John McDougall: Welcome to Authority Marketing Road Map. I’m John McDougall, CEO of McDougall Interactive. Today, I’m speaking with Aki Balogh, co‑founder of MarketMuse, a content intelligence platform that identifies gaps of content on your website. Welcome Aki!
Aki Balogh: Thanks for having me again.
What does it mean to be a topical authority?
John: Absolutely. Today, we’re going to be talking about topical authority. What does it mean to be a topical authority?
Aki: In terms of web marketing, I’m going to take a half step back and talk about content marketing. What’s changed over the last couple of years is when you market your business, you want to put out a lot of information to help educate your customer, to draw people in who would be interested in your product. Having that at the “top of the funnel,” really gets you a lot of better traffic, higher quality leads, and so on.
That’s great. To put out content is important. You create content. You disseminate it. You promote it on social media, et cetera. There’s so much about how to do that, but what people forget is, “Well, why do I want to do that anyway?”
Why do your customers come to you? It’s because you’re the expert in your business. Whatever you’re providing, whether it’s the products or services, they’re coming to you because they trust that you have that knowledge and that experience to solve their problem much better than they would do on their own.
That’s where authority and topical authority comes in. It’s the manifestation of being really good at something, being the expert at something. The manifestation of that on the web. Being a topical authority in a web marketing context means that you are the go‑to person for questions on a specific topic or set of topics.
Gaining Trust with Topical Authority
John: It’s important that you cover topics completely so that you gain their trust, essentially?
Aki: Exactly. It’s about trust, and also just being helpful to them. If they have a question on “X”, you’re the go‑to person for “X”. Of course, there’s an additional layer that “Well, what if they have a question on something slightly related to X but not exactly?”
You just want to be really helpful to the people who would actually be buyers of your products or services, whether you’re trying to convert them to become a paying customer, or whether you just want to answer their questions because you’re the expert on the field, and why not help people out and give them some useful information?
John: It’s a lot different from old school advertising and marketing that were more “salesy.” Brochures and TV ads are certainly fun and could be interesting, but the days of content marketing have sort of deepened marketing a bit.
Topical Authority and Google Rankings
How important is being a topical authority to Google specifically?
Aki: It’s very important. When you think of Google as a search engine, and any really great search engine, their guiding principle is, when somebody types in a query and you put in a keyword and you search on it, what are the absolute best pages on the Internet that you want to show to satisfy that intent of that search?
Any successful search engine, or really any sort of information retrieval system, would want to give you — the number one result would be the most relevant, the highest, most authoritative, the absolute best source of information as an answer to that question.
The second rank would be the second best and so on and so forth. Google has been doing this since their founding. This is the reason that people use Google, because when — or the majority uses Google — they’re really good at when you ask them a question, they respond with answers that are relevant and authoritative.
Topical authority — adding that word “topical” just adds an additional element to that and that is the topics that are covered in that post. Whoever wrote that post is an expert on that topic. People have different definitions for…
Right now, there’s a lot of different words floating around to describe what’s effectively the same thing. You have keywords, and marketers are familiar with keywords. Now, you have topic. What’s the topic? And there’s entity, which is “things not strings”.
It is effectively the same thing. It’s just different words for a domain or a subset of a domain. What is something specific? When you type in a question into Google, Google pulls out what’s the intent, what’s the meaning of what you’re trying to ask and trying to match up the meaning of your question with the meaning of all the sites that they’ve indexed.
To get back to the original question, being a topical authority is really about, you want to be the best position to answer that type of question. You do that by covering that specific question and also the related, the sub‑parts, of that question, and things related to the question, and things that exist in that same context. You cover that comprehensively. If you do that, you’ll become the topical authority.
We can all think of companies that we know and we listen to for advice about certain types of problems. Sometimes they’re major brands, and sometimes they are not major brands. Maybe it’s just a site that you really like going to on the Web, that’s your go‑to site. They’re not a national brand, but they just have really great answers for certain types of questions. That’s a topical authority.
John: It can be a little bit of David and Goliath. If there’s a big brand that’s really known for that topic, but they’re not known in a Google sense, they haven’t actually done that content marketing work. They may be known off‑line, but they may have a harder time online.
Aki: Absolutely. That’s the great opportunity with Web marketing today that exists for small and medium businesses, is they can actually win that fight. That’s a fight they can win.
