Content Clusters: The On-Page SEO Evolution

As more people become heavily reliant on search engines to find information for their search queries, increased competition is created between search engines to provide users with the most relevant information. It is not only the number of searches but also the complexity of searches, people now expect to ask Google questions and get answers on the top-ranked page. This requires search engines to evolve, creating consistent updates to their algorithms to decipher which website provides the most relevant and trusted information on the search query in order to answer the user’s question.

As a further knock-on effect, websites become more competitive, fighting for the search engine ranking position so that they can generate more traffic.

So, where am I going with this?

Well, content clusters are a result of all of the above. Due to the competition for rankings and how Google’s algorithm has evolved, no longer can you cram as many keywords as possible onto a webpage and expect to rank on page 1. Google now wants your website to actually have great content; it’s looking for things like synonyms, sub-topics, answers to common industry-related questions, and genuinely helpful content for the user who is searching.

What we’re going to cover:

  • What is a Content Cluster?
  • The Content Google Wants From You and How Your Business Can Change to Gain More Traffic
  • Google’s Evolution of On-Page Content

What is a Content Cluster?

A ‘content cluster’ is a collection of content on a particular topic, usually with a core pillar page and an additional bundle of supporting content which is created to answer all of the questions that a user may have.

Every content cluster has a pillar page which acts as the main hub and focuses on broader subject areas which often have a larger search volume. So think about the term ‘marketing’. The ‘cluster’ will then be built around this piece of content. Clusters should explore subtopics, niches, and common questions asked about the topic. They’re based around keywords with less search volume, but even though these are often less competitive, they must relate back to the topic of the pillar page.

But it’s not just about what’s in the content, it’s also about the site architecture of it. Supporting content must physically link back to the pillar content so that search engines are able to identify the correlation between the two.

This video is a great explainer of what a content cluster is…

More than just creating content

Content clusters are more than just creating great content, they make sure your website architecture for this content is well structured so that Google can attribute the content to the relevant topics across.

The Content Google Wants From You and How Your Business Can Change to Gain More Traffic 

Google encourages websites to provide more useful content for complex search queries, giving websites that can answer questions higher SERP (Search engine ranking position) and therefore increasing the traffic to your website. Therefore websites that have helpful content that Google can easily identify and match to search queries will automatically rank higher. Creating this content for your website as a part of a content cluster that then supports a key topic will boost the SEO of your website.

Google wants you to create this content on your website that answers their user’s questions, it is then important for your business that you answer that content and direct the user to the relevant service your business provides relating to the search query. If you have a blog that answers a commonly asked question in your industry, then you want to make sure that the blog correctly links to the service page on your website, this at a very basic level, is how a content cluster works.

Google's Evolution of On-Page Content

2001: Page Rank Update & Keyword Stuffing

This is an art of the 90’s and a tactic that precedes Google, as soon as the World Wide Web (WWW) had been invented, search engines were around and being manipulated so that businesses could provide users with their search results before the search engines had evolved and the world of SEO was fairly primitive. The tactic used was to try and cram as many keywords into your web content as possible, with the hope that the search engine will pick this up and rank your website for the search engine.

Image Source

As seen in the image above is a hypothetical example of keyword stuffing – do you think they have mentioned red apples enough? This content is stuffed with the keyword to the extent that the content does not make any sense, this does not provide the user anything useful and as the algorithms have evolved, content like this has been phased out.

The next level of this is what’s called invisible keyword stuffing. Here, not only are you cramming your website with keywords but you’d also be putting the keywords in the same colour text as the background, hiding this from the user but allowing them to still crawl the keywords. This screams dodgy, and yes, Google will be able to pick up the content, but if the user is unable to see it, what value is your website offering? Nothing says sketchy behaviour like making sure no one can see what you are doing.

Image Source

When Google launched the Page Rank algorithm back in 2001, Keyword Stuffing was officially being phased out by Google. This tactic will now be penalised by Google as part of their spam policies.

2009: Caffeine Update

Although not specifically about on-page content, the 2009 caffeine update saw Google completely change its indexing system. When Google initially built their indexing system there were 2.4 million websites and 188 million people using the internet. In 2009, there were 100 times more websites and 1.8 billion people using them, with technology advancing and different formats of media such as video, images, and maps being added into the mix.

With the demand for the internet growing, Google was rapidly outgrowing its current indexing system and needed to create a new way to crawl the content available and provide its users with the most relevant search terms.

This set the foundation for what was to come allowing more ranking factors to be introduced.

2011: Panda

As a result of the Caffeine update and Google’s new ability to index content rapidly, alongside the rise of the ‘Content Farms’ business model Google started to index some of the not-so-good content.

Some businesses were creating a large amount of content, with some companies pumping out up to 7000 pieces of content a day operating on the business formula of content that can be distributed across Search engines and social media to drive traffic and sell ads to make money, As you can imagine the content was often uninspiring and of no real value.

Panda update was targeted at poor quality content and was an update that hit some websites using dodgy tactics hard. From what we know about the Panda update is that engineers were tasked with comparing various ranking signals against human quality checks, the process of creating the update started with human quality checks being asked questions such as “Would you be comfortable giving this site your credit card? Would you be comfortable giving medicine prescribed by this site to your kids?” and evolved into engineers working to a rigorous set of questions, everything from. ‘Do you consider this site to be authoritative? Would it be okay if this was in a magazine? Does this site have excessive ads?’

