implement internal linking
With your clusters and pillar pages established, it’s now time to put the pieces of the puzzle together — using hyperlinks. All cluster content should include a link to the pillar page, and the pillar page should be naturally interspersed with links to cluster content.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the key ways Google’s algorithm evaluates the authority and quality of a page’s content is through links — both internal linking on your site and external linking to/from other sites (also known as backlinks). So this part of the process is essentially where the magic happens.
Maintaining content clusters
So you’ve audited your content, identified your cluster topics, established pillar pages, and implemented all those internal links. Now what? Are you done? Nope! Now comes the vital work of maintaining your content clusters.
This includes adding new content regularly, but it also means treating your pillar page as a living document. Each time you publish a new piece of content for one of your clusters, you need to make sure to appropriately link it to and from the cluster’s pillar page. This iterative, ever-refining approach to maintaining your pillar pages helps keep your site’s content fresh.
“Mine” the content gaps
Ever feel like you’re running out of blog post ideas? A content cluster strategy not only helps boost your search engine visibility — it helps you come up with fresh ideas for future content. That’s because a topic-based content cluster strategy allows you to identify any content gaps within your cluster easily.
Think back on the overarching goal of your cluster. You’re trying to build a comprehensive collection of content around a specific topic. While you might assume that the larger a particular cluster becomes, the less you’ll have to write about, we’ve discovered the opposite is true. As you write more and more about a topic, you’d be surprised to see how many new questions or ideas pop up.
And that’s just for one cluster. If you have multiple clusters, that’s numerous opportunities to identify content gaps within those clusters.
Are content clusters right for my website?
If you’re regularly publishing new blogs or already have an extensive content archive, then yes, implementing a content cluster strategy is an excellent idea because it will help you refine both your existing and future content.
At the very beginning of your content marketing journey? Don’t yet have an extensive archive of content? Don’t worry. A content cluster is still for you!
Everyone must start somewhere, and mapping out a content cluster strategy before you even embark on a dedicated content marketing campaign is a great way to hit the ground running and make sure your content hyper-attuned to your strategic goals.
The one thing to keep in mind is that the initial steps for creating your content cluster strategy will differ a little bit from the process we outlined above. While documenting business goals and conducting keyword research are still critical steps, an extensive content audit and search volume analysis may not be necessary if you have very few blog posts (or none at all).
If you have any additional questions regarding whether a content cluster would be beneficial for your SEO strategy, don’t hesitate to reach out to our expert content strategy team.
Content cluster FAQs
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