One of the most common inquiries I receive from colleagues and customers alike pertains to why their websites consistently lose out on crucial organic visibility to specialty and niche websites.
As they tell it, they spend countless hours diligently researching their SEO and carefully integrating keywords into their articles.
And yet, they still lose.
Well, the hard truth of the matter is this - in 2021, SEO is a lot more than just keyword research.
Back in the day, you could stuff your websites with a bunch of high-volume keyword phrases and magically rank in Google's top 10 search results.
However, times have definitely changed. With search engine technology constantly evolving, businesses are in need of a more nuanced and holistic approach to attracting targeted traffic to their websites.
I'm happy to announce that not only does a modern framework for successful search engine optimization exist, but I'm here today to tell you about its secret sauce - topical relevance.
Topical Relevance Defined
Topical relevance refers to the relationship that your website content has to a particular topic, keyword phrase, or piece of information.
Also known as "topical authority," search engines measure and score topical relevance when determining how relevant a website is with respect to a user's search query. The more relevant your website and post information, the more likely you are to rank for it.
Google bases topical relevance on a diverse range of variables, including:
- Content depth
- How well your content matches search intent
And while all of these factors are weighed when determining topical relevance, it's important to note that not all factors are created equal.
Today, when you think about topical relevance, you should think “depth.”
Whatever your website’s broad topic of focus, there are likely many relevant subtopics that lay its foundation. To effectively rank for the keywords that make or break your bottom line, you will need to demonstrate to Google a certain level of expertise on your broad topic’s secondary verticals.
You achieve this by casting a wide content net.
The more depth of knowledge you demonstrate in your content, the more authoritative you are in the eyes of Google, and the more likely you are to rank and be considered topically relevant for a specific subject.
Why is Topical Relevance Important?
Let's imagine for a moment that I own an eCommerce site that is dedicated to selling whiskey (who doesn't love a good Scotch?).
I'm likely to have hundreds of whiskey products listed on my website - from Johnnie Walker to Glenlivet, Jameson to Bushmills, Jack Daniels to Uncle Nearest, and so on and so forth.
Ten years ago, if I wanted to rank my product pages in a world void of topical relevance, I would simply create some quality content and try and rank each product web page for its most popular individual keywords.
For example, if I wanted to rank for Johnnie Walker’s premium Blue line, I would create a specific page for this product and look to optimize it for the long-tail keyword “johnnie walker blue label.”
All things considered, this strategy used to work great - target a lucrative keyword on a single product page and watch the moolah start to flow.
Today, I can no longer just create a page focused on a single keyword phrase and expect it to rank. Now, with Google’s Hummingbird update, I need to demonstrate that I am an authority on all things Scotch whisky.
In layman's terms, I need to create a ton of other pages focused on similar whiskey topics - from composition to maturation to origin. By having this information present, I will present myself as an authority on the matter, encouraging Google to rank my site and share my topically relevant content with the masses.
Strategies for Building Topical Authority
Ok, at this point, we have learned a thing or two about topical relevance.
We know that topically relevant links matter, and we understand that keywords on their own matter less (at least not as much as they used to).
But the question remains, how do we make our individual articles and overall website topically relevant?
I'm here to provide some answers.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building topically relevant content, there are several strategies and best practices that you can quickly implement to optimize your sites and provide your readers with topically relevant and knowledge-based content.
1. Stay Focused
An easy way to begin improving the topical relevance of an article is to stay on topic. Evaluate what it is that you really want an article or post to focus on (i.e., what it is that will drive your visibility), and strive to keep your article content hyper-focused on that specific theme.
In this respect, words matter.
While we may not know much about Google’s algorithm, we do know that your chances of ranking for profitable keywords will be lowered if you use thin and off-topic article content. If you write a post about Scotch whisky, then there's no need to discuss Vodka.
Your readers don't care, and this is likely to hurt your visibility in the long-run.
2. Develop Topic Clusters
A topic cluster is a group of interlinked web pages that marketers build using a piece of pillar content that targets a broad theme, and narrowly focused but related cluster topics.
Together, your pillar web page and narrowly-focused cluster web pages team up to provide website visitors with comprehensive coverage of an umbrella subject. With your clusters fully built out, your website will be more topically relevant to its theme.
The key to creating clusters are internal links.
Relevant links from your cluster web pages to your pillar web page will tell Google which page is the most important of the group (i.e., the pillar).
These internal links will also pass any earned link juice across the cluster. So, any links pointing to one article in the cluster should benefit all articles in the cluster when they’re properly linked together.
When it comes to links - anchor texts are key.
Be sure to provide each of your cluster links with match anchor text that clearly describes the page on the other side of the link, as this will help search engines better determine what lies behind your cluster links.
3. Use Search Engines to Research Topics
One of the best methods for getting started with topical research for your clusters is to use Google to tell you what topics you need on your website. All you need to do is look at the "Related Searches" section of your search results to see what people are looking for.
If we run a search for the target keyword "scotch whisky," for example, Google will show us all of the searches related to that specific theme - from "single malt whiskey" to "scotch vs. whiskey."
Again, the key point to take home is that Google is literally telling you what words and topics it thinks are relevant to "scotch whisky."
Given that the goal here is to score well for Google's topical relevance/authority algorithm, you should strongly consider using this method as it's one of the best resources available to develop your clusters.
Note, you don't have to limit your research to Google. This process works in exactly the same way for most major search engines. See below.
4. Use an SEO Optimization Tool
The final strategy for streamlining the topical relevance of your site is to work smarter, not harder. There are several SEO optimization tools available on the market to help you do exactly that.
SEO tools make a difference.
MarketMuse, Clearscope, and SurferSEO - to name a few - all help their users streamline the process of developing SEO optimized keyword lists for building semantically relevant cluster content.
Not only do these SEO resources help users build relevant keyword lists, but they also assist in content development via their robust content editors.
This one-two punch of topical relevance and SEO optimization cannot be overstated, and it is for this reason our team optimizes our customer content adhering to the directions provided by these tools.
While prices tend to vary, with a little bit of time and effort, you are sure to find a tool that fits your budget and resources.
Mistakes to Avoid
Now that you have your strategies in place for super-charged topical relevance, it's important to note some topical relevance faux pas to avoid.
First and foremost, tread carefully when implementing black hat SEO techniques. Industry experts harp this point all the time and they are spot on. These techniques are potential violations of the terms of service of most major search engines, and violations could lead to ranking penalties.
Next, avoid building unnatural backlinks (i.e., don't buy them!). Buying backlinks is not only expensive, but it's like buying a vote - it doesn't count. In the end, search engines are getting better at identifying backlinks that were earned and those that were bought. Don’t waste your money on links that might not even count.
Finally, be sure to keep it simple when it comes to keywords and word count. Yes, long-form content typically ranks better for topical relevance, but nobody wants to read content stuffed with fluff.
Remember, you need to cater to what people are looking for. Keep the flow of your content natural and focus on providing your readers with tangible value through latent semantic indexing keywords (i.e., LSI keywords).
Tying It All Together
Topical relevance is the key to obtaining high rankings for your most desired keywords.
With a focus on high quality and topically relevant links, content depth, and topical keyword research, the strategies and resources outlined in this piece should help get started with topical relevance and your website get on the right side of Google's ranking algorithm in no time.