You, as the small, medium business especially, you don’t have, necessarily, multimillion dollar budgets. You can’t push out all these messages on TV and wherever. Also search ads, and so on. You don’t have that to spend.
You can actually be the expert on something and make it known that you’re the expert on something, and answer a lot of people’s questions really well. If you do that, then organic search, Google search, will be one channel that’ll perform really well for you. You’ll actually get a lot of great business through that, just by building it.
The best thing about that, too, by the way, most of this is evergreen content. Of course, you have to keep current and so on. You do it once, you do it really well once, and it’s just going to produce for you for a very long time.
John: Like Wikipedia, they might come up maybe even too much in search sometimes, but they have all these good, solid answers, within reason anyway. They just keep coming up over and over. It’s kind of evergreen. People are looking for descriptions of the background of a topic, the introduction to the topic, the meat of the topic, the who, what, why, when, where.
How has it changed over the years? Back when I was doing SEO in the ’90s, it was so easy. Really, it was so much easier. We would literally get ahold of a website where somebody, maybe they didn’t have a page for every one of their services.
We would go so far as to say, “Hey, you know what, you’ve got a services page, but you don’t have a page for your service. Maybe we’ll make a few pages.” We’d put keywords on each of those pages that were very specific to that page.
Even that little bit of effort went so far, we would skyrocket and people would love us. It was so easy. Now, everybody’s got a page for every service. Most people who are doing search would know that.
They’ve gone in and attacked it with keywords on every page. They’re saying, “Why am I not ranking anymore? I’ve got my keywords stuffed into my title tag and my heading and throughout my page.” How have things changed from those days in terms of Google algorithms?
Aki: Absolutely. The way that you framed it, John, I would say there have been two major shifts. Of course, there have been many, but the two major shifts from what you just said.
One, Web marketing used to be just completely green field. If you did it, you’d get somewhere. Now, it is more competitive.
But by the same token, just having keywords, that specific technique, I would argue old SEO, the old way of doing SEO, where you were looking at the form of the content, and did you have this keyword in your H1 tag and what not — that type of tactic, that doesn’t work anymore. That’s not effective.
John: It doesn’t work on it’s own. It’s still a prerequisite. You need some of that stuff, but you can’t just rely on that.
Aki: Yeah, absolutely. Well said. It’s just foundational. What is the wild west is content marketing, where it’s really just are you putting informative, interesting content on the Web, which is sort of where it should have been in the beginning to start with. With search and content creation was always about, “Hey, if you have a question, here’s an answer.”
Then, there have been a lot of different ways that folks have gamed it or so on. That’s really where Google is coming around now, is it’s really bringing it back to what they wanted to do in the beginning, which is giving the most authoritative people the greatest voice, and that part is surprising.
The companies we’ve looked at, and the sites we’ve looked at, some sites have been doing this for a long time. Some sites have been creating informative content from the early days. They didn’t call it content marketing or inbound marketing, but they were just doing it because it just seemed like the right thing to do.
Other companies are just coming around to it now and learning about it. Then as you pointed out, some brands have done this and some brands have never done this. It’s because of that, it is the Wild West, that there are many niches that you can actually own. If you get in there and you create a lot of great content on it now, you’re actually going to be able to position yourself and really own that niche and own a lot of the traffic that goes there.
John: Just to give our listeners a little super quick background, there had been many Google algorithms, but a couple of quick ones to just bring into context here. Google Penguin looked at if there were too many sketchy backlinks done by SEO companies, for example.
Your ranks would go down, that discoverability for Google to figure out who the authorities are by backlinks got all screwed up when we, as SEOs, were able to do some crappy article links and your ranks would go up. Thankfully, it’s good that Google got smarter on that topic.
Then with Google Panda, with creating original unique value content, not just, “OK, we need to cover this topic. Let’s go scrape a bunch of articles and put it together,” Google Panda has made it so that you really have to develop legitimate content.
Google Panda and Google Penguin set the stage, but now it’s evolving into this whole new stratosphere. Maybe you could go briefly into Google Hummingbird and semantic search a bit.
