Small businesses often struggle to gain traction online when compared with larger corporations with seemingly limitless resources backing them up. But don’t get discouraged! With patience and some hardcore TLC (Tender Love and Care), your small business site can thrive online and bring in more customers despite all the competition. To do this thing right, though, you’re going to need to build topical authority as part of your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy.
You’ll hear a lot of SEOs (people who engage in Search Engine Optimization) talk about domain authority, but that’s actually a totally different thing. Domain authority is a measure of a site’s overall performance and its likelihood to rank on the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). It has no connection whatsoever to Google or its algorithm. It’s just a concept from Moz, an SEO company, that helps SEOs think about and adjust their SEO strategy over time.
It’s important to understand the distinction between these two concepts, so let’s get into the main lesson.
What Is Topical Authority?
Not to be confused with domain authority, topical authority is a similar concept dealing with your brand’s niche and how well you cover every topic related to your niche in your content. It also isn’t a ranking factor (nor a skincare product, though it sounds like one).
Before Google’s Hummingbird update in 2013, search was based more heavily on keywords, matching those found in the user’s query to those same keywords in content all over the web, and showing results that used them the most. Now, Google is wise to keyword cramming and is able to tell good, useful content from poorly executed or spammy content and more consistently serve up the good stuff.
To do this consistently, Google uses a concept called E-E-A-T, which is also not a ranking factor in itself, and which we’ll talk about in the next section. But the ‘A’ in that acronym stands for Authority, and the best way to determine authority is to look at a person’s reputation, their sources of information, connections, and accuracy over time. Think of topical authority as a way of grading your site based on how well you deliver content that covers a single topic in whole, rather than giving just a cursory overview.
Topical Authority and SEO
Why does Google care how thorough you are about a topic?
Think about it this way, Google’s job is to solve users’ problems, answer their questions, and soothe their pain points as quickly as possible. To that end, the company works hard to deliver speedy results (we’re talking milliseconds) and thorough answers to whatever their searcher happens to be asking. If they didn’t continually serve up credible and useful content, people would look for other solutions en masse. As a webmaster (someone who manages a website), that means that Google’s priorities are your priorities.
This is a good system if you think about it: If you want your site to be seen, you have to make it worth seeing. This drives every business and website out there that cares about its reputation to actively work toward better-quality content, making the internet an overall more friendly and helpful place to spend every second of every day!
How to Build Topical Authority As a Small Business
Let’s break this down. The acronym stands for Experience, Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness. These are four concepts that Google urges webmasters to strive for in their content. Google’s documentation is a great place to get familiar with if you want to succeed in SEO overall.
According to Google, its algorithm is able to pick up on tips from your content that you’re an experienced, authoritative, and trustworthy expert. The goal for you and your site becomes to help Google in that endeavor so that it’s more likely to choose your content over sites with less going for them.
Again, this is not a ranking factor. There is no final E-E-A-T score that plays a part in your SERP position. But these are indicators of the kind of high-quality content that Google wants to show its users, so it only makes sense to prioritize them in your marketing process. Let’s talk about how you, as a small business owner or webmaster, can leverage this particular acronym.
When someone reads your article, watches your video, listens to your podcast, or interacts with anything you produce, they want to know where your information is coming from. Do you have personal experience that’s relevant to your topic? You can think of it like showing visitors why they should listen to you, personally. There are ways to show your level of experience, and if you don’t bother, then Google will show other sites instead.
So determine your strengths and use them. Do you have a small team? Maybe you’re the only business in your area that uses a particular technique to get the end result you’re “famous for.” Maybe you went to college for a major related to what you do. Maybe you learned your craft from an expert in your field.
Come up with things that make you stand out compared to your competitors and capitalize on them, because the experiences that brought you to this point are the ones that Google and readers will find interesting, and they back up your content!
On the surface, this seems similar to our first ‘E.’ That’s because you don’t become an expert without experience, but there’s a difference here. Expertise comes from a deep and practiced understanding of the topic. I’d be nervous if my brain surgeon had seen the procedure performed and done it once with “only a little bit of lasting damage to the patient.” I’d prefer a surgeon who’d performed the surgery a number of times and managed to work through many different complications with a high degree of success. I guess we take what we can get, though.
