- Start with topic research because Google uses entities to organize information, and has a topic layer in the knowledge graph
- After identifying topics, choose keywords that are relevant to your business/goals, have the right intent, and have search volume
- Use target keywords in on-page SEO elements such as page title, headings & anchor text - but don't stuff
- Subtopics, related keywords and semantic keywords are also important - check out the article for best practices on balancing keyword targeting & UX, plus links to additional resources
Why start with topics instead of keywords?
Google is now a semantic search engine, which means it attempts to understand the meaning and intent of search queries and match them with content that fulfills the query—rather than simply matching words in the search bar to words on a web page. Simplistic word-matching is called lexical search and that’s how Google worked in its early years.
Ever since the 2013 Hummingbird update, Google’s algorithm has been continually refined (using NLP and machine learning) to be better at understanding the intent and context of search queries. These refinements not only help the search engine provide higher-quality results on SERPs, they’re also intended to improve voice search.
Google uses units called entities to organize information. An entity could be a real object like running shoes or a concept like job hunting. Google’s Knowledge Graph is a structured database of entities, including entity descriptions and attributes (i.e. red running shoes, job hunting methods).
Google added a Topic Layer to the Knowledge Graph in 2018. The Topic Layer is what lets Google provide search results including the most relevant subtopics and related searches for your query.
Because Google search relies on topics and entities, you should approach your web content the same way:
- Identify your ‘pillar topics’ and all relevant subtopics of each
- Structure your web content to make it easy for humans and web crawlers to understand the hierarchy of topics and subtopics
- Optimize each page of content (this is where keywords come into play)
Tips for generating topics & ideas
- Trending topics in your industry
- Only if you have a unique POV or insights to share
- Case studies from your business
- Examples of completed projects, problem-solving, unique situations, patents, fixing a competitor’s botched work
- The most popular pages on your website
- Look for related subtopics so you can build topical authority
- Your business’s most popular social media posts
- Look for the ones that were liked/shared/commented on the most - are there opportunities for related subtopics or spinoffs?
- Questions from your customers
- Ask your customer service team, look at questions on your GBP & socials, do a branded search and look for PAAs, skim relevant subreddits/Quora questions
- Your competitors’ most popular pages/posts
- How can you cover the same topic better?
- Search tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, Answer The Public, Keywordtool.io, Google autosuggest, etc.
- This crosses over with keyword research, but don’t get fixated on specific queries. Queries can be lexically different but semantically identical, so look for query clusters to identify topics & subtopics.
After generating a list of topics, ask yourself some questions to make sure each one represents a valuable content opportunity:
- Is this topic relevant to your business?
- Will a page about this topic be interesting and helpful to a significant portion of your audience?
- Are you an expert on this topic, or can you work with one to create expert-level content? (More on the importance of expertise below!)
Once you have your topic(s), it’s time to do keyword research.
Choosing target keywords
Pick a topic or subtopic you want to write about and look for search queries that align with it.
Potential sources for target keywords:
- Google Search Console
- Related searches on the SERP
- People also ask
- SEMrush / Ahrefs / Moz Keyword Explorer (& many other tools)
- Google Keyword Planner (if you have access for paid search)
Choose keywords based on the following attributes:
- Relevancy to business / marketing goals
- Search intent (more below)
- Search volume
Do not attempt to target keywords that are not relevant to the page content, or keywords with search intent that the content cannot satisfy.
Choose primary keyword targets that have high search volume, appropriate intent, and are aligned with your brand's identity. But don’t let search volume be the prevailing factor. Really think about your audience and the words they’re most likely to use in search. Also keep in mind that search volumes are estimations, and subject to change.
Search engines are very good at recognizing synonyms, so you have some flexibility when choosing which keywords to target. For example, singular/plural variations are usually treated as the same query by search engines. There’s no need to include a dozen variations of a search query that all essentially mean the same thing.
If you’re not sure whether two or more search queries can be targeted with the same page of content, just search each of them in a private browser and analyze the SERPs.
Keywords and search intent
Search engine users demonstrate four primary intents:
- Looking for a specific website or page
- Searching by domain or brand name alone
- Searching brand plus ‘FAQ’, ‘contact’, ‘support’, etc
- Looking for information about people, places, and things
- How to instructions
- Researching products or services
- Comparing one brand to another
- Searching for the ‘best’ version
- Searching for reviews
- Wanting to make a purchase
- Using words like ‘shop’, ‘buy’, ‘coupon’, or ‘sale’
- Shopping for the lowest price on a specific item
There are two ways to discern the search intent of a given query.
