"It's a shift from terms to topics; a shift from longtail keywords, massive spreadsheets, down to just half a dozen topic areas that you as a business can own authoritatively."
Inbound 2016: Christopher O'Donnell, HubSpot Product Spotlight
Keywords: love them or hate them, they need to be factored into your content marketing strategy. But if you've ever pored over a keyword tool, trying to find the perfect combination of high search volume, low difficulty and, of course, relevance, you will know how frustrating this endeavour can be. If you work in a particularly content-saturated market, it can feel as though the chances of your organisation ranking in a Google search are slim to none.
But, with search engines becoming increasingly sophisticated in delivering results to their users' enquiries, should you be considering another approach to SEO? What if the secret to people finding your content online lay less in optimising around a specific word or phrase and more in focusing on writing around a topic or concept?
Anum Hussain, former senior growth marketer at HubSpot, describes "topics over keywords" as the magic formula. So, what does this all mean?
The traditional keyword approach
Let's say you work at a marketing agency. You want to create content for people looking for the services of a company like yours. So, you decide to target the keyword "marketing agency". You use it across your website – on your homepage, on internal site pages, in blog posts. Perhaps you also target other, similar keywords – for instance, "marketing company" or "digital marketing agency".
You write valuable content and build up authority, so that people searching for these terms will come across your organisation during their research. Essentially, with this approach your job is to use the "right" search terms within your content.
Using topics instead of keywords
Back in 2013, Google introduced a new algorithm: Hummingbird. This aimed to generate better search results for users by enabling "new" search activity.
Writing for Search Engine Land at that time, Danny Sullivan explained what the word "new" meant in this context and how Hummingbird might change search results: "'What’s the closest place to buy the iPhone 5s to my home?' A traditional search engine might focus on finding matches for words - finding a page that says 'buy' and 'iPhone 5s', for example.
"Hummingbird should better focus on the meaning behind the words. It may better understand the actual location of your home, if you’ve shared that with Google. It might understand that 'place' means you want a brick-and-mortar store. It might get that 'iPhone 5s' is a particular type of electronic device carried by certain stores. Knowing all these meanings may help Google go beyond just finding pages with matching words.
"In particular, Google said that Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query - the whole sentence or conversation or meaning - is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words."
So, search results are now more focused on what people are actually asking for - and your optimisation efforts should reflect this. Using topics is a way of tapping into this more holistic search process. With this approach, your job is to interpret your audience's "intent" during the search process. You are optimising your content in a more "human" way, through getting to the crux of a search.
But a word of warning: using topics does not mean we just get to forget our keywords entirely. Instead, it means we can think about them in a broader way.
Writing for Moz, Rand Fishkin describes this approach as using "related topics and semantically connected keywords". Rand uses the examples of the keyword "food processor" to elucidate this process: "Google might look at a page that's ranking for 'food processor' and say, 'Gosh, it's weird that this page doesn't have this keyword, this keyword, this keyword on it. We would expect that a page that's targeting 'food processor' should have these things'.
Returning to the marketing agency example, you might start to think about the details of what people are looking for in relation to the term "marketing agency" – for example, "blogging services", "content marketing", "managed email marketing". You can then go on to build up authority around these terms as well.
Throughout this process, you still need to consider whether these topics are a good target for you – what's their search volume; how difficult/ competitive they are they to rank for?; are they relevant to you and to your audience?
Creating valuable content
Amid thinking about keywords and topics, it's important not to lose sight of the most important thing: all the content you create for you target audience should be valuable; it should answer their questions and solve their problems.
Your first aim as an organisation should be to provide your potential buyers with exactly what they need. However, by thinking about B2B topics for your content – and about how you might develop a voice, expertise and recognition among your audience for your thinking in these areas – you are far more likely to hit the sweet spot.
So, should you be switching up your entire approach to SEO? No, but you should certainly be optmising your content around B2B topics that truly matter to your audience.