It’s time to shift your SEO strategy from keywords to topics.

In an age where finding solutions starts with a simple Google search, ranking high on search engine result pages (SERP) is more important than ever. Knowing what your audience is searching for and providing content that answers their preliminary questions can position your company as a trusted resource, and your solution as the right choice. Of course, this all hinges on prospects coming across your website in the first place—and a large part of that is SERP ranking.

Machine learning = smarter search engines.

People type how they speak and have become accustomed to searching more complex questions, expecting accurate answers immediately. Algorithms have evolved to meet this demand, most notably with Google’s RankBrain update in 2015 which uses machine learning to discern the true intent behind every search.

For example, ever had a question but didn’t know how to word it? Maybe you simply began typing a few words and autocomplete finished your sentence. Or you had a vague question but after browsing Google’s “People also ask” accordion section found what you were really looking for. It often seems search engines know what you need before you even know it!

That’s because algorithms evolved from simply “seeing” keywords to reading and predicting the topical context behind each search. As a result, many companies have transitioned to a topic cluster SEO model in an effort to rank for specific topics within their industry.

What is a topic cluster?

Building a topic cluster model includes deliberately organizing pages around a primary topic. You would start by creating a pillar page—a long-format educational page about a certain topic that links to blog posts and other internal pages which provide more information about subtopics. All of these internal links help search engines understand the hierarchy of your website and recognize it as an authority on that topic, overall boosting your SERP ranking.

Tips and considerations for choosing a topic.

The goal of a topic cluster is to answer questions your audience may have about a specific subject. By grouping relevant content together, search engines and users will find it faster.

Choose a topic you want to own within your industry. The subject needs to be broad so that you can create comprehensive content that branches into subtopics. For example, a topic could be “social media marketing”. Then you could create a series of blog posts covering the many different social networks, best practices, trends, monitoring tools and more.

If you’re a HubSpot user, you can leverage the topic cluster tool to research and organize topics and subtopic keywords based on your company's areas of expertise. The tool also delivers detailed reporting so you can see how topics end up performing.

Ask these questions to fuel ideas.

What are the common needs, challenges and goals of your target audience? Is there an industry misperception you need to change? Are there common objections to your solution that you can address? Is there a potential transformation or advancement in your business segment unfolding?

Analyzing site metrics is another smart way to develop content ideas. What are your top-performing blog posts? What are popular questions on your FAQ page? Keep in mind, the subject should be broad so that you can build out comprehensive subtopic content. Examining search volume and related keywords with SEO tools such as SpyFu or Keywords Everywhere can help you gauge interest in a topic.

Remember, topic clusters are a strategy for increasing keyword ranking long term.

Organic search competition is tough. Starting off, pay attention to keyword ranking difficulty. Depending on your website’s domain authority, it may not be possible to rank for popular topics even if you create exhaustive high-quality content. If that’s the case, try ranking for less competitive keywords first. Then as you build site authority over time, shift to targeting more common topics.

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