Topical Authority in SEO: How to Build It

The term “topical authority” is SEO jargon that describes the concept of a website becoming a complete resource on a given topic — the go-to site where a user can learn everything they need to know about that topic.

May 28, 2024
Written by
Nate Matherson
Reviewed by
Charles Purdy

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The term “topical authority” is SEO jargon that describes the concept of a website becoming a complete resource on a given topic — the go-to site where a user can learn everything they need to know about that topic.

Our blog is largely about SEO. We are working to build topical authority in that area.

And we’re doing that by creating a large number of helpful guides and resources related to SEO . For example, I’ve written about title tags, indexing, programmatic SEO, building backlinks, and so much more. On our website, I want to cover every topic related to SEO.

When you intentionally build topical authority, you’ll find that your new webpages rank faster, that existing webpages rank higher, and that you can outrank websites with higher domain authority.

There are a few approaches to building topical authority with content. Some SEOs argue that backlinks are also essential. In this article, I’ll explain why topical authority is important, how to build it, and how to protect it.

Why Topical Authority Is Important

Building topical authority is mission-critical for any SEO strategy. As described earlier, building topical authority is simply showing search engines like Google that your website is a fantastic resource on a given topic.

Rank New Content Faster and Higher

If you’ve listened to my weekly SEO podcast, Optimize, you’ve probably heard me mention topical authority — it’s discussed on nearly every episode. When I sat down with Ethan Smith, we chatted at length about how important topical authority is when it comes to ranking in SEO.

“If you know your topical authority and pick new topics that are adjacent or close to that area, those will be much more likely to rank. We actually did a study showing that high topical authority topics get traffic seven times faster than low topical authority topics. It’s pretty dramatic.”

This has been my experience, too. As you create more webpages on a given topic, search engines like Google start to understand what your website is about and what it’s a good source of information on.

The result is that as you publish these new pages, they’ll rank faster and higher. Furthermore, as your topical authority strengthens, previously published webpages related to that topic will likely rank better, too.

Before starting Positional, I built what became a very large blog in the Kubernetes space. Kubernetes is a very specific open-source technology. Over the course of 18 months, we published about 200 articles covering almost every primary keyword (topic) in the Kubernetes space.

Once we got 50 or so articles in, we saw that each new article we’d publish would hit the first or second page of Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) almost immediately after indexing. Google saw our website as a great resource for people looking to learn about Kubernetes. They started to trust us and believe that each new piece of content we created in this space would probably be pretty high quality and helpful. So they ranked it almost immediately.

And those first 50 or so articles that were initially slow to rank started to rank better and better. This phenomenon is what allows SEO as a channel to grow exponentially.

Rank Against Higher-Authority Websites

Positional is ranking above two websites with much higher domain authority, Zapier and OptinMonster, arguably due to having higher topical authority within the SEO space.

Depending on your industry, you might have a lot of competition on SERPs. You might be competing against other company blogs, industry websites, and traditional publishers, such as Forbes.

Topical authority is not domain authority, which is a measure of the strength and quality of the backlinks pointing to a website.

Websites like Forbes have very high domain authority. But they’ve got very low topical authority.

Your website probably has lower domain authority than Forbes. However, it’s possible to outrank Forbes on the basis of topical authority rather than domain authority.

For example, if we build a website dedicated to information about dog training, we can become a topical authority on dog training. If all of our webpages are about dog training, it’s very clear to Google that our website is a good source of information. However, Forbes (and websites like it) has published many thousands of articles about every topic imaginable. It isn’t clear to Google that Forbes would be a good source of information about dog training, given that they’re also writing about Jeff Bezos’s net worth and creating content that rates mortgage lenders.

Ultimately, you can rank higher than websites with higher domain authority by concentrating your topical authority on one or two core topics.

Earn More Backlinks

I’ve often found that concentrating on topical authority has led to my websites earning more backlinks organically.

If someone stumbles onto one of my webpages as they’re writing a piece of content and they see that my website is a comprehensive resource on the topic they’re writing about, odds are that they’ll want to link to one of my webpages, rather than a page on a website where topical expertise isn’t as clear.

Building Topical Authority with Content

You build topical authority by creating a large number of webpages or pieces of content that address that topic and its subtopics.

Fully Own the Topic

In my keyword research process, I try to identify all keywords related to the topic that I might want to build authority in. To become the most authoritative resource on the topic, I want to create a webpage to serve each of the primary keywords.

