Future-proof your SEO content strategy with related topics

August 14, 2017


by Theresa B

A flow chart on a computer interface representing topic clustering.

Higher search engine rankings are the holy grail of B2B content marketers everywhere. And search engine optimization is the vehicle to get you there. But as search engines get better at evaluating content, SEO content strategies have had to evolve to keep pace. One key change has far-reaching ramifications: emphasizing topics over keywords. Here’s how shifting your focus can help you capture more search traffic while becoming a go-to authority on subjects that matter to your ideal customers.

Topic targeting vs keyword targeting: What’s the difference anyways?

Topic-driven content covers an entire set of interrelated ideas, while keyword-focused pages tend to concentrate on a narrow concept that may not relate to anything else on your site. There are a host of benefits to thinking topics over keywords: 

Multiple studies have shown that more in-depth and "topically relevant" content tends to rank better than high-level content that narrowly targets one or two keywords (Backlinko.com). And Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines indicate that quality raters are scoring web pages based on reputation factors such as expertise, authority, and trustworthiness over strict keyword relevance signals – and their algorithms are too. All of Google’s major algorithm updates, from Panda to Fred, all reward high quality content in some way.

If you’re serious about inbound marketing, you are probably already creating quality B2B content. But if it’s not aligned with the information the search engines and searchers expect to see, you will be ignoring much of your potential traffic (Backlinko.com). And you’ll also be missing out on a valuable opportunity to demonstrate expertise and authority in your field.

Let’s say you are trying to rank for “clean energy.” If you focus only on optimizing your pages for this high-level term without digging into the major sub-topics it contains, your content won’t be very useful to anyone.

The trick is to cluster keywords into related topics that provide deep coverage. In the process, you'll be helping your target audience find solutions to their problems while cementing your expertise in areas critical to your business.

Does all this mean that keyword research and targeting are things of the past?

Not at all. When you write about a topic comprehensively, you'll naturally target multiple keyword and longtail phrases on one page. And keyword research is still essential for identifying topical queries and sub-topics that will be easiest to rank for while bringing you sufficient volumes of traffic. (Moz has a great article covering the keyword vs. topic targeting debate.)
So how do you make sure that you’re targeting everything the search engines – and your audience – expect you to?

Go to the ultimate source

You can find a wealth of information in Google itself. Start by typing your main keyword topic into the search bar. Let’s use our clean energy example:

Google autocomplete suggestions screencap

Make a note of the variations suggested as you type. You can also find search terms that Google thinks are related by scrolling to the bottom of the search results page:

Screencap of related topic suggestions in Google
You can see that content focused around clean energy should probably also cover a definition, types, examples, fuels, etc. And you can also see that “renewable energy” is semantically similar to clean energy and can be used interchangeably.
Then look at featured snippets, if included. Here’s what came up:

Screencap of a Google featured snippet about clean energy

The snippet above reveals more about related topics you probably need to cover: sustainable energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal power.

You can also use “people also ask” results by reframing your search term as a question:

Example of a topical query in Google

Besides a featured snippet, you can see related questions that people ask about:

Google questions people ask

Jot down any key questions as well as the snippets Google thinks represent the best answers.

Before you go, take time to explore some of the top-ranking web sites. What subjects are they covering that you currently aren’t? Can you see any gaps that you can fill? Gaps represent opportunities to improve your rankings and even earn a featured snippet while filling an unmet need for good information. (See which sites typically earn a featured snippet at GetStat.com.)

Google search pages aren’t the only source of intel.

Find out what your customers want

Your buyer personas can provide a treasure-trove of relevant topics. We recommend making a list of 5-10 core problems your personas experience, and then grouping them into broad topic areas. If you don’t have this information readily available, you can find it by conducting surveys and interviews of prospective and existing customers.

You can find out a lot through social media too.

Twitter, Pinterest, Reddit (subreddit threads), and LinkedIn groups can give you more clues.  Climate reality, climate change, geothermal, and solar all came up under a search for clean energy on Twitter:

Twitter search #cleanenergy

 And on Reddit:

Reddit clean energy results

It mentions electric vehicles, wind farms, wave energy, hydro-electric dams, pump storage systems, solar thermal, and other sub-topics or ideas you may not have thought of.

And Pinterest:

Pinterest search on clean energy

Non-renewable energy sources such as air pollution or energy efficiency in the home could be worth considering. You get the idea.

Besides online research, your own analytics can tell you which topics you are already covering are most resonating and that may be worth building out.

Once you’ve finished your detective work, take what you’ve learned and do keyword research to home in on the best words and phrases to represent all facets of a topic, based on search volume, difficulty, and a competitive analysis. You should also make sure that the keywords you are considering are relevant to your goals. If you are selling equipment, for example, you’re unlikely to rank for search terms that serve up mostly academic results.

Once you’ve nailed down which areas you need to cover in-depth, and refined them through keyword research, it’s time to put them into action.

Organize your topics into clusters

The best way to organize related topics is in clusters, with your high-level content at the center (also called “pillar pages”). Think of your core content as a high-level overview page that introduces the broad topic, as well as all the major relevant sub-topics. Each sub-topic forms a page that links back to the pillar, sending signals to the search engines that these are related. In theory, each sub-topic page that ranks sends a signal to the search engines up to your pillar content, giving it a boost in the process.

Topic clustering flow chart
Photo Credit: HubSpot

Learn more about topic clustering in this in-depth HubSpot article.

Focusing on topics over keywords marks a significant evolution in the world of search engine optimization, one that calls for new SEO content strategies. Find out what other changes will impact your rankings and which evergreen approaches still work today in our free e-book, “SEO in 2017: Is Good Content Good Enough?

Download our free SEO in 2017 e-book