As a small business, you likely have areas of expertise that you haven’t even thought about. When you create content, relate these areas to your niche, and within your niche, to your chosen topic or topics. Whether you think so right now or not, your particular path to where you are now in your business gives you a unique perspective that can be incredibly useful to other people.
Use that. Allow yourself to not only think outside the box, but to remember that it’s your box, and that you can think anywhere around it that you like. You can draw on the walls, cut out sections, and reshape the box to reflect whatever works for you as an expert in your field, whatever that may be.
People are taught to trust authority. More than that, it’s natural to trust these figures because we, as humans, fear the unknown. If we don’t know the best or safest way to proceed, we turn to people who have shown through previous interactions or by reputation that they do know how to move forward. The fact is, you have no idea why a visitor is on your site. As far as you know, they could be looking for information to help them with an important decision that will affect their lifestyle, job, or relationships. As Google and I see it, we webmasters have a duty to present information that is true and correct to the best of their knowledge and experience.
One way to build your reputation is simply by linking up everywhere people can find your content online. Show an author bio on each post, preferably with some kind of link to your content on other sites like Twitter (if it’s related to your business). This helps Google build a network of information about you as an author and see more examples of your expertise on your specific topic.
Just because you don’t own a multinational corporation or give speeches in the town square does not mean that you cannot speak knowledgeably about what you do. Remember that true authority doesn’t come from doing what others expect or ask you to do. True authority comes from knowing your shit and following through.
Finally, we have trustworthiness. Just like in life, this is about delivering on your promises, and as business and a content creator, there are some promises built right into the process.
By creating content that’s meant for other people to spend their time on, you’re implying that what you’re offering them is worth their time. This is especially true for paid content because money does not, in fact, grow on trees. And there aren’t a lot of trees around anymore, anyway. If, at any point in your content, it becomes clear to your visitor that you lied and that your content is about getting web traffic and not about what the title promised, you will lose the respect of that visitor and all the other visitors that fell into your trap.
Google knows that situation all too well, and takes steps in the search algorithm to weed out spammy and unhelpful content. But the first step is with content creators. If you show Google and users from the outset that the purpose of your content is to help others by providing good resources and information, supplemented with helpful images, videos, and other files, you deliver on a promise and gain a trustworthy reputation within your target audience and with Google, itself.
Now, I should mention that nobody actually knows the exact methods Google uses to gauge E-E-A-T. In an effort to discourage “gaming the system,” they keep these things pretty well wrapped up. And personally, I think that’s fair. Because we have to guess how a lot of these things work, the internet is more fairly weighed. It’s hard enough to compete online with large businesses with all their resources. Imagine if every ranking method was known and they could essentially pay to have all those boxes checked.
The way it is, we can trust that for the most part, sites got to where they are because no matter how many content creators and SEO specialists like myself they employ, they’ve had to focus on providing a good user experience and helpful content. That’s something I can get behind.
Drive Your Content With Data
As a small business looking to compete, your first task is to select a niche and stick to it. Your niche is the specific cluster of topics that you cover on your site. Topical authority is exactly what it sounds like, becoming an authority on one topic. You can eventually branch out to more than one topic within your niche, but each topic and sub-topic should be covered thoroughly before you do that. This gives Google a bright signal that your domain should be considered an authority on that particular topic and will result in more searchers finding your content.
That means doing your keyword research with tools like answerthepublic.com and lowfruits.io, and coming up with a topic map for your blog. A topic map is a way of planning your blog or other content around what will be most helpful to searchers. The two sites above are tools that allow you to see real-time search data related to keywords. So once you’ve chosen a topic, say TV Shows, you can simply search for “tv shows” in Answer the Public or Low Fruits to be shown a huge volume of search queries that include that keyword. You can then use those specific search terms to map out your topic and cover it wholistically.
You need to understand the concept of pillar content, an article or video that covers the topic broadly. You can, and should, then go one level deeper and write articles that explain every aspect of that topic and link each one to the pillar article. Then go another level deeper for each of those articles and write more content that covers even more specific aspects of those subtopics.
