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Topic Research vs Keywords for Content Strategists

7 min read

Topic research is different from keyword research. Traditional keyword research focuses on demand (volume) and difficulty (competition).

No doubt, this method is popular. However, you’re making a HUGE mistake by taking the conventional route.

Keyword Research for Content Strategy

The problem with keyword research is that it doesn’t adequately take into account your existing content inventory. Keyword research looks at existing content only so far as to avoid creating new content for keywords for which you already rank.

That’s not good enough in this content marketing environment. Search engines have devalued the importance of keywords, and the focus now is on topical authority. So if your go-to content strategy has been focused solely on long-tail keywords, think again.

Hummingbird changed the game. Now it’s time for a topic-centered keyword strategy. Content marketers need to start with topic research and content planning first. Only then should you dive into keyword research and user intents

Google “doesn’t care” which specific keyword you use. They’re looking at the topics that you cover, and how well you’ve included those topics in your content and on your site.

Qualitative content analysis requires you to consider:

  • What content do you already have on a topic?
  • What is the breadth and depth of your topic cluster?
  • What existing authority do you have on a topic? For example, what are the backlink profiles of your topic cluster?

How Does Google Measure Topical Authority?

Google automatically determines the topics (entities) and keywords for which you have authority. Then they decide what keyword searches you’re going to rank for, based on the previously determined quality.

Take the high-quality article on “how to boil eggs” that has a MarketMuse Content Score of 29. It ranks for 1,043 keywords even though the post doesn’t contain nearly that many keywords.

So, the trick with an extensive keyword universe is to boil it down to the core topics around which you want to build authority. Those are the critical topics that must be hit hard.

Once the core topics are identified, you need to build a content plan for each item.

Take for example. We can boil their 192 keywords down to three topics. Then we can build a plan with a prioritized set of insights for each of those topics.

Then, if they want to expand it to 1,000+ keywords, including what they’re ranking for, that may add up to 15 topics. So, there are 15 plans.

Determining Your Content Marketing Topics

To really nail this there are two critical steps you need to undertake:

  1. “Focus topic” research.
  2. User intent profiles.

First, identify each topic upon which you want to focus.

Next, pull in user intent profiles (user intent questions, individual keywords). You can use tools such as the Google Keyword Planner, MarketMuse, SEMRush, SpyFu or Moz.

Topics in hand, now it’s time to dominate your niche. You’ll do this by strategically creating the right content in sufficient quantity to thoroughly cover the subject.

Here’s how to go about becoming a recognized authority on a specific subject:

  1. Establish a ‘beachhead’. Write a high-quality content item, think pillar content, on a topic and get that page to rank on the first page of Google.
  2. Write supporting content for related topics/subtopics. Write articles with in-depth coverage, then link them back to your pillar. This is audience-centered content that will appeal to specific buyer personas.
  3. Keep your content creation going. Add more breadth (more related topics), depth (deeper coverage of each related issue), and link them all together.
  4. Over time, you will build a great resource center that dominates an individual niche.
  5. Move onto the next topic.

It’s better to go deep and comprehensively optimize one topic first, than to optimize a lot of different topics but in a shallow way. We proved this with a Neil Patel case study.

How Specific and Targeted is Your keyword?

Trying to rank for a very generic keyword (like “guitars”) means that you’ll need to create a massive inventory of content.

Instead, it’s a better use of time to focus on a niche that you can dominate.

Focus on a niche in which your business specializes.

Don’t worry if volume seems too low. You’re aiming for relevance and quality, not high-level volume.

Topic Research for Content Strategists

Basically, keyword research has always been focused on working AROUND what the content is about. Marketers use data from tools like Google KP to try to back into what the material should be about. However, it’s just a proxy.

A more effective way to do it is:

  1. Identify what your site is ‘about,’ and what you should be about. Identify what topics you’ll want to cover as part of your content strategy.
  2. Identify what content you should write to cover these target topics comprehensively. Group content ideas around topics as part of your content plan.
  3. Prioritize what you should write first vs. later. This is where you start doing keyword research to pull in factors like competition and impact (volume). These factors, plus relevance to your strategy, help you determine prioritization. For example, if something has high volume and low competition but is unrelated, it won’t be important. The best strategy is to write content that is relevant to your core strategy. Prioritize the content that will make the most impact short-term.
  4. While writing a blog post, cover the keywords and related user intents. Keep in mind that you may need to answer multiple user intents across numerous pages.

Content strategists do not want for lack of work. In fact, they frequently find themselves in the opposite situation. To scale your inbound marketing strategy, you need a method of prioritizing opportunities.

Introducing the BADVC Framework.

Breadth, authority, depth, volume, and competition.

We look at your existing authority, breadth and depth of coverage for the topic, as well as volume (demand) and competition (difficulty). MarketMuse’s measure of authority includes historical content success on the topic, authority content on the topic and related topics, and backlinks (volume, relatedness and velocity).

Typically you’ll get the highest ROI by focusing on low quality, “thin” content. Specifically, those in clusters with high breadth and depth, with high volume and little competition. Next in line are those similar cases that have more competition. Keep working your way down the line until all opportunities are exhausted.

Content Strategy: How to Build a Content Plan

Plan your work and work your plan. Truer words have never been spoken. Authority sites are built from a plan that uncovers opportunities and prioritizes the possibilities.

Here’s a framework for creating a content plan that works.

  1. Build a topic strategy. Identify all of the topic clusters or major themes. You can even group known keywords into thematic clusters.
  2. Build a keyword universe. Get keyword data including volume and competition.
  3. Generate a content inventory. Do a content audit of your site, and organize your content by topic cluster.
  4. Score the quality of all of your content. MarketMuse automates, this but you can manually grade them as A, B, C, D.
  5. Aggregate stats. You want cluster-level stats that provide overall breadth and depth for each cluster.
  6. Prioritize your content. Look for thin content in a cluster with great breadth and depth, high volume, low competition.
  7. Identify new content to create. Look for content gaps/topic gaps in a cluster that is already strong.
  8. Put your content plan together.
  9. Select a title for each content item.
  10. Create content briefs for each page using MarketMuse.
  11. Use those briefs to write content that comprehensively covers the subject.
  12. Connect all of your content both internally and externally.
  13. Measure performance over your entire cluster.

Keywords are no longer king. Topic is the new keyword. To get better placement in the SERPs, you need greater authority. For that, content strategists have to conduct topic research to create effective plans.

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What you should do now

When you’re ready… here are 3 ways we can help you publish better content, faster:

  1. Book time with MarketMuse Schedule a live demo with one of our strategists to see how MarketMuse can help your team reach their content goals.
  2. If you’d like to learn how to create better content faster, visit our blog. It’s full of resources to help scale content.
  3. If you know another marketer who’d enjoy reading this page, share it with them via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

Co-founder & CEO of, Co-founder & President of MarketMuse, Advisor at (builders of the El Salvador Chivo wallet). Holds 2 patents in semantic analysis. Ex-VC at OpenView. Building decentralized tech to empower society.