PubLoft’s Illustrated Guide to

Topic Clusters:
The Key to Long-Term
SEO Success

publoft cluster content strategy shown as pillar content with supporting pieces
publoft cluster content strategy shown as pillar content with supporting pieces

In this in-depth resource, we cover everything startup founders and marketing managers should know about writing and publishing topic-based content in the form of clusters.

For the best results in SEO, we highly encourage you to take advantage of topic clusters in your inbound marketing. We urge our awesome network of freelance marketing strategists and content writers to do the same.

Let’s find out why.

click a section or simply scroll

the short version

For busy founders:
Why invest in topic-based SEO strategy?

Paid ads 😦

fizzle out without a budget… paid advertising analytics chart showing drop in traffic when budget runs out

Organic search 🤩

pays itself off long-term inbound marketing generates long-term organic website traffic from search engines (actual customer results)
or keep reading

the long(er) version Back to top

Why startups should invest in topic-based SEO strategy early

If you go Google “mason jars” right now, the first result will (almost certainly) be Amazon. This is the case for hundreds of products—Amazon has successfully claimed ownership of huge numbers of keywords and search terms. While, it’s tempting to think that their massive ecommerce success is the primary reason for this, the real answer goes much deeper.

Organic visibility is defined as how often your brand (website, app, blog, social, etc.) shows up for search queries—and it takes a long time to build up. Companies that invest in SEO in the early days see far greater long-term results, and experience a metric that thrills investors:

Much lower long-term customer acquisition cost (CAC)

As the Moz blog explains, SEO is invaluable for reducing CAC. Organic search traffic is quite literally free, and Google isn’t going anywhere, so investing in the right SEO strategy today means potentially thousands of new visitors, leads, and users/customers in the mid-to-long-term.

Components of a great SEO strategy

components of seo strategy

1. S.M.A.R.T. marketing goals that support company goals

It should go without saying that the first step to successful marketing efforts involves setting measurable and realistic goals that will move the needle for your team. We’ve published an entire blog post on setting S.M.A.R.T. goals, so we’ll keep this section concise.

2. Clearly defined buyer personas (readers; audience)

The next step any marketer should take is to clearly define and understand the ideal customers we’re trying to target, if that’s not already done. This involves market research, user interviews, building MVPs as a process, and many more components that are (mostly) no one’s job but the startup’s. There are a great many tools that help with user feedback, but we believe there’s no benefit in outsourcing actually talking to your customers. 😋

The point is, with a strong understanding of your customers’ “jobs to be done” (and ideally some decent validation from user testing), marketers have a solid foundation we can use to move to the next step in the process.

Powerful message-market fit

If you’re not personally gifted in the ways of words, it can be incredibly valuable to hire a consultant or marketing team (like PubLoft, no shame) to help craft a message that deeply resonates with each of your audience segments.

In practice, the same value proposition may be true for many types of users, but each subset will have their own perspectives and “magic words” that work best for them. Put simply, don’t try to connect to a middle-aged CEO who’s earned the gray in his beard the same way you try to connect with a first-time female founder in her early 20s. While both share similar traits, each has a unique take on life and list of priorities on which to focus.

elon musk headshot as an example of a successful mid-life startup ceo
Elon M.

Founder, CEO, chairman, etc.

Los Angeles, CA

Cares deeply about humanity. Juggles several ventures full-time. Speaks at events. Active on Twitter.

Wants to put people on Mars and get rid of traffic so he can make an impact on the world.

young female startup founder
Nisreen M.

First-time founder

Austin, TX

Cares deeply about humanity. Works full-time in addition to her startup. Attends events. Active on Snapchat.

Wants to learn better ways to manage time so she can make an impact on the world.

The best marketers and copywriters can personalize messaging to speak directly to a certain type of reader. Using words from a certain generation, industry, and more, we marketers can turn a one-size-fits-all product (see: many use cases) into a whole assortment of value propositions catering specifically to each type of customer.

