Keywords vs. Topics in SEO

Posted by Nikki Wardle on Jun 2, 2021 12:19:00 PM

Keyword groups and topics
We freshened up this popular post from 2017.

Keywords have traditionally been the focus of Google and other search engines since the mid-nineties. So after twenty-plus years of focusing search engine optimization efforts around a short list of keywords to work on and rank for, times have changed. With updated Google algorithms, the focus is no longer just on keywords, although those are still relevant. The greater focus is on topics that answer the questions that users are searching for via  desktop computers, mobile devices, and voice command devices. Let's delve into what this change means for you.


If you're looking for someone to blame, don't think of Google or any of the other search engines, blame yourself, me, your neighbors, co-workers, and your family. Because guess what? We are all to blame for the change in focus from keywords to topics.

The way we search for information has changed drastically over the past decade since the first smartphones became mainstream. Today many of us have voice command devices (VCD) in our homes to search the internet with the sound of our voice (i.e. Google Home, Alexa, etc).

Think about the last search you did with your smartphone, versus your VCD or your laptop. Do you use more words to search for what you want with your VCD or voice searches via your phone as opposed to your laptop or tablet? Of course, you do. Nobody actually types out "What is the closest Chinese restaurant that has gluten-free options?" 

Search engines have become sensitive to our new search habits and therefore changed the way they rank websites. Instead of ranking a site for the string of keywords like "What is the closest Chinese restaurant that has gluten-free options?" they would potentially rank you for the topics Chinese food and gluten-free. Well, along with about a hundred other factors too.


Now that we have the why for the change, let's focus on how to start using topics in your SEO strategy. 

Define the Goals

Defining goals has always been (or at least should have been) the first step in determining how to develop the best search engine optimization strategy. Creating SMART goals is the best way to do this. These goals may be something like:

  • Increase website traffic by 20% in 12 months
  • Increase new leads by 15% in the next 12 months
  • Improve conversion rate by 5% in 3 months

Shift Your Thinking

An example of a poor goal that won't get you much traction would be, "Increase rankings of 'x' keyword by 50%" or "rank for 'x' amount of keywords in 12 months."

Why? Because ranking just for specific keywords isn't how the search engines operate anymore. Stop thinking about keywords as the main goal and focus more on becoming the expert in your industry topics, utilizing tactics such as pillar content to maximize your impact. We've seen great success with this for our clients; here's an example that showcases that success.

Ask These Questions

  • What topics are people searching for that are related to your product or service?
  • What valuable content can you provide in order to be an industry authority for that topic?
  • Are you covering all the relevant subtopics for that main topic?
  • Do you have gaps in your content? If so, where are they and how can you fill them?

Answering those questions will help you with lead generation and the improved conversion rates you are aiming for.


Moving away from a focus on keyword reporting is going to change the layout of the metrics and measurements you'll view each month. Here are some steps to help reorganize your reporting to help align with goals and progress.

Organize Your Topics and Subtopics: Once you decide on the topics that you are going to focus on, organize the correlating web pages and landing pages within those topics (we recommend topic clustering for this) and monitor how they are performing (Hubspot provides an easy way to do this in their SEO tool).

Year over Year Analysis: While it is most common to pull and report on the month over month traffic trends, you'll get the best indicator of how your marketing efforts are paying off by showing year over year traffic data. Every market goes through ebbs and flows, which makes month over month data unreliable compared to year over year data.

Data Compilation: Compile the data for each topic as they relate to your goals. An example would be for your Topic A, report on the total traffic, conversion rate and new leads that each of those pages brought in. Same for Topic B, Topic C and so on. You'll be able to see where your holes may be in the buyers journey and where more effort need to be put in.


Why not get the best of both worlds and combine keywords and topics together? Start with developing a great topic or concept that engages your customers and prospects.

In an example of our own strategy, we created an ebook about email marketing. Now let's break down email marketing into small groups of keywords. The first group is about email strategy. The keywords for this group will be "how to create an email strategy," "best email strategy for businesses," "business email strategies," and so on. We take those keywords and write blogs and social posts around those keywords.

The second group of keywords will focus on email content. Those keywords will be "how to write compelling emails," "marketing emails people want to read," "email marketing customers love." Again, we will write posts for our blog and social media to draw in people who are searching for help in those areas.

As you can see, both of the groups of keywords target different searchers' intent, but both of these topics are addressed in the ebook. So in essence, we are doing topic matches with different sets of keywords.

Now, how will you use topics and keywords to create amazing content for your audience?

Choosing the Right Keywords

Another great thing to keep in mind when talking about your web presence is using the right keywords in your SEO efforts. Finding the right keywords to use in your campaign isn’t always easy, but taking the extra time to do the research will save you time and frustration.

Steps in finding the right keywords include:

What do you want to be found for?

This may be the first question you need to ask yourself when formulating your potential keywords. Chances are, you’re performing a specific service, selling a specific product, or wanting to be found on the web for certain things. This is a great place to start as it helps you define the goal of your SEO campaign and keeps you from straying too far off topic.

Think like the consumer

It also helps quite a bit to put yourself in the shoes of a potential consumer. Don’t just think about what you , a person that is hopefully very familiar with your own industry, would search for. Think about what the laymen searches for and remember who your customer is.

Research your potential keywords

Once you have compiled a keyword bank (think about 50-100 terms), then it’s time to run some research on them to see if people are actually searching for them in your area. The best tool to use is the tool provided by Google Adwords. The Keyword Planner will tell you the amount of monthly searches for a particular keyword and some other great information. It will also suggest other ideas that you haven’t thought of yet.

Target the right areas

Depending on the type of SEO campaign that you’re planning on running, you’re going to want to make sure that you’re targeting the right areas. While searching for generic terms that don’t include a geographic location works for national campaigns, you’ll want to make sure to narrow your keywords into a specific area if you’re targeting a local region.


While focusing on topics is generally a more effective strategy, keywords aren't dead! Use a combination of keyword and topic optimization, and adjust your strategy as needed based on the data you get from your site. 

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Nikki Wardle

Written by Nikki Wardle

Nikki has a degree in Marketing from Boise State University and worked as an Inbound Marketing Specialist at Tribute Media from 2014 to 2019. She's a Google Whiz and dog lover, now serving as a marketing director for a local veterinary clinic.