Digital Marketing

Review Topic Clusters as Local Business Content Strategy

The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

Image Credit: Dave Photography

Make your reviews do more for you.

Sometimes, even the best local business owners and marketers can fall into the habit of seeing reviews as a mere numbers game, a ratings game, a neck-and-neck race with competitors.

Ninety percent of respondents to Moz’s State of the Local SEO Industry 2020 survey agree that aspects of reviews impact local search rankings. Local pack visibility is certainly important to any local brand, but if we focus too narrowly on rankings alone, we can miss two critical insights:

  1. What reviews mean to customers

  2. The exciting, varied uses for review content

Let’s seize an opportunity for you today that hinges on these two factors, greatly expanding on what you might think reviews can do for the local businesses you market. Moz’s own Cyrus Shepard handed us a key when he recommended embracing topic clusters as one of the smartest SEO tactics for 2021. We’re going to use that key to unlock an advanced local business content and conversion strategy that could become a genuine competitive difference-maker for you in the years ahead.

What is a topic cluster?

Briefly, a topic cluster consists of:

  • A main topic you want to thoroughly cover with a cluster of pages

  • A pillar page that sets the theme of the cluster and acts as central navigation

  • Subtopic pages devoted to various aspects of the cluster’s theme

  • A strong internal link structure that directs the website visitor to relevant pages within the cluster

  • A URL structure that ties the cluster together

There’s nothing especially complex about this concept. Its structure calls to mind the clusters of blackberries that festoon the weedy half of my summer garden, with a big, juicy berry in the center linked to ripening branchlet companions. Nature is filled with this pattern, and SEOs have been cooking up hub and silo recipes for years, but what might feel new to you is the idea of using topic clusters to group local business reviews by customer intent.

Apart from the goal of publishing well-optimized content to rank organically for multiple search phrases, the chief purpose of topic clusters is organization. The topic cluster is designed to make it a breeze for the website visitor to access content that exactly matches their particular intent, and also to explore related information that may pique their interest once it’s presented to them.

Topic clusters can solve the issue of a website being too full of information for a visitor to efficiently find solutions to their unique needs — a dilemma of too many choices. And, if you think about it, where else do we encounter this scenario of a content overload?

Of course: it’s local business reviews!

Let’s study Google’s model of review topic clusters

Google gets it.

Once upon a time, Google’s local business review corpus was tiny compared to that of its peers. Over the past few years, though, the review volume tables have been turned by Google’s explosive growth in this area, and they understand that a customer may not know where to look when faced with a single restaurant listing that’s accumulated nearly 5,000 reviews.

When we study what Google has done, we see that they’re trying to cater to user intent by clustering review topics via a variety of filters. At the most basic level, the customer can filter via relevance, rating, and recency:

But of more interest to us today is that Google is now using place topics to enable customers to filter reviews by theme. Google understands that a user wanting to know what the test drive experience is like at an EV dealership has a different intent than one trying to discover whether they’ll be subjected to haggling. By clicking the place topic tags, Google sorts the content for the seeker:

In fact, Google is so aware of the overload that a glut of content can create that they are further trying to parse it down with review attributes, denoting qualities like professionalism, responsiveness, and value:

And they’re also pulling out justifications from reviews in hopes of matching user-generated content to user intent:

In fact, when I look at Google Maps on desktop or Google Search on my phone, Google is giving me upwards of 30 different filters for a single query to help me find out whether a business fulfills my wishes:

Google’s most recent effort at helping searchers cut through the clutter is the “new” tag they’re affixing to lately-acquired reviews:

And if you’ve any doubts left that Google is looking into all kinds of ways to cut reviews into bite-sized pieces, look at this experiment Tom Waddington recently spotted:

If Google is this dedicated to filtering information for searchers, let’s take it as our cue that we should follow suit, and imagine what this might look like in the context of a local business website.

How to create a review topic cluster for a local business website

Your exact approach will vary based on the model of the business you’re marketing. A single-location business may well be able to manage this process manually. Multi-location enterprises that commit to this project may find that some automation is necessary to scale company-wide. But, for all local brands, the basic process will look like this:

  1. Identify your theme.

  2. Identify subtopics based on discovered customer intent.

  3. Gather review content that supports each subtopic and create the subtopic pages with some original text from the business + customer reviews.

  4. Create the pillar page as an introduction to the topic and source of navigation to the subtopic pages.

  5. Launch with a high-level navigational link to the pillar page for discovery.

Let’s explore this intriguing process!

Identify your review topic cluster theme

You may expand and improve on this later, but happily, your theme has already been written for you by pre-existing demand. Customers have many different needs, but their overall, unifying intent in reading reviews is to find out:

What are reviewers saying about X local business?