Relevant, optimized content published regularly

In keeping with the previous section, remember to keep every piece of content relevant to the reader, listener, watcher, etc. If the same topic can apply to several types of people, consider creating multiple versions of that content, where each version is highly relevant to a specific audience segment.

Think of SEO like product-market fit

The closer we can match our content to what people are truly looking for, the more relevant we become. That’s the whole philosophy behind inbound: be a source of guidance in your ideal customers’ lives, and they will become trusting and loyal to your brand.

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Why search algorithms favor topic-based content

It’s 2019 and we’re past keywords.

Long gone are days of relentless keyword-stuffing and stilted content that didn’t have much of a place in its wider context. Google’s search algorithms are constantly changing, and Google wants helpful, well-written information—or to put it more accurately, Google’s users want that, and Google wants to get it for them.

Topic-based content is content that holistically covers a broad topic in its entirety. In the context of modern digital marketing, this is generally achieved through a series or cluster of shorter articles, each diving into a subtopic that supports its core, overarching topic.

With this kind of content, marketers aim to provide a complete picture—like links in a chain or chapters in a book, each contributing the whole story.

Image results for keywordsReport images

Search engines love topic-based content.

Part of Google getting smarter is that the algorithm uses latent semantic indexing to capture the essence of a topic including synonyms, alternative keywords, and relationships to similar information. Essentially, it indexes information according to the latent (hidden) relationships between different words like “broken” and “fix,” rather than just looking for keywords and ignoring context. It’s AI text comprehension, and it’s making it harder for low-quality sources to simply game their SEO with keywords, which rewards the best quality content.

It comes back to what we said before—Google wants to deliver helpful results, and their search engineers have found this to be a better way to do so. Pages that contain relevant and related keywords and phrases, and that are interlinked with many other pages discussing similar topics, form a mesh of content that tells search engines you’re not just keyword stuffing—you’re serious about your content.

Thought leadership is the new SEO.

Building out a topic cluster has both immediate and follow-on effects. The structure and quality of content are good for ranking, and the links between each post signal to Google that the central "pillar" post is a major authority on the topic. It’s also a great way to go about creating and organizing content on any site.

By creating a comprehensive overview of a topic, along with smaller interlinked blog posts going in-depth about particular facets of that topic, you’re creating a hugely valuable resource: content that site visitors are more likely to read and click through to other internal pages. Time on site goes up, and with it the opportunity to convert prospects further down the funnel. Other sites are likely to link to it to add value for their readers, which can boost your site’s domain authority.

Image results for boost your site’s domain authorityReport images

Ensure that your blog post or article clusters are thorough, holistic, organized, readable, relevant, and useful. Think thought leadership: offering valuable and helpful resources with your content. If you can corner the market on quality content in your area of expertise, you’re definitely on the right track.

Google saves the day, again.

The power of controlling over 90% of the online search market and handling billions of searches each day is that you get to make the rules. Google is always making updates to its algorithms, and rarely bothers to explain them (even when they impact rankings significantly). But, when the team wants to influence Web behavior for any reason, they need only disclose their intent, and the wider Web jumps on command. They’ve done this to influence web security, incentivize mobile-friendly web design, and more.

Now, we’re seeing Google flex its muscles again by rewarding sites that publish quality, topic-based content. By ranking these sites higher in search results, Google helps searchers find the best answers to their questions.

For marketers and content creators, it means that there are no real shortcuts. There’s no simple trick to making your pages rank—you have to make them good. That’s why Google favors topic-based content: it’s good, it’s comprehensive and it will provide the information that people want.

So set those keyword planning tools aside for just a few minutes, and focus on broad topics first. You can factor keyword data in once you’ve got a solid idea of the topics on which you want to write, and how they will help your readers.

