What Is Topical Authority in SEO and How Does It Work?

There was a time when search engine optimisation was achieved using nothing more than keywords. But as Google and other search engines evolved, they made their algorithms ever more refined, often in response to websites attempting to game the system through practices like keyword stuffing.

We now find ourselves at a point where you can’t fake it to get ahead in the rankings. Optimising your content around keywords is no longer enough. To earn a higher ranking on the search engine results page (SERP) you need to show your depth of expertise by optimising your content around entire topics.

You need to become a topical authority.

In this article we’ll take an in-depth look at the concept of topical authority: what it is, how it works, and how you can use it to improve your online presence.

What is topical authority in SEO?

Topical authority (also known as domain authority) is an SEO strategy in which you aim to become a respected and trusted authority in one or more topics. It’s a gradual process that demands the consistent publishing of high quality content about the topic at hand, as well as the sub-topics and FAQs that surround it.

Google has a number of ways to measure how authoritative you are on a particular subject or in a particular niche, and if it deems that authority to be high, it will place you higher up the SERP for relevant queries.

While the idea of topical authority was initially born from the need to stop websites gaming the system through ‘black hat’ SEO practices like keyword stuffing, it has evolved into so much more. Google uses topical authority to make the results it delivers on the SERP not just more relevant, but more human. It analyses a web page in the context of the site it’s on to ensure that the best possible result is offered up for every query.

It’s a system that rewards effort and expertise, while making it all but impossible for websites to cheat their way up the rankings.

How does topical authority work?

Lets use an example to get a better idea of how topical authority works.

Imagine two sites that have pages dedicated to exactly the same item: blue toothbrushes. But while they share a similar page, the two sites are actually every different: the first is dedicated to blue things, the second site is dedicated to dental hygiene.

If you imagine yourself as someone looking for a blue toothbrush, which site would you trust more to learn about, and perhaps buy, the best blue toothbrush?

Most people will choose the site focused on dental hygiene, as that is the more important factor. In the grand scheme of things the colour of the toothbrush doesn’t really matter. The site focused on dental hygiene is therefore far likelier to be a topical authority.

The challenge for Google is to somehow know that Google search users should be directed to the dental hygiene site over the site for blue things when they type in ‘blue toothbrush’. It does this by looking at all the other content on each site. If this content comprehensively covers not just the topic of ‘blue toothbrushes’, but also all related topics, sub-topics and FAQs, it will view the site as a topical authority.

In our example, the dental hygiene site might also feature content on electric toothbrushes, kids’ toothbrushes, bristle stiffness, flossing and more. All of this associated information is fed through an algorithm and into Google’s Knowledge Graph, which makes sense of how trustworthy and authoritative that content, and by association the ‘blue toothbrush’ web page, is.

Building up topical authority is about two things:

  • Researching how Google ‘understands’ your topic.
  • Strategically planning and creating content in-line with these insights.

Why is topical authority important?

As Google leans more and more heavily into the concept of topical authority, it is becoming ever more critical to SEO success. But there are a number of other reasons why building topical authority is worthwhile beyond Google’s in-house¬†preferences.
As you attempt to build up your topical authority, you generate a large amount of high-quality and keyword-rich content. Over time this establishes your brand as a go-to source of information, building brand awareness which can ultimately result in sales. It also gives Google more content to grab onto, increasing the likelihood of your website being served up as a high-ranking result to a larger range of relevant queries. This means:
  • When Google is looking to answer a question with a rich result, you’ll provide it.
  • When Google serves up associated information via the People Also Ask (PAA) section, you’ll be featured.
  • When potential customers are looking for more information on the topic, they won’t need to leave your site.
  • When third-party sites are looking for an authoritative source, you’ll be it (which is great for link building.)
In short, topical authority is a single approach that manages to tick almost all of Google’s boxes, which means it is one of the most effective SEO strategies there is.
If you’re willing to put in the work, you’re more than likely to enjoy the rewards: a higher Google ranking, more brand awareness, more website visitors, more sales, and ultimately a growing business.

How do you establish topical authority in SEO?

Now we understand the what and the why of topical authority, it’s time to focus on the how.
Topical authority is built on content. You need to have plenty of information on a subject for Google to regard you as an authority. This information should cover the main topic extensively, while also addressing associated topics and answering related questions. But quantity alone isn’t enough – that content also needs to be of the highest quality.
How do you build up this treasure trove of high-quality content? Everything Google does is in response to user search behaviour, so you need to gain an understanding of how your ideal customer is searching for information related to your preferred topic. Content inspiration can be found by:
  • Thinking about the most common questions that you hear from your customers (or asking your sales and support teams.)
  • Using keyword research and generation tools.
  • Finding inspiration in social media groups, subreddits, and competitor sites.
  • Using a content idea generation tool like Answer The Public.
Once you have some inspiration, you’ll then need to create the content in line with SEO best practices. This content should be grouped into logical sections (using a system like the topic cluster model) to ensure your site architecture is easy for both users and Google’s web crawlers to navigate.
It’s important to note that topical authority isn’t something that you can easily fake – that is to say that if you aren’t an expert in a subject, there’s no point in trying to look like an expert in a subject. You need to bring a deep well of knowledge, so perhaps the first and most important step in building your topical authority is to educate yourself and your team as deeply as you can on the topic at hand.

4 strategies for building topical authority to help you rank higher

Ready to build authority in your pet topic? Beyond the obvious need for content development, the following strategies can be effective.

Focus on link building

While high-quality content will organically attract backlinks, you can speed up this process by offering to write content for third-party sites that already have authority in the space, then link back to your website within that content. Internal links are also critical to ensure visitors stay on your site. Strategically connect associated subjects with internal links to encourage visitors to continue their information journey (and perhaps start traveling down the sales funnel).

Consider site architecture

Another important factor to ensure a visitor learns as much as possible about the topic while they’re on your site is its architecture. The topic cluster model and hub and spoke models make it easier for both humans and Google bots to navigate your site in a simple and intuitive way. By grouping related information together, visitors will stay longer and Google will rank you higher.

Put yourself in your visitors’ shoes

You’re an expert on the subject at hand – you know more than the people who are searching for information on it. But this can mean you write for yourself rather than for your audience, answering your own questions and using terms that make sense to you. Oftentimes the words your potential customers use will be very different. It’s therefore critical to research search intent. You need to answer the questions that your customers are actually asking, and in a way that will make sense and feel relevant to them. Ultimately the searcher decides the value of a piece content, not you or Google. If it doesn’t resonate with the audience, it won’t build your authority.

Lean on technology

You don’t need to guess what your audience is interested in, or make judgement calls on the content you produce. The answers are already out there, and they can be found by leaning on any number of tools like keyword generators, SEO tools, People Also Ask and Answer The Public.

Want to become a topical authority?

Building topical authority can feel like an intimidating prospect. But just as you’re an expert in your field, at Traction we’re experts in building your online presence in a way that shows off your expertise. We help you to identify the information that will be most alluring and helpful to your ideal customer, then assist in creating content in line with these insights.

We make topical authority an exciting opportunity for your brand; one that can deliver a consistent and significant stream of high-quality website visitors, and that will ultimately result in more sales.

If you’re ready to make the most of the incredible opportunity that topical authority represents, we’re ready to help. Get in touch with our expert team today.

About the Author: Jordana Clarke

An independent director and business owner who enjoys adding value to NZ boards and executive teams. She brings more than 20 years experience in export strategy and digital marketing from FTSE100 companies to tech start-ups. Collaborative, principled and intuitive in nature, Jordana embraces evidence-based decision making and will ask the questions that highlight all possible perspectives.

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