Aki: I’d be absolutely happy to, and just to your last point, John, David Amerland, who wrote several books on semantic SEO at Google, he’s pointed out that the core mission of Google, that the success criteria, the pillars, that will make you successful on Google come down to four key concepts ‑‑ authorship, content, influence, and trust. If you’re creating great content, high‑quality content, and you have content in a site that your users trust, and you have influence in the industry, that’s really going to get you there.
Whether it’s Panda or Penguin or Hummingbird, those are implementations of how Google can assess your site better on these four elements, really. With that, as you’ve pointed out, Google — I’m sorry, Panda and Penguin — were really ways that Google prevented folks from gaming the system, whether knowingly or just whoever they were working with was gaming the system, the agency they were working with might have been gaming the system.
Aki: They weren’t aware of it, but anyway, it reduced ways that people would abuse the system.
Hummingbird is interesting because it’s different. It takes the conversation forward and this is where, as you point out, this term “semantic SEO”, this is where semantic SEO comes in. Semantic SEO is really just also the Wild West there. Content marketing to some extent is Wild West. You see companies that are great at it and companies that are not.
Semantic SEO is within that, even more advanced. The way to think about it is, going back to your earlier example, John, if you had a keyword. Let’s say you had your primary keyword, right? You have a list of ten primary keywords that you want to rank for in search, and so you take your primary keyword and you’d write content about that keyword, and it was very specific. That content was very specific to that keyword.
What Semantic SEO does is a part of Hummingbird where Hummingbird is looking at your content, and it’s reading not just the specific primary keyword, but it’s also looking at the related keyword’s topics. The topics that you’re covering in that post and across your site, and the topics that are covered in the sites that link to you and so on and so forth. It’s doing all of this topic modeling, actually. That’s where Hummingbird really extends it.
Without drowning in detail, I would say where semantic SEO meshes up with content marketing, is it’s this idea of topical authority. It’s semantic SEO, and measuring the meaning of words is basically semantics. Its measuring the meaning of words makes Google better at rating whether you’re an authority on that topic, and that’s where it ties in.
One, you’re trying to write content. Two, you’re trying to write content that’s specialized, that content that addresses problems that are relevant in that domain and that show off your domain expertise. Semantic SEO is going to help you do that, because you don’t just have to write about this one keyword, and you pound that to death, but you just write naturally about topics that are important within that area of expertise.
All of that is called “high‑quality content.” Now with Hummingbird, there’s a real impetus to pay attention to it because it’s factoring into your rankings on Google. As we all know, a couple of jumps in ranking if you go from 10 to five or something like that, you’re going to see a lot more organic traffic as a result.
John: Ultimately, Google’s trying to understand the context, the meaning of the words as opposed to making you filter through the results. I was reading something over the weekend. I don’t know if it was “Search Engine Land” or somewhere, or maybe “Search Engine Journal.” They were talking and they had an example about buying a lemon. “How to Avoid Buying a Lemon” was the example.
If you’re Google, if you’re the Wizard of Oz behind Google, the search, the algorithm, saying, “Well, what do they mean ‘How to Avoid Buying a Lemon?'” Do they mean the citrus fruit, or do they mean a car? How does a search engine that’s not a person know the difference? What you’re saying is, “You can give context to Google. If you cover the topics completely it becomes a lot more obvious.”
Aki: Absolutely, I would say for us at least the hardest problem in semantic analytics has been disambiguation. When one word or one phrase means multiple things, that’s disambiguation. That’s a tricky one.
As you point out, lemon is slang for a low‑quality car or vehicle. That’s just disambiguation. There’s only so much you can do about that, because when you’re given a query like that, buying a lemon, there’s really only so much you can do. You can look at external information, and look at, well, what is more likely, or look at the user’s history, and so on.
Oftentimes, the user can actually disambiguate for you. You might not want to rank for “buying a lemon,” because it’s not going to be your primary keyword, necessarily. If you just write about cars, how to make sure that your used car that you purchase is, how to be successful as a used car purchaser, or whatever. That’s going to circumvent a lot of that issue.
It just comes back to, you take your list of 10 primary keywords you’re starting out with, and you just write naturally about them. You write naturally, in English, just natural English, natural language, around those keywords. You mention those keywords, but you also mention other things that you would just expect to read if you were reading an article on this. The search engine will handle some of those issues for you.
MarketMuse and Topical Authority
John: How does MarketMuse, your software, help you with that?
