When we talk about “authority” in SEO terms, most marketers’ thoughts go straight to link building. Links have historically been the No. 1 factor in building domain authority, and while that’s still the case to a degree, there’s a more effective and organic way of building your site’s authority that doesn’t require link building or turning to the dark side with black-hat techniques.
Building topical authority has been proven to improve ranking for existing keywords, as well as expand the number of keywords for which a site ranks. The best part? Achieving topical authority with content is well within your control.
In this post, we’re going to dig into everything you need to know about topical authority, including what it means for content creators, why it’s important, and how to achieve it. First, we’ll talk about how search engines identify sites with topical authority, and delve into the details on the Hummingbird algorithm that makes it all possible.
Hummingbird’s Impact on the Search Landscape
Google’s Hummingbird algorithm, which was implemented in 2013, was the catalyst that put topical authority at the forefront of content and SEO, because it made the search engine capable of evaluating natural language and analyzing the meaning between related terms. Instead of ranking sites based on inbound links and keywords, Hummingbird made it possible for Google to rank content based on relevancy to a query.
Prior to Hummingbird, the search engine’s algorithms were based primarily on keywords and the number of inbound links with these keywords as anchor text. Other weighted factors include keyword location (e.g. keywords in titles, first paragraph, and subheadings), the quality of inbound linking sites, number of social media shares, and site speed, among many other factors.
A formula that weights and scores these artificial factors was the best approach for Google, since they weren’t very good at understanding content on a semantic level pre-Hummingbird. The problem with Google’s algorithms is that it could be gamed, which encouraged some to employ black hat SEO tactics (e.g. buying links, keyword stuffing, cloaking, etc.) to exploit these vulnerabilities.
For content creators, SEO posed an added challenge, since growing website traffic wasn’t just about writing quality content, but also consisted of spending countless hours employing the various SEO techniques required to get the content noticed.
Google realized there was a better approach and has developed – and continues to iterate on – a new way of evaluating content quality and topical relevance. The first hints of this new methodology were baked into Hummingbird, which is estimated to have affected close to 90 percent of searches (according to Matt Cutts, Google’s search guru).
What We Know About Hummingbird
We know from their patent filings that a major goal for Google search is to fully understand user intent. This is very challenging, especially as more and more searches are performed via spoken language on mobile devices. Queries are not just keywords anymore but are often conversational phrases and questions.
Once the searcher’s intent is determined, serving up timely, relevant, and accurate content is the second half of the equation. Doing this well requires semantic analysis, which is the extraction of meaning and relationship between words, phrases, and other signifiers. For example, if you Google “what do I feed my 3-month-old Rottweiler,” the algorithm can quickly determine that you’re looking for advice on “puppy food.”
To better grapple with this, Google has built a Knowledge Graph to connect the dots between related terms and determine how these related terms indicate meaning and intent. Synonyms are one part of this, and Google’s been incorporating synonyms as a key piece of the equation for many years. But with Hummingbird, Google introduced additional elements, such as substitute terms and co-occurrence.
To demonstrate the effect, Web Behaviour Specialists conducted a test. For instance, the words “rice dish” and “rice recipe” were compared before and after Hummingbird. The results, as illustrated below, show the comparable results jumped from two out of 10 to seven out of 10 of the top results. Put another way, since “rice dish” and “rice recipe” are comparable terms, they probably should share the same results. Before they didn’t. Now they do:
Source: Web Behaviour Specialists
On the left, you can see the search results for each query, where there’s only a 20 percent overlap. On the right, you’ll notice that the results are 70 percent similar, suggesting that the algorithm gained a better understanding of what users were looking for when they search synonymous queries like “rice dish” and “rice recipe.”
For a human, it’s not difficult to identify well-written, informative, and interesting content, but how does an algorithm determine this?
It’s surmised that Hummingbird uses a form of topic modeling to derive semantic meaning from queries, so the algorithm does not weight keywords and inbound links, but rather topical relevancy of individual pages as well as the site as a whole.
Topical Authority is the New Driver of Search Ranking
As Google gets smarter about semantics, link relevance will likely decrease over time. We speculate that links will probably never go away – inbound links are, and always will be, signals of relevance and authority – but going forward there will be an additional emphasis on topical authority.
Topical authority could be described as “depth of expertise,” and is only gained over time by consistently writing high-quality, comprehensive content that covers the topic holistically. Just repackaging a similar article over and over by regurgitating stale ideas won’t produce desired results.
Topical authority equates to depth. For instance, to be an authority on the very broad topic of marketing, one can think of many topics that are relevant to marketing, like SEO, blogging, email marketing, lead generation, etc. Each of those topics has other relevant topics (e.g. if you’re creating a page about blogging, you should also mention content creation, CMS, and SEO, among other topics). Since ‘marketing’ is such a broad topic, the list of relevant topics is vast. Going forward, organizations that cover a topic with the most depth will own the future traffic flow for related searches.
The latest Searchmetrics study that ranks critical factors for Google’s search algorithm reveals a drop in the importance of keywords, and a rise in content relevance:
If topical authority is defined as a website’s “depth of expertise,” how do you know where your content stands? How do you know what topics you’re missing today? That’s where MarketMuse can help.
