Mastering SEO is a lofty dream for many, and it comes with visions of a saturated inbound pipeline and your brand’s name splashed across Page 1 of Google. And while much of SEO is understood with nearly-scientific precision, certain aspects of it are a bit more theoretical, and based on guesswork, hypothesis, and experimentation. One of these more elusive – and impactful – concepts in SEO and ranking is topical authority, or your website’s expertise around a certain subject.
Topical authority is not an exact science, nor is it a directly stated ranking factor by Google. However, when properly cultivated, it can definitely move the needle, and help your website (and therefore your brand) stand out as an industry leader in the search engines and beyond.
What exactly is topical authority, why does it matter, and how does it play out when it comes to how your website ranks?
Here’s everything we know (and don’t know) and topical authority, including how you can actually build it for your own website.
What We Actually Know (for Sure) About SEO
The world of SEO and ranking on Google sometimes requires a fair amount of speculation. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of ranking factors and practices that Google itself has actually confirmed. But there are also many aspects of SEO that are established as best practices, or which are well-understood philosophies which can influence SEO outcomes, but which have never been explicitly outlined by Google or the other search engines.
For example, in this top-of-page-one list of 200 Google ranking factors, the authors note that some of these factors are proven, while others are speculation or controversial.
This understanding is not unique to this post – it’s widely understood by those in the SEO landscape that for all we have confirmed about Google ranking factors, much is hunch.
Topical authority is one of these subjects, and it might just be one of the most significant.
What Do We Know?
Rewinding a bit: here are some things Google itself has confirmed about how it treats its search ranking systems:
- Key factors play a role: Google has published a list of key factors in results, which include the meaning of a query, the relevance of content, the quality of content, the usability of web pages, and the context and settings.
- There are quality guidelines: Google has a framework for what it calls “quality rater guidelines,” and this concept is called E-E-A-T. This system is how Google evaluates if its systems are “providing helpful, relevant information.” The acronym stands for expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness, and experience.
- Technical nitty-gritty is also relevant: There are certain aspects to technical SEO that you need to be aware of, which impact if your content ranks. This includes using title tags, meta descriptions, headings, and simple URLs and navigation.
What are some other things we know for sure play a role in rankability? Keywords (of course) play a huge role in how content ranks, as do backlinks (or links from other sites to yours), and domain authority (which is a score that predicts how likely your page is to rank, based on how credible & authoritative it is).
What Else Plays a Role in Rankings?
Aside from the certain and almost-certain ranking considerations, there are also dozens (if not hundreds) of other potential factors that play into how a site ranks. These include everything from the length of content to the format of a URL.
And topical authority might just be one of the most substantial – and elusive – overall ranking factors, because it’s a concept that can inform an entire SEO strategy.
What is Topical Authority?
As we touched on earlier, topical authority refers to your website’s expertise on a topic. In order to “build” topical authority, your website and/or blog need to be a go-to resource for content related to your niche.
While it’s not a magic bullet that entitles you to better keyword ranking and website performance, it’s a tactical strategy that should be used as a guide for decision-making (similar to domain rating).
I tapped Ken Marshall, Chief Growth Officer of RevenueZen, for a solid definition of topical authority. He said “it’s the concept of a website and business entity being the go-to resource about a specific area of subject matter in terms of trustworthiness, comprehensiveness, and quality of information.”
So, what does it take to build topical authority? Think of it this way: it’s definitely not enough to just target one keyword with one blog post. You need to extensively cover keywords and topics surrounding your main idea, resulting in a vast array of blog posts on your core topic. While there’s no magic number (that we’re aware of), your website needs to be a robust resource for your niche or topic, rich with just about any main query you could imagine.
And when this is the case, your website as a whole is likely to perform better.
For example, when you find RevenueZen ranking for terms such as “B2B inbound marketing,” “SaaS technical SEO,” and “SaaS website best practices,” it’s not just because we have strong overall SEO practices (although this plays a role). We’ve also definitely built up significant topical authority for ourselves as a go-to resource for all things B2B SEO and inbound marketing.
Why Does Topical Authority Make a Difference?
What are some of the benefits of building topical authority? They include:
1. You become a thought-leader (for both search engines and users)
When your website is a comprehensive resource, you become a known name in your space – for both people, and search engines. For example, topical authority might play into ranking factors such as “quality” and “context” when it comes to Google: when the search engine understands what your blog and website is about, it’ll have an easier time ranking it.
And when it comes to people, they’re far more likely to trust your brand if it’s a well-established resource. Imagine, you find an answer to something you’re searching on a completely unrelated website, would you trust it, or the brand for that matter? Let’s say you were reading this post on a retail site for dog toys, would that seem reliable and trustworthy?
Building topical authority allows you to become a trusted, well-regarded name in your space, and can position you as a thought leader with poignant, industry-leading solutions.
2. Link building is easier
Link building does play an important factor in overall ranking, and when you have a comprehensive library of content, it’s quite easy to link to your own content. This builds up a strong, robust network of links, all leading back to your website as an ultimate resource.
Also, when your brand has strong topical authority, it’s very likely other websites will organically link to yours, further strengthening link building efforts.
3. It can help you rank above heavy hitters
There’s a theory about topical authority: if your website has robust topical authority on a particular subject, it can potentially beat out “better” websites for achieving high rankings. It took RevenueZen a few years of building out B2B SEO content, and even though there are other agencies with bigger staffs, we still rank first. Why? Because we put in the time and energy to build out that topical authority.
