Why Your SEO Keyword Research Needs To Evolve & Focus On Topics

For most of us, one of the first things we do when optimizing a site is to perform keyword research.

SEO

Millions of pixels and column inches have been spent outlining various different keyword strategies.

SEO professionals spend millions of dollars each year to track keyword rankings, much to Google’s chagrin.

The Evolving Search Query
The real estate in organic search is shrinking.

There have been countless articles written around this phenomenon, but all you have to do to see this for yourself is to Google a few high-volume terms.

I urge you to go to Google and type in any competitive term.

Most likely, you won’t see any organic results above the fold of the SERP page.

For years, Google has given marketers the ability to get “free” traffic and leads through organic search.

I don’t believe that Google and the other major search engines are going to stop providing this type of traffic – but the way we will need to capture this traffic is changing very quickly.

This is partially because Google wants to keep the traffic for itself, and partially because search queries are continually evolving and becoming more sophisticated.

Increasingly, people are using more sophisticated queries to find out what they want.

Back in 2012, Google said that 16%-20% of the searches that occur every day have never been searched before.

I suspect that the number is even higher today.

And people are searching more.

The number of searches on Google grows roughly 10% every year.

So let’s recap thus far.

There aren’t as many places to get organic clicks.
People aren’t searching the same way they did in the past – searches are more complex.
There are more searches occurring every year.
So how do we, as digital marketers, pivot to optimally benefit from the current events?

The answer is complicated, but it starts with reducing our focus on optimizing for keywords and moving to focus on topics.

What Are Topics?
Topics are just what they sound like – the aggregate content relating to the material around a specific subject.

Topics do not encapsulate an entire search journey as keywords do.

When we think of keywords, typically we are focusing on individual searches.

Most take a last-click mentality when it comes to keywords.

The perceived path is brief.

A user types in a query in the search engine clicks on a listing, is taken to a webpage and then takes a desired action.

Most search marketers know that the above scenario is rarely how any conversion is achieved.

For years, we’ve been mapping the paths of users, trying to understand the path they are taking and keywords they are searching for.

The holy grail is an attribution model that strings a user’s entire behavior pattern together, complete with keyword data.

Oh, and this “holy grail” attribution must have the ability to aggregate all of this data together and provide meaningful, actionable insights.

We aren’t there yet, and we may never be.

Why Focus on Topics?
As we’ve discussed, the customer journey that includes search has changed.

Consumers are looking for more information.

Google is trying to keep those folks within its own walled garden.

But if your company appears in most informational queries around a specific topic, you gain a perceived authority in the consumer’s mind – even if that information is wedged in a Google Knowledge Box.

Every product and service is different.

But if your customers are either looking for information about your niche – or if they are looking for the best product or service (you vs. your competitors), focusing SEO efforts around topics is a great way to break through the clutter.

How Do You Target Topics?
You won’t be able to dominate any topic with merely your own website.

Google’s made it pretty clear that they don’t want a bunch of results from the same website on any individual query – also known as domain diversity.

Sure, you can have a presence on multiple related queries with your own site – but that probably won’t be enough in most cases.

This is where you need to put your public relations (or link building) hat on and find the informational sites that are dominating the topics (in most verticals they are there, I promise).

You need to get mentions of your products and services on these “influencer” websites.

If you’ve been doing SEO for very long, you can come up with a number of ways to insert yourself into a topic simply by analyzing the SERPs around that topic and figuring out how to get there – as many times as possible.

I’m Not Saying Keywords Aren’t Important
Keywords are important.

Rankings are important.

Recently I was reminded how important top tier keywords are.

We have a client that has two websites for various reasons that aren’t important for this illustration.

One site is new, the other is a legacy site.

The websites compete for terms. One of the sites is older and ranks for several “money” terms – in other words, the top terms in the vertical.

And even though the new site is outperforming the old site in terms of traffic and rankings, the other website is bringing in more leads – and more importantly better quality leads.

This is directly related to the fact that the older site is ranking for specific keywords that convert very well for its vertical.

We’re still in the early days, and eventually, we’ll get the new site to rank for those key terms – we definitely haven’t given up on a keyword focus.

But I know that eventually if we can dominate the overall topic like I think we can, we’ll have traffic and lead diversity that is greater than the sum of its parts.

In other words, if we can win on both target keywords and target topics, we’ll have the best of both worlds and won’t need to worry so much when Google makes an algorithm change that blows our keyword rankings out of the water.

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