The Role of Content Clusters in SEO: Organizing Your Content for Success

When it comes to SEO, a content cluster is the way to go. Content clusters have proved to significantly improve a website’s SEO and rankings over time. Think of a single broad topic that you’d like to rank high in search engines (this could be called the pillar page). With a single pillar page, Google has a tough time determining what your website is really about. Pagerank can get distributed to various blog posts illustrating different topics, therefore no one blog post ranks very well. With a content cluster however, interlinking becomes very important. By linking all related clusters to the same pillar page, all of the traffic and authority will filter down to the clusters. This will increase the authority on the cluster pages and help them to rank higher. This is a great method to get the right traffic to the right pages, and generate leads to sales or other important pages on your website. Finally, content clusters are very good for organization and minimizing content redundancy. No longer will you have the same research or topics showing up in various areas of the website. This makes it easier for both the website developer to manage the content and for visitors to navigate the website and find the information they are looking for.

Definition of Content Clusters

A content cluster (also known as a content group) is a series of different web pages that concentrate on a particular topic. At the center of each cluster is a broad “pillar” page interlinking to a grouping of associated (however narrower and far more particular) content pages. Search engines, like Google, have for a very long time been ordering web material with RankBrain and currently the BERT algorithm – they’re getting a lot better at recognizing user intent. Instead of getting fixated on particular keywords, search analytics is now about mapping subjects to keyword use. This is the most reliable way for your content to be discovered in search! This is where content clusters come into their own. An excellent cluster technique helps online search engines understand the connection between pillar content and the more particular material, enhancing content visibility and offering it the very best possibility of ranking highly.

Importance of Content Clusters in SEO

Instead of random acts of optimization for specific keywords, content that is well connected has better potential for ranking highly in search results. Content clusters can help a great deal in determining topical “authority” and share of search engine results pages (SERPs) visibility. Yet most content on the internet is disconnected. This is a key argument for an active content audit which can identify and prioritize content for consolidation into content clusters. An example of this is a fitness apparel company that has 200 blog posts about exercise, but not a single one about core exercises – an area they wish to rank for. As search engines continue to become smarter they are putting a greater emphasis on searcher task accomplishment in their ranking algorithms. They are looking to see if a piece of content solves a problem. This means that it’s not just about a single keyword and search engines are becoming less reliant on keywords and more reliant on understanding the concepts behind those keywords. This is where establishing topical authority becomes ever so important. A content cluster does this by linking a parent page to a cluster of closely related subtopics. Matt Cutts said in a 2014 interview with Eric Enge “Most people are too focused on the specific keywords; I’d aim higher.” He went on to say “users often get too obsessed about hitting the same couple keywords but the best way to stand out is to have a better offering or a different offering.” This is where content clusters can help redefine your content strategy and stand out above your competitors.

Creating Content Clusters

A body of content seems disconnected and chaotic if there’s no organized plan to the development of it. This leads to inefficiencies; some articles will rank highly in correlation to others, but visitor traffic will not filter to the rest of the site as there is no ‘next stage’, somewhat defeating the purpose of a few landing pages. Content clusters will lead to a powerful topic association, and enable your site as a topical authority on a given subject. This will improve your ranking potential for all articles involved. An efficient way to visualize a content cluster is a ‘hub and spoke’ model. The centre of the cluster is the ‘core’ article, which is a general information article on the subject. This core article will act as a backlink target and referential point for the cluster. The cluster itself consists of internal, back, holding and linked writing. Internal articles are those which link to the core article; a searcher will be able to find an internal article through browsing the site normally. If the internal article has been search engine optimized correctly, it has the potential to directly outrank the core article for specific term searches and thus serve as an alternative landing page to the core article. Back articles function in the same way as internal, differing in that they will link in the target from an external site. A holding article is an article which links to the core article but there are no intended references to it; the author wants to maintain the article’s current ranking and not create a new landing page. A linked article just acts as a supplemental article providing further information on a topic briefly touched in another article.

