Author: Jonas Sickler
One of the greatest benefits of search engine optimization is efficiency: SEO can drive more website traffic and conversions than paid media at a lower acquisition cost. It’s also highly sustainable, continuing to deliver results even if you decrease or turn off the budget. However, SEO can also be expensive and ineffective if you make the wrong investments.
How do you maximize the efficiency of your SEO strategy to transform your website into an inbound marketing flywheel?
Deploy topic clusters and pillar pages.
Topic clusters fuse your content strategy with your SEO strategy to help you rank better on Google with fewer backlinks. That means newer brands with smaller marketing teams and leaner budgets can use them to punch above their weight.
In this article, I’ll get you up to speed on everything you need to know to approach this strategy with confidence, including:
What are topic clusters and pillar pages?
The topic cluster model is a content framework based on hubs of related themes. It’s a method of grouping keywords and pages into hierarchical buckets that reinforce topical relevance and relationships between different pages on your website.
The framework includes three main elements:
Pillar pages — High-level articles that cover a broad topic
Cluster pages — In-depth articles that dive deeper into subtopics
Internal links — Hyperlinks between related cluster and pillar content
Here’s an illustration of topic clusters from Terakeet that offers a blueprint for how they work.
As you can see, the model is fairly simple. However, most folks struggle to implement a topic cluster strategy because it requires advanced knowledge of several SEO concepts, including internal linking, anchor text, search intent, and keyword grouping.
If you need to freshen up your skills on some of those topics, here are a few resources to explore:
Keyword intent: What you need to know about how customers search
Why you should use pillar pages and topic clusters
A topic cluster strategy offers many advantages that extend beyond better search rankings and more organic traffic. Let’s break down the benefits into two categories: SEO performance and user experience.
Topic clusters improve SEO performance
Google’s algorithm is constantly evolving. Older signals like backlinks and keywords are still vital. However, they now share the stage with other factors like search intent and credibility (experience, expertise, authority, and trust).
Google’s primary goal is to understand what searchers want and surface content that provides the best answer. Topic clusters and pillar pages help Google achieve that goal in several ways:
Search engines must understand what your website is about in order to rank your content properly. What subjects do you cover and how are they related to each other?
The topic cluster model reinforces your site architecture by linking related themes together and adding context. For example, when a pillar page that covers a main topic links to a cluster page about a related subtopic using descriptive anchor text, this sends a signal to Google about how these pieces of content are connected and which one might be the best answer for a specific search query.
Furthermore, if you do this across dozens of web pages within a content cluster, then you’ll develop a clear roadmap for search engines to understand and rank your content.
The true power of SEO comes from understanding all the ways your audience searches so you can be first in line with the best answer. The topic cluster framework forces you to think about the entire customer journey, and the nuance of search intent, so you don’t leave any opportunities on the table.
Sometimes, search queries are very similar, like “types of content marketing” and “examples of content marketing.” However, when you Google those terms, you’ll find they have different intent, and therefore require different pieces of content.
By publishing those pieces separately, you can address the more granular intent while ranking better.
Credibility is another huge benefit that topic clusters and pillar pages bring to an SEO strategy.
The concept of experience, expertise, authority, and trust (E-E-A-T) shook up the SEO community when Google rolled out the infamous medic update in 2018. Although the update had the biggest impact on websites that publish financial and health information, it extends to all types of domains.
In short, Google favors websites it considers to be trusted experts on subjects. Two important factors that support E-A-T are comprehensive, high-quality content, and backlinks from trusted domains. Content clusters help position you as a subject matter expert while also sharing backlink equity from trusted domains across a cluster.
Topic clusters improve user experience
In addition to their SEO benefits, topic clusters also help create a more intuitive user experience.
Since topic clusters follow the natural arc of the customer journey, you can map each piece of content to a specific stage of the funnel (awareness, consideration, purchase). This allows you to anticipate your target audience’s next questions and include CTAs to related content pieces regardless of what stage they’re in when they land on your website.
For example, if you offer a keyword research tool, you could write a series of articles like this:
What are long tail keywords?
How to do keyword research like a pro
Best keyword research tools (free and paid)
Semrush vs Ahrefs (pros, cons, and alternatives)
In the cluster above, each article targets a specific keyword which is progressively deeper in the funnel. Through strategic internal links and CTAs, you can send users to related topics so they don’t need to return to Google to learn more.
This reduces friction and shows your audience you understand their needs.
How to create topic clusters and pillar pages
There’s a good amount to learn when you get started with topic clusters, but don’t worry—I’ll walk you through the seven steps I use to create them, and I’ll help you avoid the most common mistakes folks make.
01. Determine your pillar and cluster strategy
Before you do anything else, you need to make an important decision that will guide your content marketing strategy: When given a choice, will you create one ultimate guide that ranks on many different head terms, or will you create separate pieces of content for related keywords that have unique search intent?
