How Do Content Clusters Strengthen SEO?

A newer concept in the SEO realm, content clusters go beyond merely inserting keywords into content and hoping Google will bite. Instead, a content cluster strategy uses topic modeling and internal linking to improve your content's user experience and boost your search performance. Here's how it's done.

by Catie Leary

Content Marketing | Lead Generation | SEO

| 9 min read

Content clusters are a newer concept in SEO content strategy that goes beyond merely inserting keywords in content and hoping Google will bite. Instead, a content cluster strategy uses topic modeling and internal linking to improve the user experience of your content and boost your search performance. Over the past couple 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?

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:

A blog without content clusters

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:

What are content clusters?

In the diagram above, you can see that there are three main components:

  • Pillar page — a broad, comprehensive piece of content that serves as the “hub” of your cluster
  • Cluster content — any piece of content internally linked to and from a cluster’s pillar page
  • Internal links — the glue that holds your clusters together

When they’re working together in a content cluster model, these three components 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 examples 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

Google logoReturning 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 Southern Web, 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 services 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 the content pertaining to a specific topic becomes the topic’s cluster content.

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. How internal linking works with content clusters

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.

Mind the Gap

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.

Ready to get started with content clusters?

Interested in implementing a content cluster model for your SEO strategy? The content strategy team at Southern Web are ready to help. Contact us today to learn more about our Atlanta SEO services.

Catie Leary | Content Strategy Manager


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