After building an exhaustive list of keywords, either by using a keyword research toolset or by doing competitive research, the next step is grouping or clustering those keywords, in order to identify the primary keyword for each group. You’ll have one webpage on your website targeting each primary keyword.

Companies or startups often want to create only content that serves the bottom or middle of the funnel. But when it comes to building topical authority, you want to cover the full funnel, including keywords at the top of the funnel, where converting customers would be extremely unlikely.

If I were building an affiliate website about golf balls and I wanted to build topical authority, my editorial calendar would likely be targeting keywords like this:

  • What is a golf ball
  • What are golf balls made of
  • How big are golf balls
  • Types of golf balls
  • Best golf balls for men
  • Best golf balls for women
  • Best golf balls for seniors
  • Titleist golf balls
  • Titleist vs. Bridgestone golf balls
  • Titleist Pro V1 golf balls reviews

In this example, we’re targeting high-in-the-funnel keywords like “what is a golf ball,” all the way down to very specific bottom-of-the-funnel keywords like “Titleist Pro V1 golf ball reviews.”

I know that a high-in-the-funnel page like “what is a golf ball” is unlikely to convert anyone, but that page is helpful for demonstrating topical authority and, in theory, should have a positive impact on the performance of my down-the-funnel pages (which I can actually convert customers from).

I imagine that there are hundreds of primary keywords within the topic of golf balls, and I’d want to create content to serve all of them and become an authority on the topic. By doing this, I’d clearly show Google that my website was the definitive resource on all things golf balls.

Demonstrate E-E-A-T

You’ve probably heard of E-E-A-T, or the Google acronym, which stands for experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. E-E-A-T is a concept in Google’s Search Quality Rater guidelines, which are used to judge the quality of search results.

Experience is newer, and was added to E-A-T a bit later. But you could argue that building topical authority is in many ways very similar to showing Google search raters, or really their algorithm, that your website has expertise on a given topic, is authoritative, and can be trusted.

Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into E-E-A-T, but building out a large portfolio of content on a topic is one way to show Google that your website should be trusted within that space. I bet searchers can pick up on this, too.

What’s even better is if you’ve got experience related to the topic you’re creating content on, and you can showcase that experience within those pieces of content. For example, on our blog, you’ve likely seen me mention our podcast, highlight quotes from our expert guests, and surface insights from my actual experience building large SEO channels.

Use Internal Linking Intentionally

Internal linking is a really important concept in SEO. An internal link is simply a link from one page on your website to another.

Internal links help users navigate through your webpages, and they’re also very helpful for search engine crawlers. Internal links help search engines find your webpages and, importantly, help search engines understand how your webpages are connected to one another.

You want to make sure that you internally link from your broader pages to your more specific pages — for example, your “types of golf balls” page to your “Titleist golf balls” page. And you want to make sure that your more specific pages link back up to your broad pages. This is often referred to as a hub and spoke site structure. The hub is the broad page, and the spokes are more specific pages. You connect the hubs and spokes with internal links.

Internal links promote topical authority because you’re effectively sourcing yourself over and over again. You’re communicating to Google that you’ve got many specific pages that are closely related to one another. And you can use your anchor text on those internal links to further communicate to Google what your linked page is a good source of information on.

Protect Your Topical Authority

By now, some of you reading this article are probably wondering how you can build topical authority within multiple topics — for example, if you own an e-commerce store that sells both hunting equipment (topic 1) and survival gear (topic 2).

This is a good question.

Early in my career, I started a website focused on consumer financial products. Our website had categories for different types of financial products, such as student loans, insurance products, and mortgages.

You can build topical authority within each of your product categories or topic areas. My advice would be to start with a single topic, own it, and then move on to the second, rather than trying to bite off two topics, or even three, at the same time. While the result might be the same, I’ve found that by focusing on one topic at a time, I can move a bit faster when it comes to ranking and traffic.

The Risk of Spreading Too Thin

However, I’ve found that there is a risk of diluting your topical authority if your website’s focus is too broad. Or in other words, if you create content within many different content spaces, it can be harder for Google to see your website definitively as a great resource on just one or two topics.