Let’s look at an example from AI chat company Drift. If you search demand generation and demand generation vs lead generation, then you’ll notice Drift published one piece of content that ranks on both of those queries (at the time of publication, positions 3 and 16, respectively). However, according to the search results, those queries have slightly different search intent. Although they both help users understand what demand gen is, one keyword is definitional while the other is comparative.
So you’ll need to decide whether to publish one post (that provides a higher level overview of the subject) or two separate posts (explaining the subtopics in greater detail).
Either approach can work, but there are advantages to publishing separate posts when you have the opportunity. For example, a more specific topic is better aligned with search intent, and it often has a stronger ROI because it’s easier to produce and can rank well without any backlinks.
02. Research keywords
Keyword research plays a big role in the success of your topic clusters and pillar pages, so I split this process into two separate stages: discovery (covered here) and grouping (covered in the next section).
In the discovery stage, your goal is to reveal the entire keyword universe for a topic. What are all the different questions people ask, and how do they phrase their queries?
First, gather insights from customers, sales, and service teams to understand your buyer personas’ goals and challenges along the customer journey. Then, use traditional keyword research tools to expand your data set. I prefer Semrush, but you can use whatever tool fits your process or budget.
I uncover as many queries as possible, then I filter out misspelled words, awkward phrases, old dates, and anything else that seems out of place.
After you have your list, export the data into a spreadsheet and remove any columns you want to ignore. I keep things fairly simple and just use volume and difficulty.
If you need a refresher on keyword research, Mordy Oberstein and Crystal Carter break it down in this podcast.
03. Group keywords into hierarchical buckets
The second step in doing keyword research is to group all the search terms you discovered into a clear taxonomy of blog posts, clusters, and categories. These are the headings I use in Google Sheets, from narrow to broad:
Keywords - All unique search terms in the list
Blog Posts - Groups of long tail keywords around one head term
Topic Clusters - Groups of blog posts around one pillar page
Category - Groups of topic clusters around a very broad category
Here’s one example of how you could group keywords into a digital marketing topic cluster:
In the example above, the “Topic Cluster” column is the pillar page, and the “Blog Post” column represents the cluster pages. You can use whatever naming convention you want as long as you retain a hierarchical structure.
You’re probably wondering how to actually group keywords: Should you use software, or a manual process? How do you decide whether to combine keywords into one article or publish separate blog posts?
Let’s answer those questions!
04. Analyze the SERP
No company knows more about search intent than Google. So, the most accurate way to group keywords is to analyze search engine results pages (SERPs) to see how Google interprets each query on your list.
You can use keyword grouping software like Keyword Cupid or Serpstat which use preset rules to bucket keywords based on common URLs in the search results. Or, you can manually search each keyword and decide for yourself how you want to group them.
I prefer manually searching and grouping keywords because it gives me perspective into the search landscape. Which brands rank the most and how many unique URLs do they have? Is there clear search intent or a hybrid of different types of intent?
There’s no question that manual grouping takes longer. But, you can still chop through a few hundred keywords in an hour if you’re quick—especially if many of them have the same intent with slightly different phrasing.
But in the end, I think the competitive insights you gain by seeing the SERP are worth the extra time. Besides, if you plan to invest several hours writing each piece of content, you probably want to make sure you’re targeting the right keywords first.
05. Analyze competitor content
Competitor content analysis bridges the gap between keyword grouping and content creation. Think of it as a gut check on whether or not to address multiple search terms in one post.
Your goal is to take what you learned from the SERP analysis and layer on more granular competitive insights to inform your strategy. For example, can you find any competitors that rank on similar keywords with different URLs? Or, as in the Drift example we looked at earlier, does the same URL show up for different queries?
Before you begin to outline your content, answer the following questions:
Does Google interpret these two keywords differently?
Does any domain rank well with two different URLs for these queries?
What is the search intent and content format I need to use?
06. Publish cluster pages before pillar pages
This step is relatively straightforward. I recommend writing cluster pages before pillar content because that helps you understand each topic in-depth.
Most folks want to dive into long-form pillar pages first because those keywords have higher search volume. But, that can cause you to elaborate too much on subtopics, which could make your cluster pages feel redundant.
The goal is to create deep and comprehensive cluster pages, while publishing broad and concise pillar pages.
07. Add internal links
The final step when creating topic clusters and pillar pages is to add internal links between relevant sections and pages.
Internal linking is a vast and complicated subject, and something I’m deeply passionate about. To simplify it as much as possible, follow these simple rules:
Link to related content from the most relevant sections in each article.
Link to new posts from existing content as you publish more articles.
Use descriptive anchor text that includes the keywords you want the linked page to rank for.