Identifying Core Topic

Core topic is the centre of your content. It’s the focus or theme of your content. When you look at your content from the core topics, you create a hierarchical standard, where your core topic is the highest standard, and your content should all support or relate to that topic. This is a critical step in creating and organizing your content for SEO. When search engines like Google are crawling and indexing your pages, one of the things they are trying to determine is the primary purpose of the page or the core topic of the content. When you have a single core topic for your content, it’s easier for search engines to determine what your content is about, and serve it to the right people. If you have a page with multiple topics and subtopics, it becomes very difficult for a search engine to determine the purpose of the page, and difficult for a piece of content like that to rank well. A core topic is not necessarily a keyword. In fact, many topics can be supported by a single keyword. Think of it this way: a core topic is broad and ideally your keyword would reflect that topic, whereas the subtopics and support topics are more specific and could be associated with more specific keywords and keyword phrases.

Creating Pillar Content

The idea behind pillar content is to create a page or post on your site that covers a particularly broad topic in great detail. This page will be what we call keyword dense, meaning that it is optimized for many different variations of the keyword as well as long-tail keywords. It should be ‘evergreen’ in nature, meaning that it will not go out of date in the near future, and that it will continue to be relevant to the reader. Generally, a post or page of over 3000 words with a custom designed graphic will make for a good pillar page. This is what makes it the most powerful piece of content on your site.

Pillar content is the basis on which your content cluster and following content plan will be built. Think of it as the foundation of your home. Would you skimp on the foundations knowing that it would hurt the value and structural integrity of your home in the long run? Of course not. So, why would you do that with your website and content?

Developing Cluster Content

The idea behind developing cluster content is to create a number of pages that all relate back to the main pillar page. Let’s take the example of memory foam mattresses. When you are creating content for the cluster pages, you may want to write a page about the benefits of memory foam mattresses, then another page about the different types of memory foam mattresses, and then another about the cost of memory foam mattresses. See where we are going with this? The cluster content should be diverse and cover all angles of the topic that it is related to. When writing the cluster content, always keep in mind the pillar page and keep it handy. It should always serve as a point of reference for your cluster content. This is important. The cluster content needs to have a very strong link to the pillar page. In fact, each cluster page should be linking back to the pillar page using the same hyperlinked keyword each time. Doing this will show search engines that the cluster pages are strongly related to the pillar page. It will also create many internal links, which is great for SEO. Think of the cluster content as a way of proving to the search engines the relevancy of your content to the main topic.

Interlinking Cluster Content

For top-of-funnel content, where the goal is to pull readers further into the site and keep them engaged, you should use general anchor text that describes what the next post is about. The goal is to pique the reader’s interest enough to click the link. This could help initiate buying and selling of post links to other website owners who want to piggyback on your website logically from where the original topic was posted. This type of interlinking has become a large demand since the introduction of the Google Penguin algorithm, as people are looking to avoid using exact match anchor text when getting links. This is one instance where you should ignore typical best practice for the goal of the specific situation.

Interlinking becomes more complex when you start going across clusters. When linking from a cluster post to a pillar post, or vice versa, using the pillar content’s exact keyword phrase as anchor text is usually the best option. The real complexity comes in when you are linking from one cluster post to another post in a different cluster. It is important to consider what the goal of the link is. This will depend on whether the content is top-of-funnel, middle-of-funnel, or bottom-of-funnel.

Benefits of Content Clusters

Content clusters can result in improved search engine visibility by using a topic-based organization and linking for certain keyword phrases. If a company has a group of web pages on a specific topic, with one being a core page and the rest based off of that page, they can get higher rankings for the secondary pages by linking them back to the core page. This will show search engines that the second pages are related to the first and are all part of the same cluster of content, causing the search engine to give higher priority to those secondary pages. Before a company employs a strategy using content clusters, it is advised that they do thorough keyword research in order to build many small clusters around a variety of long-tail keywords. For newer sites, or those not ranking well for many terms, this will be an effective strategy to isolate specific keyword phrases and build clusters of content around them that all link back to a core page. This will allow for higher rankings and more traffic, making the content clusters strategy a success.

