Information Architecture
September 16th 2020

Topical Authority Is the New Keyword Research

14 min read

Topical authority can be described as “depth of expertise.” It’s achieved by consistently writing original high-quality, comprehensive content that covers the topic.

When we talk about “authority” in SEO terms, most marketers’ thoughts go straight to link building. Backlinks have historically been the No. 1 factor in building domain authority. While that’s still the case to a degree, there’s a more effective and organic way of building your site’s authority. It’s a method 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. It’s also a great way to 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. We’ll look at what it means for content creators, why it’s important, and how to achieve it. First, we’ll look at how search engines identify sites with topical authority. Then we’ll delve into the details on the Hummingbird algorithm that makes it all possible.

Hummingbird’s Impact on the Search Landscape

Google’s Hummingbird algorithm, implemented in 2013, put topical authority at the forefront of SEO. Now the search engine could evaluate natural language and analyze the meaning of related terms. Instead of ranking sites based on inbound links and keywords, Google could now rank content based on relevancy to a query.

Prior to Hummingbird, the search engine’s algorithms were based primarily on keywords. The number of inbound links with these keywords as anchor text played a critical role. Other weighted factors included 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.

A formula that weighed and scored these artificial factors was the best approach for Google. 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. To exploit these vulnerabilities some employed black hat SEO tactics. Those are actions like buying links, keyword stuffing, and cloaking.

For content creators, SEO posed an added challenge. Growing website traffic wasn’t just about writing quality content. It now required spending countless hours employing various SEO techniques to get content noticed.

Google realized there was a better approach. They developed – and continue to iterate on – a new way of evaluating content quality and topical relevance. The first hints of this new methodology were baked into Hummingbird. That update is estimated to have affected close to 90 percent of searches (according to Matt Cutts, Google’s search guru).

What We Know About Hummingbird

Their patent filings suggest 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. That’s 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 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. It can now determine how these related terms indicate meaning and intent. Synonyms are one part of this. In fact, 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. This suggests the algorithm gained a better understanding of what users were looking for when searching 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 signals of relevance and authority. But going forward there will be an additional emphasis on topical authority.

Topical authority equates to depth. For instance, marketing is a broad topic with many relevant subtopics such as SEO, blogging, and lead generation. Each of those topics has other relevant topics. So 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. Check out this interview that our co-founder, Jeff Coyle, gave on the importance of topical authority.

As Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mu says, you’ve got to be awesome. But what does that mean in terms of content creation? How can we be sure how content is operating at that level?

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 ContentAdvisory Team help 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 Building 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 patented systems and methods for semantic keyword analysis also analyzes the content on your site to reveal areas where you lack coverage and to what degree.

MarketMuse enables you to identify your gaps and prioritize topics. It also allows you to create detailed content briefs. These are blueprints your writers can use to create topically comprehensive content.

Our Research Application helps create best-in-class content, making it the most comprehensive page on the web for that focus topic. Here, we entered ‘mobile device management’ into Research to see how we could create a new in-depth page on that topic.

Screenshot of MarketMuse Research application showing results for the focus topic 'mobile device management.'

Research analyzes all the competitive content for this subject and returns a list of semantically related topics ordered by relevance. The ‘Suggested Dist’ column indicates how often the competition mentions the topic, while the ‘Variants’ column shows how many variants of the topic were found.

Screenshot of MarketMuse Research application showing variants for the term 'corporate data'.

Variants can be used in a couple of ways, either to improve your writing by adding variety to the terms used, and as possible subjects for a topic cluster. While corporate data and mobile apps could be part of a cluster around the topic ‘mobile device management,’ you could also create a topical cluster around ‘corporate data.’ Topics to create content around the ‘corporate data’ cluster include ‘corporate data management,’ ‘corporate data services,’ and ‘corporate data security policy.’

Identifying Content Gaps

Using MarketMuse, it’s easy to identify content gaps. If you’re using Optimize, look for any red squares in the first column that have a count of zero. That indicates the term has not been mentioned anywhere in the blog post. The second column suggests how often a term should be mentioned.

A three column presentation where column one contains topics, column two shows how frequently they're mentioned and column three indicates how often they should be mentioned.
MarketMuse Optimize Application

Content gaps can also be identified using the heatmap in Compete. Anywhere you see a red square, that’s a content gap. The x-axis (left-to-right) shows the URLs appearing in the top 20 of the search engine results page (SERP). The y-axis (up-to-down) is the list of relevant topics. A row with all red squares indicates a topic is not being addressed by the competition, offering a chance to differentiate your content.

Heat map showing URLs along X-axis, topics along y-axis and their distribution.
MarketMuse Compete Application

A column with many red squares reveals a page with many content gaps. Hopefully, that’s not you!

Using MarketMuse for topical optimization is a fairly simple process that ensures you’re creating the most authoritative and relevant content. 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.

Topic Clusters

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; a Women’s Accessories page could have hats, gloves, jewelry, and bags as subtopics. It should be specific enough that a searcher landing on your page will find it relevant.

Step 2: Create Pillar Content. If you’re using MarketMuse, you can easily create a content brief for your pillar pages. Run your focus topic through the Research application and use the metrics and recommendations provided.

If you’re not using MarketMuse, here’s what you should do:

  • Read through the top-ranking pages for your key term.
  • Note every related topic mentioned within them.
  • Brainstorm to determine which topics are not discussed by the competition.
  • Include the appropriate ones in your outline.

Step 3: Write Supporting Content. Instead of writing about bags in general, get more specific. Address the type of bags you sell, the materials they’re made of, and size specifications. Further, each of those supporting pages should speak to user intent. Unlike pillar content, which determines the breadth of your site, supporting pages are where you can gain content depth and get down to the nitty-gritty. For those using standard keyword research, you’ll find that these pages are the ones where you target long-tail keywords.

Step 4: Leverage Internal Links. Each pillar page should be treated as a hub for that topic. Use internal linking to connect it to 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.

Addressing User Intent

Search intent is a big one that we stress to our clients, and it’s got all the SEO experts talking, too. Moz is 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. Others may be grouped into FAQ or supporting pages. You can brainstorm what your users might be asking. You can also 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 headed. 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.”

We hope you can tell that we’re truly excited about topical authority and the results it can achieve when done correctly.

Aki Balogh

Written by Aki Balogh akibalogh