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Stop letting search engines struggle to understand your website’s architecture – get ahead of the game with topic clustering! SEO expert Joshua George is here to explain why these clusters will make you an authority on any given subject and how they can help boost your website in the rankings.
Rich: My guest today is the owner and founder of ClickSlice, an award-winning SEO agency based in London. He’s been involved in the SEO industry since 2015 and has quickly made a name for himself. He’s the founder of the prestigious SEO Agency in London, and also an established global lecturer who pioneers making SEO education more accessible across the globe.
His online courses are taken by thousands of students every month on international e-learning platforms like Udemy and Skillshare. Today he’s taught over a hundred thousand students and created dozens of courses designed to teach business owners and marketers about the fundamentals of good SEO, including four-week programs that introduce delegates to e-commerce SEO, national SEO, Google Analytics, WordPress, and many other key digital marketing disciplines.
ClickSlice is the only SEO agency in London that’s recently been hired by the UK government to deliver SEO training to their digital teams. Today we’re gonna be turning our attention to improving your SEO through topic clusters with Joshua George. Joshua, welcome to the program.
Joshua: Hey, Rich. Thank you for the introduction. I don’t think anyone can top that. That is absolutely awesome.
Rich: I get a lot of energy from these, so I’m glad that I have content to talk about. So there are a lot of strategies that we can employ to get to page one in Google. And today we’re going to talk about ‘topic clusters’. Why don’t you start by just telling us what they are and why you think they’re so effective?
Joshua: Sure. I guess to explain why they’re so effective, it’s good to go over the two core things you need to establish on your website to actually rank on the first page of Google, right?
The first is authority, which you build through back links. And the second is proving to Google that your website is relevant to the search terms or keywords that you want to rank for. And the way you build relevancy, or the best ways you build relevancy, is by building out what we call topic clusters.
So a topic cluster is essentially interlinked pages on your website that are all about a similar topic. Some people call them ‘content hubs’, ‘telepages’, I prefer ‘topic clusters’. Whatever you call them, they’re all actually the same thing. I think the SEO industry has got a habit of calling the same thing multiple different names just to make it sound a bit more complex than it actually is. But pretty much all it is having multiple pages on your website, all speaking about the same topic.
Rich: I was just gonna say, so I think we can understand that these topic clusters are obviously gonna be things that our business does for our clients, or things that our clients would be interested in. Correct? So it really depends on your industry, on what your topic clusters might be.
Joshua: A hundred percent spot on.
Rich: So how do we, if we agree that this could be a good methodology, and it’s logical, right? It’s like Google Rewards people who are experts in their fields. If we have a bunch of related content around a theme, it makes sense that Google would start to reward us based on some signals. So how do we identify what topic clusters are right for our business?
Joshua: Great question. So the first thing you should always be doing is keyword research. So I guess to give you an example, let’s imagine you own a website selling dog bowls. And you have your e-commerce page listing all your dog bowls for sale, green, blue ones, different heights, different weights, right? So normally you’d have your main page talking about the dog bowls you have for sale. People would have a blog, and they typically just blog about anything they think is gonna be good for someone interested in dog bowls. However, instead of just doing anything you think may be good, you want to base your decisions on data.
So step one of a topic cluster is always identifying what keywords you want to blog about. Now again, what you think may be right may not be what Google deems to be relevant to your niche. So when you do keyword research, you want to basically search for your main seed keyword. So in this instance, it’d be dog bowls to sell, and you want to see what questions people are asking related to the product or services you sell.
For example, people could be searching for how to clean dog bowls, how much do dog bowls cost? These are all topics similar to the main topic of your website that people are searching for and Google deems relevant to your main topic. So these are the blogs you want to be putting out on your site, because these are ones that Google already established to be topically relevant to your site. So that’s the first step, identifying those keywords.
You can find these keywords for free using the Google Keyword Planner, which is obviously a feature within Google Ads. You can use paid premium tools such as SemRush or Ahrefs. They actually have a really good section for keywords. You plug in a keyword, and it will actually list down all the question related keywords, aka the keywords you want to be blogging about, which are relevant to your product.
Rich: The dog bowl example seems very narrow to me, only because I don’t know how many topic clusters I could come up with. Maybe dog bowl sizes, shapes, materials. But if we are doing something that’s a little bit bigger. I was just watching some woodworking videos. People who listen to this podcast a lot know I’ve become addicted to those. So if we’ve got a woodworking company and we’re doing all these different things and we do our research, might we have things like table saws, routers, and some of these other things, would those be our topic clusters or are those too broad? Or are you not sure about woodworking so you really don’t feel comfortable answering that question?
