Topical authority is the expertise and depth of knowledge that a brand or online property displays over a particular topic, field, or concept. Unlike keyword research that targets a set of literal phrases, topical authority and topical research require a broad yet deep comprehension and mastery of linked entities and hierarchical concepts.
Content marketing and search engine optimization for years have focused on key phrases that were matching what end-users typed in search engines. That is because search engine algorithms were, back then, matching whatever input users entered to relevant pages that used these keywords in their body. The concept of keywords is still relevant today, even if search engines are better than ever at spotting SEO tricks and keyword stuffing.
Topic authority is a concept that is gaining traction thanks to recent prowess in the fields of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language understanding. Today, algorithms are excelling at mapping to near perfection a blob of text (e.g. blog post, ebook, tweet, news headline…) to relevant topics or concepts. Therefore, a modern search engine algorithm like Google and Bing use will pay a lot less attention to specific keywords and phrases, and focus a lot more on a page or entire website’s topical relevance, depth of knowledge, and expertise. As a whole, this is called topical authority.
Roles of Keywords in SEO
In the realm of search engine optimization, keywords have been kings for a long time. A keyword is also called a search query, and technically, they fall into two categories:
- short-tail keywords are one to three-word long phrases with a broad meaning — e.g.
- long-tail keywords contain four or more words with a more specific meaning — e.g.
four-star hotels in central londonor
keyword research for small plumbing business
A long-tail keyword receives much less traffic but converts a lot more. (credits: seopressor.com)
Years ago, ranking for short-tail keywords was easier and attracted a boatload of traffic. Over the recent years, user behaviors have changed and question-like searches are growing in popularity. Long-tail keywords are easier to rank for and tend to show more intent. A person searching for
keyword research shows interest, but we have no idea what exactly they are after (e.g. a guide, a template, a list of keywords to buy, a book, a video, etc). On the other hand, a person searching for
how to perform a keyword research clearly seeks a step-by-step tutorial.
Millions of websites have been created to target long-tail keywords using the famous SEO strategy consisting of publishing a single article per long-tail keyword. Search engines for a while loved showing these results high in the rankings because the searcher’s precise request was answered with as much precision. At least, theoretically.
Limits of Keywords in SEO
An issue appeared very quickly with the rise of long-tail keywords. Content farms appeared and started publishing poor content with great use of such keywords, therefore ranking high. Users were landing on these blog posts but found no value whatsoever. The writing was average and the informational value was very low. Yet, to search engines, these pages had the right keywords matching the user’s query.
Google’s engineers and other search engines realized that keywords are too easy to trick. Their future algorithms and ranking signals had to be more human in their understanding of a blog post. Natural language processing, the field of computer sciences trying to understand a text, has hugely improved and can now understand the text without being tied to its literal keywords much.
Topical Authority Is The Future
Topical authority appeared at that time. Instead of focusing on what keywords a page has, search engines now focus a lot more on what topics are discussed in an article, and to what degree. Algorithms from a quality search engine will sketch out a profile of each blog post so when the right user search query comes, it can instantly check whether or not it is a helpful piece of content.
Authority over a topic is also about how often a topic is written about, and how often related topics are touched on, too. This means the topical content strategy has to be elaborated with key objectives in mind. First, write about the topic in details and varied formats. Then, also cover related concepts.
Show your topical expertise in your blog’s content strategy.
Content Creation To Gain Authority
Search engines want to offer their users the right answers to their precise questions. Therefore, search engine indexes must understand what topics and concepts a website is expert in. If you write an article about
Content marketing, a search engine may not see you as more expert than a blog that has written thirty quality articles about
Email marketing and
Social media advertising, which are all related topics. Realize that keywords are, of course, still relevant but a lot less now that the focus is on a broader concept.
When you think of your content strategy and prepare an editorial calendar for the months to come, stop thinking of articles as a list of keywords to use in each paragraph. Instead, tackle each topic with a series of articles designed for different:
- user intents (purchase, information, quick answer, interview),
- levels of expertise (step-by-step guides, technical articles), and
- formats (blog post, multi-page guide, listicle, video transcript).
For each article, you will indeed use different key phrases that pertain to your topic, but you do not need to stuff your content with them anymore. Google now understands what you are talking about better, so write for human beings, not for web crawlers.
Link Building For Topical Authority
More than writing about particular topics, you must be linked to from websites seen as relevant for such topics. The web and abundance of information are promoting domain-specific expertise and peer review. Google will increase your topical authority for a particular concept if other websites authoritative in this concept (or related ones) link to you. Forget about anchor texts to game the system, you now have to go deep in a domain, and be recognized as a specialist by other experts in that very same domain.
Being linked to from websites irrelevant to your target topics will barely count in the eyes of Google RankBrain. The way you have always built your private network for link juice is coming to an end. The mass emailing of random blogs for guest posting is also coming to an end. Google considers the topical authority of an entire website, not of a single page.
From today onwards, you must become a real influencer and authority in your focus topics and domains. This means being known and trusted by your peers so you can then be linked on from them. Google understood that peer review is the best way to rank content and one you manage to score the topical relevance of a web property, you can see what other websites are trusted by this particular source, and so on.
Topic-Orientated Search Algorithms
In the opinion of most search engine optimization experts, topical authority is how search engines will triage the web for a particular search query. In the future, the steps taken by a search engine to present search results should broadly come down to these stages:
- You enter a query (e.g.
can you overdose on superfoods?)
- The search engine processes the query to find the main topic(s) it pertains to (e.g.
- The search engine extracts the user intent (Q&A, buyer, video search, etc.)
- The search engine finds authoritative websites on these topics
- The search engine discovers the most accurate pages for this query from these websites
- The search engine ranks the resultset
- You see the results
In the recent past, keywords would have been the main way for a search engine to perform a lookup on its own huge index of web pages. From today, keywords are only used minimally to extract the user intent and overall meaning, and at the last stage, to rank the final resultset. But what gets a website to that final resultset is its topical authority. If you only published a single article about nutrition and superfoods, you are probably going to be very far behind.
Topics Belong to a Knowledge Graph
In a knowledge graph, each topic has relationships to other closely related topics. Dense areas form a domain, or category.
To organize the World’s information, Google has its own knowledge base where it stores an interconnected network of topics. You can easily query Google’s knowledge graph if you have some coding skills. However, know that such information is read-only and kept up to date by Google’s algorithms. As an open-source alternative, the Wikimedia Foundation has created Wikidata.
The entirety of our World could be modeled as a huge graph where concepts and topics are nodes, and relationships between topics are edges. Each node (i.e. topic) has properties that define what it exactly is, what it can do, and so on. For example,
Dog grooming is a node, it has a property called
relates to and an edge that links that property to another node
Dogs. Nodes are concepts while relationships tend to be verbs or actions.
Such connections are important for content marketers to comprehend. Indeed, topic authority commonly means a very deep expertise in a given topic (i.e. node), but also a great comprehension of related topics. How many topics should be written about and to what depth really varies on how competitive the subject matter is.
There is no magic formula when it comes to topical authority. Write in-depth articles that are guide-like, along with more precise blog posts that accurately answer a specific question. Vary the writing style, and make sure you get linked from authoritative websites on the very same topics you are targetting. Focus your energy on the validity and quality of the information that you provide rather than the keyword variations you should use.