By Paul DuPont, Head of Digital Marketing, Pharmaceutics International Inc.
You've likely heard it before. "Content is King." It's an old marketing phrase that gets repeated over and over again. I'll admit that I also use it from time to time. Content is king, and I'm not here to argue against that fact. The importance of content in a marketing strategy cannot be overemphasized. Content is what draws readers to your site, introduces them to your business, and builds ongoing relationships.
However, the predominance of this "Content is King" mentality can lead to a slightly twisted take on marketing where the focus turns to creating as much content as possible. I've seen situations where significant quantities of time, money, and effort went into creating articles, case studies, and fact sheets based on whatever information was available. There wasn't a real plan or focus on any of the content generated.
More isn't always better. Sometimes it's just more.
While the "content at all costs" approach can stumble into a few successes, it also leads to wasted effort and dead ends. The impulse is easy to understand; however, better strategies exist. A strategy that leaves your businesses sitting around with haphazard collections of content is not the most fruitful course.
This is another scenario where working smarter is better than working harder. Don't flood the internet with piles and piles of content, hoping some of it will connect. Packing your website with words won't do much unless those words are well-considered. Likewise, succumbing to the "publish or perish" attitude means you'll lose the chance to build precise connections with readers.
Content that exists merely to exist isn't good enough to convince Google anymore.
"More content is not better. What's the worst-case scenario if we slow ourselves down and do some analysis?" – Kristina Halvorson, author, CEO, and founder of Brain Traffic
How RankBrain stepped in and changed everything
Veterans of the internet probably remember some of the tactics people used to improve their sites' ranking. Since being on the first page of Google was (and still is) everyone's goal, there were tons of tricks and tips out there promising to help users beat the system. One method was to stuff content with every imaginable keyword. The more, the better! I remember stumbling across websites brimming with keywords but lacking any coherence. It didn't make for a pleasant or valuable browsing experience, and I didn't remain on them for long.
But keywords weren't just for small sites. Even larger scale, more legitimate websites knew they needed to focus on keywords when building out their SEO (search engine optimization) strategies. How else would Google's spiders understand what they did?
Fortunately, Google has gotten much smarter since those days. Google is aware that it's always in their best interest to stay ahead of those who would rather game the system than focus on creating quality content. Offering helpful results to the people who use their search engine is always Google's goal and most of their algorithm updates have been in service of that objective. This is how they've been able to ensure customer loyalty for so long and maintain their status as the world's most popular search engine.
I can't write about algorithm updates without bringing up RankBrain. RankBrain was a major Google release in 2015 and it changed the whole content creation game. Some sites found that their search rankings were significantly impacted by the release, because RankBrain got right to work eradicating keywords stuffers in favor of sites providing great user experiences. Google wasn't just reading keywords any longer. Instead, by introducing machine learning into the equation, the hard work of trying to understand Google users had begun.
This change would shift the entire landscape of the internet.
"Google is evolving into thinking more and more like humans do. This is great for two main reasons: a) When you're writing for people you'll be also writing for Google; b) If you help your visitors by answering their questions or by offering a solution to their problems, it will make your site become a more reputable resource that people will appreciate and, thus, so will Google. Point being: write and optimize for people, you'll gain Google's love too." – Louie Luc, online marketer, and SEO expert
Because Google was attempting to interpret what a searcher meant, rather than the exact words they typed into a search bar, a different approach was needed. Now Google serves enormous quantities of data into RankBrain. RankBrain processes and analyses that data, using the information to expand its own understanding of what humans want. This means Google is able to use all kinds of contextual clues to offer the best possible search results for each user.
It's kind of astonishing to imagine all of this happening behind the scenes when you're, for example, just trying to figure out which nearby restaurant has the tastiest ramen. But, the level of sophistication RankBrain brings to the table has to be accounted for when building a content strategy. This is one reason content clusters have risen to such importance.
An orderly approach to building your content
These days, if you're looking to gain visitors and readers, you have to take a strategic and disciplined approach to content creation. Because of RankBrain, content must be created in an organized fashion to demonstrate actual expertise. I view this as a positive change because it twists the arms of marketers, pressuring us to create content that will be valuable, logical, and intuitive for human readers. Who doesn't want a smarter and more helpful internet?
"When we create something, we think, 'Will our customers thank us for this?' I think it's important for all of us to be thinking about whatever marketing we're creating; is it really useful to our customers? Will they thank us for it? I think if you think of things through that lens, it just clarifies what you're doing in such a simple, elegant way." – Ann Handley, author and marketing guru.
This brings me to the concept of content clusters. Content clusters are a great way to adjust to the new world brought about by RankBrain and prepare for potential future updates to the Google algorithm.
The anatomy of a content cluster
In basic terms, a content cluster is a collection of associated pages. These pages act as a constellation of carefully crafted information, all expanding upon one topic in more complex terms. Each page in a cluster connects to a central pillar page. (Some people also call this the pillar-cluster model.) Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but I wanted to add that your content clusters' topics should be somewhat related to what your business sells or offers. Otherwise, there's not much point.