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4 great examples of brands
that have mastered the science of topic clusters

hubspot leader inbound marketing topic cluster content creation official company logo

How could we possibly list exemplary topic clusters without mentioning the O.G.? HubSpot is arguably the top dog of inbound marketing, given that cofounder Brian Halligan coined the term himself in ’05. It comes as no surprise (to us, at least) that their whole blog is strategically laden with links to their other posts—telltale signs of SEO guruism.

hubspot pillar content page ranking screenshot

Weighing in at a whopping 4,700 words and an estimated 22 minutes of reading, HubSpot’s Ultimate Guide to the Best Productivity Apps (pictured above) starts with a beautiful above-the-fold design. This critical aspect connects with our image-loving brains to keep us on the page—and conveniently suggests a free guide to download.

The article begins with a handy table of contents linking to each of the six sections, organized by app category, for the sake of user-friendliness (which search algorithms love). You’ll notice it’s missing “back to top” buttons in each section, which can really add value to readers looking to navigate quickly. We recommend including these in your pillar pages.

In this pillar, the only internal links are prompts to download HubSpot’s related productivity guide in the header section as well as the end of the article and in an unobtrusive popup in the corner of the page the same guide. Including a downloadable resource multiple times on one page is understably proven to increase downloads of such resources, so keep that in mind as well as you build your pillar pages.

gathercontent content management platform official company logo

Similarly to our example from HubSpot, this content managing platform takes a pillar page approach that focuses less on a slew of internal links. Instead, GatherContent makes only a couple of subtle moves to get both your clicks and your interest.

gathercontent pillar content page ranking screenshot

Their guide to UX design and content strategy (pictured above) is a long document of subtopics, with a table of contents linking to different parts of the page. If you look next to the table, you see a link to download a free PDF version of the guide. It doesn’t stop there, however.

Further down, there’s a link to another guide on their website with yet another free download, along with the link to the online version. Then guide number two has another downloadable guide linked at the end.

This chain of hyperlinks not only feeds the reader a procession of long and informative guides, but also encourages you to download them for later. It’s free, so why wouldn’t you? All it asks for is your name and email address!

gathercontent content management platform official company logo

Mailshake is an email outreach tool with a focus on cold emailing. As a brand relating to content marketing, they know SEO, and take full advantage of topic clusters. In fact, HubSpot Research reports that some of Mailshake’s top-performing pillar content has generated hundreds of new customers for the cold outreach company.

mailshake pillar content page ranking screenshot

One of their top pieces, How to Write a Follow-up Email After No Response, ranks #1 for several high-volume keywords that drive a significant percentage of Mailshake’s website traffic:

mailshake pillar content page ranking screenshot

Our SEMrush audit also revealed an Internal LinkRank of 67/100 at the time of this writing, the highest out of all their non-category blog pages. This means we can safely assume that many other pages are pointing to this one, passing “link juice flow” and indicating to search engines that the page’s content is a primary source of information—a pillar content page. 👌

publoft marketing for startups official company logo

Okay, shameless plug: we here at PubLoft have been hard at work refining an SEO strategy playbook for startups (including topic clusters!) for the past two years, and we’re proud of what we’re doing now.

For the record, you’re in a topic cluster right now.

gif of man getting his mind blown by the inception of topic clustering

Besides the fact that you’re currently reading a pillar page that’s part of our inbound marketing cluster, we’ve also put together a great case study around one of our first official customers, CBD For Life. It was important to show how we discovered that topic clustering could have such a strong impact on search rankings, and to acknowledge the fact that it happened completely by intuition (see: accident). 😋

A 6,221% increase in organic site visitors in 6 months?

Read on to get the story behind our work for CBD For Life, and how it’s brought them tens of thousands of organic monthly site visitors.

case study Back to top

How PubLoft (accidentally) discovered
topic-based content strategy

(by growing our first customer’s organic traffic 6,221%)

Ecommerce websites thrive on organic visibility—website traffic is practically their lifeblood. So, when online CBD product retailer CBD For Life got the boot from Shopify’s legal team, they reached out to their network to get some help ramping back up.

