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Search engines have changed how they list websites in search results dramatically in the last few years. Most recently I've been struggling with how to create the kind of content that buyers are searching for and optimizing it to fit with the new search world. In assessing the value of content, there has been a fundamental shift in how we should optimize our blog posts using topic clusters instead if keywords.

With the rise of mobile and voice search, people aren't searching online like they used to. In the past, you would craft your search based on the desired search results. The particular keywords and the order they were presented would create different search results. Way back we used to be "good" at searching online by mastering this technique.  

Machine Learning Results

Fast forward to today and search engines have gotten a lot smarter as a result of machine learning algorithms like Google's Rank Brain. This idea stems from the concept that machines learn and adapt based on the behavior of the subjects. Search engines now have the ability to understand the "intent" of the searcher through creation of the Hummingbird algorithm.

Another factor that has affected search outcomes is the fact that Google now tries to simply answer your question rather than show you a page with your answer.  If there is no apparent answer, Google will show the "featured snippet" at the top of the page.

Try searching for "how to cook a turkey" and the first result will be content from another website that is pulled out to answer your question.  If your page ends up there, you are golden. Time to pop the champagne and celebrate! At least for a little while.

how to cook a turkey   Google Search.png

Search Engines Now Understand Intent 

Now that search engines understand intent rather than just a primitive keyword analysis, we can't simply measure how individual keywords rank. On top of intent, search engines also provide search results based on where the geographic place the person is searching from. For example if you are looking for a restaurant on your phone in Seattle you'll get different results than if you are searching in L.A. There are literally thousands of variations of search results for the same keywords.

Online marketing agencies must understand how search engines now assess content. Instead of creating a blog post and optimizing for specific keywords we should be optimizing for specific topics. These topics create clusters that each work around a core keyword for one cornerstone piece of pillar content.

Here's an example. If I'm writing my post about "topic clusters" I would then create a long post describing in great detail what the topic is about. The bigger the better, and if you are competing for a popular keyword it will also help to use the skyscraper technique.

Once I have my long article I can then figure out subtopics that are connected to the core topic by simply searching for the core topic; Google Instant will show the subtopics. I would then write about each sub-topic and link the subtopic to the pillar content.

 
topic cluster courtesy of Hubspot

Here's the key for using the optimization tool: we optimize the pillar content for the core topic but we optimize each post for the long tail version. This approach maps the search engine results to our subtopic which links to the core topic. Having said that, don't expect your post to show up right away for the long tail keyword. There are many other factors that influence search engine results.

Figuring Out Subtopics

The easiest way to figure out good subtopics is to simply search for the core topic in Google and wait for Google to auto populate the subtopics.  For example when I type "keyword optimization" I get the following suggestions:

  • keyword optimization resume
  • keyword optimization amazon
  • keyword optimization seo
  • keyword optimization adwords

If I keep typing "keyword optimization seo" I get the following suggestions: tool, resume and adwords. These are good suggestions on subtopics coming straight from Google. Once you think you have a good subtopic then complete the search and view the results. This should give an accurate listing of website pages that are similar to your topic. If they don't it's not a good subtopic.

Further keyword research can also include using Google Adwords to help identify subtopics. Just enter the core topic and Google will send you a list of keyword suggestions. This will provide a more varied list of topics that you can write about and run ads for.

So How Do We Optimize Subtopics?

We want the focus keyword phrase to contain the long tail version. Using our example we would write posts for "keyword optimization seo tool" or one of the others. I've also noticed that these suggestions change over time so you can actually just go back and repeat the process to get more suggestions. This makes sense as new posts are constantly being created and results are continually changing.

Where To Go From Here

Further research and more indepth SEO analysis can be provided on an expert basis. Check out our last year's report on SEO myths you should leave behind.

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Topics: SEO

Tony Sova

Written by Tony Sova

Owner of Softwired, a web design, SEO, and Inbound Marketing firm.