What is Topical Relevance? (Hint: Your Secret SEO Weapon)

Garit Boothe
Aug 26

Has your content ever been outranked by tiny niche sites? You know what I’m talking about: the ones with low DA and paltry link profiles.

It happens to the best of us. The struggle is real.

The good news is that these microsites are using a repeatable system. It’s the best kept secret in SEO. It’s how David can beat Goliath every time.

It’s topical relevance.

What is Topical Relevance?

Topical relevance is the relevance that the content on an entire website has to a particular topic or keyword. It is also called “topical authority”. In SEO, it’s the process that a search engine uses to figure out how relevant a particular webpage or website is to a topic or keyword.

It is also important to note that getting backlinks from authoritative websites in your industry niche can build relevance too.

But I’m guessing that you already knew about backlink relevance.

Once upon a time I didn’t understand how topical authority worked.

The Secret Ingredient for Ranking Dominance

A few years ago, young Garit thought that search engine optimization worked like this:

  • Fix technical issues
  • Do keyword research
  • Write content
  • Get backlinks

And if a particular piece of content isn’t ranking?

Do more link building!

Sweet, young, naive Garit. Life was so simple back then.

But then I realized something: my boss wouldn’t give me more budget for backlink acquisition. It turns out most organizations have limited resources.

So I turned my attention to content creation.

I made an attempt to emulate Neil Patel’s long-form guides (as formerly seen on the QuickSprout blog).

I managed to push through approval for The Ultimate Guide to Business Phone Systems for our telecom client’s site. Phone systems are possibly the most boring subject in the world, but my guide worked.

We only built two links to the 5-page guide, and within 8 months it was ranking in positions 1-3 for head terms “business phone systems”, “phone systems” and “small business phone systems”. It held these positions for years.

One of the most interesting things of all was that our product page rankings for several keywords went up as soon as the content indexed.

Even to ones that we didn’t link to internally.

I knew I was on to something.

Topical Authority Is the New Domain Authority

Everyone in SEO knows what Moz’s Domain Authority metric is. It measures a website’s ranking power based on the quality and quantity of its backlink portfolio.

The stronger a website’s Domain Authority, the faster it will rank for keywords on Google.

It works the same way with content.

The quality, amount, and relevance of content that a website has determines how strong its topical authority is.

The stronger a website’s topical authority/relevance, the faster it will rank for keywords related to that topic.

How Topical Relevance Works

Back in the early days of search engines, Google used to only understand keywords. Keywords were strings of text configured in different ways.

But the meanings of the concepts that the text represented were not taken into account. 15 different keywords that all meant essentially the same thing might have 15 different search result pages.

Then, with the Hummingbird update, things started to change. Google started to understand the meaning of topics. It started focusing on “things, not strings”.

Google developed its “Knowledge Graph”, which tries to understand what “entities” are. It applies relevance logic and relevance assessment to notice the relationships between different entities.

When you type in “Gandalf”, Google knows that he is a Lord of the Rings character.

The Knowledge Graph tries to measure the relationship between different concepts. For example, it might know that “Gandalf” is closely associated to:

  • The Lord of the Rings
  • JRR Tolkien
  • The Shire
  • Frodo Baggins

And so on.

(And by the way, if you don’t know what the above-mentioned things are, please go watch The Lord of the Rings movies right now. You owe yourself the happiness of this experience.)

This is what the Google Knowledge Graph thinks Gandalf is related to:

This might seem a bit too conceptual, however understanding this is key to improving your SEO and content.

Improve Your Content Score

If you’ve read the WordStream blog, you know that they are huge proponents of calculating a collective Quality Score for your entire Google Ads account.

Google Ads assigns a Quality Score to every keyword that you are advertising to in your account. This is based on the relevance of your ad copy to the keyword, the user click thru rate on your ad, and the relevance of your landing page to that keyword.

If your Quality Scores are high, you pay less per click and enjoy a higher ROI on your ad spend. If your Quality Scores are low, you pay more per click, and Google will show your ad less often.

Many people in the SEO industry, myself included, believe that Google probably has some type of Quality Score to rate the content on your website. In fact, Google filed a patent around how they rate the content on a website.

In order to accurately know the relationship between different topics and concepts, the Google algorithm needs to take into account what the different websites are about. It needs to know how relevant the content on those websites is to particular topics and keywords.

In other words, Google needs to know if your hobby website “ilovelordoftherings.org” is relevant to “Gandalf”.