Improved Search Engine Visibility

Your aim will be to increase the traffic levels for each of these articles, and you will do this by identifying another keyword which still relates to the article but has higher search volumes and/or lower competition. If the articles are hypothetical, a simple way to do this would be to type your keyword into Google and study the auto-suggestions or look at related searches at the bottom of the page. Another way could be to use Google’s Keyword Tool; however, many feel that the results from this are not as accurate as auto-suggestions/related searches.

If you are creating a new cluster of content, i.e., you have no content at all on a particular topic, then you can skip this step and move straight into looking at the search volumes for the keywords that you wish to target. In any case, you will probably want to move onto ranking your articles/pages higher than they currently are, and the most efficient way to do this is to identify low-hanging fruit. This low-hanging fruit will be high search volume, low competition keywords which relate particularly to what your content cluster is about. An attribute of content clusters is that a lot of the articles/posts will be competing for the same (or similar) keywords. An example of low-hanging fruit in this case would be if you had a group of five articles all targeting keywords with around 300 searches per month and medium competition.

After you have organized your content into near-enough related content clusters and interlinked appropriately, author that you require to promote this content into search engines and aware of how to do this. First, determine where your current (or proposed) content clusters are ranking in search engines. If you already have a number of the articles or posts in your content cluster, then it is likely that these will already be ranking in search engines (albeit not too highly if they have not been interlinked/are struggling to stand alone). If this is the case, then you can begin by simply searching for the titles of these articles.

Enhanced User Experience

This is a major part of SEO. Now, user experience impacts rankings in search engines. A good user experience can maintain the customer relationship and is a part of the content success. A well-organized cluster has the ability to keep the reader engaged and navigate to the user’s next content, which ultimately increases the page views. The longer the user stays on your website, the better it is for your website. This might sound better for a business company website because it is a sign that the user might be considering using the product or service. However, it also applies to a personal blog since the main goal is to share information or experiences. If readers love the content, they will keep reading the next article or even subscribe to the newsletter. This is the best part because it is easier to build an email marketing list with those readers. Email marketing is a powerful way of increasing returning visitors because you can automate an email containing a link to your latest content to your email list. And all of this starts from a well-organized content cluster. The harder thing is to make visitors come back to our website and it is crucial to avoid outdated content. A well-maintained content cluster is easier to update with new relevant information. On the other side, if we have a standalone article, it will be harder to let the visitor know that the article is actually a part of another article. An old article, redesigned into a content cluster, can also gain benefits from redirect implementation from the old URL to the new content.

Higher Organic Traffic

The same case study mentioned earlier using the golden cocker retriever site is a clear example of how content clustering helps search engine visibility. The site jumped from ranking two pages in Google to ranking forty of its pages all on the first or second page for key search terms. This dramatically increased the amount of organic traffic the site received, further emphasizing that effective content clustering will enhance search engine visibility.

Implementing Content Clusters

The final step, and one of the most crucial, is implementing your clusters throughout your website. Each page or blog post in a content cluster should link to at least one other piece of content that references the same topic, creating a “web of content” that shows search engine crawlers there is relevant content in many different areas on your website. This is a big bonus for SEO service, and also helps lower your website’s bounce rate as you’re giving visitors more content that is relevant to what they were initially looking for. An increased time spent on site can potentially lead to the user performing a desired action, such as signing up for a newsletter or purchasing a product. In the old days of SEO, a common strategy was to create a new page for every single keyword you wanted to rank for. This led to many subpar pages and ultimately a poor user experience. With content clusters, you should be maximizing the usefulness of every page or blog post around a given topic, and that topic should be broad enough to encompass several pieces of content.