Joshua: It’s actually interesting. I’m actually in the process of building out an affiliate site in the woodworking niche. It’s actually for table saws. So I’m learning a little bit about the niche. I’m not an expert in it for sure.
But to answer your question, you can have topic clusters within topic clusters. So woodworking would be the main high-level niche, and then within woodwork you’d have its own topical cluster. So for example, for that affiliate site I’m building out, we have a whole cluster we’re building just for table saws. Then you’ve got another cluster we’re building out for hybrid saws and cabinets. All these different type of saws.
Sorry if I’m getting this wrong, I don’t fully know. But the point I’m trying to get across here is topic clusters within a topic cluster. And to rank for those keywords, you need to be the most relevant for that small topic cluster. Then once you do multiple clusters within the main topic, you can then kind of branch out and go more and more broader. But if you have a site up on woodworking and you’ve got four blogs on table saws, portable table saws, and you spread yourself in over the whole topic cluster, then it’s hard to build that relevancy because you’re spreading yourself in across multiple clusters. Does that make sense?
Rich: Yeah. Now when you’re working with your clients, do you recommend that they tackle one topic cluster at a time, or can we go after multiple topics at the same time?
Joshua: So it all depends on the client budget. So when we price up our campaigns for clients, we always base it on a target page basis. So if a client has four target pages, we see that as four topic clusters. So we’ll build out blogs around each specific target page, which again, is its own topic cluster.
So there isn’t any kind of right or wrong way to do it. It only comes down to the budgets and the resources we have. But typically I like to get results for one cluster, then move on to another. Because typically when you rank for these keywords, you’re gonna generate lots of traffic themselves anyway, and that kind of funds the next cluster.
Rich: Nice. I like that approach. So once we’ve done our keyword research and we’ve identified, and let’s go with the table saw as our number one topic cluster that we’re gonna tackle, what are the next steps? Is it about writing copy, or is there something else that comes before that?
Joshua: No. The next step would be using this tool, what we call Surfer SEO. So pretty much Surfer SEO is a content optimization tool. So going back to where most people go wrong, like if someone wants to write a blog post on how to use a table saw, for example, people will just have that title on the ground write again. They’ll write the copy based on what they think is best, but that’s not the best thing to do when it comes to SEO. You’re always gonna base your decisions on data.
So what Surfer SEO does is it looks at the top-ranking websites already on Google, it sees how many times they mentioned the keyword, how many H2 tags they have on the page. It literally analyzes all of page one and gives you kind of like a blueprint that you should follow when you write your content.
Of course, it’s not about keyword stuffing or any of that. It just gives you a guide of how many times you should be mentioning your keyword, and that’s pretty much what you want to use when writing your content. That’s definitely the first step when it comes to content creation.
Rich: So if I understand correctly, what this tool does is it analyzes what Google is showing currently as the top 10 results and what made up these pages. And the idea here is that if these pages are what Google recognizes as being really relevant for beginner table saws or table saw choices, or what the best table saw is in 2023, then I have a better sense of what kind of content I should be creating, what kind of questions I need to be answering, how often I should be using keywords in this particular post so that it’s similar in structure, at least to what’s going on? And then my job is to maybe make it sound better than anybody else’s content out there.
Joshua: 100% spot on. And the reason why it’s so effectively, because there used to be like this little myth back in the day in the SEO industry. When you write a blog or whatever, you write a service page, an eCommerce page, just go for a 2% keyword identity. So mention your keyword 2% of the time of your overall content. And that number just came out of thin air and it doesn’t apply to every niche, because every keyword is niche specific.
Sometimes you get away with being more aggressive in the insurance niche. But if you go and try to do that in another niche like crypto, you’ll get slapped with a Google penalty. So it’s not about using this random 2% number that a lot of people work to. It’s again, reviewing what Google is already showing on page one and replicating that. Because if you fit in with the sites on page one, you’re pretty much telling Google, I also deserve to be on page one.
It’s very interesting because anytime you search for a keyword, Google essentially will show you their hand. They’re showing you what they expect to see on page one, so you just need to replicate that.
Rich: Exactly. So if you want to write a numbered list, but there are no numbered lists appearing on the first page of Google, that’s a sure sign that’s not what Google is expecting and not what they feel relevant for that particular type of query.
Joshua: Spot on. Yeah, absolutely.
