Websites have come a long way over the last 20 years.
It used to be that you could simply write a lot of content on your website, and a few weeks later, portions of it would start ranking on search engines. It was a lot like the Wild West in those days. Very few rules, very little competition, very easy to get noticed.
(Thankfully, as we found out in our church website study, a lot of churches were publishing back then and are still ranking today).
Nowadays though, if you want your content to appear on search engines, you have to write much more deliberately. That includes strong search engine optimization (SEO), a healthy backlink profile, image optimization, and a way to drive paid traffic (if necessary).
Or, you could just write a topic cluster.
The idea of topic clusters — or content silos, hub and spoke systems, content matrix, or whatever else people want to call it — is nothing new. Writers have been doing this almost as long as people have put pen to paper. The only difference is that good blog writers do it intentionally.
And if you want your church’s blog to appear at the top of search results, it’s worth trying out for your website, also.
What is a Topic Cluster?
A topic cluster is several pieces of content that are around a similar theme connected by internal links.
Usually, there are three parts of a topic cluster.
The first is your pillar content, which is the main subject you want to write about. This forms the nucleus of your cluster, the deep-dive subject that you really want to investigate.
Next, you have subtopics that are splintered off of your pillar content and provide complementary material to the main topic. These aren’t designed to be as long as the pillar content, but they should be just as deep and hyper-specific. These types of articles are where you’ll answer focused questions like, “how-many-times-was-Paul-stoned -versus-imprisoned” specific.
Finally, there are the internal links connecting the different articles together. This is where you’ll spend the least amount of time, but it’s arguably the most important part of this process. Without links, you just have a bunch of articles that are tangentially related to each other.
If you are more of a visual person, a topic cluster will look something like this.
A cluster can be a really effective way at covering a very in-depth topic.
Say, for instance, you want to write an article about water baptism. You know that that topic could easily extend into multiple books, let alone a single blog article, but it’s important enough of the subject that it needs to be handled thoroughly.
Instead of writing a single blog post, you could create a pillar article that provides a high-level view of water baptism. You would cover several verses that describe it, talk about what it is, and finish with why it’s so important.
But there are a lot of things that you wouldn’t have space to talk about, such as counter arguments to water baptism, the difference between immersion and sprinkling, and how it differs from Holy Spirit baptism.
You wouldn’t want to leave these topics uncovered, so instead, you create smaller sub articles that only deal with those specifically.
Your topic cluster then could look similar to the one below.
With enough links in between these articles, you could theoretically cover as much ground as you wanted to on the subject. Somebody who is interested in that subject would find their way to the smaller articles to get more information.
Why are Topic Clusters so Powerful?
As mentioned before, topic clusters are nothing new. They are, however, finding new life as digital marketers try to differentiate themselves between the other blogs online today.
Google is quick to catch up. In 2021, Google announced that their algorithm had improved to better understand how searchers generally explore a topic. This term is called “search intent,” and is a more holistic way of understanding how actual people (rather than machines) use the Internet.
Beyond that, a cluster provides a number of different benefits.
Stronger Search Engine Optimization
One of the most fundamental aspects about Google is that it is always prioritizing people over machines. They want their searchers to have the best possible experience when they use their engine, so they will naturally favor something like topic clusters over random blog content any day.
Google is constantly trying to figure out what your site is all about and how authoritative it is. A topic cluster not only provides a clear navigational path through your website, but also links together corresponding information that signals why your site is important.
When those two elements are in place, Google will naturally favor your website over competitors, which results in a stronger online presence for your website.
Better User Experience
We don’t write articles for machines, we write them for humans. And humans want to have a good user experience when they visit your site. They want to know more, learn something new, find help with a problem, or whatever else you can provide them.
A topic cluster improves the navigation on your site, which increases the likelihood that they’ll find what they’re looking for. Whether you use the three click rule or not, you want that information to be easily accessible. Time on site is a search engine ranking signal, after all. Keep them there longer, and you win.
Anything that requires more effort is a difference maker in life.
This is doubly true for a world in which content creation is usually generated by artificial intelligence. These days, almost anyone can fire up ChatGPT and spit out an article with very little though behind it. Affiliate marketers then throw that up on their website and hope it ranks.
This race for the bottom is infuriating to a lot of people who make their living online because it decreases the quality of the internet in general. We want this to be a place where people can grow — not somewhere that someone can dump out low effort material just to make a quick buck.
This creates an opportunity for you. Most preachers spend a ton of time creating content that they can use for sermons. Several of them even use some kind of organization to make sure that the people they’re preaching to get a steady diet of different, healthy topics.
You can use that to your advantage by creating a cluster around that major theme. Chances are, you didn’t get to use all that research in your sermon, so create complimentary articles that can support what you preached on.
Most churches are not doing this, I promise you. The amount of discipline and effort it takes to create a solid topical cluster is not worth it to people who don’t understand the content-driven nature of the internet.
You do, which means your site will be better positioned than most.
Part of what makes a topical cluster so much fun is that you’re never really finished with it. Even with a topic like “water baptism” that we referenced earlier, you can easily go back and find more sub-topics that you could write about.
That means that once you’ve established a clear cluster, you could theoretically add to it forever. Or, you could splice off a sub-topic, turn it into a new cluster of its own, and add to that.
Do you see how the wheels start rolling? Pretty soon, it becomes an addiction. How big can you make your cluster? How many subtopics can you cover? How deep can you take your pillar content?
Improved Topical Authority
Good search engine optimization is about demonstrating topical authority. The beauty of the internet is that you can connect people who want to learn about something with expert material on that subject. That’s Google’s goal, in a nutshell. It’s SEO 101.