Your pillar page and your topic cluster take this as their core raison d’être. While a recent survey found that the consumer public is getting hip to the problem of review spam and feeling less trust in online reviews than in previous years, the majority still turn to reviews with a great deal of trust. I consider user-generated review content to be the best, most trusted volunteer sales force working on behalf of any local brand.

Identify your review subtopics

This is where your real work begins and where you’ll be looking to answer the question:

What are reviewers saying and asking about X aspect of X local business?

Revisit the screenshots above of the different options Google offers searchers for parsing review content: place topics, review attributes, justifications, and filters. See what they’re offering up in terms of filtering options for the brand you’re marketing and its market competitors.

Now, pair this with a study of your local business profiles on other review platforms. You see, we’re going to go one better than Google in this effort, because we’re going to be pulling your review and question-format content into equal visibility across all the platforms you care to include. For example, Yelp offers all kinds of filters like these:

TripAdvisor has their own:

Facebook also has some minor filters, and so on and so forth. Investigate any platform you want to pull into your review topic clusters. Also, I highly recommend that you look at your Google Questions and Answers. If you haven’t received any questions, look at any questions direct competitors in your market have received.

In addition to looking at the shorthand offered by filters, topics, and attributes, now is the time to actually read through your reviews and Q&A. That’s right: you need a quiet couple of hours, a cuppa, and curiosity to really absorb what the public finds worthwhile to ask and mention about your business. What are the dominant topics? Note them down.

Start a list or spreadsheet containing all the filtering options you’ve found across the platforms, the place topics and review attributes in your Google reviews, and any notable themes apparent in your reviews and Q&A. All of this information is free and the only cost to you is the time you put into the research.

Next, if you pay for citation or review management SaaS, make use of any sentiment analysis features it has available for further cues. For example, Moz Local not only surfaces the top 100 most-discussed words in your reviews across multiple platforms, but it also lets you search and sort your reviews and your Google Q&A.

Let’s say you’re marketing a diner and you notice that the Google place topics on the GMB listing show that multiple customers are talking about your famous homemade pickles. Typing this term into Moz Local will bring up the reviews and Q&A that contain this keyword phrase, making it a useful tool for this process of discovering dominant patterns in customer intent:

Add your paid findings to the freebies in your list. Then, include any real-world FAQs you know from practical experience are associated with your business. If you or your staff regularly get asked about aspects of your policies, goods, and services, these may also be elements customers are mentioning in your reviews or Q&A. Crosscheck your varied sources. It might also be worth it to take a glance at any “People also ask” or “Related Searches” features Google is surfacing in conjunction with your topics.

Finally, vet your findings in several ways. Use any free or paid keyword research tools that not only show you which of your place topics and related filters match up with decent search volume, but also let you parse out search phrases that are formatted as questions. For example, if your Google place topics indicated that family-style service was a dominant theme in your reviews, Moz Pro’s keyword suggestions function can show you questions the public is asking about this subject:

At the end of this process, you’ll hopefully have identified at least half a dozen dominant themes of what your customers ask and say about your brand. You’re ready to move to the next step.

Develop your subtopic pages

In my 2020 column on The Local SEO Stats & Practical Tactics of Google’s Top-Ranked Grocery Stores, I found that 40% of grocery stores had “produce” as their most-mentioned Google place topic. Customers were consistently writing and asking about the quality of the produce section at markets across the US.

If we can imagine that the business we’re marketing is a local independent grocery store (we’ll call it Blackberry Market), our task would now be to gather up our review content across multiple platforms and develop a sub-page like this about produce:

Broken down, our hypothetical review topic cluster page contains:

  1. Unique heading and text introducing the subtopic

  2. Reviews we’ve gathered from multiple platforms that mention our subtopic

  3. A navigation sub-menu to the other sub-pages in this topic cluster

  4. Encouragement for visitors to leave reviews and to contact the business directly with complaints

It’s everything a customer would need to gauge customer satisfaction around the web in relation to their interest. It’s content that could rank organically for its topic, and with the top nav menu link to the cluster, it should be easy for on-site visitors to access a pillar page like this that leads to all the content in the cluster:

The pillar page invites the website visitor to explore whatever interests them most, and exposes them to other features of the business that are most talked about by its clientele.

The considerations and mechanics of creating review subtopic pages

You have one important decision and at least three practical options surrounding how you populate your review topic clusters pages.

The big decision is whether you will publish all relevant reviews you receive, regardless of the sentiment they contain, or if you will only feature positive reviews. My advice would be to go with the former in most cases, because it underpins the trust you want customers to feel experiencing the content on these pages.

Understandably, you may have qualms about giving more visibility to negative reviews, but bear in mind that multiple studies over many years have proven that consumers do not expect brands to have perfect 5-star ratings, and may even find them to be a bit dubious. The one thing I would subtract from what you publish, if you are manually entering your review content, would be any review spam. That doesn’t deserve a seat at the table.