CBD For Life & PubLoft: love at first write

In July of 2018, our friend Kirk Morales over at Persosa made an introduction to Julie, the COO of CBD For Life, who was desperately looking for help rebuilding website traffic, and knew that consistent content publishing could help bigtime.

screenshot of google analytics for customer content

We saw this as a unique challenge, and PubLoft officially closed our first monthly recurring customer at the turn of the following month. As soon as we secured CBD For Life as a customer, we began a complete analysis of the current keywords and SEO trends pertaining to the CBD industry. We narrowed down keywords that presented unique ranking opportunities for CBD, and created a comprehensive content plan based on our findings.

We conducted CBD industry keyword research to find search terms with a high search volume. We assigned articles to our first few writers, some of whom have gone on to become the marketing strategists we’re so thankful for today. They wrote beautifully, and we optimized every piece for SEO—high quality images with alt tags, readability checks, meta descriptions. Mat suggested we write a “Primer on CBD” as one of the first articles, and we did.

screenshot of blog posts published for customer

We published every piece on CBD For Life’s Wordpress blog, and as the content bank grew we even updated past articles to include links to the newer ones. At the time, it made sense to find ways to keep readers reading content on CBD For Life’s website, and that was one way we knew we could help. We continued on like this for several months, not pausing to track metrics.

Their first twelve articles were live within a span of just over two months, one of them titled “A Primer on CBD: the Definitive Guide.” Within this Primer, we linked out to all of our other articles, and each article linked back into the Primer. Unbeknownst to us, this was the very technique we’re discussing—topic clustering—and it’s adored by search algorithms.

A revelation of epic proportions

One day in late December, Mat & I happened to wonder how PubLoft’s months of content was performing for CBD For Life. As we pulled up SEMrush, we made bets on how good—or bad—the results would be.

(It still fascinates me to look back on a time when results were out-of-sight-out-of-mind, but remember: this is a story about accidentally learning how to do something really well. We were naïve, wannabe pyrotechnicians playing with fire.)

My heart skipped the first beat when SEMrush Position Tracking returned first-page positions for several high-volume keywords. It was clear that we’d done something right, but we didn’t know how it impacted their traffic. So, we did what any curious data nuts might—we dove into Google Analytics, and here’s what we saw:

screenshot of google analytics for customer content

By October 2018, CBD For Life’s blog was slowly but steadily creeping up the Google rankings. In November, their blog content brought in over 3,000 website visitors from organic search. By the end of December, the number had surpassed 15,000, and it more than doubled again in February, exceeding 30,000 organic website sessions in a single month. By early March, CBD For Life was receiving 10,000 organic sessions per week from their blog alone.

google analytics showing organic traffic increase

bonus wisdom Back to top

A word to the wise: don’t get complacent with content creation

Our content had driven tens of thousands of site visitors to CBD For Life in the span of just 6 months. Then, on March 12, 2018, Google released a core algorithm update that will haunt the dreams of CBD-industry SEOs for months to come:

google analytics showing organic traffic increase

In one fell swoop, Google’s algorithm update managed to destroy two-thirds of CBD For Life’s organic visibility, and the free website traffic it was bringing in. If this sounds a bit discouraging, it’s understandable. Frankly, we’re all at the mercy of Google, and there’s only one remedy for a significant loss in ranking. As one marketing professional explains on Inc.,

“Continually adding new content to your website that matches what your target audience is searching for is always the best SEO strategy… If you see that your website has dropped in rankings, consider adding a series of new, high-quality blog posts about your industry to give Google new content to index for your site.”

Put simply, we’re all stuck playing the content game if we want our sites to show up on Google. To bring it all back around, the confusion and misinformation around SEO rankings is precisely the case for working with a marketing partner like PubLoft. We adapt your marketing strategy when things change, so you can keep focus on your product and customers.

Back to top final thoughts Back to top

It’s time to own your industry’s SEO.

You don’t need to be a marketing expert when you’ve got a partner like PubLoft.

Schedule an intro call and demo strategy today to get a customized plan to start owning your industry topics online, and keep your CAC down as you scale.


paid advertising analytics chart showing drop in traffic when budget runs out


inbound marketing generates long-term organic website traffic from search engines