In 2018 I was fortunate enough to get accepted to speak at Confluence Conference in my old stomping grounds of Oklahoma City. My talk focused on content hubs, which is an extremely powerful tool for both SEO and effective content. This post is meant to both boil-down and supplement that talk, but it should also prove useful to you, dear reader, whether or not you’ve seen it live.
The content hub strategy is a synthesis of SEO and content strategy that has been a core component of the Portent playbook for years now. Ian Lurie first wrote about the idea on the Portent blog nearly a decade ago, and since then we’ve revisited it from the angle of user experience. Surprisingly, I don’t think we’ve ever plainly given our definition of a content hub. So, without further ado:
What is a Content Hub?
The content hub strategy is an internal linking strategy that involves linking several pages of related content (sometimes referred to as “spoke” pages) back to a central hub page.
Content hubs work by driving link authority and topical relevance from the spoke pages into the hub page. By concentrating internal linking onto one page, you improve that page’s ability to rank. For a real example, we could turn our Content Strategy page into a hub by linking to it from all blog posts on the site that are related to content. However, that wouldn’t be necessary, because the Content page is already in the main navigation. Since pages in the navigation are linked to from every page on the site, they’re each a kind of content hub already.
Types of Content Hubs
As far as we’re concerned, there are two kinds of hub strategies you can implement on your site.
- The “true” content hub follows our definition to the letter. Relevant spoke pages link back to the hub page, as is depicted in the image above. There are two techniques that fall under this type: in-context and mini-hubs.
- The descriptive navigation hub uses the universal site navigation to link back to the hub page from every page on the site.
There are pros and cons to both of these approaches. The true content hub achieves better topical relevance since the internal linking is more deliberate, whereas descriptive navigation is more of a “brute force” method. On the other hand, the sheer number of internal links that a page placed in the navigation gains can be more effective than a few carefully chosen links.
In-context hubs are by far the simplest; add a few links here and there and poof, you have an in-context hub. Use this type of hub if:
- You can’t find any other way to build authority; and/or
- You can’t mess with anything but marketing copy and blog text; and/or
- You have relevant content or can add it and just need to interlink
You create an in-context hub by inserting inline links from new and existing pages back to a single hub page. However, a word of caution: do not go crazy with this technique. Users don’t like to see lots of links in text. Search engines don’t either. And no, there is no “right” amount of links. If you look at the page and cringe, that’s too many. And if you look at the page and say “Well, those are all there for search engines,” that’s also too many. Links must make sense for readers.
Mini-hubs are the hardest because they often end up as round-robin collections of pages. But they still work, and every now and then you can create the real thing. Use mini-hubs if:
- You have too many products or options to put them in the top navigation; and/or
- The term isn’t as competitive; and/or
- You just don’t want to change the top nav
Let’s say you sell bulletproof bicycle helmets, and you want everyone to know it. But you don’t want to put that in your top navigation, because you sell 25 other kinds of helmets, too. You can’t fit them all up there. Instead, you can create a set of pages about bulletproof helmets. You might, for example, write five blog posts about them. Then create a clear link from each blog post back to the bulletproof helmets page. That’s a mini-hub:
Boom. We just created a low-impact mini-hub. It won’t have the same leverage as a descriptive navigation hub. But if a user searches for advice on buying a bulletproof bike helmet, they might land on that blog post. And when they do, they’ll see a clear link back to the product page. We also created a strong signal to search engines that there is one very important page about bulletproof helmets.
Descriptive Navigation Hubs
A descriptive navigation hub is much harder to implement than a true content hub, but they are the most powerful. Clients are often (rightfully) protective of their site’s navigation, or there may not be any room for an additional link. It might also not make sense to put a link to a would-be hub page in the navigation, especially if it’s a deeper subpage on a large site. Use your best judgment in deciding whether or not to use this type of hub for your or your client’s site. Use descriptive navigation hubs when:
- You’ve got a super-competitive term; and/or
- Clearer navigation might be a competitive differentiator; and/or
- The client’s product or service is easily confused with a different product or service. For example “bikes” can mean bicycles or motorcycles. Changing the top nav will clarify things; and/or
- The client has a relatively small number of products or services. You never want more than six options in the primary top nav
Back to our bicycle helmet example. You sell bicycle helmets and you customize them. And you want everyone to know right away that you make customized helmets, no matter what page they land on. And you also want to rank for “bicycle helmets.” That’s not an easy term. Instead of listing “Products” and “Services” in your top nav, change those to “Bicycle Helmets” and “Customization.” What did that do? It created a link on every page of the site to your helmets page with “bicycle helmets” as the link text. Same for the customization page. Now, no matter what page your visitors land on, they will immediately understand that you sell bicycle helmets. And you customize them. This is a giant UX win. And, every page has a keyword-rich link back to the Helmets and Customization pages. Which is a giant SEO win.
Creating New Spoke Pages for Your Hub
A major hurdle to creating a content hub is if you’re working with an underdeveloped site without many good candidates as spoke pages. Content creation and ideation is a big part of what we do at Portent, so I’ll get to rest on the laurels of my predecessors and point you to resources we’ve already written.
A little more than a year ago, Portent’s very own Director of Agency Development, Katie McKenna, wrote this in-depth guide on the tools available for content ideation. At the top of the list is a site that people don’t often think of (and a great source of laughter for Katie and me), Quora. Like a grown-up version of Yahoo! Answers, Quora is where you can see what real people on the internet are thinking and asking about.
For an even deeper dive into how to capitalize on these tools, check out Ian Lurie’s guide on content ideation. If Katie’s tips weren’t enough for you, Ian’s got some great tips for using Amazon and social media to come up with ideas you might not have otherwise.
This tool can come off as a bit of a joke because of the way we’ve wrapped best practices in grammatically challenged pop culture references. But you’d be surprised at the gems you’ll find in our Idea Generator.
No matter what tools and tactics you use to come up with content ideas, the point of a content hub is to interlink related content. Try not to stray too far from your core topic! If your content hub is about energy-efficient light bulbs, a post about Nikola Tesla might be a bit of a stretch.
Troubleshooting Your Content Hub
As we SEO practitioners know, the recommendations and strategies that we implement don’t always work as well as we’d like them to. So, what can you do if you’ve crafted this beautifully interlinked content hub and you’re not seeing results?
Check Your Tech
This step should arguably happen long before focusing on an internal linking strategy, but, if you haven’t already, make sure there’s not a technical reason your pages aren’t being rewarded properly. Crawlability, indexability, site speed performance, and so many other little details could be holding your content hub (and your entire site) back. If you want an even deeper dive, check out the Technical SEO ebook our CEO wrote.
Build More Authority
The practice of SEO has “died” and been reborn dozens of times, but through it all, backlinks still matter. One of the foundational pillars of a content hub is to drive authority internally to a central page, so if your spoke pages don’t have many (or any) backlinks, you’ll want to change that.
Set Realistic Goals
It’s always a possibility that the keyword you’re aiming to rank for is a bit too ambitious of a target. If your hub page climbed in the keyword rankings but didn’t quite break onto the 1st page of results, check the SERP to see who your competition is. If the top 10 is dominated by high-authority, well-crafted content, adjust your targets.
A Parting Exhortation
I hope this final note goes without saying, but it’s important enough to say anyway. Use descriptive, keyword-focused anchor text in your links! This is true for any internal link on your site and especially important for a content hub. A descriptive navigation link of “Solutions” tells users and search engines very little about the page they’re clicking to. Spoke pages linking to a hub page with the words “here” or “blog post” might as well not be linking at all. I wrote a little more about this in my site navigation blog post as well.