What is topical authority?

Here’s how to build subject matter expertise – also known as topical authority.

Topical authority is SEO jargon for subject matter expertise. According to Search Engine Journal, it is the “perceived authority over a niche or broad idea set, as opposed to authority over a singular idea or term.” It’s one measure for the overall quality of a site and a contributing ranking factor.

  • Sportsnet or TSN are likely to have topical authority for CFL trade news, where Grist or The Narwhal may be considered expert sources for policy questions that emerge during the COP26 climate conference
In this example: News that the Edmonton Elks, a football team in Canada’s football league (yes, we have one! Oldest trophy in North America!) traded their quarterback Trevor Harris to the Montreal Alouettes. As expected, publications who frequently cover the CFL or the Edmonton Elks rank highest in SERPs, followed by another, even more niche publication (3downnation.com covers CFL and Canadian football exclusively). 

Google is smart enough to map out topics (the CFL) and how ideas or concepts within these topics (the CFL draft, a specific athlete being drafted) interact with one another. 

The search engines understand these sites to be more knowledgeable in the overarching topics, and therefore are more likely to rank articles from those sites higher in a search result over competitors who do not write in depth on the subject. 

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  • Imagine if Google were a bookstore. It’s the difference between the store having one great book on Trevor Harris vs. an entire CFL section. The entire section shows your store has expertise in a topic. 

Instead of individual keywords or keyword groups, topical authority is your depth of expertise on an overall topic.  Google cares more about topical authority now

In 2018, Google changed its algorithm, putting more emphasis on the topical authority of a website. Instead of major news publishers ranking for any topic on the strength of their site’s authority, ranking focuses more on a niche or the expertise of a site.

  • Where previously a national news organization could rank for some random sports team winning a trophy (your Stanleys, your Larrys, your Heismans etc); now Google is more likely to put a sports-focused outlet in the Top Stories slots for that event. 

What that means: Now, your national news outlet based in Toronto with a focus on politics and business is more likely to rank for stories on a federal cabinet shuffle or major telecom acquisition, but may be less likely to show up when Tampa Bay wins the Super Bowl. Most likely, Google will know to feature coverage from the Tampa Bay Times or the Athletic – regional and niche outlets. 

  • The bad: It’s unlikely publishers will rank easily for any and every topic. 
  • The good: You can focus search efforts on stories that are core to your brand. 


Two related topics: Page authority and domain authority 

Domain authority, page authority and topical authority are similar, related SEO topics. Think of them as more or less granular concepts. 

  • Domain authority refers to the search power of your overall website (theathletic.com or grist.org). Metrics used to measure your site’s authority is not related to a specific keyword or set of keywords, but the overall health of the site.
    • Domain authority is a metric, developed by Moz, to help understand the strength of authority of another site, but does not always correlate to page rank.
  • Page authority is a metric that considers how a specific page will rank in search results. Pages with low quality content (very little text, no service to the reader, have spammy links or are clearly written by a computer) should not see high authority scores. 

Together, these three topics help understand the landscape on the topics you’re focused on and help create quality content. 

Read more: Barry Adams includes an explanation of topical authority in the role of SEO in news issue of his newsletter SEO For Google News.


THE HOW TO


Understanding your authority

You have to be considered an authoritative source on a topic. (Is that inverting the phrase to explain the phrase? A bit! But that’s the gist.) 

You must write quality content over a period of time on a subject to be understood by search algorithms as a source of expertise reporting.

  • Obviously, you are already doing much of this work. You are writing E.A.T. content that answers the questions readers are actively asking in search in a specific area. 
  • We know our audiences benefit from clear, trustworthy answers to their pressing queries (fulfilling a search intent). Writing those stories or compiling those explainers benefits your readers, and potentially your search rankings.  

But remember: When considering topical authority, we can narrow our focus on what topics we put extra search energy behind. Build topical authority for the key areas your publication cares about (the NFL, the climate crisis, etc.) most to get the most bang for your SEO buck. 

How do you do this? Revisit your mission, vision and values – it’s likely you’ll understand what your main expertise is from your publication’s stated objective(s). 

  • If you’re a local publication, it may be local news in your specific area (i.e., The Independent in Newfoundland and Labrador is a community-powered newspaper focusing on municipal affairs in the province. This is their expertise.);
  • If you’re a national publication, which sections or topics do you tend to lean into for your audience? (i.e., The Globe and Mail on Canadian business news and political analysis.);
  • If you’re a niche publication around lifestyle, sports or tech: which topics tend to have your readers always coming back for more?


What data can be used to decide what topics to focus on?

Look at the keywords that you are already ranking for and stories that consistently do well in search results (look at your Google Search Console data or another SEO tool). Aggregate these into coherent topics. Identify the overlap between existing search interest, a coherent topic and editorial priorities: these are the topics to focus your search efforts on. 

Then consider other SEO metrics:

  • Search volume: The number of times a keyword is searched, on average, in a month. The number fluctuates and isn’t a clear predictor of search traffic – but it can be used to identify story opportunities or trends; 
  • Keyword difficulty: This is a measure of how much effort will be required to rank for a keyword (the higher the score, the more effort required); 
  • Search intent: When reviewing keywords already sending you traffic, ensure the intent of a query informational. Any new stories you write should directly align with the purpose of the search;
  • Content volume: The topics you focus on should be areas your newsroom has the resources to cover often. Think in terms of reporter beats: topics that warrant the focus of a reporter (or reporters) are likely topics your newsroom considers important, and should be considered; 
  • News value/editorial mission: Consider the long-term editorial value in developing expertise that is too nice. Authority in passing news moments or trending queries is unlikely to help long-term goals. Will this topic still be relevant in six months or a year? If the answer is no, zoom out and consider the broader topic and determine if that’s a more useful topic to explore. 
    • There is always interest in something from search. It’s our job to find where the interest is and where it goes.

Remember that search readers are a valuable new top-of-the-funnel audience. They are actively seeking out information or the answer to a question. Put your SEO energy behind content that will draw in readers who are valuable to wider newsroom goals.


How to build topical authority 

After you understand which topics you want to focus on, consider the content you will create and how it will all link together on your site. 

  • Are you surprised to learn that keyword research is the first step!? Hopefully not! Identifying questions readers are asking and topics they’re interested in is the beginning of most of our work. Understand the range of questions readers want answered, then develop content to respond to that interest. 
  • Once content is created, review your checklist for on-page SEO. Clear headlines, meta descriptions, URLs, optimized images and a clear page structure will all help the likelihood a specific page will perform well in search. 
  • Look for opportunities to snag a Rich Snippet (aka Rich Result) in SERPs using structured data where applicable. 
  • Execute your internal linking and backlink strategies. Clearly defined topics connect to clear internal linking opportunities (helpful for the robots and your readers). Cross-linking takes readers further into your site, and deeper in the audience funnel (as in: get closer to converting to paid subscription ).
  • Consider aggregating existing (perhaps evergreen) content into content pillars and topic cluster pages. Well-organized content pillars and topic clusters can be useful not just for readers, but the search engines as well. 

The bottom line: No publication can be an expert in every topic. Pick your moments – and align your search efforts with wider editorial priorities for a winning strategy. 


BEST PRACTICES:

Start with your publication’s core mission and existing search data. Where is there editorial and search overlap? Those are the topics you want to focus on to try to build topical authority.

  • To build topical authority, begin with keyword research, review the checklist for on-page SEO, look at internal linking/building backlinks and consider content pillars or topic cluster pages. 

This post is reprinted from WTF is SEO?

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