8-step guide to researching and building out topic clusters

topic clusters

Topic clusters are one of the cornerstones of any successful content SEO strategy. Combined with pillar pages, they send strong authority signals to search engines and allow you to rank for a wider range of keywords.  

Not only will you be able to target broad, head keywords and long-tail keywords, you can also go for semantic search terms and tangential topics with a well-thought-out strategy.  

However, people can sometimes struggle with knowing where to start when it comes to building out topic clusters. Where do you find ideas? How do you turn keywords into ideas? How can they be linked together? 

A lot of existing content out there recommends relying heavily on keyword research tools, or going the other way and completely focusing on human-led idea generation without checking search volumes.  

Here at Skittle Digital, we have developed a holistic, hybrid approach that captures the best of both worlds. Our method results in well-defined topic clusters which will harness the best volume potential and give your site the organic traffic boost it deserves. 

Here is our 8-step guide to researching and building out topic clusters that will boost your site architecture and benefit your readers. 

Step one: decide on your pillars 

You may already have an awareness of what the main topics of your site are, or you could have built out your pillars already. Perhaps you aren’t sure what your site should explicitly stand for. Whichever stage you are at, ensure you have well-defined pillars before you move on to the topic clusters which will sit underneath them. 

The general rule is that pillars will cover an overview of the broad topic, while topic clusters will dig deeper into sub-categories. So whichever topics you choose for your pillars, ensure they can be complemented by sub-topics which can be built out over time, strengthening your authority for the head keyword. 

Step two: analyse your competitors 

Take a look at the type of content your competitors are producing and make a note of the topics they’ve covered in a spreadsheet. While you don’t want to copy your competitors exactly, it’s important to ensure you are covering the topics that your readers may expect you to have content on. 

Analysing your competitors will also likely give you some further ideas to look into, so make a note of these alongside your competitor URLs on your spreadsheet.  

Once you have your list, make a note of the target keywords each piece is focused on. You will find these in the H1, title tag or the main content – as there will be a word or phrase mentioned regularly if it has been optimised for SEO. You will use these target keywords in the next step. 

Step three: examine search volumes 

Now is the time to open your keyword research tool and check whether your competitors’ content is targeting keywords with the right intent and a good level of search volume. You may be surprised at the number of pieces which just aren’t likely to be giving them any tangible SEO benefits – either because they are targeting the wrong search intent, or the keywords aren’t getting any traffic. 

That being said, don’t search just the target keyword and leave it at that. You may find that your competitor hasn’t used the right target keyword, but they are missing out on a keyword opportunity because they didn’t phrase the topic according to what people are actually searching for. 

For example, a piece of content may be optimised for ‘misfuelling’, and there could be a little search volume for the term – but think about what you would be likely to look up on Google if you had mis fuelled your car. You would probably type in ‘wrong fuel in car’ or ‘petrol in diesel car’ – so look up these terms instead. You may be surprised at what you discover… 

At this point, you should have a clear list of keywords that have search volume – which you can create content for – and others which just aren’t getting traction. You can mark these competitor URLs as red, move them into another column of your spreadsheet, whatever you prefer. 

Just don’t delete them – you may find that search picks up for these terms in the future when you perform a content audit. 

Step four: dig into your topics 

Now is the time to get creative and start thinking. You don’t want to rely completely on keyword research tools or spend all of your time building out a mind map without checking the search volumes. Instead, use a combination of these approaches – plus some more.  

It’s likely that the previous steps will have gotten your creative juices flowing and you will have some ideas for further topics that could become content pieces. Note them all down and check the volumes in Semrush, Ahrefs or similar.  

If the ideas are viable, add them to your list for content creation. If they aren’t, add them underneath your list of ‘rejected’ competitor URLs – as they may become useful in the future. 

While you were looking up search volumes for your competitor keywords, it’s likely that other terms popped up that could be viable for your topic cluster. Take the time to dig into these and see how many ideas you can pull out.  

To avoid going down a rabbit hole for too long, limit yourself to a certain number of ideas – five, for example – before putting a pin in that avenue of thought and looking at another topic. 

If you start to run out of ideas, use tools like Answer The Public and Answer Socrates to generate more ideas for a specific topic. Alternatively, enter your topic into Google and see what comes up under People Also Ask. 

Quora, Reddit, social media groups and other topic-specific forums are also useful research tools for content ideation. 

Just make sure that all of your ideas have enough search volume that you can justify turning them into content. 

Step five: organise your ideas 

Your spreadsheet may be looking a little messy at this point, depending on how organised your creative process was in the previous steps. Even if you have managed to organise your ideas into specific lists, there will likely still be room for you to tidy them up. 

What you want is to have your pillar page topic at the top of the page, with subcategories underneath and the corresponding topic ideas branching out underneath them. You may prefer to use a spreadsheet, or perhaps a tool like Lucid could be beneficial to create a mind map or diagram to help with your visualisation. 

Step six: create keyword clusters 

While some of the keywords in your list will be standalone topics, others will be better off grouped together into keyword clusters that you can target simultaneously when writing an individual piece of content. Our best practice is to cluster related keywords and calculate the total search volume we are targeting. 

For those keywords which aren’t linked to others in your list, dig into your keyword research tool again and look for related keywords with good search volumes that you can target simultaneously in the piece.  

You should be left with a list of clusters which will help you to create targeted headlines and sub-headings. 

Step seven: turn your topics into headlines 

Now that your keyword clusters are ready, it’s time to translate your strongest keywords into your H1 and title tags, then compile sub-headings and meta descriptions if you want to go granular at this stage. 

If you are just constructing the headlines at this stage, ensure that you are front-loading the strongest keyword – but don’t do so to the point that you sacrifice the editorial intelligibility. You want your headline to make sense to readers and not be a mix of keywords that you have shoehorned in. 

For certain content pieces, the structure may be clear already, so you can map out the subheadings with ease. With others, it may take more time to work out an optimal structure, so you can leave this until later if you don’t have time. 

Step eight: map out your internal links 

There is more to content creation than producing the words which will sit on your page. You want to ensure that your site architecture remains strong, so ensure you are linking each new content piece to other new creations in the pipeline – as well as existing content on your site. 

Consider which pieces of content you are likely to be able to internally link each piece to and make a note in a separate column on your spreadsheet. This will make it much easier to build out your internal linking strategy, without needing to spend more time once you have created the content performing this analysis as a separate step. 

Need help with your topic clusters? 

If you need help with mapping out your topic clusters, analysing the viability of your ideas or performing keyword research which will result in the best optimisation for your site, don’t hesitate to contact us and we will see how we can help. 

You can also book a Free Acquisitions Workshop to gain key insight into metrics such as site architecture and keyword potential you may be missing out on, so why not book yours in now and find out where you can improve? 


Imogen Groome

Content Lead

Imogen is the SEO Content Lead at Skittle Digital. Imogen has worked in SEO since 2016. She helped to define SEO strategy at Metro.co.uk before guiding the newsroom at The Sun Online as SEO Editor. She has more than 5 years’ experience in scaling content strategies that drive revenue for brands through organic search channels. In her spare time, Imogen writes books, watches poor-quality reality TV and hangs out with her cats.

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