(By the way, I just checked, and this domain is openly available on the domain registrars.)

This relevance operates on both the page and site level, just as PPC ad Quality Scores exist on both the keyword and account level.

How to Build Topical Relevance

Ah yes, let’s talk brass tacks.

I have six pieces of advice on how to build topical relevance:

  1. Stay on topic
  2. Use Google itself for keyword research
  3. Do a topical analysis
  4. Build topic clusters
  5. Optimize for semantic relevance
  6. TF-IDF

Stay on Topic

I’m not trying to rival Legolas for the title of “Captain Obvious”, but I see this mistake all the time.

How many B2B websites think it’s okay to blog about anything under the sun?

“If it’s related to business, you can talk about it. It’s a business blog. Duh!”

My answer to that is that it is no longer 2010. One does not simply walk into easy rankings. Please tell me how well your non-topical content is ranking. (I complain about this on my blog.)

My favorite example of bad B2B content was an article that I reviewed when planning a site migration for Business.org. We were drawing up a redirect map to migrate content from another domain, and we came across an article entitled “Taco Bell vs. Burger King”.

As far as I know, neither one of those mega-chains have online, B2B affiliate programs. So I have no idea why a fast food restaurant versus article makes sense here.

Needless to say, it didn’t make the list of content that we wanted to migrate over.

“Content pruning” is a very effective SEO tactic right now, and has been for at least the past few years. Any good content marketing agency will delete, redirect, or otherwise take down underperforming content. This usually results in a lift in organic search traffic across the whole website.

When viewed through the lens of topical relevancy, this makes perfect sense. Content that is off-topic, thin, or otherwise deemed “bad” by the Google algorithm will lower your website’s overall content score. So getting rid of it should, in theory, raise up the average content score of your whole website.

I have found that my most successful website prunes came when the website had a lot of off-topic articles to take down.

Use Google Itself for Keyword Research

Google wants to tell you what keywords are related to your current keyword. Just look at the “Related Searches” section.

You can quickly see which of these keywords has search volume by using the ever-so-nifty Chrome Extension Keywords Everywhere. It pulls in many different keywords from the Google API, and shows you their search volume.

If the search volume is low and the related searches are keyword modifiers, then you can use those as subsections in your current page. If the search volume is high, then you will probably want to create separate pages for each one.

Google is telling you what keywords and topics it thinks are relevant here, so this is the most accurate source for building topical relevance.

Another popular tool for finding related topics and questions is Answer the Public. If you have Keywords Everywhere, it will automatically pull in the keyword search volume for the phrases and topics that Answer the Public suggests.

There are 70 searches per month for “are gandalf and dumbledore the same actor”. Am I the only one who laughs while doing keyword research?

Keywords Everywhere doesn’t give you the search volume for free, but it’s dirt cheap. And if you’re one of those people who stopped using it when it became a paid tool, shame on you! It’s one of the best SEO tools for speeding up keyword research, and it comes out to like $2 per month or less.

I’ll also note that the free version of Answer the Public is pretty good.

Do A Topical Analysis

Every time I’m working on a new website, I do a topical analysis. This goes hand in hand with keyword research. Basically, I look for any topics that a website hasn’t covered.

The first step here is to determine what your main keyword is for the website. Most websites have 1-3 head term keywords, but some have more if they’re really big.

Then, use a topical analysis tool to generate a list of related topics. In addition to using Keywords Everywhere to pull in Google API data, I like to use MarketMuse. It’s hand-down the best tool that I’ve found for this kind of thing.

If you can’t afford MarketMuse’s hefty enterprise prices, then Clearscope and Surfer SEO come recommended.

In MarketMuse, run the “Research” tool. This spits out a list of related topics for the keyword that you put in.

This is intended for guiding your on-page SEO, but it’s applicable for usage on a sitewide basis also.

After exporting the list of “topics”, take a look at the list. Weed out anything that wouldn’t merit its own article. In this case, “lord” and “flame” seem like generic words that don’t really fit.

After you’ve cleaned up your list, audit your website against it. You can do this easily enough by doing a site: search in Google with the inurl or intitle search operator. It looks like this:

In this case, it looks like there are over 300 different pages that mention “Hobbit” in the page title! Great work, Screen Rant.

Once you’ve identified the topics that you haven’t written about yet on your website, it’s time to do keyword research. What keywords have these topics in them with decent search volume and low difficulty?