The pillar page is a kind of queen bee, sitting in the middle of the cluster. A strong pillar page provides readers with a broad overview of the topic you're targeting, becoming a backbone for all the other pages in the cluster. Each of those additional pages digs deeper into one aspect touched upon in the pillar page.
For example: If you sell outdoor gear, your pillar page might discuss hiking preparation. The associated (and linked) cluster pages might then branch out into the specifics of first aid must-haves, sun protection, or what kinds of treads you should look for in your hiking boots. It's important to note that these pages aren't product pages. They likely offer information related to products the company sells, but the content should be more helpful and multifaceted, contributing real value to the reader.
"If you are looking for the best way to tie your content and SEO strategy together content clusters are the best way to see impactful results." – Britney Schroeder, Power Digital
Content clusters are one example of how marketers must start thinking beyond keywords alone. That approach might have worked in the past, but with RankBrain, it's not enough. Shift your focus to topics (and content centered around those topics), and your marketing efforts will be far more competitive. I'm not saying you should completely ignore keywords. Keywords still have a place in a successful marketing plan, but they should act more as a backup singer than the main star.
The purpose of a content cluster
Okay, so that's what a content cluster looks like, but now what does it do, and what advantages are there to organizing your content this way? One of the things I like about content clusters is that they allow me to build a practical blueprint around any topic and then reach out to a gamut of different people with connections to that topic. After all, the people interacting with your content could have many different combinations of characteristics.
The three essential characteristics include:
Who are they? What role do they hold and how does that affect what they're looking for? It's natural that people in different roles will have different questions and be looking for content unique to their needs. In my case, I've found my readers can include:
o Sr. Technical Executives
o Functional Managers
o Purchasing Agents
Which subjects and products hold particular interest to them? This might seem obvious, but that doesn't mean it's without importance. At Pii (Pharmaceutics International, Inc.) we're generating content clusters spanning topics such as:
o Small molecule drug development and manufacturing
o Sterile fill and finish
o Clinical Trial Material Manufacturing
o Commercial Tech Transfers
What stage are they at in the journey of making a purchase? Everyone doesn't show up on your site ready to buy. There are several stages in the purchasing process, and creating content that addresses each of those stages is a winning strategy. For instance:
o Early-stage: Content speaking to readers in this stage might be geared toward helping them understand various functional areas or include thought leadership articles with no blatant vendor branding.
o Mid-stage: Readers in the mid-stage typically respond well to content that discusses solutions to specific problems and needs. For example, Technical and case study articles demonstrating a deeper understanding of the subject matter and including a light branding touch.
o Late-stage: This is the best place to put all the pieces together. Typically this stage is more abundantly branded and should be populated with straightforward CTAs (calls to action). In my industry, this translates to content about:
- Technology services and solutions
- Client support (evaluation, onboarding, development, manufacturing, regulatory approval, and distribution)
It’s important to remember that this is the stage where decisions happen, so it’s the place where you really need to be in tune with the thoughts and needs of your reader. It’s not about pressuring them to pick you or trying to hurry them along on their journey. Those approaches can backfire! Instead, intuit what information will be most helpful and provide your readers with the best possible resources, enabling them to make a choice.
As you can see, people interacting with your cluster could have different groupings of interests, intentions, and needs. The wise approach is to use your content cluster segments as a tool for directly addressing each of these.
If you were creating a conventional (non-clustered) content plan, you'd likely still be keeping all these characteristics in mind. You might create content with a well-defined subject, targeting a specific audience at a distinct stage in the buyer's journey. But, when these pages are all arbitrarily created and not linked to the appropriate pillar page, they become chaotic and confusing, both for your readers and for Google. And confusing Google is never a great plan.
"Content marketing is no longer a numbers game. It's a game of relevance." - Jason Miller, senior director at ActiveCampaign
Introduce a content cluster and everything starts to make more sense. The structure provides context as well as a logical path for readers. Instead of existing as individual, isolated incidents, all the parts of a cluster work together to make each other stronger. It's a great example of teamwork! Google also gets a better sense that you are, indeed, an authority on that specific topic and have a lot of related information to offer searchers. The algorithm will be more likely to send readers to your cluster because you're not pretending to be the best source. You are the best source.
But, and I feel I must point this out, you cannot create lazy content, put it into a cluster-style format, and expect to see the same results. Content should prove and promote your authority and expertise. It should be high quality and provide real value to your readers. Slipping into the old "gaming the system" approach is dangerous because it will always hurt you in the end.
Google wants to promote good content and the changes they make to their algorithm will always be designed to do so. They're not interested in promoting tricksters, because that only hurts their reputation. So, do take advantage of content clusters and make sure that the content you put within them is accurate, authoritative, useful, and well-written. Then you'll be able to ride out all future changes to the Google algorithm. You can also feel good about yourself, knowing that you're helping to create a more informative internet!