If you were to visualize the link connections at the end of this process, it would look like a family tree, with the pillar content as the trunk and subtopic content branching off of it, with sub-subtopic content branching off of those, and so on. The result is a web of juicy information all surrounding and suffusing one specific niche topic. Google sees this and—if your content is well-executed—knows that you shouldn’t be ignored as an expert or an authority on this subject.
Solve the Search In One Go
Remember, the goal here is to be the only site a user needs to come to in order to find what they’re looking for. If people have to search again, or if they return to their original search too many times after reading your article, Google takes it as a sign that your content did not solve the user’s problem. So it behooves you as a business to put real work into your content.
There are lots of ways to solve the search, but the basic idea is to just do your homework. Write outlines, talk to users, and do your keyword research before you ever start writing to ensure that you’re offering up the best possible resource to searchers.
Track Your Performance and Adapt
No part of SEO is a one-time fix. The whole process is trial and error depending on the needs of your business and the resources available to you. As people engage with your content, you need to keep track of how it performs, where your traffic is coming from, how often your content is shared, etc.
There are lots of tools that you should be aware of and use for your small business. The ones I’m mentioning here are free, so you don’t need to set aside part of your budget to use them. There are, of course, paid versions of most of these that you can upgrade to if you want to go all in on bringing in site traffic.
This isn’t strictly a tracking or SEO tool so much as a learning resource. Google publishes great documentation about the changes it makes to search and what webmasters can do to perform well online. If you want to understand search straight from the horse’s mouth, this is the place to go.
This has a similar name, but is not to be confused with Google Search Central. Google Search Console is an actual tracking tool, giving you direct information and ways to change how your website is understood by Google. Use it to submit sitemaps directly to Google and manage other important aspects of your website and how it relates to users.
This is a tumultuous time to be first getting into Google Analytics because the tech giant happens to have just released the biggest update to the software in its history. Keep in mind that GA4 is not compatible with previous versions of Google Analytics data, so you’ll need to switch before the deadline. You can read about the update here, and I’ll be publishing a complete guide to switching to GA4 in the coming week.
You can use Google Analytics to get granular insights about your site’s visitors, the keywords you’re ranking for, and other great tools that are invaluable to businesses of any size.
This is a free tool by NPDigital, a company by SEO and Marketing expert, Neil Patel. It allows you to plug in any domain and see keywords it ranks for, sites that link back to it, and other useful information that can help you create a successful SEO campaign.
This may be the most versatile tool on this page. I ignored Hubspot for a long time because I thought it was just another trendy website promising better traffic numbers. The thing is, Hubspot actually offers a number of free tools that help you run your business, everything from SEO and keyword tracking to email marketing and lead management. It integrates all of this with a to-do and ticket system and integrates seamlessly with apps like Gmail to help you manage your whole professional life in one giant hub! Spot… thing… 😉
General Topical Authority Tips
Now that you know what topical authority is, make it your mission to grow your small business with it! Whether you’ll be doing all the writing yourself or hiring a content creator—like… I don’t know, me for instance—put as much thought as you can spare into making your website’s content support your customers.
Here are some quick tips and links to some of my other articles on SEO to help you know what to learn next:
- Know search like you know your business.
- Produce lots of quality content within your niche.
- Promote your content everywhere you are online.
- Interact with your community.
- Define topic clusters around pillar content.
- Perform keyword research.
- Satisfy search intent.
- Include your sources where possible or significant.
- Be intentional about link-building.
- Write with your own unique voice.
- Structure your site well and use sitemaps.
Do check out some of the links in these list items. I’ve worked hard to infuse each article with actionable steps and complete concepts to help you and your website thrive.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be publishing my next bit of pillar content, a complete guide to SEO that you can download and share and use to grow your business to your heart’s content. So make sure to check back and follow me on your favorite social network @studiooriley for updates!
Have questions? Feel free to ask anything you’d like in the comments. I always answer, and I’m happy to write an article on a specific issue if enough people have the same question. Until next time, I wish you the best of luck as you grow your business through topical authority and other SEO tactics!