The Future of SEO: Topics Instead of Keywords

Recently, there’s been a big push in the SEO community toward “topics rather than terms.” While the SEO of yesteryear was obsessively focused on keyword research and inclusion, today’s SEO has expanded to be more natural, conversational, and user-focused.

Over the last several years, we’ve seen significant shifts in optimization, including Google’s massive push for high-quality, well-written content and the introduction of ranking tools like RankBrain, to name a few.

While keywords can be valuable, and they’ve gained their important position in SEO for a good reason, they’re not the most natural strategy for modern SEO, and many site owners and users alike have found them stale, stuffy, and unproductive.

This has created the ultimate opportunity for a new approach to take over.

the future of seo

Why “Topics Over Terms” Takes the Cake

If you’ve worked in the content marketing industry for years, you know exactly how many changes this industry has seen.

From Panda to Penguin, Google has shifted its ranking algorithms regularly, and marketers have changed their approach to developing content, in turn.  This has caused a dramatic change in the way people discover content, and the way search engines rank it.

While Google and other search engines used to deliver content based on its adherence to standards, like keyword saturation, those rules have ceased to be useful or relevant, and today’s focus is more nuanced. Today, value and relevance take the cake, while spammy, SEO-obsessed content falls by the wayside.

This is where the push toward topics rather than terms enters the picture.

Today, people are using dozens of different methods to search for the content they love, from mobile platforms to voice searches, and Google has had to adapt as a result. This has led to a push for authoritative content that delivers a positive user experience.

We’re staring down the barrel of a new key focus: today, the only way to the top is to understand your target audience and produce the kind of quality content they want. When you do this correctly and take the current SEO environment into account in the process, you can establish yourself as an authority in the industry and enjoy a wider reach than ever before.

The Variability of Modern Search Engines

In recent years, the way search engines process and obtain information has shifted dramatically. Historically, marketers have paid careful attention to keyword rankings within search engine results.

Even though keyword rankings change depending on where you are, how you search, and which terms you use, and thus have thousands of different arrangements at any moment, people have historically looked to them as trustworthy ranking mechanisms. Unfortunately, they’re not.

Further adding to the instability of traditional methods of determining ranking is the shift of search engines toward featured snippets, which platforms like Google now roll out more and more to cater to users and offer value.

Google, specifically, has also begun to lean toward machine learning, most notably with its RankBrain algorithm, which helps Google process its millions of daily searches and understand the user intent behind them.

Thanks to developments like RankBrain, Google now knows that someone searching for “Fitness studios in NYC” is likely also interested in a yoga or Pilates studio, even though they never explicitly used these keywords.

This is called semantic search, and it’s at the center of the “topics rather than terms” revolution.

Your Target Audience Is Everything

For years, there’s been a rallying cry throughout the world of content marketing: know your target audience. And that holds just as true in the age of topics over terms as it did in years prior.

After all, your target audience is your ultimate consideration. Since they’re who you’re creating content for, it pays to get it right and ensure that they’re receiving it as well as you’d like them to.

This isn’t a new realization. In recent years, sources like Moz (in a Whiteboard Friday) have explained how targeting specific kinds of people (your target audience) and the topics they’re interested in could be one of the most efficient traffic-driving strategies, blowing keyword-based ranking out of the water.

While a general keyword strategy can help your target audience find your content, it won’t ultimately help them engage with it.  The reason is simple:  an excessively strict keyword creates restrictions.

Readers want relevant, informative, and engaging content. They want to learn something new, and it’s hard to do that with content that’s only focused on achieving a 3% keyword density. Now that rates of voice and mobile search have skyrocketed, and Google’s Hummingbird algorithm update, which helps the search engine process natural language queries, has launched, it’s more important than it’s ever been to identify the topics your target audience is interested in.

If you were to focus only on keyword inclusion, you’d be hemmed into 10 or 20 keyword phrases. Expand that to a “topic” focus, though, and you’ll quickly find that there are dozens of long-tail variations within each given topics.

According to Fishkin’s whiteboard, creating landing pages with each key term or phrase can create unnecessary words, overlapping information, and user confusion. With search engines determined to bring the best possible experience to the user, it’s a sure bet that confusing content won’t make it high in ranking.

How to Focus on Topics over Terms in Your Content

The benefits of focusing on topics over keywords are undeniable. The question now is where do you start? Here’s your five-step breakdown.

1. Research Your Product(s) and Service(s)

Mike Small from SiteProNews recommend using the Google Keyword Planner tool (it’s free) via a Google AdWords account to research and select your keyword themes. You can also stick to the most notable “core keywords” you have already identified to choose your keyword theme, and then move to step two.

Keep in mind that long-tail keywords count, and these keywords are invaluable for placing in local searches and building out your topic strategy. Once you’ve found a few keywords you want to target, work on building out topics that complement and enhance them.

2. Get Creative

When you rank content with keywords, you simply try to identify every opportunity to stuff a keyword. When you rank content on a “topics over terms” basis, though, you’ve got to get creative with your topic ideas.

The idea of a topic cluster is to use one primary search term and then build out topics around it. Here’s a diagram from HubSpot to demonstrate:

HubSpot Graphic

The idea here is to be natural, not mechanical. What are people interested in? Which topics, if covered, will help you improve your internal link strategy? How can you cover the topic broadly while also informing and exciting your audience?

When you answer these questions, it’ll be easier to develop a smart topic cluster and use it to your advantage.

3. Refine Your Cluster Content

Once you’ve created your topic group, it’s time to improve it. You’ll want to edit it, ensuring you’re optimizing your cluster content to attract traffic. How best can you attract readers to these topics. Is there anything you’re missing?

Keep in mind that the goal of cluster content is not necessarily to drive conversions. Rather, it’s designed to bring in the traffic you need to make your pillar content as high-converting as possible. As such, you don’t need to think about “selling” nearly as much as you do educating. Isn’t that a nice weight off your shoulders?

4. Measure the results

As with any content creation, the next step is to measure the results of your effort. Once you’ve created your content, it’s time to pay attention to how many people come to it, and how often.

Collect feedback from your readers. Is there anything they’d like to see more of? If so, how can you shift or alter your strategy to offer it for them? The more you measure the results, the easier it will be to ensure you’re catering to your target audience exactly.

5. Adjust as Needed

If you’re noticing areas where your new content falls short, adjust it as necessary. The more frequently you do this, the better your content will be in the long run.

Make Way for the Future of Topic-Focused Content

We all love themes. A theme opens the door to a wide variety of topics and subtopics; all housed under one primary or mother theme or, in this case, keyword.

While developing topic clusters and moving, mentally, from a focus on keyword-rich content to topic-focused content can be intimidating, this is a relevant and timely move to make in the modern world of SEO. The sooner you wrap your mind around it, the better.

Need content that’s conversational and approachable? Visit our Content Shop to hire our expert team today.

1 reply
  1. Lazar
    Lazar says:

    It is really sad that instead of Google’s RankBrain being smart enough to figure out the best content, we humans are training our brains to fit into these confined search signals & factors, or becoming BrainRanks, and writing content for search engines instead of users.

    So instead of actually having something to say and saying it, and modifying a bit to be more search friendly, people more and more look for things being searched, and, based on topic clusters of these searches, create content around it.

    So more and more redundant content is being created without having real value or novelty.


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