It often appears true that topical authority can be a powerful differentiator. Instead of facing an uphill battle to beat out Page One Giants, you can rank higher, and far more easily, when you’ve built up significant topical authority.
When you have topical authority, it can help your pages rank above ones that might “look better on paper,” or who have stronger domain authority.
Don’t forget, working in SEO is rarely 2+2=4. While much of what happens in the search engines makes sense and is predictable, there are also certain times when the rules are made to be broken. Topical authority can act as a sort of “gray matter,” which allows web pages to leap above ones that maybe “should” rank higher.
4. You have a foundation for expansions
Building a strong foundation of topical authority is excellent for your primary offering, but it can also be valuable for adjacent ones. Think of it as taking a “hub and spoke” approach to content. In this model, your “hubs” are your broad keywords, which act as the centers for your content, while the “spokes” are the longtail keywords that are adjacent to your main topics.
When I’m building out editorial calendars for clients, we take a similar approach to the “hub and spoke,” method, where we first focus on a broad version of your subject or niche. This approach helps educate your audience in a holistic way, before diving into your granular, specific subjects.
Can We Measure Topical Authority?
If topical authority isn’t an “exact science,” can we measure it at all?
We’ve developed a framework to best understand if a website has high topical authority. Here are a few hallmark signs to look out for:
Your website should cover 1-3 related topics in-depth. It should not have a ton of content that’s written about random topics.
There should be a high number of pieces of content related to a single subject.
There should be many internal links between topics and subtopics.
All or most content authors should have real life experience.
Content should regularly reference trusted industry sources, statistics, research, etc.
There should be logical and sensical content architecture.
Information should be relevant and up-to-date for the given year within content.
Steps to Building Topical Authority
So, you’re interested in ramping up your website’s topical authority?
Here’s how you can do just that:
1. Identify your core topics
As we discussed, your website should cover just a handful of topics (about 3 at most), but your coverage needs to be in-depth. Identify your main content pillars, which will act as the main “hubs” of your content. Even if your subject matter is a bit more niche and specialized, your content centers will serve as the broad base for educating your audience, building links, and nurturing leads.
What might these topics actually look like? They’ll typically answer the fundamental question of “what is” your industry or solution, and should act as a fundamental 101 course in educating potential customers who have a pain point, but who aren’t fully knowledgeable about potential solutions.
2. Expand on these with longtail keywords
After determining your base keywords, you can dive into tangential longtail keywords. These will be more specific, will answer more in-depth questions, and speak more to an educated audience who is further down the pipeline.
The good thing about longtail keywords is that they’re often less competitive, and can be somewhat easier to rank for. Plus, you can link out to your core topics, creating a comprehensive link architecture.
3. Incorporate your buyer’s journey
Content shouldn’t be crafted with a one-size-fits-all approach. Even after your core topics are identified and your longtail keywords sorted out, your content still needs to align with your buyer’s journey. This means that it’s intended and created for customers who are at different stages of knowledge and awareness of what your offering and industry is.
Buyer’s journey content is an excellent North Star for tackling content in a way that naturally aligns with topical authority.
4. Develop your SEO strategy
In general, in order to build topical authority, you need to create and deploy a robust SEO strategy. This should include conducting a competitive gap analysis, considering search intent when choosing keywords, and auditing your existing content. Additionally, you need to audit and optimize your technical SEO, which includes optimizing your page speed, making your website easy to crawl, ensuring no links are broken, and making your website mobile friendly. Keep in mind, studies have found that any mobile page that takes more than 3 seconds to load will result in a more than 50% abandonment rate.
5. Boost content quantity
When it comes to building topical authority, more is more. You need to have a large library of content related to your main content pillars, in order for your site to be a true go-to resource. This doesn’t mean you should simply target the exact same keywords over and over, and post redundant content that is ultimately unhelpful to your audience. This does, however, mean you need to get clever with how you write about your core topics, and that you need to dissect your topic, covering it from a 360-degree angle.
6. Focus on your authors & sources
It’s 2024. People want to read content that’s actually been written by other people, especially ones who are experts in their field. With the world available at our fingertips, why would I choose a surface-level piece of content by a no-name author with no sources, when I can hear from professionals with years of experience?
When your organization is crafting content, be sure to be mindful of who this content is in the voice of, or who the actual author is. Ideally, the authors of your content should be senior members of your team, and your content should cite reputable, trusted sources which support its thesis.
7. Incorporate timeliness, and update content as-needed
All of your content should be created with relevancy in mind, and should incorporate the most recent findings/developments/best practices. What this means is that any sources and links should ideally be fairly recent (here at RZ, we usually use sources that are between 1-3 years old), and the writing itself should reference any recent developments. Think about it like this: you don’t want to read an SEO guide that was written in 2011, because it’s going to be outdated and irrelevant, even if the theory and some of the practices are the same.
This also means that your content will likely need to be updated over time. Every so often, you should produce “content updates,” which freshen up your old content, and give it a new perspective.
Topical authority is not some cure-all that leads to overnight rankings, and it’s not something that can be created overnight. However, when used as a guiding philosophy, it can help your website rank better, build your organic lead pipeline, and strengthen your brand’s position as an industry leader.
We get it: topical authority is a beast. But instead of trying to tackle all of these things on your own, let us take it from here. We help ambitious B2B brands break their previous record of organic-sourced revenue growth in 16 months, and our SEO experts know what it takes to help your brand build strong topical authority.
Book a call today to get started.