Keyword Research and Analysis

Every process that involves optimization must have a starting point, content clustering is no different. Neil Patel mentions that there are 4 main steps to successful content clustering. One of these steps, Keyword Research and Analysis is the basis to any and all content, without it you will never be found. Patel suggests to not only use head keyword terms, that are now competed for by many, but to instead use long-tail keywords to increase the likelihood being found in a search engine. By doing so, AILA can create a range of content which all has specific relation to each other, thus making it easier to interlink posts. This constant interlinking is what Google likes to see, the more structured the internal links, the more likely Google will pick them up and index them. Using AILA as an example, we could start with creating an initial cornerstone piece of content on only artificial intelligence. Following on from this, we would then create a number of more specific articles on sub-topics related to AI such as machine learning, robotics, natural language processing and so on. By using long-tail keywords during the research process, we can ensure that these articles will be found by the correct people, looking for specific information on a certain topic, and therefore they will be successfully linked to and from the cornerstone content. Step one of content clustering complete.

Mapping Content Clusters

After your keyword research, you will need a plan on how to strategically map out your content. In this step, content is organized together into specific topic areas. This is where a comprehensive understanding of your audience and knowledge of your user’s needs is essential. The idea is to put yourself in the shoes of the audience and brainstorm what kind of content they would want to see from you. With this information in hand, you can begin to build out content “hubs”. A hub is a page that covers a general topic in a very broad sense. Hub pages should be written with the intention of covering that topic in its entirety, while also covering very specific subtopics. Hub pages can then be used to identify and link to all the pages written on more specific subtopics. A well-built out hub and spoke model will have a very organized site with content that interlinks in a logical sense. One of the most useful tools for mapping content is a visual sitemap. There are several free tools out there that allow you to build a visual sitemap alongside the sitemap HTML. A visual sitemap is essentially an illustration that shows the visitors how the website is organized and structured. A good sitemap will give a user the best possible user experience because they can very quickly find the content they are looking for. A highly organized sitemap will also allow search engine spiders to index the site in a more effective manner. This can help improve your rankings and traffic, so it is crucial that every website has a sitemap.

Optimizing Content for SEO

For the single article, I must stress how important it is to internally link it to the rest of the content cluster. This will make sure it does not exist in isolation, but search engines will give it the full benefit of improved topical relevance and authority. An effective strategy for linking the articles is making ‘sibling links’ in the sidebar on each article, that way they will link every time to the same two pages. Just be careful not to use exact match anchor text every time, as this can look like an artificial linking scheme.

After having clusters built, it is now time to use them to their fullest potential. As we have stated, content clusters can be a very powerful tool to communicate authority on a particular topic. When a number of interlinked pieces are made on a narrower topic, they should start to appear as expansive and relevant to search engines. They can have competitive terms on that topic, but funnel them up to less competitive and more generic keywords, i.e. moving from the spoke to the pillar.

Monitoring and Analyzing Performance

A content cluster progress report can be created in a simple spreadsheet. Create a new worksheet within your keyword theme spreadsheet and list your content clusters in the first column. Column headings can include information about the keyword, where the content is published, the date of publication, and the criteria for success for each subsequent piece of content. For example, if you plan to write ten articles that link out to product pages with the primary objective of generating sales via product page referrals, list the URLs of the articles and the sales referral target for each URL.

For any piece of content, before you publish it, you should have a defined purpose and target audience. You therefore need different ways to measure the extent to which your content meets its objectives. For example, a blog article whose primary objective is to rank well and generate traffic for a specific keyword may be considered successful if it meets a minimum level of traffic from organic search. A piece of content designed to target link anchor text should be considered successful if it generates links with the right link text.

When it comes to monitoring and analyzing content performance, prepare yourself for an objective look at your content in the cold light of day. Be prepared to revise and re-optimize any content cluster that is not hitting its performance goals. Re-optimization will typically involve re-evaluating the keyword and topic, then rewriting some of the content to make it more comprehensive and to better answer the user’s query. Steps to monitoring your content clusters are:

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