How to Create an SEO Strategy
without Becoming a Content Factory

Your Guide to SEO-Friendly Content Creation that Will Get Your Site Ranking

If you’re building your content marketing strategy for the first time, or you’d like to improve the strategy you’re currently using, this resource is for you.

Here, we take a look at why it's especially important for a B2B business to have an effective content marketing strategy—one that provides a big boost for their website’s search engine optimization (SEO).

Later on, you’ll learn about the topic cluster model, which will help you showcase your organization’s areas of expertise, build trust with visitors, streamline user experience and get your site ranking for the search topics that matter most to your business.
 

How Has Search Changed?

The Evolution of Google Search

If there’s one thing we can always predict about Google, it’s this: its algorithm will keep on changing. 

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not too long ago, any given business just had to implement a poorly-developed black hat SEO technique in order to rank on the first page of Google. 

While this might have worked for a while, people online would often find themselves frustrated with search engine results. They might have been looking for truly valuable content that would help them solve a specific problem. Instead, they land on a page that doesn’t provide any substance, or worse, is completely unrelated to what they were searching for in the first place.

Later on, Google launched Google Penguin to reward high-quality websites with better search engine visibility, helping to discourage and penalize the then-rampant black hat SEO tactics many websites were leveraging.

Even later came Hummingbird, a major change that allowed search engines to understand queries based on the way people talked and searched. Essentially, it started to look at phrases as a whole rather than as fragmented words.

And since 2015 to this day, we live in the era of RankBrain, an even better version of Hummingbird, where Google continuously improves search engine results by measuring the way people interact with results.

HubSpot SEO Update Timeline

Timeline of major SEO updates (Source: HubSpot)

These changes need not be feared. As long as you focus on developing an effective content marketing strategy that is valuable to your readers, Google will interpret your site to be an important resource in your niche—and reward you with a great search engine ranking.

How People Search Online

Part of understanding why Google releases these changes in their algorithm also lies in understanding how people actually use these search engines in the first place.

These days, the rise of smartphone and hands-free device use has enabled people to move towards voice search. In fact, it’s been predicted that by 2020, half of all searches will be done via voice.

If you think about it, people use voice search differently than your run-of-the-mill text-based search. They often phrase queries in the form of questions—say, “Where’s the nearest Chinese restaurant near me?” versus a traditional search query that might have been typed in as “Chinese restaurants in Edinburgh.” 

You’ll also notice that more and more people are using long-tail keywords to conduct searches. This is so they can narrow down the search results and find the most relevant one for their particular query. 

Search engines have also kept up with modern language, allowing people to search using complex phrases or questions. Consequently, people will rarely make one or two-word search queries anymore.

Ahrefs Study: Keyword Length vs. Monthly Search Volume

Long-tail keywords still perform well in terms of search volume. (Source: Ahrefs)

A study by Ahrefs shows that 29% of keywords with over 10,000 monthly searches are made up of three words or more. So instead of searching “lose weight,” most people will be searching “how to lose weight” or “how to lose weight fast.”

According to Ahrefs, 29% of keywords with over 10,000 monthly searches are made up of three words or more.

These changes have both influenced and encouraged the evolution of search engine algorithms. In the same way that algorithms and user habits change, so must our understanding of traditional content marketing.
 

From Keywords to Topics

Only a few years ago, marketers’ understanding of content marketing involved developing a list of keywords—long-tail or otherwise—and then creating pages or posts that each revolved around one of those keywords in an attempt to rank on Google.

Today, sticking to this exact strategy alone poses a few challenges. First, writing a blog post to try and rank for a certain individual long-tail keyword means competing with competitors’ content trying to do the same. Moreover, you run the risk of competing with your own previously published content, as well.

While writing blog posts with the focus of trying to rank for certain keywords isn’t completely obsolete, there’s a better strategy to do content marketing.

Shifting from optimizing for long-tail keywords to adhering to a topic cluster model for your content marketing strategy is the better way to plan and create content, while exponentially increasing your chances of getting ranked on the first page of search engines.

What Is the Topic Cluster Model?

The topic cluster model involves identifying one topic you want to rank for, particularly one that positions you as an expert in the eyes of your website visitors. What do you want your business to be known for?