Rich: All right. So we’ve used Surfer SEO or a similar tool. We understand the makeup of the page one results. We maybe have used some of those keywords in our headers and subheaders. We’ve written our copy, I assume at this point, so we’ve got some good content. Are there other things that you do for your clients or that you recommend that they put on the page? I know a lot of SEOs like to include relevant images, others like to include a video to add page. Do you worry about any of those things or are those just nice to have?
Joshua: They are definitely important, and you must have them. Because if you don’t have images or what we call like rich media images, video bullet points, anything like that in your copy, what’s gonna result in is literally your blog post being like a massive wall of text. And on desktop it’s gonna look horrific, on mobile it’s gonna look even worse. People will be scrolling, they’re gonna lose interest. So you’re always gonna try and remember like, how can you keep the user on your page for as long as possible? Because that’s actually another aspect which I’ll go into later. Once you rank on page one from your cluster, you want to make sure people aren’t coming to your site and bouncing off, because you’ve got a high bounce rate because you’ve got massive paragraphs. So adding images, media, videos, bullet points, anything that breaks up the walls of text is one way to ensure your users stay on your site and they don’t bounce.
But other than that, going back to the actual content, what else you should be doing. There are two things you want to add in. Internal links in this content, you want to add in a link to the main page you’re trying to rank. So your main masterpiece. In your table saw example, if you have your main money page, I guess – called the best table saws – and you’re reviewing the best saws on the market. Then you publish your blog post, which is the one we’ve just researched for the cluster, and it is how to use a table saw. Make sure you link back from that blog post back to the main page. Just to show Google this main page is relevant to this topic because I’m linking to it from my blog post, which is also in the same. That’s the first thing.
To give it a bit more of a boost and a bit more relevancy, you want to also link from that blog post to another blog post in the same cluster. So what we’re doing here is telling Google we have this blog post on this topic, it’s relevant to this page and this page, and all of these free pages are in the same cluster. It’s really, really important you don’t go and link out to another page about dumbbells, for example. Because that then confuses Google. What is this page, what is this cluster about?
Rich: And I was gonna get to this question, but I think you’ve done a really good job of answering this. I just want to make sure I understand. So it’s one thing to write a bunch of siloed content all about table saws. But what turns this into a topic cluster and really starts to work for your SEO is connecting the dots, so to speak, for SEO through internal linking.
Just meaning linking from one blog post to a relevant blog post. In this case, using the table saw example, so a post on beginner table saws might link to one for advanced woodworking table saws or something like that, five jigs to make for table saws, all these sort of things. You’re creating this cluster. All of those should link to each other that strengthens a bond. But then they should all also link to the page where I’m selling a tables saw or a course on table saws, or consulting on table saws, something like that.
Joshua: 100%. Yeah, sorry, go on.
Rich: Oh no, I was just gonna say, so tell me any tips around the links themselves?
Joshua: Yes, again, that’s another really good question. So using the same example of table saws, let’s imagine you have your free blog posts all talking about things related to table saws and the linking back to your main table saw money piece of content. What most people will do is link to the main page or using the same anchor text. So the anchor text is pretty much just the hyperlink text. There’s again, another word we like to use in the SEO industry. And people will make the anchor text be the key they’re targeting for every single book that links back. That’s very unnatural. It’s important to let Google know what this page is about, which is why you have control over that anchor text, but you don’t want to over-optimize it.
Just how when you build backlinks to your website, you can over-optimize your page by getting too many back links. Mention it in your keyword in the anchor text. The same applies on your website as well, on an internal link basis. So we always like to spread this out. So for example, if we had five blogs, we use one with the keyword, or probably two with the keyword. I would say one use in just a branded name. So check out our guide and put your brand name in there as an anchor, you can go for a URL. So literally just placing URL in the blog. “So if you want to read more, check the URL below.” Or literally use what we call a ‘miscellaneous architect’. “So read more, learn more, click above, click below.”
And having those five things and having a mix of internal anchor texts is another way to futureproof your site and make sure you don’t get hit by any Google penalties. Because I’ve seen a lot of sites get really aggressive with the internal links and they got hit by a Google a update, and you know it’s just not worth it. You want to do SEO for the long time.
Rich: Is there a hard and fast rule about whether you should only link once to another blog post, or if you should link multiple times from one blog post to a different blog post but all five links from blog post A go to blog post B?
Joshua: So my personal preference is just to do one link to one blog post and link to the service page. Some people say you should add two, you should add three. But I think sometimes, I know SEO is all about data, but sometimes you ought to step away from the data every now and then and just think, “Hey, what is the best thing for the user? Does it make sense to have a link here? Should I have five links? Four links?”
