An in-depth guide to understanding why you aren’t ranking in Google search, plus researching topics, keywords and finding authoritative domains in your industry.
As the Nerd-in-Chief of organic search and SEO at OMD Finland, my job is to understand how search engines work and translate that into practical steps that help our clients improve their visibility in organic search results and get all the promised benefits from content creation. Today I want to bring you up-to-speed with the science of relevant content.
The reason why a website is or isn’t visible in organic search results really comes down to how search engines calculate the relevance of content available in their massive index. Knowing the science behind relevance will help you rank better and - believe it or not - also help you create better content.
Why are we still talking about content?
I’m sure you already know that organic search continues to be the largest source of online traffic. In fact most websites, including many of our clients in Finland, continue to receive at least 50% of their online visitors through organic search (Google & Bing). This percentage is much higher in some verticals e.g. B2B services and e-commerce.
Usually the decision to actively create content comes with a goal of reaping long term benefits - add a well thought through conversion process to the mix and you can make your investment work for months to come. But what if you’ve done all that and still, after weeks and months of active content creation, your website isn’t visible in organic search results?
Before we dive deeper, a fair bit of warning: I will talk about some technical aspects of search engine technology, but promise to keep it as simple as possible. I’m going to talk about two main topics:
- What is relevant content for Search Engines or SEO?
- How do you research and create relevant content?
What is relevant content for SEO?
Relevant content is when you put an effort into designing, creating and publishing information that you know your target audience, your customers or your readers will find valuable. The element most commonly overlooked by content creators is the fact that relevance is subjective. This means that an article or a website that one person finds relevant doesn’t make it relevant for everyone. Creating content that is relevant for the masses is not only challenging it is also a poor use of resources.
You can tell that a content asset is relevant to an audience when it plays an active role in moving the reader or the viewer towards a favourable outcome. Having a goal for your content is the second element that improves the relevance of the content.
Since relevance is subjective it’s beneficial to find out what the best way to appeal to your audience’s information consumption behaviour is. In other words knowing what they expect to gain from your content, how they like consuming it and what the most likely scenarios are in which they might search for information will get you much closer to creating relevant content.
A few weeks ago I published a blog post on the basics of consumer information behaviour that might help you get a better understanding of how to discover the features that are relevant to your target audience. Check it out if you feel like digging deeper.
How do you research and create relevant content?
Believe you me; I know that a lot of effort and resources go into creating relevant content. Unfortunately creating and publishing relevant content alone isn’t enough. The thing is that while you’re going through the process of creating awesome content, so are many other individuals and brands. Every day hundreds of new webpages get published in Finland and search engines have to find the best from among them each and every single time someone searches for something.
Search engines use elaborate algorithms to find and determine the relevance of online content. While it’s impossible to know every single factor behind search quality - there are over 200 factors used by Google alone - fortunately there are a few ways to expand our understanding of how search engines define relevance.
It’s time to go over a few important technical terms before we continue. If you’re more interested in the process or researching and creating relevant content you can skip this nerd jargon and move to the next section.
Query: A query is a request for information. Specifically in search a query is a set of words (keywords) or phrases that people use to formulate their questions and look for answers.
Backlinks: A hyperlink between two different domains is called a backlink. The source that provides the backlink is known as a referral and the website that’s being linked to is called the referent.
Link Graph: A link graph is a graphic visualisation of a network between people and entities. It displays the connections between them as well as the relative value or weight of these connections.
Topical Relevance: Topical Relevance is the relevance of a document to the topic of a user’s query. Topical relevance is a term often used in information retrieval (IR).
Topical Relevance Score: The Topical relevance Score is given to a document or a group of documents to assign a numeric value to their relevance to a topic or the topic of the user’s query. In the upcoming steps and analysis I’ve used Majestic’s metrics - Topical Flow and Topical Flow Score for finding out the relevance of different domains.
How to research relevant topics
Let’s assume that the internet is a large discussion forum where anyone from anywhere is allowed to ask questions and give answers. In such a situation, by the time you decide to join the discussion, you can be certain that someone, somewhere in the forum is already talking about the subject matter. Here the subject can be the benefits of your product or service.
Since you’re most likely to be joining an ongoing conversation, it’s likely that before you establish yourself as an authority there’s already one or many entities (people or businesses) that are already enjoying that status. Since search engines prefer delivering relevant and valuable content to their users, they’re going to prefer delivering content from an already established authority before seeking new ones.
There are two critical elements that make online content relevant for both people and search engines.
- Topical relevance
- Topical authority
In a group and an on-going discussion, if you don’t want people to think you’re obnoxious and stop paying attention to you, it’s best to contribute something valuable to the topic. This is the general idea behind content creation that is topically relevant.
How to discover relevant topics
There are multiple online forums that provide a wealth of insights on people’s everyday challenges. Online communities such as Quora, Suomi24, vauva.fi can help you get started with a lot of valuable questions that people are asking that can be the topics of your content assets. There are other industry specific forums such as stackoverflow and other professional networks that you can make use of.
