How to dominate the SERPs by focusing on topics rather than keywords

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Over the past few years, Google has made several changes to the way its crawlers understand how content responds to queries.

More recently, these changes have included more algorithm updates that include sophisticated enhancements to natural language processing and machine learning models like BERT and MUM.

These updates help Google better understand how people search for topics and what type of content the user is actually looking for to meet their query needs, and how content items on a site can better meet those needs.

The ultimate goal is to offer the best possible content to the user in order to improve his search experience.

With that in mind, it’s even more important now to focus on creating a topic structure that meets the needs of different stages of the buyer’s journey rather than just the keywords used on a page.

How are topics different from keywords?

You might be wondering at this point what the difference is between a topic and a keyword, especially since I just mentioned that keywords are still an important piece of the SEO puzzle.

In my way of thinking, a topic is a more holistic approach to “keyword research”.

A topic can be made up of multiple relevant terms and queries that can belong to different areas of the buyer’s journey.

The types of content you can create around a given topic depends a bit on what vertical your site is in.

Some sites would require:

  • Content that covers early learning topics.
  • Content on the company’s point of view on the subject.
  • Perhaps their product offering solves this problem.

Smaller sites, especially local businesses, may only require educational/early funnel content that also points to content describing the services or products offered to solve the problem or need the customer/user may be confronted with.

1. Start with a strategy

The most important thing you can do for your site when building it or redesigning its structure is to take a step back and strategize about the topics you need to focus on.

By looking at the broader aspects of your offerings and identifying a higher level topic for that offering, you will have a better understanding of your needs.

Once you have an idea of ​​what your main topic should be, you can go through the standard keyword research process.

The main problem is that you want to expand this search to encompass more semantically relevant terms related to the topic, not just the main keyword.

Consider the areas surrounding the topic that need to be covered to meet the various needs of the researcher. Ask yourself what questions might be asked about the topic and research those terms.

If possible, don’t be afraid to go out into the real world and ask people in your target demographic what they might be looking for or what related questions they might have.

2. Research your competitors

Once you understand the content you need to perform well on a topic, start looking for who ranks well in those spaces.

If they’re already doing well in that space, then it’s safe to say they’re doing something right. There are exceptions to this, so be sure to keep monitoring the competition in the space you’re targeting.

Once a competitor is identified, I like to run their site through a tool to see how they performed for relevant terms over an extended period of time.

This will give me some basic information on how long these results lasted or if it is a recent jump to determine if it is even worth researching them further at this point.

Once you understand what your actual competitors are doing in the space you are targeting, look at how they structure their content.

Take a look at how they distribute their content and what the site structure looks like around this topic. This information will give you a baseline as you work on your site.

That being said, don’t copy your competitor’s content. Use it as a guide, but plagiarizing content will only hurt you in the end.

As cliché as it sounds, you seek to identify what your competitors are doing well and then do it better.

3. Consider Intent

As search engines have evolved over the years, especially with Google’s recent rollout of BERT, it’s important to understand the intent behind the queries you create around the content to be targeted.

While there are many tools in the SEO world for identifying topics and keywords, I’ve always found one of the best ways to identify the intent behind a query is to simply search for it in a private browsing window.

You might surprise yourself.

You can search for something as simple as a one-word query and notice that the results return more educational content around the term – like a “what is…” result.

This will help you determine what content needs to be created (or even reworked) to meet search needs.

4. Don’t forget the site structure

Creating content around a topic isn’t the only piece of the puzzle.

It’s important to organize your content in a way that makes sense to crawlers and show that you’re an authority on a given topic.

If search engines see that you are creating more relevant content around a given topic, you should see more improved results around those terms.

One of the best ways to demonstrate this authority is to use breadcrumbs to show your site’s feed.

Not only does this act as a second layer of navigation for users, but it also helps crawlers understand how to get from point A of your site to point B.

Breadcrumbs can also help you change your site structure without having to change URLs, which can be extremely dangerous for SEO.

Don’t forget to take a look at your well-performing competitors to see if there’s any information you can glean about their site structure.

No need to reinvent the wheel and you might get more information on how to expand your coverage of a topic in the process.

5. It’s time to dominate

Since Google has introduced smarter ways to process and return content based on user queries, it’s important to create a logical topic structure on your site to make it easier to process this content.

This gives your content creators a North Star to guide their writing efforts.

Make sure your content fully and clearly delivers on the promise to the reader. Avoid fluff, jargon and unnecessary words.

Remember that quality takes precedence over quantity!

Well, it’s almost a question of quality – it’s also a question of discoverability. Be sure to use the keywords and phrases that searchers will use to find solutions to the problems they encounter.

Next, be sure to track performance – yours and your competition’s. Set benchmarks and always seek to improve.

Do that, and you should start dominating your competition with lasting results.

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Featured image: kentoh/Shutterstock

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