- First is by using a tool like Semrush, Moz or Ahrefs.
- Second is by performing a clean search and analyzing the SERP.
The winning pages and SERP features will tell you what intent Google has divined, based on user behavior. For example, if the maps pack appears at the top of the SERP, that query has local intent. If the top-ranked URLs are all blogs and sites like Wikipedia, it’s informational intent.
Keep in mind that search queries can have multiple intents. Think about your target audience and what they’re most likely to search. This Ahrefs article offers more detail on identifying and using search intent.
Using target keywords in visible SEO elements
Some SEO elements are relatively short, for example:
- Page titles
- Anchor text
Include your primary keyword targets in these shorter elements in a natural way. We do not recommend “keyword stuffing.” Search engines actively penalize websites that artificially insert target keywords into SEO elements and body copy.
Other visible SEO elements (such as body copy) are more expansive. It's important to use secondary (related and longtail) keywords and discuss closely-related topics in the page content.
Including related keywords and subtopics is increasingly important due to modern core search engine algorithms that are designed to rank pages that demonstrate breadth of knowledge on a given topic (more on this below).
In other words, body copy should address not only the primary keyword/topic, but also secondary keywords/topics that a person would be likely to search for next. Think of it this way: if you had a water leak in your wall and searched leaking pipe in wall, which web page would be more helpful:
- A page that describes the signs of a leaking pipe in a wall.
- A page that describes the signs of a leaking pipe in a wall, lists possible causes, tells you which scenarios you could try and fix yourself vs when to call a plumber, shares tips on locating the source of a water leak, discusses the estimated costs of DIY and professional repair, explains what kind of damage will occur if it’s not fixed promptly, and offers information about typical homeowners insurance coverage for this type of event.
<div class="post-note">High-value content doesn’t just “target” a keyword, it aims to truly fulfill the search query by providing all the details a human user would need in order to end their search.</div>
Avoid targeting the same primary keyword on multiple pages of your site. Each page should be about a different topic, so the target keywords in each page’s SEO elements should be different as well. If your site has two or more pages optimized for the same keyword (or synonymous variations) they’ll be competing against each other on SERPs, which is called “cannibalization” in the SEO world.
There are certain situations where it’s necessary to have multiple web pages with similar content (especially on ecommerce sites), and canonicals can be used to avoid cannibalization - but that’s a topic for another article.
Balancing keyword targeting & user experience
All SEO elements on a page should be written first with human users in mind, so they make sense and resonate with your target audience. With that primary directive in mind, there are some recommended tactics specific to targeting keywords in online search:
Keywords representing the main topic and subtopics should exist in a summary paragraph early in the content (within the first few sentences, if possible) for two reasons:
- The words that a search engine crawler finds at the top of a page are given more weight in the ranking algorithms.
- Human users will be scanning for information on common subtopics as well.
With so many options available, people don’t read all the way through a page to find out if it has what they’re looking for. If your page has a long-winded introduction, or fails to make it clear what’s covered on the page, more people will bounce out and click on another result.
You should use a table of contents or other on-page navigation method for longer pages. This gets your topical keywords near the top of the page and lets people jump straight to a section.
Include semantic keywords in the body copy. Semantic keywords are conceptually related to a topic or subtopic.
Example of semantic keywords
- leaking pipe in wall
- leaking drain pipe in wall
- cost to repair leaking pipe in wall
- fix leaking drain pipe in wall
- hot water pipe leaking in wall
- how to detect pipe leak in wall
- leaking pipe in wall homeowners insurance
- faulty plumbing
- bowed walls
- pinholes in plumbing system
- mold and mildew
- gutter cleaning
- slow leak
- discolored areas
Additional helpful reading
- Learn more about semantic search and why using semantic keywords is important for SEO.
- Read more about BERT, the 2019 Google update that uses NLP in order to better understand context.
- Read more about MUM, the 2021 Google update developed to understand information across text, images, and multiple languages in order to provide more sophisticated and nuanced answers.
<div class="post-alert">We’re repeating this because it’s so important: write your first draft for humans in your target audience using natural language, then review and revise to include target, related, and semantic keywords as recommended.</div>