The Evolution of Keywords
Keywords have been the foundation of search and marketing almost since the beginning of the internet. The idea being to identify the keywords your ideal customer will use to search for information relating to the product or service you sell. Creating content for the keyword allows marketers to provide useful information to customers. So, a beach resort may decide to target “beach vacations”.
In competitive markets, a single word (or two) may be too broad to target your ideal customer. For example, beach vacation would not distinguish by location or even east coast or west coast. As a result, long tail key words are developed to carve up a niche. So, “Emerald Isle Beach Vacation Rentals” is more targeted to a motivated booker.
This set-up worked nicely as search engines improved the ability to respond to specific requests by users. So potential customers could search for “6br oceanfront vacation home in outer banks”. Unfortunately, they may find listings on Craigslist or VRBO rather than the Vacation Management firm’s selections. Vacation Rental Managers and Marketers responded by creating a wider net around content searches to include related vacation activities and content specific to the location to differentiate themselves from the dominance of VRBO. So, restaurant reviews, area attractions, and events are used as subjects for content to attract potential customers.
Many firms have become content producing machines, not just in quantity but also in quality. However, their SERP (Search Engine Result Page) rankings may not have improved. Many companies responding by creating more content and hoping their fortunes would improve. Unfortunately, creating more of the same underperforming content created the same underwhelming results.
Search Engines Have Evolved
Search engines have continued to improve and will continue to evolve. The exact mechanics and algorithm used by Google and other search engines is a well maintained secret…. And a moving target.
Increasingly, artificial intelligence (RankBrain) and other technology is providing insight to customer’s intent and improving the results. The results are not static, depending on your location, you will likely see different ranking for any given query. So, the results for “Best Pizza Restaurant” is different when you are on vacation compared to when home.
SEO experts are increasingly adopting a topic cluster model to improve result rankings for their Company. The core topic is the main hub where all the supporting content for that topic links back to and links to each other. The core topic is the “authority” on the topic and over time with the sub-topics linking back to it should improve its rankings.
Customers Search Differently
Customers have adapted to the improvement in search engine results by making even more specific and exacting queries. No longer is it ok to get close to the result and wade through pages of documents. Today’s consumer is looking to target the laser and get the exact answer to the request in the shortest amount of time possible.
The use of voice searches is drastically changing the nature of search to accommodate more natural language. Smart phones and devices like Alexa are increasing the number of searches by voice and the search engines have improved their understanding of these queries.
What Are Topic Clusters – Content Strategy Needs to Adapt
Rather than focusing on a few keywords or long tail phrases, ranking in the search engines now requires a different effort. Topic Clusters is the name of this approach. The idea is for a company to completely cover a topic; with each topic having multiple keywords or phrases associated with it.
Another advantage of a topic approach is to uncover any areas where coverage may be lacking or thin. This becomes more obvious when looking at it from a topic point of view rather than only looking at keywords.
Using the cluster approach forces marketers to have the depth and breathe when creating a content strategy. The focus on a topic rather than a narrower keyword provides a more unified strategy rather than one keyword in isolation.
Topic Clusters Drive New Data Architecture
Content related to any keyword exists in blog post, a website page and perhaps some gated content. Most companies do not have an index or method to identify related content across all assets. As a result, many opportunities to link to the next appropriate piece of content may be lost. This is an important step to make it easy for a lead to progress to a conversion.
A topic cluster organization is a wheel and spoke configuration where the core topic is the center with all sub-topics identified and related in spokes (see illustration provided by HubSpot below). The sub-topics link back to the core topic. This makes it easy to identify all related content for one topic and be able to cross link the most appropriate content based on the objectives of the content piece.
The topic cluster method of thinking about content and organizing content is more intuitive for people and easier for search engines to identify the best complete coverage of the topic. It is believed the topic cluster organization will result in higher rankings where an authority is identified through the topic cluster.
Another way to envision the core topic is to liken it to an outline of all the subtopics that can be included in the much broader general topic. An example is the core topic – vacation activities. The sub-topics would be all the activities in your location, like putt-putt, amusement parks, water parks, museums, surfing or watersport lessons, scuba or snorkeling tours, lighthouse tours etc.
The core topic covers the topic broadly and should be a strong source of conversions. The sub-topics go into detail and lead back to the core topic and should be a good source of traffic. The wheel and spoke organization provides greater visibility to Google and the search engines about the depth of coverage for the topic when the sub-topics are taken into consideration. Looking at content this way also allows humans to spot missing items of content.
Process to Move to Topic Cluster
Even though you may not be considering a website re-design, you can begin to start thinking and organizing your content in preparation for the next revision. For many companies, just getting a handle on all the content assets, their placement in the customer journey or conversion funnel is no small project.
- Identify top 5 core problems of your buyer persona
- Group each problem into topics – use same anchor text to link back to topic from sub-topic
- Identify sub-topics for each core topic
- Identify and classify existing assets into core topics or sub-topics
- Identify any gaps where new content needs to be created
- Measure results over time
Analyze at the Core Topic Level
Looking at the performance of the Core Topic level can provide better insight on how the category is performing rather than an isolated blog post. This is especially useful when the purpose of the content is not conversion but the piece manages to get a lot of backlinks. For example, a restaurant guide for each town. This page with all the links will have a higher authority and pass the authority onto the related pages across the topic cluster.
A recent study by HubSpot to determine if the topic cluster approach impacted the performance in SERP’s, found the increased interlinking improved search engine performance. Intuitively, this makes sense. The search engines routinely have to comb through pages of any one company’s content to “guess” what the best result is based on the users request. Once a company has identified and organized based on a core topic concept, the “authority” page for that company has already been identified. This way, rather than all your related pages competing with each other, a thoughtful design with logical links connects the pieces and makes it easier for the search engine and customers to understand.
Inbound marketing involves so many skill sets under one umbrella. It’s SEO, social media, content writing, design, development, strategy, project management, data analysis, audio/video production, and much more. It’s is extremely unlikely to have one person to have the time or the skill to handle everything. If you’re going to implement an inbound marketing program, you need a team. That team can either be in-house or it can be from a marketing agency but it takes more than one person. It is a dedicated effort that pays off over time.