Remember the early days of searching for content? You’d type in a few basic keywords, such as “barber, Houston,” and Google would deliver results by deconstructing only these two keywords.

In these early days of inbound marketing (around 2006), content marketing strategies relied heavily on targeting these one or two phrase keywords. You probably recall how many companies engaged in keyword stuffing, a practice which Google has since clamped down on.

As time passed, content marketers found a better approach: They targeted long-tail keywords — those three and four-word phrases specific to what you’re selling.  While optimizing content for these longer phrases led to less organic traffic, conversions were higher as the traffic was more targeted.

By combining this practice with a content offer to capture this traffic, content marketers now had a magic formula they continued to use for many years to come.

But, Google and search behavior has evolved over the years, pointing to the need for a new formula and content playbook.

Changing Search Behaviour

According to Ahrefs, 64% of searches are now 4 words or more. Indeed, the words we now use to search for content are longer and more conversational than ever before.

A search for a barber in Houston, for example, now likely reads “I’m looking for the best barber in my area.” Several factors are driving this change:

  • Voice search is exploding, which naturally leads to more conversational search queries
  • The sheer volume of content means users have to become smarter and more specific in their queries to find what they’re looking for
  • Google has become increasingly better at delivering relevant search results


Google Has Become Smarter

The following three Google algorithm updates have all contributed to Google becoming more sophisticated:

  • Google Penguin, released on April 2012, sought to penalize websites that practiced keyword stuffing and deceptive link-building schemes and reward quality sites.
  • Google Hummingbird, rolled out on the 20th August 2013, aimed to better understand user intent by analyzing the contextual meaning behind keywords to give more relevant results. Google even began to understand synonyms better.  For example, if I search for the word “takkies,” which originates from South African Afrikaans and means “shoes” or “sneakers,” Google knows this and serves up the following:

  • Google RankBrain, introduced in October 2015 used machine learning to improve its understanding of user intent to deliver quality search results.


So, What Does This All Mean for Your Content Marketing Strategy?

Keywords will always remain relevant and you can and should optimize your content for specific keywords — while being aware of keyword stuffing, of course.

However, solely relying on keywords to inform your strategy is no longer effective as you’re missing out on traffic from those conversational search queries.

The better approach is to think about your content in terms of topics and embrace the topic-cluster model.

But, What Is the Topic Cluster Model?

Today most blogs still create individual blog posts to rank for specific keywords. As we’ve seen this leads to lost traffic from those longer search queries. There are, however, also other problems:

  • You end up with a messy site architecture with hundreds of blog posts
  • Readers find it difficult to find what they’re looking for
  • Blog posts end up competing for one another as it’s easy to create similar posts around the same topic

The topic cluster model solves all of these problems, while also establishing you as an authority in a specific topic.  The model, which consists of hyperlinks, cluster content and pillar pages is depicted below. Source: HubSpot, Inc. With this model, you select a broad content topic you want to rank for, create a piece of content that broadly covers the details of the topic on one page (known as a pillar page), and then link out to more detailed blog posts (cluster content) that focus on a specific keyword.

See how HubSpot does it with their pillar page on Instagram Marketing? They link out to individual blog posts such as “How to Build Your Brand With Instagram.”

The beauty of the topic cluster model, in addition to solving the problems of old site architecture, is that you also improve your SEO. For example, if a piece of cluster content, that’s linked to a pillar page, performs well, it’ll give that pillar page needed SEO juice.

The bottom line: With user search behavior changing to more conversational search queries and Google becoming smarter in delivering relevant search results, building content marketing strategies around keywords will no longer cut it. You need to plan and create your content around topics— not only to capture more traffic but also to improve site architecture.

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