Having recently returned from the 2018 Share Global Insights Conference in New York, where we accepted the award for best B2B SEO Program on behalf of one of our amazing clients, we had the opportunity to reflect on current trends and strategies in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and content marketing. One of the most visible strategies discussed at the conference was the concept of topic clusters. This has been a central component of Noble Studios’ SEO program for many years, and it was exciting to see the rest of the industry beginning to see the value of the approach. For those of you who aren’t familiar with topic clusters, the information below should give you the background needed to start shifting to this strategy.
The art and science of SEO is always changing and evolving. Whether driven by updates to the underlying search algorithms, the development of new technologies, or changes in consumer behavior; one thing is certain: today’s SEO strategies and tactics will not be as effective six months from now.
As a digital marketing agency, this requires a lot of commitment to closely monitor industry trends, learn new techniques and test what works in the real world; so that we are able to provide the most effective strategies possible to our clients. So, when we come across a strategy that has the potential to transform the entire SEO industry for many years to come, we get pretty excited.
Keywords: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
At the core of SEO is the concept of the keyword or search term. The idea is that unlike most types of advertising and marketing, which are pushing messages to potential customers that a business “thinks” might be interested in their product or service, these potential customers are actually displaying an interest by actively searching for information. For most of us, this starts by typing (or more recently asking) Google to search for a specific topic.
The actual words we use when performing a search have always been critically important for search engine optimization. As marketers, we ask ourselves questions like:
- “Is this the way my target audience actually searches for what we offer?”
- “Does this way of searching show an intent to actually purchase our product or service?”
- “Would a different word choice be better to describe what we offer?”
When answering these questions, we have to make many assumptions. The good news is that as experienced SEO professionals, we get a lot of them right. We’ve learned through trial and error what a “research intent” and “purchase intent” search look like. We’ve learned when to optimize for plural and singular keyword searches. But no matter how good we’ve become at our craft, we miss a large portion of our potential audience.
Why is this? Multiple reasons. For one, we have our own personal language biases. The way we speak influences our view of how potential customers search. In addition, the sheer volume and variety of people searching on the Web makes it daunting to imagine each and every variation of a search term someone might type in. Let’s take a very simple example: someone looking to take a vacation with their family. What are some ways this activity could be searched for?
- “family vacation ideas”
- “family friendly vacations”
- “vacationing with kids”
- “things to do with kids in California”
- “best family friendly destinations on the west coast”
- “traveling with children”
- “vacation ideas with kids”
As you can see, there are a lot of variations that can potentially represent the same purchase intent. If you were to actually do a search on Google for each of the above variations, you’ll see a significant variation in the results displayed. Why is this? One of the major reasons is that companies have chosen one or two of the variations above, and have committed their optimization strategy to them. This is a self-limiting approach.
Above: A search for “family vacation ideas” on Google
Above: A search for “things to do with kids in California” on Google
Two things you’ll quickly notice between these two searches: 1) the layout of the SERP is very different, and 2) the websites that are displayed on each are different. This is a result of Google’s quest to provide the most relevant content for searchers, as well as businesses’ strategy of selecting only a handful of keywords to earn rank for. This is the old SEO. It’s time for a new and better approach.
Topic Clusters for Better SEO Performance
Simply stated, a topic cluster is a way of thematically grouping content. Topic clusters consist of a core topic or “pillar page” and related subtopic or “cluster” content pages. The cluster pages link back to the pillar page and also to each other.
A pillar page is generally a long-form content page that is rich in information and covers a broad topic. The cluster content pages cover more detailed and specific topics that fall under the umbrella of the pillar page. Here is a great video from the content marketing platform Hubspot on topic clusters.
Above: Sample Topic Cluster for “Workout Routines”
At Noble Studios, we’ve been successfully leveraging topic clustering for our clients since 2015, with the help of the enterprise SEO platform, BrightEdge. Internally, we’ve called the approach content siloing, until this year, but the concept is exactly the same. By creating a semantic relationship and hierarchy between pieces of content, we have consistently provided both a better user experience and stronger signals to the search engines on which topics our client’s sites have authority in.
The idea for content silos (aka, topic clusters) stemmed from our work in the travel industry, working with a dozen top-tier destination marketing organizations (DMOs). We noticed that while these organizations tended to have a large overall footprint and strong page 1 and 2 rankings in the search engines, the top spots for many topics remained elusive. An example of this would be a search for area dining options. Despite the high quality content on the destination site, the top rankings were held by sites such as Yelp, OpenTable and others that focus specifically on restaurants and dining-related content. As we analyzed site structure, internal linking and overall content quality, we made several key findings:
- Some of our best topic-related content was not located within the main directory, but rather the blog.
- Related content was not linked to their primary page or together.
- Several pages were competing for rank on the same keyword.
- The “main” topic page had lower quality content than most of the other related content.
The pattern began to become clear, and not just for travel, but across industries. For the search algorithms, these sites had appeared to have a tremendous amount of content “breadth,” but very little topical “depth.” Breadth is what gave them a large overall SEO footprint, but depth is what achieves strong rankings. The topic cluster model allows us to have both.
Why Topic Clusters Work in an Age of Machine Learning
While it’s pretty intuitive that topic clusters appear to be a great way to group content and organize concepts, the reason why it’s so effective for SEO goes beyond that.
The first big hit to keyword-focused SEO occurred with Google’s Hummingbird update in 2013. The search algorithm began parsing out phrases rather than focusing solely on keywords. Many SEO professionals see the Hummingbird update as Google’s official switch from a keyword to a topic focus.
The next major step toward reliance on topics occurred with Google’s RankBrain update. Launched in 2015, RankBrain is Google’s machine learning algorithm designed to understand the context of people’s search queries. It associates past searches with similar themes and pulls multiple keywords and phrases that are associated with the search query to find the best results. Layer on the recent growth of voice-assisted search on mobile devices (which Google has stated now accounts for over 20% of all mobile searches) and you can see why topics have effectively become the new keywords.
Topic Clusters + SEO + Content Marketing: Putting It All Together
What does this mean for digital marketers? It means that we need to start focusing on becoming the most relevant content resource around a given topic, rather than solely focusing on optimizing pages for keywords. Ranking for a keyword based on an exact-match search is no longer going to work, because Google can now understand the intent behind a search query and will show results based on the site that produces the most credible source of information. While this is a dramatic shift, it actually leads to not only better performance in the search engines, but a better experience for the users of your site.
The focus shifts from intercepting keyword searches to understanding the buyer’s journey and answering the most important questions they have during this process. In this respect, your content not only gains the exposure you are looking for, but also creates the loyalty that comes from putting the needs of others first.