Once you’ve chosen a topic, your marketing team can identify important keywords related to that topic and create content for each of those, making sure to link the pieces to each other (think of it like a wheel with a hub and spokes).

Let’s take a look at why the topic cluster model is a great addition to your overall content marketing strategy.

What Does the Topic Cluster Model Mean for Your Content Marketing Strategy?

Establish Your Business as an Authority

The first benefit of using the topic cluster model is that you can position your organization as an expert / thought leader in your industry with respect to your chosen topic.

A study by Time Inc. found that two out of three consumers actually trust branded content more than traditional advertising. Over half of consumers have also stated that this custom or branded content shows that brands are also more valuable, opting to give more value instead of pushing traditional marketing messages.

Consider, for example, a B2B software company that offers an online shopping cart solution for e-commerce sites. If they were to publish a topic cluster on e-commerce marketing, with several quality posts and content about related topics, then you—as an e-commerce business owner—would probably trust this company as an authority on e-commerce marketing, right?

Improve Your Website's User Experience

Last, but definitely not least, using the topic cluster model for your content marketing boosts your site’s SEO as a whole. This can happen for a number of good reasons.

First, visitors who click through different links to learn more about certain topics stay on your site longer. Google and other search engines reward sites with low bounce rates, so a topic cluster can be an easy way to get visitors to linger, and possibly take action.

Next, the very practice of simply interlinking your content gives an extra boost in your SEO ranking. Imagine if you had 20 pieces of cluster content linking back to your main topic post. You’re sending a signal to Google and other search engines that there’s a semantic relationship between your pages, and that one of these pages has the highest priority.

This happens because the linking structure and cluster setup signal to search engines which of your content covers the topic most comprehensively, giving your pillar content a higher chance of getting on the coveted first page of search results.

Increase Your Ranking Potential

Last, but definitely not least, using the topic cluster model for your content marketing boosts your site’s SEO as a whole. This can happen for a number of good reasons.

First, visitors who click through different links to learn more about certain topics stay on your site longer. Google and other search engines reward sites with low bounce rates, so a topic cluster can be an easy way to get visitors to linger, and possibly take action.

Next, the very practice of simply interlinking your content gives an extra boost in your SEO ranking. Imagine if you had 20 pieces of cluster content linking back to your main topic post. You’re sending a signal to Google and other search engines that there’s a semantic relationship between your pages, and that one of these pages has the highest priority.

This happens because the linking structure and cluster setup signal to search engines which of your content covers the topic most comprehensively, giving your pillar content a higher chance of getting on the coveted first page of search results.

Components of the Topic Cluster Model

Take a look at HubSpot’s illustration of the topic cluster model below. We’ll be going through each of the model’s components, and then we’ll proceed with a deep dive into how you can create your own topic clusters for your own business.

HubSpot Topic Cluster Diagram

Visual diagram of the topic cluster model (Source: HubSpot)


Pillar Content

Based on the model above, the “pillar” is the piece of content that provides an overview of the primary topic from which you base all other related content.

Pillar content normally takes on the form of a 3,000-5,000 word blog post. They’re broad enough to cover several ideas but not so broad where it attempts to cover everything in one article.

To do a quick sense-check on whether or not your pillar piece is actually a pillar piece, ask yourself this question: Does the page cover many aspects of a broad topic?

If your answer is ‘yes’, you’re on the road to creating a killer content pillar. If it’s a ‘no’—because you either find yourself trying to go into too much detail about one aspect or you are trying to rank the page for one long-tail keyword—then reassess and broaden your scope.

Consider this page, for example (ooh, how meta…a piece of pillar content about pillar content). All jokes aside, when viewing this page, visitors can quickly see a table of contents which lets them know that this page contains a high-level look at just about everything you need to know about the topic.

Cluster Content

The next component of a topic cluster model is the cluster content itself.

These are the various content pieces that delve deeper into the ideas described or mentioned in your pillar article. Whereas your pillar content will help you rank for many search queries about your topic, the different cluster content articles will enable you to more easily rank for specific long-tail keywords.

Hyperlinks

Remember, it’s essential that you link your pillar content to each of your pieces of cluster content and vice versa. Hyperlinks are the glue or spokes that connect your topic cluster model. Without hyperlinking each to the other, the SEO impact is lost.

