A few months ago, we started working on a topic cluster for one of our clients. We felt pretty confident that the topic cluster we were building was going to perform (sooner or later).
So, after finalizing the project, we had to wait, and wait a little longer. You see, there was no active promotion whatsoever (e.g., link building) for the hub or any of the cluster pages, so knowing that we executed the project the best we could and stoically waited for the results to show up.
After all the pages had been published, crawled, and indexed, results started showing up. In this case study, we’re going to break down everything we did, in the hope that it will help you learn everything there is to know about topic clusters.
There are no secret tactics or silver bullets here; just great execution and great cooperation between our team and our client’s team. Here’s how we did it.
What Is a Topic Cluster?
A topic cluster is a set of pages that cover one main topic and semantically associated subtopics.
The main goal when adopting the topic cluster model is to achieve sufficient coverage of the main topic and its subtopics while providing a great user experience.
Creating a topic cluster shouldn’t be treated as a random effort but rather as a deliberate and well-executed process that’s part of your SEO strategy and overall content marketing activities.
A topic cluster consists of two page types:
- Hub Page (aka Pillar Page or Pillar Content)
- Cluster Pages (aka Content Clusters)
In the above diagram, the hub page (which is at the center from a URL and information architecture perspective) lives under a subfolder while the cluster pages live under separate folders inside that subfolder.
(We’ll explain how that worked for our case study in a while.)
The important thing to keep in mind is that a topic cluster exists when there’s sufficient coverage of the core topic and its subtopics under the umbrella of a well-structured and logical URL architecture.
Let’s move on to the next section where we’ll discuss the objective of the case study we’re presenting.
Viral Loops is a referral marketing software; it helps companies set up and run successful referral marketing campaigns.
One of the main reasons why people use the product is to create a waitlist for their upcoming product launch.
This applies to both new companies that launch completely new products and established companies that launch new products.
So, since product launches seem to be a good use case for Viral Loops, we set the objective of getting visibility for the topic of ‘product launch’ and for its subtopics.
The website already had some visibility for semantically associated terms such as…
- product launch waitlist
- product launch campaign ideas
- pre product launch strategy
- coming soon product launch
- product launch social media
- product launch marketing plan examples
- and more.
Author’s Note: The source for the above data is Google Search Console. The data is shared with our client’s permission.
This means that from a topic authority standpoint, there was a small foundation.
However, this wasn’t enough as any visibility that the website had prior to the launch of the topic cluster wasn’t in a high enough position to result in organic traffic.
Thus, our main objective was to create something that would be enough to help our client’s website get organic visibility and traffic for the topic of ‘product launch’ and as many semantically associated terms as possible.
Let’s see how we did that.
When creating a topic cluster, you have to identify as many subtopics as possible that are semantically associated with the main topic you’re trying to cover.
These subtopics are very often represented by keywords; the exact ones you can find in keyword data providers like Ahrefs or SEMrush.
Specifically for topic clusters, we have three types of keywords:
Author’s Note: The topic we’re using as an example in the above table is ‘product launch’.
An important note here is that both Phrase Match and Term Match keywords are also semantically associated keywords.
We’re just using the term ‘Semantic’ here for simplicity purposes but that doesn't mean that we exclude the other two types from being semantically related to the main topic.
The subtopics (e.g., list of keywords) we’ve covered in this first phase of the topic cluster are the following:
- product launch strategy
- product launch email
- product launch examples
- product launch ideas
- product launch metrics
- product launch software
- product launch checklist
- product launch plan templates
- product launch social media
- product launch marketing plan
- product launch press release
- product launch presentation
Even though moving forward we’ll add many more cluster pages to the topic cluster we’ve created, so far we’ve focused solely on the first type: Phrase Match keywords.
We did that mainly for time efficiency purposes.
The truth is that the first two types of keywords are relatively easy to identify using the ‘Keywords Explorer’ feature of Ahrefs.
The third one is the most difficult one and possibly the topic of one of our future blog posts.
A very important part of the process of creating a topic cluster is your URL architecture.
Let’s see how we handled it.
In most cases, the hub page lives in a subfolder, while the cluster pages live in separate folders under that subfolder.
In our case, the hub page lives in the following subfolder:
And, here is what our cluster pages look like:
As you can see, what follows the trailing slash is what’s left from the keyword after you exclude the main topic (e.g., product launch) that’s already included in the URL.
