The way we search the web has changed. Just a few years ago, no one had heard of Alexa, and voice search was clunky at best. When we wanted to find a restaurant near our house, we would type a keyword phrase into Google, like “Italian restaurants in Rockford, IL.”
But the ever-advancing search algorithms are constantly improving search technology and changing how we interact with search engines. Today, we’re accustomed to having conversations with the devices and technologies we use. Instead of entering specific search queries into Google, we now ask more general questions, like “where’s the nearest pizza place,” and expect Google to know where we are – however creepy that may seem. We also expect Google and other search engines to autocorrect our misspelled search queries and still return results that may not contain the precise keywords that we searched for. More and more, we may not even be typing keywords at all, instead using voice commands, like “OK, Google,” “Alexa,” or “Hey, Siri,” to tell a search engine what we want.
Ultimately, the goal of any search engine has always been to provide users with the most relevant, credible content that exists on the web based on their search query. Today’s search engines don’t simply match content to queries. They find the right content based on the searcher’s intent.
Shifting from keywords to topics
Smarter search technology has not only changed how people search; it’s had a profound impact on search engine optimization, or SEO, and inbound marketing.
Search engine marketers used to obsess about keyword matching. But more advanced search engines are better able to recognize human language and less specific phrases in search queries and can draw on other data, like the searcher’s location and browsing history, to fill in the gaps, make connections, and return relevant search results that more closely match their intent. This enables marketers to create content that matches the intent behind the search, not nitpick over keywords.
Topic clusters: the new approach to SEO
This change from keywords to topics means that if you rank for a topic, there’s a very good chance you’ll rank for a multitude of individual search terms. This way, you can cast a much wider net and dramatically increase search engine traffic.
We call this new approach to SEO “topic clusters.” Topic clusters are made up of three main parts:
Core topic, which will take the shape of your pillar page
Subtopics, such as blog posts or videos
The core topic is what you want your company to rank for in search engines. Ideally, this should be a search term that’s educational and related to your product or service and that carries enough search traffic to make it worth your effort – typically about 300 monthly search volume.
To use an example, a core topic for Cain & Company is “B2B marketing.” This topic is both educational and directly related to the services our marketing agency provides, and it gets about 6,600 searches per month, more than enough search volume to justify the effort needed to rank competitively.
Pillar pages, like our “Essential Guide to B2B Marketing for Manufacturers,” are long-form web pages designed to cover your core topic comprehensively. You could think of a pillar page as a web version of an eBook. But unlike a gated content offer, the purpose of the pillar page is to rank in search results and attract traffic, not necessarily to convert leads, although a downloadable version of the pillar content may be available behind a lead generation form.
Subtopics break down the core topic into related parts. If the core topic is the title or subject of a book, subtopics are its individual chapters.
To use our example above, our “B2B marketing” subtopics include “marketing automation,” “blogging for business,” and “inbound marketing strategy.” These subtopics support our core topic and make it very clear to Google and other search engines that we are experts in B2B marketing.
Usually, subtopics are covered in blog posts, but they can really be any page of your website. The key is to be sure to connect your subtopic content back to your main pillar page via hyperlinks.
Linking subtopic content back to your pillar page, and vice versa, helps search engines understand the topical relationship between the different content assets of your topic cluster. The more content you have on a relevant topic, the more credibility you’ll develop on that topic. And remember, search engines are looking for high-quality, credible content to showcase to their searchers.
Advances in search engine technology are changing the ways in which we search for information online. This has also changed the rules of SEO. The topic cluster methodology is an approach to SEO that is better suited to match the intent behind the search rather than obsessing over keywords.