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Hello Topic Clusters – Goodbye Keywords

Once a primary focus of every SEO strategy, keywords are officially out. Search engines are now sophisticated enough to understand context and user intent. They can also determine a website’s authority on specific topics and how relevant they are to the searcher. Topic clusters and pillar pages are now the way forward.


HubSpot is deactivating its keyword tool.

The continuing trend away from keyword stuffing has finally made its mark. In the good old days, digital marketers filled their blog posts with the keywords they wanted to rank for. Doing so was widely known to gain you more favorable search rankings for those terms.

It worked (sort of), but it took a lot of effort and it often led to some less than desirable sentence constructions. Now, the game has changed.

In place of the keyword tool, HubSpot rolled out the “Content Strategy” tool. This tool enables marketers to plan their content strategy around relevant core topics and subtopics. Known as topic clusters, they look like this:

example of topic clusters which appear in the content strategy tool of HubSpot's portal

Essentially, each subtopic represents a blog post that addresses it, while each core topic represents a “pillar page” that addresses a core topic. Pillar pages are pieces of long-form content that provide high value to readers. They’re also supposed to be magnets for web traffic (hopefully).

If you aren’t part of the digital marketing space, you probably don’t care about any of this. But if you’re a digital marketer or a business that maintains a blog for SEO purposes, this is pretty much earth-shattering.

Less than half a year ago, marketers did hours of keyword research, relying on tools like HubSpot, Yoast, Google Keyword Planner, MOZ, and others to give them insight. Keywords were an essential component of every content strategy. Alas, no more.

Keywords Aren’t What They Used to Be

We used to select keywords based on relevance, difficulty, and monthly search volume. It seemed like a pretty precise strategy. Raking for strong keywords meant that you could skyrocket your web traffic.

For example, if you were a business that sold project management software, ranking #1 for the keyword “project management software” would be a good reason to break out the champagne.

That’s still something you’d want to achieve, of course. But focusing so much effort on that one keyword isn’t the best use of your time anymore. Rank reporting just isn’t consistent, either. According to one study, rank reporting tools had 0% stability

Keywords aren’t losing their luster because of anything HubSpot has done.

The report mentioned above also claimed that Google’s results are in a “constant state of unpredictable change… even ignoring algorithm updates.” Why is anyone’s guess. It could relate to intense competition for search results. But it may also relate to the natural flux of the internet. Millions of pages of content get uploaded every minute.

Recent advances in AI and machine learning have enabled Google and other search engines to evolve as well. It’s reached the point that they read web pages with mind-boggling levels of intuition.

Search engines now better understand things like context and user intent. They’ve also adapted to our tendency to type questions into search engines. Instead of rewarding pages that contain that actual question as a target keyword, they instead reward pages that best answer the question.

Do a search for, “What is Inbound Marketing?” and you’ll get a ton of web pages with that very question as the title. That’s an old keyword/SEO tactic. It’s likely that those pages are optimized for that very keyword.

The titles of your pages are still important. But whether or not they rank will depend on the quality of the writing, the authority of the page, whether or not there’s contextual significance for the search query, and several other factors.

Topic Clusters – How We Optimize from Here

So, are keywords gone forever?

Probably not, but they don’t carry the same weight that they used to. Old tactics like keyword stuffing may even backfire and penalize your page.

HubSpot and many other marketers now recommend you write content to cover core topics and subtopics. Focus less on keywords and more on filling up topic clusters with relevant content. Ideally, Google and other search engines will identify those topic clusters on your site and recognize you as an authority on those topics.

HubSpot’s tool makes this pretty easy. It also helps you keep track of every page you’ve written and what topic they represent. What’s more, it can identify whether or not your subtopic pages are linking to the pillar page that covers their core topic.

Establishing these links helps search engines determine the structure of your website, as well as which topics your website represents and how well you should rank in search results.

Marketers who prioritize this strategy will reap the rewards in the future. The old standby tactics may serve for a little while. But at the rate search engines are evolving, who knows for how long?

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