And, if you feel that a location you’re marketing needs to improve its reputation before you can feel good about building out a review topic cluster for it, please read Chapter 4 of the Essential Local SEO Strategy Guide: Developing a Reputation & Reviews Strategy.

Three options you have for gathering and publishing your reviews include:

  1. Manually cut and paste review content into a template you create on your website for your topic cluster sub-pages. For a single-location local business with a moderate review count, this could certainly work, and you could update the pages quarterly, for the benefits of having fresh content coming through your website on a regular basis. For a multi-location enterprise with (potentially) many thousands of reviews, a manual solution could be very unwieldy unless you pare it down to featuring just a small amount of reviews for each main subtopic.

  2. To cut down on your workload, some third party review platforms have instructions for how to embed reviews. There are also widget/plugins that enable you to embed reviews, but while some of the ones I’ve looked out allow certain types of filtering, I haven’t seen a free solution that will let you parse reviews as thoroughly as you will need to in order to feature only those reviews that match a specific subtopic.

  3. For a paid, professional solution capable of significant topical sorting and publication of review content, you’ll need to investigate software like GatherUp. My friend, former GatherUp CEO Aaron Weiche, has written extensively about the auto-tagging capabilities of this SaaS product, which can substantially help you parse and publish sub-topical review content. I want to mention here that it was a conversation I had with Aaron that really sparked my interest in the idea of review topic clusters, and how this is a concept too many SEOs have yet to explore to its full potential.

You may think of other options, depending on your web development and engineering resources, but whichever method you choose, be sure your analytics are set up to track user actions surrounding these pages once you publish them. This will help you determine whether the development of further sub-pages could bring value to your customers and the local business you’re marketing, or to more of your agency’s clients.

For local business owners

The most obvious and immediate win of this experiment is that it offers a foolproof answer to the age-old perennial question: What should I be writing about on my website?

In this happy case, your customers have done 90% of the writing for you, for free, about topics you already know they care about. How sweet is that?

Additionally, I’ve been advocating for many years in this column for local brands to include a schema-enriched reviews/testimonials page on their websites and to diversify location landing page content with location-specific reviews. Both are great practices that remain too-often neglected, even in 2021. But this fresh idea of review topic clusters takes your repurposing of review content to a whole new level of sophistication, going further along the path of meeting human intent with highly-customized content. Point being: don’t just let your review content live on someone else’s platform. Bring maximum creativity to bear in reusing it in as many ways and places as possible.

For local search marketing agencies

Do your agency a favor this week by listening to my pal Garrett Sussman’s great interview of Chima Mmeje on the subject of next-level topic clusters. As Chima Mmeje explains, SEO is evolving to think beyond a single piece of content serving all needs, to a more advanced conceptualization of different types of content supporting different phases of the buyer’s journey.

Various consumer surveys like this one find people using reviews at multiple stages of the sales funnel, including discovery, evaluation, and selection, often with an emphasis on the discovery phase, but don’t expect your agency’s clients to ask for review topic cluster development by name. As Mmeje describes it, she includes topic clusters in her agency’s rate sheet, along with blog posts, location landing page content, and entity pages. When she explains what a 10-page cluster of content looks like, her clients are apt to exclaim, “This is a kind of done-for-you content strategy!”

I’d add that with review topic clusters, it’s truly a done-for-you strategy, with the public doing so much of the writing. 2021 would be a great year for your local search marketing agency to debut this as a service and carefully monitor performance so that you can test, grow, and perfect this unusual offering.

For both groups

Local business owners and marketers are always looking for novel wins, and I highly recommend Samuel Schmitt’s study on how he boosted his website traffic by 1,000% with the creation of a topic cluster as an example of an absolute triumph. While I won’t suggest that local review topic clusters would see quite this dramatic of a return on investment, I do think they hold significant potential for shared glory between clients and agencies who work together on this experiment.

Experimentation is the right mindset here. Recently, Near Media co-founder, Mike Blumenthal, was explaining to interviewer Jason Barnardhow Google sees the immense flow of reviews as the water spilling over Niagara Falls. Google doesn’t care so much about what’s in the water, whether fish, or debris, or what have you. They mainly care that the volume of water keeps generating electricity. 

In our work marketing local businesses, we get to take a different approach. We get to stand below the falls in the stream with a net, a bucket, a microscope, or just our bare hands, lapping deeply into the water to find what’s good there. Rather than letting the river of reviews simply course by on Google’s shores, let’s remember that reviewers are our customers, even if they are Google users, or Yelpers, or Facebook fans. Our customers’ own words are highly persuasive, and finding new ways to weave them into the story of the local brands we market is fresh and refreshing work to be drawn from the wellsprings of our creativity.

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