For episode 174 of The Search Engine Journal Show, I had the opportunity to interview Jesse McDonald, Global SEO Strategist at IBM and world-renowned expert and speaker.
McDonald talks about the difference between a topic-focused strategy and a keyword-focused strategy, why it matters, and more.
How would you define the difference between a topic-focused versus a keyword-focused strategy?
Jesse McDonald (JM): [W]ith things like E-A-T and BERT, it has been a big shift away from just this keyword focus and into more of a topical sort of focus when creating content for SEO, or at least considering content for SEO.
Basically when I’m saying that, I’m thinking of it from the perspective of back in the day you were going to create a page that you wanted to rank for, you did some keyword research on the keyword you wanted the page to really focus on, and basically that’s what you targeted on the page. Cut and dry, pretty simple.
But as the algorithms of search engines have evolved over the last few years, and we’ve gotten smarter and understand the relationship between multiple pages and the aspects that make up a topic, it’s become a bit more complex than just quick keyword research.
Now you have to think of it from the perspective of, “What do I need to cover to make a comprehensive?” I guess focus, on a topic itself. It’s not necessarily just a single page in some instances.
Sometimes there are multiple things you need to cover. You need to cover more of that broad early funnel sort of content, that someone’s really just trying to figure out what problem they’re actually having.
Then you need to look into what type of solution you or your product can offer them. And it’s things like that.
It’s looking at the topic holistically and figuring out exactly where you need to go to have this almost, we like to call it the right to rank. What gives you the right to rank for this topic. That’s kind of what I’m thinking of when I say that.
What is the first thing that somebody really needs to focus on when it comes to shifting to that more topic-based focus?
JM: What I always like to do, either working with a new site or working with something that’s been around for a while is really making sure to dedicate an appropriate amount of time to strategy building.
When I’m doing that, I take a look at everything that the site is offering, be it products, be it services, whatever. I start trying to break that down as a user and into a broad perspective…
Then doing the usual keyword research… throwing them into whatever tool you prefer using keyword research, especially if it has a semantic or a natural language sort of perspective to it.
Seeing what other recommendations are there to rank for this, sort of portion of a topic, what do you need to cover in it?
Then that’ll start sending you down these rabbit holes of, “I need to cover this on a page,” or “this wouldn’t merit being a page in itself.”
Basically using that to map out everything as early on as you can, and as you’re allowed to.
How do I decide where to put my time and continue to adjust that way?
JM: Once I understand what I need to focus on topically, then I start diving into the trenches portion of the work – actually looking into the searches themselves of the keywords and topics that I’ve identified and [identifying] what is the intent behind this. What does this mean?
Because I, at IBM, work more with the cloud side, I will take the products or topics that we’re working on and [determine]:
- If someone searches keyword A into Google, what kind of results are being returned for that?
- Are people looking for “what is” content or “how is” content?
- Are they looking for that “early learn” portion or for a product or a solution to a problem?
Then taking that and building an information architecture (IA) structure out of that.
If it is that “early learn”, this is where it’s going to sit, this is what it’s going to link to, this is what I need to get to link to it.
By that, I’m saying early on, “User, here’s the information for you. If you want to leave, that’s fine because you know what your problem is now.”
That’s giving them an opportunity to either consider us in the future or continue to move forward if they are moving closer to that buy stage.
Mapping intent and then the information architecture and structure of the site so that it can complement the early steps of the funnel and lead deeper into it.
Those sorts of things would be kind of what I would do next after identifying the topic.
Why focus on a topic versus a keyword focus?
JM: Theoretically, you would get sort of the same end goal. I think with more of a topic focus you would get there faster.
I’ve been preaching about having a user-first approach to SEO for a while. The way I’ve always thought of it is, if your user isn’t happy, then your SEO is working for no reason.
If you’re giving the user an experience and the content that that works for them, then your SEO will only benefit further from it.
Theoretically, if you create a topic focus, put your effort into creating content around a topic, and giving a more holistic approach to a topic, you’re going to satisfy users more often than not.
Plus, you’ll be giving them more information, which will build up your authority in a certain area – people’s awareness of you and people’s trust in you. So you have the E-A-T model.
By doing that, you’re more likely to drive more of a conversion to your site, be it a service or a product, because you’re genuinely trying to help people.
You’re putting content out there to help them, even if it’s not necessarily super marketing-driven early on in the funnel, you’re not shoving your product down their throat, you’re just giving them more information.
Because of that, you’re more likely to gain that trust, and hopefully, that sell in the long run.
What aspect of marketing is getting you excited right now?
JM: For me, I really enjoy the kinds of BERT, the natural language processing portion of things.
It’s something that I’m actively working on internally at IBM and I’ve been thinking about for about a year or two now anyway, because I think that truly does help solve user needs more efficiently.
While it can be a bit of a pain, and can take some time and investment to get into, I think it’s going to yield the most lasting results. For me, in my day-to-day work, that is what I’ve enjoyed the most.
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