Optimizing for Topical Authority with MarketMuse
MarketMuse is the leading software solution to help you plan and execute a topical authority strategy. Our platform and Managed Services let you create top-ranking content every time, with Content Briefs based on data from pages that are already ranking - plus expert insights. Read more about Buiding a Better Content Brief.
Given a keyword group that you want to rank for, MarketMuse analyzes top ranking content to identify the related keywords (i.e. topics) that you should have in your content. Our software can also analyze the content on your site and tell us the areas you're lacking in coverage, and to what degree.
MarketMuse doesn’t write the content, but it enables you to identify what your gaps are and prioritize which topics you should address first. It also allows you to create detailed content briefs your writers can use to create topically comprehensive blogs, landing pages, whitepapers, and more.
Our Content Analyzer can help to either create a new page or optimize existing content to make it the most comprehensive page on the web for that focus topic. Here, we entered ‘mobile device management’ into the Content Analyzer to see how we would create a new page on that topic.
The Analyzer searched the web and determined the best (i.e. target) Content Score and Word Count for the page to be created. The Content Score is a proprietary number that assesses topic depth and breadth to indicate where each page stands in the grand scheme of a given focus topic. The Content Analyzer also shows us a list of terms to mention in our page on mobile device management:
The little blue boxes to the left give you a handy list of term variants that you should use to ensure you’re covering that topic deeply:
Once you have a draft, you can copy/paste your text into the Analyzer to see how it stacks up and where there’s room for improvement and revisions. If you want to optimize content that’s already been published, it’s just a matter of entering the URL and focus topic into the Content Analyzer.
It’s a fairly simple process that ensures you’re creating the most topically authoritative content that’s relevant to your business. Our team can either train you on how to get the most out of the platform, or we can make your blueprints for you as a service. Either way, it’s an effective step that has gotten invaluable results for our clients.
Zooming Out: How to Build Topical Authority on Your Site
We’ve just covered how to optimize your individual posts for topic comprehensiveness, but you want to ensure that your entire domain has topical authority. To achieve this, you need to do two things: organize your topic-optimized content into clusters and answer user intent in all your pages.
When your content is comprehensive, well-organized, and speaks directly to your audience’s questions, you can’t lose. Here’s how to do it:
We advise our clients to structure their content in a way that’s logical for both humans and search engines. This entails identifying your focus topics, creating a pillar page for each, and then writing supporting content for those pillar pages. This is called topic clustering, and it’s an intuitive, proven way to organize your content for SEO.
Step 1: Determine Your Focus Subjects. The number of focus topics will depend entirely upon your business. Generally, you will want to have a pillar page for every type of product or service you provide. Your focus topics should be broad enough that it has subcategories (e.g. a Women’s Accessories page could have hats, gloves, jewelry, and bags as subtopics) and specific enough that a searcher landing on your page will find it relevant.
Step 2: Create Pillar Pages. If you’re using MarketMuse, you can easily create a content brief for your pillar pages by running your focus topic through the Content Analyzer and using the metrics and recommendations it provides.
If you’re not using MarketMuse, you can read through the top-ranking pages for your key term, note every related topic mentioned within them, then brainstorm to determine which topics have not yet been discussed by the competition that should be included in your outline.
Step 3: Write Supporting Content. Each pillar page should be treated as a hub for that topic and should be linked to in every piece of supporting content. For instance, using the Women’s Accessories example again, all your pages on bags, jewelry, hats, etc. would link back to your pillar page on Women’s Accessories. Further, each of those supporting pages should speak to user intent. S
o instead of writing about bags in general, you should address what type of bags you sell, the materials they’re made of, size specifications, etc. Your supporting pages are where you can gain content depth (i.e. get down to the nitty gritty), whereas pillar pages determine the breadth of your site.
Addressing User Intent
This is a big one that we stress to our clients, and it’s got all the SEO experts talking, too. Moz and Neil Patel are calling it “searcher task accomplishment,” which is a way of asking, does your content serve the user’s ultimate goal? In other words, user intent.
Google knows when a searcher finds the answer they’re looking for, and the algorithm will boost pages that end a user’s search. For instance, if they search for “women’s leather bags,” go to your site, and don’t bounce, you gain ranking cred. If they do bounce, your page may either stay the same or go down in ranking.
For this reason, it’s essential that your content answer any and all questions that your audience may be asking. The most common questions should get their own pages, while others may be grouped into FAQ or supporting pages. You can brainstorm what your users might be asking, and you can look at search data to find the most common queries related to your focus topic. Ideally, you should do both to ensure that no question goes unanswered.
Topical Authority = A Better Internet
“When you identify certain areas where you can be the authority, the expert, and write content in an interesting way, that’s a fantastic content asset,” MarketMuse CEO Aki Balogh told McDougall Interactive in a podcast.
“That asset will get you high in search ranking. You’ll get a lot of great traffic from it. You’ll get a lot of exposure. That’s the great thing about Hummingbird and where search is moving, it’s moving away from gaming the system, [or] where the companies with the biggest budgets win.
It’s really moving toward, who or what is the absolute best source of information on any given topic. Everyone benefits. The Internet basically becomes a better place because of this.”
You can listen to full podcast here (15 mins).
We hope you can tell that we’re truly excited about topical authority and the results it can achieve when done correctly. Our reps love to talk about this kind of stuff and apply it to sites with unique needs, so get in touch with us today to see how MarketMuse can help you achieve topical authority.