For example, for the keyword ‘product launch strategy’, what’s left is the word ‘strategy’ and thus, this is what we include after the trailing slash.
From a search engine crawling perspective, by the time Google’s crawler gets to that (cluster) page, they already have the context of ‘product launch’ and they’re missing the context of this page they’re about to crawl.
In plain English, this means that the crawler has ‘product launch’ in mind and all they need is the word ‘strategy’ to understand that this page is all about ‘product launch strategy’.
This is why our page has this URL…
… and not this one…
The truth is that the above URLs look pretty because—as we explained above—we used only Phrase Match keywords up until this point.
The question is: What would the URL architecture look like had we created cluster pages for Term Match and Semantic keywords?
Here’s a table to answer this:
As you can see from the table above, we treat Term Match and Semantic keywords in the same way and add a URL slug that’s an exact match to the target keyword.
One last point that we need to make here is that for crawl efficiency purposes, we wouldn’t recommend going deeper than two levels when it comes to your URLs.
While this is generally recommended…
… something like this wouldn’t be recommended…
Author’s Note: The above URL slug doesn’t exist and it is used just for illustration purposes.
Adding three layers to a topic cluster makes things more complex for a search engine crawler—and thus, less likely to be discovered and crawled—not to mention that it’s not evergreen and will most likely lead to several (301) redirects in the future.
As a general rule, try to keep things simple, exactly as we did and explained in this section.
That sounds like a buzzword, doesn’t it?
Well, not exactly since it was a very important part of the process and a contributing factor to the success of the topic cluster so far.
So, what is information hierarchy when it comes to topic clusters?
Information hierarchy refers to the order in which information is presented on the hub page of a topic cluster as well as the cluster pages.
In plain English, you need to organize information on your hub and cluster pages in a way that’s easy to understand and makes sense for the users of your topic cluster.
Let’s take a look at the hub page of our topic cluster.
On the left side, there’s the Table of Contents while on the right side there’s the actual content of the page.
Right after the intro, the first section users can see is the one that explains what a product launch is.
If you scroll down a bit, you’ll see that the page starts by answering the most basic question around the topic of ‘product launch’ (what is a product launch?) and goes all the way to discussing product launch software to help you with your launch.
The question is: Could we switch the order of a section like ‘product launch software’ with the ‘what is a product launch’ one?
The answer is no and that’s because it would ‘harm’ the page’s information hierarchy.
Search engine crawlers and (search engine) users expect to consume information in a certain order and this is how the information should be presented on the page.
This is why we’ve chosen the following information hierarchy for our topic cluster:
Author’s Note: The above order has been affected by when each cluster page was made ready by our team and published by our client. Moving forward, we’ll improve the order and information hierarchy of the hub page so that it resonates even better with users.
The same principle applies to the cluster pages we’ve created.
There as well we made sure that the information is presented in a way that makes sense.
So, for example, for the page ‘product launch metrics’ we first discussed what product launch metrics are, and why they are important, and only then presented some of the most important metrics for product launches.
Considering the fact that this page already ranks #1 for the target keyword ‘product launch metrics’, we’d say that the way information is structured on the page has worked.
Let’s see some of the most important elements and success factors of the project from a creation point of view.
Below we’ve outlined some of the most important elements from a creation standpoint for the hub and cluster pages of the topic cluster we created.
Not all of the elements work well together all the time, meaning that every case is different and has different requirements.
Integrate the elements that fit well in your case and avoid including the ones that may not fit so well.
Hub Page Layout
The layout we used for the hub page is the following:
The usability of the hub page is very important for user experience (UX) purposes.
In our case, the main elements of the page (as shown above) are:
- <h1> Heading
- <h2> Headings—for each section/cluster page
- Breadcrumbs—not so important for the hub as for the cluster pages
- Table of Contents—with internal links to the cluster pages
- Content—that gives an overview of the subtopic without getting into too much detail
- Internal Links—to the cluster pages in the form of CTA buttons*
- Media—custom graphs, videos and screenshots
- Author information—ideally at the bottom of the page
*This recommendation hasn’t been materialized by our client but is included in the mockup above.
Our recommendation would be to just follow the above structure for your hub page and you’ll do fine.
Cluster Pages Layout
The layout we used for the cluster pages is the following:
As it is evident from the mockup above, the hub and cluster pages have the same structure.