Let’s refer to another example on our site. When someone visits our pillar content page on Customer Success Strategy (notice that we are intentionally not going to link to it here, as it’s about an entirely different subject), most of the sections on the page link to different blog posts that provide a more in-depth analysis or take on the different aspects of Customer Success addressed by the pillar. See the screenshot below...

PMG Pillar Hyperlink Example

Example of a hyperlink from the pillar piece to a cluster content post on PMG website

When you click on the link, it’ll take you to another post on our blog, expounding on tips for effectively communicating with clients. 

Once you land on the cluster content page, you’ll also notice hyperlinked text (as well as a CTA button) that references the guide to Customer Success. Needless to say, when clicked, it redirects a user back to the pillar content.

Overview of the Topic Cluster Model in Action

Take a look at this diagram below as a simple illustration of the topic cluster model in action.

CMI Topic Cluster Example

Example of a topic cluster (Source: Content Marketing Institute)

In this example, the pillar content is most likely a comprehensive blog post that broadly covers different kinds of workout routines, all of which are logical results a searcher might be after.

The cluster content are more detailed posts about the specific workout routines mentioned in the pillar article. So a visitor searching for workout routines who lands on the pillar page can easily obtain more in-depth tips or information about, say, dumbbell workouts by clicking through to the relevant piece of cluster content.

If the same visitor also wanted to learn about workout routines that didn’t require weights, they could easily refer back to the same pillar article and find the content for that topic, clicking through as they find that piece of the overview. 

For the visitor, the entire process of navigating through these different blog posts is relatively seamless and effortless. Plus, they never have to leave the same website, referring only to the posts and links offered by the pillar pages or cluster content.

For the search engine, the fact that all of this cluster content is internally linked back to one comprehensive piece of pillar content signals that said pillar piece is the priority page to rank. Plus, having visitors staying on the website longer is another added bonus!

The beauty of topic clusters is that you can keep creating content that helps build and support your pillar page. This only adds more value to your page, increasing its ranking over time.

You can even create as many topic clusters as you want, depending on the scope of your business.

Do you now see why you should be using this model for your own content marketing and SEO strategy? Keep reading the next section to learn exactly how to make your own!

Steps for Using the Topic Cluster Model

Step #1: Develop the right buyer personas.

The first thing your marketing team should do before jumping into identifying topics to publish is creating semi-fictional “personas” that represent your ideal customers—and outlining their respective wants, needs, demographic/firmographic information, etc. This is a timeless foundational step used across different content marketing strategies, and it works just as well for the topic cluster model, too.

To build out the best topic clusters for your business, think about the target audience for your content and then craft different buyer personas that guide what kind of content you can create for them, what types of questions you should address, etc. 

Try to imagine the exact position they might be in right now. What are their professional goals? What are they trying to achieve for their business? What are the pain points keeping them from achieving these goals?

Optionally, use this simple template from Buffer to help you quickly create your first marketing persona:

Buyer Persona Template

Content Marketing Persona Template (Source: Buffer)

It’s also a best practice to conduct customer research and interviews—to help you either confirm your assumptions about your target audiences or identify new pain points you might not have thought of yet.

Step #2: Identify the keyword topic with the highest search volume.

Once you’ve completed your buyer personas, look for any recurring patterns or overarching themes related to their goals and pain points. Use this to come up with your one main topic, but be sure to choose a keyword topic with the highest search volume per month.

The free browser extension Keywords Everywhere is a great tool to help you get started. Check the monthly search volume. A monthly search volume of at least 2,500 should be a good place to start.

You can also look at related keywords right under your first Keywords Everywhere result. Find the best keyword with the best search volume, and use that as your main keyword topic for your pillar content.

Keywords Everywhere Tool

Look at monthly search volume and related keywords to determine your main topic (Source: Keywords Everywhere)

Alternatively, other great tools for this step include the Keywords Explorer from Ahrefs, LSI Graph, and SEMRush.

Step #3: Choose your core topics.

Once you’ve identified your main topic, you can now proceed to determining your core topics.

Core topics usually contain three to five words, but that number may differ depending on your industry. These topics also provide more context for your main keyword topic. They also exhibit a high search volume every month (but not as high as your main keyword).