Panda was an aggressive update to target poor content and spam content across Google, Google now prioritised quality over quantity with its content.

2013: Hummingbird

The Hummingbird update was seen as one of the biggest updates since 2001 and was deemed a huge core rewrite of the algorithm, enabling Google to be more precise about what the search query meant, thus enabling a switch in focus from keywords to topic focus, allowing more long-tail keywords to provide relevant results.

So what does this mean? Well, the main goal of this algorithm rewrite was to match longer conversational search queries with the relevant web pages, changing the way users can interact with Google. Now, people can type questions into Google and get the answers.

Previously, Google would try to rank a webpage that contained all the words in a search query, to do a word-for-word match between the search query and the web page. Now, Google was trying to understand the content on your web page and make sure this was the correct content for its users.

Rather than matching a blog titled “how to build a computer” with the search query of “how to build a computer” the hummingbird update allowed Google to understand what the user actually meant by their search and what webpages were really about, allowing Google to provide its users with the web page best-matched to their queries, looking deeper than previous ranking factors.

“Just to do a better job of matching the user's queries with documents, especially for natural language queries…” Matt Cutts - Google

…was the message from Google, after the Hummingbird update.

This update was massive for the content on your website, Google could now better understand the content and would rank websites that provided the best content on a topic in the SERP rather than focusing on keywords, the focus changed to creating good content on a topic and google would reward you.

2015: Rank Brain

Rank Brain was an evolution of the Hummingbird, but also a massive enhancement on how Google works moving from a “Strings’ to “Things” environment, taking Google from being able to read characters to being able to understand them as an entity.

What does this mean? Well, it means Google now tries to understand what your search query is rather than recognising the words, it tries to understand the intent through recognising the entity.

For example, if a user was to search ‘Notorious’ Google will be trying to understand the user’s search intent, are they searching for Hip Hop artist Biggie Smalls, MMA Fighter Connor Mcgregor, or the Brilliant Digital marketing agency in Stratford-upon-Avon. Whereas when you provide context to match the entity for example ‘Notorious songs’ will give you the Notorious BIG, ‘Notorious MMA’ will provide Conor Mcgergor related content and Notorious SEO will send you to our website.

Image Source

This image visually represents the difference between strings and things, linking associated terms into an entity rather than just a string environment. This means Google will try to interpret what you are looking for and link related entities based on your query, for example, Paris 2024 will serve as an Olympic games entity.

2022: Google’s Helpful Content Update 

In December 2022 Google released the helpful content update which is aimed to reward helpful content and focus on people -first content. 

In Google’s words…

The helpful content update aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn’t meet a visitor’s expectations won’t perform as well.”

Google is indicating through this update that you should focus content around the user rather than focusing content around the search engine. What Google is trying to say is that ‘content created primarily for search engine traffic is strongly correlated with content that searchers find unsatisfying’ they are asking you to create content that your users will find useful and your website will be recognised, don’t focus on creating content that you think search engines will find easier, create content that is good for the user.

The way Google has evolved has become so intelligent, that you do not need to worry about creating content that is stuffed with Keywords or over-optimised for search engines, create good content on your website that is useful to the reader and Google will reward you.

Google is also indicating to alter your content strategy to be more focussed on creating content useful for the user and providing information on your business. Rather than creating content for the sake of a keyword, for example, if you have a page created for a niche keyword that is a specific aspect of your service for example a location keyword page, that is great as it provides the user information on the service your provide related to that area, but there is not any need to the create 5 blogs around that niche keyword if it is not necessary or any value to the user.

For example if you are ranking for ‘Accountants Coventry’ it is great to have a specific Coventry accountants page as that provides the user with information that you provide the services in the area, but you don’t need to try and tailor 5 blogs specifically around offering the services you offer in Coventry. Create the content on the services you provide and correctly link this through the website to give the user the best experience.

What does that sound like? Yes, a content cluster, that’s what it sounds like!

Just Create Good Content? Does This Mean SEO is Dead?

No, you will still need to follow SEO best practices, but the days of people telling you they have worked some ‘SEO magic’ on your content are probably over. I think the key takeaways are Google is incredibly intelligent and evolved to know the good content from the bad and all they want to do is provide their users with the best experience, so focus on creating Good content and follow best practices to internally link this on your website. Google still has over 200 ranking factors, you could have the best content in the world and still not rank if your website is falling short on other ranking factors.

Content Cluster Overview

Content clusters are a tactic that has been used for years, but as you can see by the evolution of Google, creating useful content for your website will help it rank better. Google is encouraging you to add more useful content and it will be able to find the good content from the bad, with more supported content helping it identify the entity that your business is operating in, if you provide this Google will reward you.

If you look at your content strategy, irrespective of SEO, creating more content around the service you provide will be beneficial to your customer. So, building this content into your website and correctly linking it will benefit your business and your SEO.

If you are not sure what content to create, I would recommend the book ‘They ask you answer’. It may give you some inspiration…

If you want to find out more about how your business can implement content clusters or would like to ask some questions then get in touch with Notorious Online today!