Besides online forums, the most obvious and perhaps the easiest way to discover what people are searching for is Google Adwords. The challenge with finding truly valuable topics with Adwords is that it requires having a well developed keyword model. Without one you’re likely to end up wasting your time.
Once you have your set of main topics and keywords, it’s time to expand them into topical models.
A topical model includes a set of keywords to help you create relevant content of multiple subjects on the topic.
Here’s an example of a topical model.
Anyone with some experience in content marketing should already be familiar with this step, so I won’t spend too much time on it.
Let’s say that you want to target a very generic keyword such as ‘rahastot’ (funds) with a significant search volume. Generic keywords such as ‘rahastot’ usually have high search volume, but they’re not very specific. As you can see in the example above, people aren’t just searching for ‘rahastot’ even when it has the largest search volume.
In addition to ‘rahastot’ people are also looking for more specific products such as ‘sijoitusrahastot’ (investment funds), ‘etf rahastot’ (ETF funds) and ’hedge rahasto’ (hedge funds). If you were to do a quick search with the keyword ‘rahastot’ you’ll notice that almost all the top ranking domains also have content on almost every related keyword.
Having a topical model that includes generic keywords with high search volumes and topically related keywords is the first step towards developing topically relevant content. While this is a great start it definitely isn’t enough, because keywords on their own don’t tell you anything about what people are searching for. Sadly, many content creators stop at this stage and consider the job done.
Topical relevance model and long-tail keywords
Now that you have a topical model with all the relevant keywords, it’s time to take a look at what people are really searching for. This is where long-tail keywords come in. A long-tail keyword is actually a query that includes a string of 2 – 5 keywords usually in the form of a question.
There are multiple ways to discover valuable long-tail keywords. At OMD we use a combination of tools and our own data for multiple verticals to build topical models to assist us in content creation. One of the best ways to discover long tail keywords is to check out online forums. The second best way is to use a tool such as Übersuggest.
The image above shows how you can expand your topical keyword model to include long-tail keywords. Including long tail keywords will help you understand what specific questions people are asking. As a result you are ready to start creating content that is truly topically relevant to your audience and your business or blog.
Not having a well drafted topical keyword model is the same as joining a discussion about home loans by talking about car insurances. People might not be very enthusiastic about your input.
In a nutshell, topical authority is the measure of trustworthiness and the accuracy of your content on a particular topic. Regardless of how well known your brand is it’s important to keep in mind that when you’re online you’re joining a discussion that’s already ongoing.
To get back to our analogy of the internet being like a large discussion forum; we’ve now successfully joined the conversation by using a good topical keyword model. Now it’s time to make some fans and establish our authority as a relevant and reliable source of information.
Here’s a quick exercise. Hop over to Google search and search for your brand with your brand name. Do you find your website in the top 10 ranks? Now try a really generic keyword that describes your product or service. What was your ranking this time? If you were in the top 10 results, you already have authority for the topic and relevant content. If not I’ll show you what you need to do.
(I’d advise you to repeat the process for 10 – 20 really generic, non-branded keywords and long-tail queries before giving yourself a pat on the back.)
How do search engines determine topical relevance?
Search engine algorithms are really good at figuring out the authority of a website for a particular topic. They learn from what people search for, which websites they decide to click on and where the searchers spend their time. In addition they also determine the value of your content by looking at how many other websites (on the same topic) link back to your website.
How to find websites with high topical relevance in your industry
In order to get the most from your topical keyword model you should find all those domains which already enjoy the status of being authoritative in your industry and improve your content creation learning from their strengths and weaknesses.
At OMD we analysed the backlink profiles of over 200 different domains using Majestic and developed link graphs to categorise them by using one of Majestic’s KPIs - topical authority score. Here’s an example of one such link graph.
About the Link Graph
This particular link graph includes 236 Finnish domains with topical authority for Business and Financial Services. Most Finnish domains fall somewhere between 30 - 50 on the domain authority scale of 0 – 100. The domains included in the link graph have a domain authority (Majestic’s Trust Flow metric) of over 30.
The blue circles are domains that were used as ‘seed domains’ since they’re believed to have a high topical authority and the yellow circles are those domains that share a backlinks with these domains. The size of the circle is representative of the number of backlinks the domain has. The distance from the centre is a measure of their relevance to the topic.
This means that the domains with the most relevant content are closer to the centre.
How to use a link graph to build topical authority
Authority is built over time. However, having a solid foundation will help you speed up the process. A link graph can show you which domains have the most authority in your industry. Just as we started with the most famous and well-known domains and ended up discovering a large number of domains that had strong topical authority scores, you can find content sources that you’re unfamiliar with.
These insights can help you improve your content marketing through benchmarking, PR, collaborations and link building. In the process you can introduce data backed improvements to your content and establish your authority.
It doesn’t matter how valuable your content is, how often you publish, or how much you spend on publishing new content. What truly matters is that people can find your content and derive value from it. Only this type of content will help you accomplish your business goals.
In order to achieve that you have to start telling your content marketing team or partners to use data before they actually start producing anything. Otherwise you’re just casting pearls before swine.
If you want to know a more topically valuable domain in your industry or want to discover where you or your competitors rank, go ahead and give us a shout out.