Google came out with a set of standards for user content called EEAT: Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trust. This is their gold standard — their manifesto for evaluating the quality of material online.
There is a lot that goes into this evaluation — and you can read alllll about it in their search quality guidelines handbook, if you really want.
The short version is that Google plans on ranking the pages that best explains their topic. The best way to do that is by writing deep articles on the subject and connecting it with subsidiary material.
How do you do that? With a topic cluster. As of the time of this writing, it’s the single best way to demonstrate topical authority. Bar none.
How to Create a Topic Cluster
Hopefully, by this point, you at least see the value of a topic cluster. I’m not saying that anyone reading this needs to rearrange your site, but I do think that if you’re not doing it already, it’s an excellent strategy moving forward.
Fortunately, the process to create a cluster isn’t that difficult. Like with sermon creation, the work is in the prep. Once you get that all sorted out, the rest of it is basically on autopilot.
Pick a Main Topic
All good topic clusters start with pillar content. This is the “hub” in the wheel that the “spokes” splinter off of, so this needs to be a topic that you’re both (a) passionate about, and (b) confident has some depth to it.
That’s why I used “water baptism” as an example earlier. People have written entire volumes on the subject, and will continue to do so ad infinitum. You don’t have to pick something that deep, but it needs to have some legs.
As mentioned previously, think about your most recent sermons. Can you take any of those and turn them into a cluster? Was there something in your research that made you want to investigate further? Start there.
If you’re truly starting from scratch, then apply basic keyword research skills.
Make a list of some of the core beliefs found in the Bible.
Make another list of characters in Scripture that you wouldn’t mind writing about.
Scour the news to see a list of trending topics.
Once you have the generalized topics in hand, plunk those into a tool like Google Keyword Planner (free) or Ubersuggest or SEMRush (both paid past a certain point) and see if people are searching for that term.
If you find one that has significant volume (think 500 searches a month or more), put that term on a shorter list. Do that with all your possible keywords until you have a list of candidates. You can draw from this list over time whenever you want to start a new cluster.
Then, start writing. Ideally your pillar content should be long-form, meaning 2000 words or more. You’ll need that kind of length to splinter off enough smaller articles.
How you create subtopics is different for everyone.
Some people like to map out a list of complimentary topics for every pillar topic beforehand. Others, like me, prefer to start writing and let the subtopics naturally appear.
Regardless of which route you take, you will invariably be writing along and stumble upon a topic where you think “I should probably explain that more.” BAM. That’s a sub-topic.
These subtopics are naturally going to be shorter than your pillar content, but make them long enough that they’re worth your while. Aim for at least 500 words in the article, but try to cap it at 1500. If it’s longer than that, consider making it it’s own topic cluster.
Although Google loves long-form content, they’re also big fans of shorter articles that are hyper-focused on long-tail keywords. These types of articles don’t get a ton of clicks, but they’re super easy to rank for and can also appear as “rich snippets.”
None of them will provide a ton of traffic to your site, but in aggregate, you can really beef up the authority of your site.
Sometimes, you have these smaller articles on your site and don’t even know it yet. Create the pillar content and look around in your site for articles that are more indepth on some of your sub points.
Insert Corresponding Links
Internal linking is where the real magic of topic clusters happens. You’ve created the elements, now it’s time to generate a network through your site.
If you’re creating these links manually, the process is straightforward but laborious. You’ll have to post all of your content at the same time (rather than dripping it out over time), then pull up the articles in their own window, grab the URLs, and insert a hyperlink in the pillar content.
That process really doesn’t take as long as you might think, but it can get monotonous. For our sites, we use a WordPress plugin called Link Whisper that creates these internal links with much less effort. The paid version does it automatically, but the free version is almost as quick.
No matter what tool you use, it’s vital you get these links in place. Google not only derives some of their understanding of your site from the content, but from the links as well. If a page is titled “Understanding Holy Spirit Baptism” and you link it to anchor words on your pillar content that also say “understanding Holy Spirit baptism,” Google sees that and recognizes the connection.
With enough practice, this process will become lightning quick. Don’t worry too much about “getting it right,” just make sure you have the pages linked to each other appropriately (i.e. hyperlinked text matches the right page). The rest will take care of itself.
One more thing: Don’t forget to insert external links too! As much as you want to keep people on your site, linking to authoritative sites increases your topical authority in the eyes of Google.
Rinse and Repeat
So, your topic cluster is in place and all the content is written. What now?
Do it again!
Seriously, topic clusters are a great way to do a deep dive on a subject in a way that a single blog article can’t (at least, effectively). Come up with more clusters, link them together, and then start linking clusters together. You’ll have a really well-connected site that provides a great user experience and also makes you the internet’s resident expert.
What could be better?
How Often Should I Write a Topic Cluster?
As with everything else, consistency is key. The amount of work that goes into a single cluster may mean that you only create one every six months, while some create them every few weeks. You just need to find something that works well for you and that you can do consistently.
Never skimp on quality. Your ultimate goal is to try and develop the most comprehensive content on a subject that you possibly can, so shoot for that first.
What Do I Do With My Existing Content?
If you have the time to go through your articles and link them together, that would be amazing. If you have a WordPress site, the Link Whisper plugin can do this for you in minutes.
It can be exhausting to go back through your content though and create good links, so for the time being, just think about this strategy moving forward.
Another option is to take some of your articles and create your own (new) cluster out of them. Combine several similar articles into a new pillar content, then link to smaller articles. This way you make better use of your existing resources.