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How to use topical optimization to strengthen your content strategy

Content strategy is multifaceted by nature. The components that contribute to a good content strategy span user research, copyediting, information architecture, content maintenance, and SEO--and that's the short list.

The last of those components, SEO, is a facet that I've been researching lately, and it's got my content nerd brain all atwitter with implications for not only search but also for other aspects of content strategy. It all circles around the concept of topical authority.

The algorithms for search (namely Google's Hummingbird and Panda 4.0 releases) are getting more sophisticated, to the point that the focus is now on "user intent." This means that search terms that are similar in meaning will now share more search results, and websites that fully cover a topic will rise to the top of search rankings. That’s the basic premise of topical authority—being "an expert not just in one term, but in all aspects of the subject."

How do we respond? By changing the way we do keyword research and organize our key words. Instead of developing a list of individual key words, think about how your key words relate to one another.
• Do they semantically clustered around a number of ideas?
• Can they be organized in a hierarchy from general to specific, short-tail to long-tail?

I’m not intending to write the topic-targeted SEO strategy bible here, but these questions can help you get in the right mindset. (Though if you’re looking to dive deeper, try this or this. There are a few tools out there that help, too, like MarketMuse, Moz Content, and Blab.

In going through the exercise of defining keyword hierarchies, the real fun starts. Knowing what topics your users care about and the key words they use to learn more about those topics can be applied just about everywhere in your content.

If you have a blog, use the hierarchy to focus blog-post topics. Start with a keyword as inspiration, and your blog post will practically optimize itself as you expound on the idea and provide useful information about it.
Repeat this process over time with related keywords, and your blog posts will offer the breadth of content pertaining to your topics that both users and search algorithms love.

Can your keyword hierarchy influence the structure of your website in other ways? Sure thing--you can bring clarity to how your audiences navigate through your site, making sure that taxonomies and calls to action align with words they expect across the user journey.

With your topics in hand, take the time to look over your core messaging, too. How do the topics and keywords relate to what you want to tell your audience? If it’s clear that your audience is using certain terms and interested in knowing about certain topics, now is as good a time as any to focus on content resonance: the balance between what your audiences want to hear and what you want to tell them.

The result? Not only improved search rankings, but a more coherent program of content. And at the end of the day, that's a big part of what content strategy is about--moving away from repositories of content and presenting content in a way that is useful to people.