SEO in 2021: Topical Authority vs Keyword Research

What’s in store for SEO in 2021? Keywording has become such an intrinsic part of search engine optimization today that businesses and marketers alike spend significant portions of their budgets on gaining the upper hand over their competitors by ranking more effectively for organic user searches on Google. Though this may all be about to change with the development of topical authority. 

In the world of SEO, authority is a buzzword that typically causes marketers to think of link building. Building backlinks between websites has been a significant part of improving the domain authority of a website, and while this is still the case, it appears that the creation of high-quality topical content could be a more effective form of developing the authority of a website. 

Creating content with topical authority in mind can not only boost your ranking for existing keywords but also improve the number of related (also known as semantic) keywords for which a site ranks. With this in mind, should marketers turn their backs on keyword research in order to focus their efforts on topical authority? Or is there still room for keyword SEO in the 2021 marketing ecosystem? 

Topical Authority vs Keyword Research

In a nutshell, topical authority is determined as the level of command a website has over a particular subject matter, rather than the authority of a specific keyword. Google took to coveting a greater emphasis on authority in its 2013 Hummingbird algorithm update. 

The significance of this is that two websites can theoretically run two identical pieces of content that are published at the exact same time, but one page will outperform the other due to its perceived level of command over a subject. 

For example, let’s imagine that two websites have published equally high-quality content about red sneakers. One website specializes in all sneakers, and the other specializes in objects that are red. 

Despite both articles being engaging and insightful, the website that focuses on red objects won’t be considered as a source for topical authority on red sneakers. This is because there are no contextual indications for Google’s crawlers that the owner of the website knows about sneakers. 

This lack of authority is perceived by Google being unable to find any more content surrounding the topic of sneakers on site. Whereas, the sneaker specialist website will be able to demonstrate a wealth of knowledge on the topic and thus will be better trusted by Google’s SERPs to be more topically valuable to those making relevant queries. 

To summarize, topical authority refers to the level of authority applied to websites from search engines regarding a relevant subject. While many businesses look to optimize their keywording within content and metadata, Google understands that this approach risks users being exposed to extensive writing on a subject from a website that shows no pedigree or prior knowledgeability on the matter. 

Tip: When conducting keyword research, Ahrefs has a cool feature called ‘Also talk about’ which will show you related terms to the main keyword you are researching.  

As you can see above, the analysis of the keyword ‘affiliate marketing’ generates related terms like ‘passive income’ and ‘Amazon affiliate’. This report gives you extra keyword ideas that you can target in your upcoming piece. 

Is Topical Authority Better Than Keywording?

Topical authority represents Google’s latest attempts to wise up to semantics, and in the search engine giant’s attempts to accommodate this form of relevance, the relevance of link building may experience a fall. 

However, it’s unlikely that links will ever disappear fully. Inbound links, for instance, are excellent signals of relevance and authority – however, in the future, it appears clear that topical authority will be key

Topical authority adds more depth than keywording. For example, marketing is a broad topic with lots of subtopics like SEO, sales funnels, and lead generation. Each topic has other relevant topics. This means that creating a page about blogging requires businesses and website owners to mention various forms of marketing buzzwords to build some form of relevance. 

However, with topical authority, businesses that cover topics in the greatest depth will earn a higher place among Google’s SERPs for relevant searches. 

(Image: Backlinko)

Furthermore, the greater reason for including more depth within content helps businesses to build longer thought-pieces that match the average word count within the top 10 ranking websites within Google’s results pages. The mean word count of a website taking the top spot among a query results page stands at 1,447, according to Backlinko.

Does this mean that topical authority is better than keyword research? The answer is that it depends on your own level of authority on a topic. If your website looks to cover a variety of bases or features a varying range of product descriptions for instance – appealing to long-tail keywords is still a key path to success. 

Tip: When working on topics, try to group your content accordingly. Refrain from producing content that has the same purpose. For instance, although search terms like ‘affiliate marketing programs’ and ‘affiliate marketing websites’ both have high search volume, they serve a very similar intent, so creating two separate pieces of content targeting each of these keywords will mean that they will compete with each other in search results. 

Respecting Long-Tail Keywords

Although topical authority is Google’s way of adding value to the quality of search results that it returns for a given query, businesses can still benefit from utilizing long-tail keywords as a means of finding search volume for subjects that they can’t claim authority on. 

(Image: Raven Tools)

The diagram above illustrates how businesses can outpace their competitors by opting against ranking for highly competitive keywords and instead aiming to appeal to low competition, long-tail keywords. 

As the diagram above shows, highly competitive terms in the eCommerce space are likely to be consumed by key topical authority websites like fashion outlets and large apparel companies. However, if you look to become more strategic in your content, long-tail keywords can not only help you to avoid the congested landscape that dominates shorter keywording but it can also lead to higher conversions due to its added relevance. 

For this reason, if you’re a business creating content for a brand new product or service that’s a step away from your usual area of expertise, it’s worth being more descriptive about what you’re offering rather than over-generalizing and losing potential exposure. 

Tip: If you’re just starting out, targeting highly-competitive keywords (e.g. ‘affiliate marketing’) will seem like an impossible task. The main reason being the existing volume of content from more authoritative websites that target this term. Instead, focus on 4+ word phrases that have lower competition (e.g. ‘affiliate marketing without a website’). 

Adapting Your Approach For Topical Authority

One of the most significant benefits of adapting your content calendar to consider topical authority is that it can carry more evergreen benefits in ranking for specific search terms for longer periods of time. 

(Image: Delante)

One of the drawbacks of topical authority is that it’s a time consuming and often costly process depending on how many content writers are committing to the task. As we can see in the diagram above, a key technique for building a level of topical authority is to consider the various spokes associated with each topic. For instance, SEO can come with a wide range of more niche subsets that all offer a different kind of relevance to the theme. 

If you’re a retailer, be sure to create hubs that can encapsulate all of the products that you’re selling or your area of expertise, and then create spokes that more precisely describe your products. It’s also imperative that you anticipate and answer consumer questions or look to ease any inhibitions they may have about your products or services. 

One of the key ways of measuring your performance in terms of building spokes for topical authority is to use analytical tools like Google Analytics and Finteza to look into how your traffic is interacting with your website. To action this, it’s important to look at how they navigate across your website from the moment they land. 

By taking the time to analyze how traffic flows through your website, it’s possible to gain a visualization of which areas are more alluring according to Google’s SERPs than others. 

Tip: When looking to analyze how traffic interacts with your website, Finteza has a useful feature for building custom funnels that give you a visual outlook of where your visitors go after viewing a specific page on your website. For instance, if you have a blog post on ‘best affiliate marketing programs’ where you promote your own affiliate program, you can build the funnel to see exactly how many people register with your affiliate program straight after reading your blog post. 

Although the rise of topical authority doesn’t mean the death of keyword research, it does highlight the importance of semantic relevance online. This transition should be seen as an opportunity for businesses to create high-quality content and offer value to online audiences. 

While generating leads through topical authority may seem like a time-consuming challenge for many businesses, the rewards could span over a much longer period of time than through keywording. Ultimately, building authority could lead to you outmaneuvering your competitors for longer. 

About the author: Dmytro is a CEO at Solvid, a creative content creation agency based in London. His work has been published in Shopify, WordStream, Entrepreneur, BuzzSumo, Campaign Monitor and Tech Radar.