And again, the main aim of your content is to give value to the user in a shorter space time as possible and keep them on your site. You don’t want to keep them bouncing across all of your pages. That’s why I like having two links per page for the service page and one to another blog.
Rich: Whether it comes from data or a gut check, Joshua, I’m wondering if you have any advice on the length of these blog posts, like word count?
Joshua: Yeah. I always go for 750 as a minimum. And I say as a minimum just because I find if you have content for 500 words, from Google’s aspect at least, they say it’s not providing that much value to the user unless it’s a simple question and a simple reply. And shorter pages are actually a lot harder to get indexed in Google because there’s less content for Google to crawl.
Again, what’s actually really good about that tool I mentioned, Surfer SEO. Gosh, you’d think I worked for them as often as I mention them, I should get an affiliate link. Again, the funny thing about Surfer, you don’t even need to use it. You can just Google this yourself. Open a website to a new tab and just actually have a look. But essentially, we’re just reviewing the competition. But Surfer actually tells you the average word count of the top sites on page one as well.
So again, you can base your decision on data instead of just saying, I’m gonna write 850 words. If all the sites on page one have 5,000 massive ultimate guides, then your content isn’t really gonna stand out unless you’re in a similar ballpark.
Rich: Absolutely. And I haven’t used Surfer SEO, I’ll have to check it out. But I’ve used MarketMuse, which sounds like a very similar tool. Even while you’re rewriting your copy, it’s telling you your word count for specific keywords versus the competition. So it won’t make your writing better per se, but it will help you as far as guidelines go. You still need to be a good writer. You still need to provide value. But these kind of show you what the lay of the land is, has been my experience at least.
Joshua: Absolutely. Yeah. Again, you are spot on. So MarketMuse is more of a premium version of Surfer. It’s more of an enterprise solution. I would say my personal view is MarketMuse is a lot better for sure, but it’s a higher barrier to entry. It’s a lot more expensive. When we recommend it to clients here they’d rather go for a cheaper option. They both do pretty much the same thing.
I think what you mentioned is really important as well, because a lot of SEOs or business owners will hear about at all, like Surfer and they would just stuff the keyword, they focus so much on keywords, the content just reads appalling. You always need to focus on the user first. So what we actually do internally, Holly and Jake who write the content, is they write the content just based on their own thought process and what they think will be best for the user. Then they run it through Surfer and just a small tweak to optimize it. And that way you get the best of both, you’re not just going for this SEO metrics per se.
Rich: Absolutely. The table saw is more of an e-commerce solution, but the approach we’ve discussed so far, does it differ if we’re talking about an e-commerce site versus a lead gen site?
Joshua: No, it’s exactly the same process. So us click size, obviously we’re an SEO agency, we’re trying to rank for lots of SEO terms in London. So again, if you Google ‘SEO consultant in London’, we ranked number one SEO agency London. We’re ranked number two, I believe now. And these are service-based business keywords, right? There’s nothing to do with selling products. And we’ve achieved these results all by just building out our topical cluster.
So you can check out our site, do some analysis on it, and just see the blog posts we have out. We’re actively doing it for lots of pages as well. We’re building out like SEO for lawyers, SEO for E-com stores, SEO for lots of different clusters, and every single target page has its own cluster. So you can imagine it gets quite expensive and a lot to manage, and you’ve got 15 blogs going up at each different topic.
Rich: I’m just wondering, I’ve heard stories about certain brands or certain SEOs are concerned about competing against yourself, so they often say you should really just have one blog post on this topic. Not that they’re against topic clusters, but how do we find that balance? How do we make sure that if we’re creating multiple pieces of content on table saws or dog bowls or email marketing, that we’re not competing against ourselves when it comes to Google’s results?
Joshua: Okay, another a really good question. So the best thing you should do in instance, is before you write your content Google your keywords. So let’s say you have your main page for best Table Solves 2023, and you have four, four ideas for your blog post. Google all of those ideas as in the keywords. And what you should find is every keyword should bring up back unique results. You shouldn’t see the same web pages appear for multiple blog topics.
If you do, then that’s Google telling you the search intent for all these keywords are the same. So you need one piece of blog post to target all of those. That’s a good way to bulletproof yourself really.
Rich: I like that about the intent, that makes a lot of sense. Do you have a minimum or maximum number of blog posts that it takes to create a topic cluster, or does it really just depend on the industry and everything else?
