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What Is Topical Authority, and How Does it Impact SEO? [Interview]

Aki Balogh

At WSOL, we do our best to make sure we’re on top of the latest news and trends in the world of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), since it’s an area that is incredibly important to any organization’s online strategy. However, the world of SEO is constantly changing, and keeping up with the ideal ways to make sure people can find you online can seem like a full time job.

One particular SEO concept that is currently gaining traction is the idea of Topical Authority. In order to understand just what Topical Authority is and how website owners can leverage it in order to improve their SEO and Inbound Marketing efforts, we spoke to MarketMuse’s Aki Balogh, one of the leading experts on the topic:

Hi, Aki. We wanted to pick your brain about the idea of Topical Authority. How does it differ from traditional SEO techniques like targeting keywords and link-building?

Well, first, let’s take a step back. What exactly is authority? When you search on Google, one of the main reasons pages are put at the top of search results is that they have the highest quality, most relevant content. That content is most likely to educate you, give you valuable information, help you make a decision, or inform you about something you are not aware of. Google is great at sourcing the most authoritative sites at the top, which is what makes it useful for answering a very wide range of questions. Their algorithms determine whether the information on a site is complete, if it is from a reputable source, and whether it provides value to people searching for it.

This is where content marketing becomes important, because the quality of the content is what establishes that authority that Google uses to rank websites. The reason content marketing works is that it helps companies describe why people should come to them for the expertise that the company is providing. For instance, WSOL is great for helping people execute on marketing, and you have more specific knowledge than a random guy off the street. Content marketing is about articulating that expertise and establishing that authority.

Topical Authority is a subset of that strategy. You want your site to rank for searches related to keywords that are related to your area of expertise, but instead of targeting just one keyword at a time, we want to consider the whole topic. A keyword is one specific phrasing of a concept, but a topic is a set of linked ideas. When you’re establishing Topical Authority, you want to be an expert not just in one term, but in all aspects of the subject. For instance, if your site is about dog food, you want to be the page that everyone goes to to learn about all aspects of dog food, including nutritional considerations, different varieties, different brands, etc.

That’s a fascinating idea. We often look at specific keywords that we expect people to search for (or that Google suggests), but building Topical Authority sounds like a great way to broaden the range of the expertise that websites offer their audience. What is the best way to approach this strategy?

I think the best way to think about topical authority is to look at the niches within a topic. Going back to the idea of dog food, there are a lot of possible ideas and concepts floating around that main category. You could consider something like “doggie treats” as a niche related to the larger topic of dog food. It’s not a synonym, but it exists in the same context. Or maybe something like “pet food” -- which might seem like the same thing to a human as “dog food”, but to a search engine, it isn’t at all.

The way to think about establishing your topical authority is that if you want to be an expert on dog food, you need to cover all those niches, including "doggie treats", "puppy chow", "high-fiber dog food", and anything else that is relevant to the larger topic. If a customer is specifically interested in one of these niches and can’t find it on your site, you’re not going to be the authority they need.

You’ve also mentioned “depth of expertise” as an important part of topical authority. Could you describe what you mean by that?

Once you identify a niche, you’re going for depth as a marketer. If you just write a high-level blog that isn’t very detailed, it’s not very helpful. In fact, it can even waste a consumer’s time if they’re looking for detailed information and only get a basic overview of a subject rather than something that really answers their questions.

We as marketers want to help solve people’s problems and make their lives better, which means that we want to write articles that are informative and provide people with a great deal of value. Your audience comes to your site with a particular question or problem, so you want to give them relevant answers to that problem rather than a broad swathe of loosely connected ideas. By helping site owners identify the niches within their main topic and then create high quality content within those niches, they can not just cover a breadth of topics, but also explore the depth within those topics.

What we’ve found when working with people to define their content marketing strategy is that it ends up being more efficient to identify the main topics they want to be an authority for, determine the main niches within those topics, and then build depth within the individual niches. This not only provides a benefit for organic search/SEO, but it also helps target content to the desired audience, it builds leads, and people find the content more informative and helpful.

It seems that Google’s Hummingbird algorithm was what really established the importance of Topical Authority. How did this change the way people approach SEO, and what’s the best way to make sure we’re establishing the necessary topical authority and depth of expertise?

In the beginning, Google was only looking at links, and authority was based on who was linking to you, with reputable links boosting your authority. Following the Hummingbird update, Google now measures factors around the quality of the content, not just looking at the sites that are linking to it.

For internet marketers, Google Hummingbird was arguably the first step to thinking in terms of topics, not just keywords. It completely changed the SEO landscape, moving away from long tail queries to topical queries. Google changed the way that they score pages, which created an unmet need in the market. While content marketers had already been creating quality content, they weren’t necessarily aligned with the topics they wanted to target.

Every blog you create should be aligned with the topic you want to be an authority for. But how do you select topics to make sure you are creating interesting, relevant content? We wanted to address this question, and that’s where MarketMuse comes in. MarketMuse helps find those topical gaps by analyzing your site and comparing it to high-quality content on the Web to uncover topical gaps in your content.

As an example, we ran an analysis of GNC.com. For them, “sports nutrition” is an important topic, but after analyzing their site, we see that while they’ve covered a lot of key aspects of sports nutrition, they’ve missed the opportunity on “sports drinks”. Our tool can surface those types of gaps and help people find any topics or niches that might have fallen through the cracks or been overlooked.

Our tool isn’t the only way to become a topical authority; you can also do research by reading through Wikipedia, talking to people in the field, or any number of other methods. But we built this tool to provide the most efficient, quantifiable gap analysis that can help site owners meet the needs of their audience.

Thanks for sharing your insights on topical authority, Aki. We look forward to putting them into action, identifying and addressing any gaps in our own content, and working to establish topical authority for ourselves and our clients alike.

If you want to read more of Aki’s insights about topical authority, you can check out the MarketMuse blog or follow @MarketMuseCo on Twitter. If you have any questions or comments about topical authority, inbound marketing, or any other aspects of SEO, please contact us or leave a comment below.

About the Author

Matt Brady
Matt Brady
When working at WSOL Matt was our Content Specialist and was responsible for managing our blogging and social media efforts. He compiled, edited, published, and shared WSOL's content, bringing his expertise in writing, spelling, and grammar to keep our content creation efforts on a consistent schedule. He also worked with Google Analytics, Google Adwords, and HubSpot to provide our clients with the marketing data that they needed to reach their audience online. Matt enjoys watching movies and TV, reading comics and science fiction, and playing with his children. He maintains a sporadically-updated blog, where he posts reviews of comics and movies.
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