In the natural course of keyword research, you’ll find keywords that flesh out your topical authority naturally. However, I’ve found that my topical analysis process often reveals topics that my normal keyword research process wouldn’t.

I like to think of it as topical optimization. The tool looks at what your competitors are writing about, and tries to help you create similar content. And better content, of course.

It’s also a great substitute for subject matter expertise. If you don’t have a subject matter expert to guide you on which topics you need to address, then this list will reveal many of them to you.

In other words, even if you don’t address these topics for the sole purpose of pleasing the Google algorithm, they will at least be related subjects that will better educate your website users.

Build Topic Clusters

Hubspot was the company that first introduced me to this concept, and much has been written on how to create them. The short version is that you want to link topically relevant articles to one another.

Ideally you have a head term or a high converting keyword that you want to focus on – in our case, Gandalf. Then when I write about all of the related topics to Gandalf on my hobby site, each one of those related articles link back to the Gandalf article.

The Gandalf topic cluster might include articles about:

  • Sir Ian McKellan (the actor that played Gandalf in the movies)
  • Sauron (his nemesis)
  • Wizards
  • Hobbits
  • Gandalf Quotes
  • Gandalf Memes
  • Gandalf vs. Dumbledore

(By the way, on that last one, is this even a contest? Gandalf would DESTROY Dumbledore in a wizard battle!)

Hubpost visualizes topic clusters thusly.

Sometimes people overthink topic clusters. The main thing is that topically relevant articles should link to each other. Internal linking is what adds the magic SEO boost here.

And one last hint: make sure to use exact match anchor text for your internal links.

Optimize for Semantic Relevance

Semantic analysis is a little different than TF-IDF, but the SEO application is the same. Basically, you want to find the supporting topics and keywords to your keyword, and use them in your article.

In ye olden days of SEO (meaning like 6 years ago), the keyword density approach was more common. Use your keyword 2% of the time, and BOOM! On-page SEO is all but done.

Now, after Google’s Hummingbird, Rankbrain, and BERT algorithm updates, we’ve moved beyond keyword density. I still think that you need to include your target keyword a number of times on the page, but there are other supporting keywords that usually signify on-page relevance too.

Again, MarketMuse, Clearscope, and Surfer SEO all give excellent supporting keyword lists for this. Include this list in your copy brief for your writer, and make sure that they stick to it religiously.

I talked to two different startup CEOs recently that are working on technology to automate copy brief creation using semantic data, but they’re not there yet. We’re still in the technology phase where humans need to aggregate this data and reorganize it to become useful.

I’m surprised at how many SEO specialists and agencies don’t take semantic analysis into consideration when making their copy briefs.

Using related keywords to improve on-page topical relevance relationships is such an easy win. Why not take full advantage of the technology that is out there?

Consider Search Intent

I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention talk about the importance of user intent.

When analyzing the SERP, context is key. Google wants to show quality content that truly answers the user’s query.

Topical authority, domain authority, and building links all help get a webpage to page 1 for your target keywords. But once you’re on page 1, Google’s measures user interaction signals like clicks and dwell time.

In this respect, search engines have copied many elements of the social media algorithms. The better the engagement, the better the rankings.

A Word on TF-IDF

TF-IDF stands for term frequency–inverse document frequency. In case you didn’t fall asleep while reading that sentence, it’s a term that signifies a formula for determining the relevance of a particular word to the overall text in a document.

It’s been around for awhile in SEO, so it’s nothing new. Technically semantic analysis is different, because TF-IDF is kind of like glorified keyword stuffing.

On a more practical note, I’ve found any tool claiming to use TF-IDF doesn’t seem to give the same quality of supporting keywords as my aforementioned semantic tools.

I’ve heard good things about Ryte’s TF-IDF tool, but SEMrush’s TF-IDF tool is terrible. And others that I’ve seen, including free ones, are absolutely terrible.

I should also note that “LSI keywords” are still a thing too. LSI keywords are basically keyword and phrasing variations, and it’s useful to include them in your articles as well.

At the End of All Things

A good SEO article isn’t really about SEO. It isn’t about Gandalf or capybaras, either. It’s about using technology to connect real people.

At the end of the day, focusing on topical relevance helps you build a more focused and organized website. Which will not only boost your organic search traffic, but will delight your users and fatten your purse.

Written by Garit Boothe on August 26, 2020

I'm an SEO consultant and Lord of the Rings nerd (in case you couldn't tell). I do client SEO for tech companies and am starting my affiliate website empire.

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