Joshua: Yeah, it really just depends on the industry. And there’s a lot of other factors that can influence how quick it takes to rank. It isn’t the case if you just put out five blogs, you’ll rank number one because you build your cluster, right? You can publish four blogs and then build backlinks to those blogs and power your cluster up on the whole. So then your cluster has authority, where the competitors could have a hundred blogs, no backlinks. So they just have relevancy but no authority in that relevancy, if that makes sense.
So it is never a straightforward thing. Typically I find it’s always less than you anticipate. We took on a new client towards the end of November the 25th, and we’re already ranking on page one for lots of really competitive terms on a brand-new domain. And we initially planned to have I think, 16 blogs a month just for one cluster. And again, we’re two months in and we’re already ranking. So it’s oh, wow, we only did this for four to five months. So again, you find yourself surprised when you actually do this stuff and implement it on client sites.
Rich: Internal links are obviously powerful, but external links from other websites to ours can be even more powerful. Is that something that you go after, or do you just feel that happens naturally?
Joshua: Yes, I actually had a debate with someone about this yesterday. So a lot of people just say, publish great content and then people will just find your website and link to you. But the problem is, backlinks are still in 2023 and I can’t see it change in at least the next year or year and a half, are still one of the biggest ranking factors.
Of course, content is king, right? You need to have good content to keep people on the page. If you don’t have backlinks, you’re gonna struggle to rank in general. It goes back to what I was saying earlier. There are two main things you need to do to rank in Google. You need to prove to Google your site is authoritative, which you do from acquiring backlinks. And you need to prove to Google that your site is the most relevant to your, topic cluster or search term, which you do from the topic clusters we just spoke about.
So backlinks are something we definitely do for clients, we do both. The whole idea is yes, you can rank with just a cluster, but not in competitive niches. Because if you’ve got 20 blogs in a cluster and another client has 20, and you’re a like for like, the difference 9 out of 10 is gonna be the authority of those sites. And what site has the most backlinks? What site has the most authority backlinks? The most trustworthy, the most relevant backlinks? So backlink is very important for sure.
Rich: All right. And is that something that you offer, or do you just suggest that the client go out and see if there’s some like-minded bloggers out there that might be willing to link over to their website?
Joshua: No, we do the whole process. So it’s funny, we updated the copy on our homepage the other day and we called it “All-Inclusive Services.” Just how we like our holidays, all-inclusive. We have to do everything because the problem is, if we just do the blogs and then the client goes elsewhere to get back links, and the backlink is the main deciding factor in that particular niche, we won’t rank. And then the client would just say to us, what’s going on? And then it’s our problem. So we just handle the whole process.
And backlinks, I would say, is probably the most challenging part of SEO because there’s so many aspects you need to look at. The site, is it relevant, is it a link farm, what’s the DR, how much organic traffic is it getting, what country is organic traffic coming from, is it a spammer, is it built just for the purpose of linking out? There are so many things to look at. Like we actually have six people in-house that do link building full-time just to go through the site qualities. It’s absolutely crazy.
Rich: All right. Any other strategies related to topic clusters that we should consider before we start working on these things?
Joshua: No, I think I’ve pretty much gone through all of it. So obviously you just first of all determine your topic, determine your keywords. Searching Google for your keywords to find out if there are separate blogs or should you combine them into one. Write your content whether you’re using an online paid tool or write in naturally, the main aspect is just writing that content on that topic and link back to your target page and your other blogs. Publish it. Make sure the pages index, which should happen naturally if you’re writing high quality content anyway. If you’re struggling, build a back link to the page. It’s a little trick to get indexed a bit faster. And then do that consistently for long enough and you’ll get a cluster and you’ll rank from their relevancy.
Rich: Excellent. Joshua, this has been very informative. If people want to learn more about you, any of your classes, your company, where can we send them online?
Joshua: Yeah, sure. So I’m very active on Twitter. You can find me just at underscore @_JoshuaSEO. And you can find any of my courses on Udemy, just search for either my name, Joshua George, or search for SEO. Because our course does rank number one on Udemy for SEO, which is nice as well.
Rich: All right, awesome. And of course you’ll find those links in the show notes. Joshua, thanks so much for coming on the show today and sharing your expertise.
Joshua: No worries, Rich. Thanks for having me.
Joshua George has made a name for himself in the SEO game. His global lectures and online courses have helped thousands of business owners and marketers learn the fundamentals of solid SEO to help them reach page one of Google.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 25+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.
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