How Topic Clusters are Replacing Keywords in the AI-led World of SEO

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Category: Hubspot

Over recent years, Google and other search engines have been changing the way they rank websites and answer user queries. Moving beyond purely keyword searches, they now make use of ‘topic-clusters’ to identify subject-matter experts and to point users to the most relevant websites.

For many in SEO, topic clusters are a game changer - shifting the way that we build websites, plan content and earn traffic. To help you keep up with the latest trends, we’ll explain exactly what topic clusters mean for you.

Why Has This Change Happened?

Primarily, changes in search engine behaviour have happened in response to a shift in user behaviour. Since the early days of Google, users have searched using ‘fragmented keywords’ - single words and simple phrases that users thought search engines could understand.

Today, more people search using full questions using both the traditional text-based interface, as well as via smart home devices and voice search, confident that search algorithms and AI will be able to understand context and extract meaning from more complex language. Search engines now also have access to much more information about users which can affect search results, like their location, language, device and past search history.

In 2013 and 2015, Google implemented changes to allow it to understand context and conversational searches. In response, website owners now need to change the methods they use to rank highly on Google - tailoring their sites and content to meet topic-based searches rather than older-style keyword searches.

What Are Topic Clusters?

A topic cluster is a way for modern websites to structure their content to ensure that it is ranked highly by Google’s latest algorithm. This method relies on websites connecting their content in such a way as to prove that they are experts on a particular subject, giving Google confidence that your site will answer the complex questions its users are searching for.

Clusters of content rely on ‘pillar content’ - a lead piece that acts as a hub for all other relevant content on a website. This pillar links to other related pages, tying similar pages together into a tight, easily used cluster of relevant content.

Not only are these clusters easy for search engines to find and rank, but they provide benefits for users too. Clusters are easy to navigate and provide access to a bundle of relevant content within easy reach, making them much more likely to be able to answer complex search queries than traditional keyword-rich landing pages.


Topic Clusters: The Next Evolution of Content Strategy


Source: HubSpot

What Do You Need To Do?

To remain competitive on SERPs in the future, your website will need to transition to using topic clusters. The good news is that shifting away from keywords doesn’t mean that you need to start from scratch - instead, you can leverage your existing content to form clusters.

The first step is to audit your existing content, particularly your blog and other resources, and arrange them into topics that you want your site to rank for. Then, identify potential pillar pieces within each topic - these pillars need to be broad enough to cover the entire topic and allow you to connect many other more niche pages to them. If no obvious pillar piece exists, either expand an existing post or make a new piece to fill the role of topic hub.

With topics and their pillars identified, you can start clustering your content. To do this, each page relevant to the topic will need to link to the pillar and one or more other pages in the cluster, while being linked to from the pillar itself.

This HubSpot article goes into detail about building topic clusters and tracking their performance, and is a great place to start for anyone new to the topic.

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James West

About the author: James West

Inbound Marketing Agent and HubSpot nerd. James is responsible for ensuring customers get value and tangible results from their inbound marketing systems and campaigns. When he's not digging around in HubSpot, James is playing football or watching his beloved Spurs. He sometimes thinks they could use his silky skills!