For example, for the first few years of building our consumer finance website, our website was only focused on student loans. All of the content on our website was about student loans. It was very clear to Google that our website was a great source of information on student loans. However, over time, as we added new product lines, such as pet insurance, it became less clear to Google that our website was a great resource on student loans, given all of the other topics that we wrote about on our website.

I believe this caused our performance in our student loans category to suffer over time, and our website was eventually outranked by competitive websites that focused on just student loans.

While it might be tempting to stray from your core topic area, my advice would be to proceed with caution and to know that rankings and traffic in your core topic might suffer as a result.

Topical Authority vs. Topical Relevance

You’ll often hear about topical relevance, too. I like to think of topical relevance as a page-level concept, whereas topical authority is a domain-level concept.

A webpage that has topical relevance is one that covers a topic in depth. By creating a large number of topically relevant pages, you build topical authority.

Topical relevance is often mentioned in the context of building backlinks. When referring to backlinks, topical relevance describes how relevant a linking webpage is to the one it is linking to. For example, if our webpage about “best SEO tools” earns a backlink from another webpage about “the best tools for SEO,” that backlink would be very topically relevant.

Topical Authority and Backlinks

Depending on which SEO you talk with, you might hear that building topical authority is purely a content initiative or that it’s a combination of both content and backlinks.

I believe that building topical authority is mostly a content initiative, at least initially. Still, backlinks can further strengthen your topical authority and further accelerate rankings.

While there are many different ways to build backlinks — for example, by guest blogging or by tactically using link bait — you want that link to be topically relevant to your webpage and your site’s general topic.

Going back to our golf balls example, I would want to build backlinks from other closely related websites:

A backlink from Titleist, one of the largest golf ball manufacturers, would be extremely topically relevant and help to strengthen our topical authority.

A backlink from Dick’s Sporting Goods, a retailer that sells golf equipment, among other things, would still be topically relevant but arguably less on topic than Titleist.

A backlink from Search Engine Land, a website about content marketing and SEO, would be very unrelated to the core topic area, golf balls, and wouldn’t be very helpful from a topical authority point of view. But this would be a very topically relevant backlink for Positional’s website.

Topical Authority vs. Domain Authority

Topical authority is often confused with domain authority. Domain authority attempts to quantify a metric like PageRank; in other words, it’s a calculation of the strength and quality of the backlinks that point to your website.

On the other hand, topical authority isn’t a calculable metric. Topical authority is broader and might be positively influenced by relevant backlinks, but it also accounts for the topical relevance of the content being published on your website.

“Authority is sort of an overarching theme here, and then it sort of breaks down into different components, is the way that I think about it at least. And so one thing that matters overall is sort of your overall website authority, which generally is correlated with links or referring domains. But then I think, within that, you can sort of hone more targeted authority around specific topics.” said Tyler Hakes on the Optimize podcast.

Which is more important?

If I were just getting started, I would focus on building topical authority conceptually first. Once I’ve laid the foundation of our website with fantastic content, focusing on building backlinks and increasing domain authority will be like throwing fuel on fire.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, topical authority isn’t a quantifiable metric (although it can probably, eventually, be gauged by the amount of traffic coming to your site); rather, it’s a concept.

The blog post you’ve just read is highly relevant to our website’s topic: content marketing and SEO.

To build topical authority, you need to own a topic fully, with webpages serving the keywords or search queries within your space.

Using Positional as an example, we are trying to build the go-to resource on all things SEO on our blog. Our goal is to give you everything you need to know about SEO without forcing you back to Google or another search engine. That’s topical authority, and there are hundreds more topics for us to cover.

By focusing on building topical authority, and protecting that authority, you’ll find that your new webpages will rank faster, and you’ll likely be able to outrank websites that have more domain authority but that aren’t as focused on your core topic.

You can have more topical authority and less domain authority. In a perfect world, you’ll have both. And in my experience, if you create fantastic content and build topical authority, backlinks will often follow, as other websites will see your website as a fantastic resource on its topic.

Nate Matherson
Co-founder & CEO of Positional

Nate Matherson is the Co-founder & CEO of Positional. An experienced entrepreneur and technologist, he has founded multiple venture-backed companies and is a two-time Y Combinator Alum. Throughout Nate's career, he has built and scaled content marketing channels to hundreds of thousands of visitors per month for companies in both B2C (ex financial products, insurance) as well as B2B SaaS. Nate is also an active angel investor with investments in 45+ companies.

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