One way to find these core topics is using Google’s autocomplete, as well as related search suggestions. Some of these auto-fill suggestions will make great core topics right off the bat!

Google Search Autocomplete Example

Google autocomplete for the main topic “workout routines”

There are also SEO tools like AnswerThePublic that will help you identify good core topic options. See all the popular queries people make about the same topic below:

AnswerThePublic SEO Tool Example

AnswerThePublic search results for the main topic “workout routines” (Source: AnswerThePublic)

Your goal for these core topics is to rank highly for searches on these chosen keywords. That being said, because search engines have gotten smarter over the years, don’t fret too much about ranking for an exact long-tail keyword. Google’s algorithms are much better at pinpointing search intent than they used to be.

Instead, focus on creating valuable content around these core topics. You might want to see what competing posts are already ranking well to get a better grasp on what value you can add.

Perhaps you can update any outdated information or research. Or you can add more details that the current ranked result hasn’t covered yet.

Step #4: Determine subtopic content for your topic clusters.

After creating content based on your core topics, you can supplement them with subtopic content.

These types of content can range anywhere from shorter 800-1,500 word blog posts to videos or infographics. Basically any kind of content you churn out more regularly can link back and support your core topics.

Eventually, you can take note of which of these subtopic content pieces performs best, linking them to and from your core topic pages. After all, if they performed well, that means several people found them useful. Why not make sure more people discover them when they stumble upon your core topics pages?

Pro Tip: Title these subtopic ideas in the form of questions, incorporating “how to” or “what is” phrasing. People are more likely to input search queries as questions, so this helps you stand a better chance at getting discovered.

Check out how the Content Marketing Institute illustrates the relationship between the three previous steps here:

CMI Topic Cluster Mountain Range Metaphor

The relationship between the main topic, core topics, and subtopics (Source: Content Marketing Institute)

Step #5: Link to existing and new content.

Yes, it’s important to connect all related existing content (or at least those pieces that provide value) to your pillar and core topic pages. AND it’s just as important that you remove internal links to and from posts that don’t have much to do with the topic. 

But as you create more content, you should update your pillar pages and core content pages to reflect these new posts, using the aforementioned hyperlinking structure. This can only increase the value of these pages and has the potential to send your SEO skyrocketing in the long run.

Step #6: Create inbound links with guest posting.

Here’s a step that acts as your secret sauce to really bolstering your SEO strategy: generating inbound links (or “backlinks”) through posting on other high authority websites.

Let’s face it: you might have the best pillar content about your chosen topic, but another website can still outrank you—perhaps it’s been around longer or has gotten a lot more clicks and engagement than your site.

One way to really boost your SEO is to increase your domain authority (DA). And one way to increase your DA is by getting links to your content from other people’s web pages and blogs. 

Successfully guest posting involves its own content market strategy, but it works great with the topic cluster model and long-tail keyword content you’re already using.

Follow these steps to help you get started on your first guest posting campaign:

  • Find experts and authority figures in your niche, and identify the sites where you’d like to publish a guest post.
  • Identify their target audience and buyer personas.
  • Brainstorm topics these experts might want on their blogs… what’s missing?
  • Create high-quality blog posts that link back to your pillar content or core topic posts.
  • Pitch blog posts to editors or site owners, explaining why your content is valuable material for their readers right now.

This step might take a while to really nail down, so start by building and nurturing relationships with the types of experts and publications you hope to one day pitch a guest post. 

Comment on their blog posts, reply to their Tweets, or send them an email letting them know you’ve featured them on your blog. Whatever the approach, do a few things that benefits both them and you. Once your foot is in the door, it’ll be easier to get a guest blog post pitch accepted down the road.

 

Conclusion

Content marketing is now a must-do strategy for business owners, especially with the rise of more intelligent search engine algorithms and the changing search habits of internet users. The topic cluster model is a fantastic strategy to deploy because it keeps your content streamlined while building your brand authority and, more importantly, your website’s SEO. 

It might take some time before you notice the effects of this strategy on your rankings. But once you’ve already started gaining traction with these content marketing efforts, all you’ll have to do is keep updating your pillar content and core topic posts while building inbound links as you move along.

Soon, your site will explode with organic traffic, and you’ll find that, from there, there’s no other way but up!