One main difference between the two is the content itself since the purpose of the cluster pages is to cover a very specific (sub)topic in as much depth as possible.
Another difference between the hub and cluster pages is that the Table of Contents in the cluster pages works as internal jumplinks that lead to a specific section of the page that the user is interested in and has clicked on.
That’s not the case for the hub page where the purpose is different.
As explained earlier, media use is very important when it comes to any kind of text-based content format online.
The truth is that most companies can create custom graphs, take screenshots, or even create videos.
Not many companies are willing to go the extra mile and create something that will really separate them from the competition they have (or will have) on the search engine results pages (SERPs).
Let’s share an example.
As part of the creation process for this topic cluster, in some cases, we created templates in different formats.
For example, for the product launch checklist cluster page, we created an easy-to-use and free template in Google Sheets.
As you can see above, all users have to do is insert their email and download the Google Sheet we created for free.
Above anything else, this creates a great user experience and contributes to providing value to users who visit any other pages on the topic cluster.
This also explains why many of the cluster pages have already gotten visibility for their target keywords, in some cases in very high positions.
Of course, this is case-specific, meaning that you won’t have to do something similar for your topic cluster.
However, based on our experience, creating something tangible that people can take away for free and use right away can have an overall positive impact on the performance of your topic cluster.
Up until today, Wednesday, June 8th, the topic cluster ranks for more than 1.1K organic keywords, according to Ahrefs.
It’s really encouraging to see that several of the cluster pages we’ve created so far have high search rankings for their target and several related keywords.
For example, the cluster page that targets the keyword ‘product launch presentation’ ranks #1 for the long-tail keyword ‘new product launch presentation’.
Of course, we know that the existing content we’ve created has a long way to go until it performs up to our expectations.
At the same time, we understand that performance will be improved over time as we optimize the pieces of content (e.g., cluster pages) we’ve already published and publish more high-quality cluster pages that cover related topics.
Something very interesting in this case study is the fact that our client’s website has gotten visibility for the main term, ‘product launch’ through the hub page.
After all, that’s the ultimate goal; the cluster pages to prepare (or help) the hub page to get visibility for the main term.
We feel very confident that—even without any active promotion (e.g., link building) whatsoever—the hub page will very soon rank on the first page for the target term.
Even though we can’t share Google Search Console data, we can say that the topic cluster is collectively bringing in ~100 organic clicks on weekdays.
And, once again, we believe that its performance will increase over time.
Before we wrap things up, let’s share some of the most important learnings from this case study.
Here are some of the key learnings from this project:
- Creating long-form content isn’t enough; you need to make sure that your content satisfies the search intent (e.g., what the searchers are looking for).
- Don’t rely on search volume alone when making decisions on what pages to create; if a subtopic is semantically associated with your core topic, you have to create a cluster page about it.
- Backlinks aren’t everything; this case study doesn’t include any active promotion of the content or link building.
- Internal linking matters for topic clusters with more pages; in this case study, we didn't pay any attention to internal hyperlinks from one page to the other.
- Linking back to relevant content using relevant anchor texts can have some sort of positive impact; for example, in this case study, we linked heavily to a guide on ‘go-to-market strategy’ that we had previously published on the website’s blog.
- The URL architecture you’ll come up with plays a very important role and can have a very positive impact on performance.
- Getting visibility for a specific topic you already have established some topical authority for can generally have a positive impact on performance.
- When doing keyword research, you have to go outside of the box and brainstorm content ideas that SEO software don’t report as well as figure out semantic relationships between the terms you’ve identified.
Even though some of the above learnings aren’t things that we’ve done with this topic cluster (yet), we’ll make sure to integrate them into our cluster strategy for the next topic clusters we’re going to work on.
Let’s wrap this up.
Do topic clusters work?
If done correctly, topic clusters are a great way to build topical authority and get visibility for terms that are important to your business.
We believe that topic clusters should be an integral part of any SEO and content strategy.
It all starts with a broad topic you’re interested in.
You then have to identify specific keywords that are part of this topic and create dedicated pages for each keyword.
In the end, you need to tie all these pages together under a great URL architecture and make sure that your hub and cluster pages are properly linked with each other.
The process isn’t as easy as it may sound and you need to be very deliberate and careful with every step that you take.
However, if you do it right, you can get great results from your effort; exactly like our client.