Aki: Honestly, all we do is we make this process more efficient and more effective. The problem that we are working on solving or remediating, is when you are looking to write content naturally, you’re looking to write high‑quality content, you’re looking to write about topics and keywords that exist in that context. How are you actually going to do that tactically?
You take your 10 primary keywords, you’ve picked the first one, and you say, “OK, what do I write about that’s relevant to this keyword?” You might brainstorm, you might start by doing some brainstorming, you might look it up on Wikipedia, you might research what you’re competitors have written about. If you’re an organization or you’re selling a product that’s non‑intuitive, you might talk to a product manager to do some brainstorming.
You’re just doing all this thinking around it, which is great, and you should do that. What we do, is we just make that process a little bit more effective. We take ranking, high‑quality content for that topic, and we model it.
We say, “OK, you’re looking to rank for this keyword, here’s the constellation of topics.” We call them “related keywords”. Keywords that relate to your primary keyword. These are some of the keywords that you’ll want to think about writing content about. If you want to be the absolute best site for, the authority, topical authority, for X, here are 50 other things you should probably mention.
Some of them you might agree with, and some of them you might not agree with, because maybe they don’t fit in your differentiation. Because we’re doing analytics, we’re downloading the best content on the Web, and we’re comparing your content against it, you probably get some really great ideas from there, and you’ll probably find something that you would have otherwise missed. That’s what our dashboard does for you, is it just shows you the gaps.
Then you can take that and write some content to fill those gaps. We’re not trying to replace your judgment as a human. We’re trying to supplement it with some machine intelligence that tells you, “Hey, did you think about this, what about that, what about that?” Nine out of ten, or maybe ten out of ten cases, will surface at least a couple of topics that you might have just forgotten about. When you see it, you’re like, “Oh my, we really need to write about that, too. That’s highly relevant.”
John: You take your competitor, ranking URLs. If you have some keywords you want to rank for, you search for those in Google, you see some competitors that are really ranking well. Not just the competitors that you think are important, which is obviously good, but you really have to look at what’s in your way in Google.
You can’t just look at what you think are your local competitors. Whoever’s right up there at the top of Google, they are probably going to have good back‑links, good content. You basically plug those URLs into your tool, that’s how you uncover the gaps?
Aki: It’s actually much simpler. Literally, it’s just a two‑step process. You go to the website, you join or you start a free trial there.
First you put in your website, and then we crawl it. We need to crawl your site in order to get a sense of what your content is like. Actually, we download your content. We do that first, and that process can take anywhere from a minute to 30 minutes or an hour, or if you have a very large site, a couple hours. We email you when that’s done.
When that’s done, what you do is you put in a primary keyword. We’ll just go and we’ll download the top content for that keyword. Whether it’s competitors, or Wikipedia, or whatever else, wherever else that information may be, we’ll pull that in and then we’ll pull out the most relevant topics within that.
That’s all. You only put in your URL. We have a separate tool that does a competitive audit. You can put in your competitor URLs and compare against them, but you don’t even have to do that. You just put in your URL, you put in a keyword that is very important to you, and then you click the button, and 30 seconds later you’ve got some ideas.
You can really explore it. This is sort of a more advanced use case. Once you have a starting point, you can actually refine it. You can remove keywords that exist in different contexts. If it’s not contextually related, you can remove it. You can dig deeper, and so on. You can do this discovery process and really refine what topics you’re focused on.
That also gets to your differentiation. You can really make your differentiation felt by doing this analysis and thinking through what you’re writing content about. Then when you sit down to write your blog post, or you go to your agency or your team who does content creation, you’re not just saying generic things like, “Oh, I want to post on this primary keyword,” you’re saying, “OK, we need to own this keyword X, and here are some things that we need to be really good at. We need to own this subtopic of X, but not this meaning, or not that meaning,” and so on.
You can do all of that discovery through our tool. You could do it without our tool, of course, but it would take hours for each keyword, potentially. With our tool, it just makes that process much faster.
John: That’s really great. I’m excited to use your tool more. Shortly, we’ll be doing a how‑to podcast with you. We’ll leave it at that for this one. That was some good initial tips to think about your content gaps. You can use MarketMuse at marketmuse.com.
Aki: That’s right.
John: We’ll be back shortly with another podcast about how to use MarketMuse. Thanks, Aki.