Out with “Keyword Research” — In with “TOPICS” and “SEARCHER INTENT

Among everything you’ve heard about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), you’ve likely heard “keyword research” discussed the most. And that makes sense. For the longest time, it was the lifeblood of SEO best practices.

You had to know which words people were typing into search boxes so you could use those same words in your content.


The keywords-to-topics progression

That’s why everyone got their hands on advanced software that used search engine data to determine which words people typed into the Google search box. Then, people got tricky and wanted to game the system. They filled their content with these keywords and phrases, making an almost unreadable (but highly ranking) piece of content.

Once searchers landed on those sites, though, they often left because they didn’t find what they were looking for (making for a high “bounce rate”). Searchers got frustrated with this “keyword stuffing,” so Google cracked down on it.

As the AI behind Google’s algorithms became “smarter,” Google was able to detect more natural language and determine meaning beyond the use of one word or short phrase. That’s when it became all about “long tail keywords.”

(Ex: Instead of “T-shirt” for a keyword, long tail versions were more specific key-phrases that further categorized the topic, such as “Yellow T-shirt” or “Red V-neck T-shirt”)

But for Google’s A.I. to best match the human thinking process of a searcher needing information, it had to go beyond even that. Now Google looks at topics of single webpages, and stored in its databanks are thousands of words and phrases that might go along with a certain topic.

Think of it like Google cloning the brain of your best English professor and plugging it into its servers. Yes… in a way, Google is now grading your papers! The “grade” you get is how well it will position in search results for related topics.

If you cover your topic well, you’ll position for keywords that aren’t even written in your content!


“The goal of switching the mentality to more of a topic-focus

is to create content that addresses an entire conversation holistically

as opposed to just worrying about the single keyword a page should be targeting.”

(Jesse McDonald, Global SEO Strategist for IBM)


So what do we do? How do we cover topics in the way Google wants us to?

Think back to writing essays in school. You had a broad topic, and a point you were making about that topic. You then had a few sub-points in your outline that helped support the primary topic.

It’s like that. But with a few specific emphases.


Write what your readers want to know

Remember, you’re not just writing about whatever you want. You’re not even writing for Google. You’re creating a webpage for a specific target audience—one you believe your ministry can help. And by doing this, you’ll also help Google direct searchers to your content.

Keyword research still comes in handy here, but the role it plays has been adapted. Rather than finding out which words people are using, you want to know which questions they’re asking.

If you are investing in keyword research software, such as Google Ads or SEMrush, you can still gather insight on how often searchers are using certain phrases—which is still a starting point for determining what topics are getting attention. To take things a step further you’ll want to look at tools like AnswerThePublic.com, Google Suggest, or do your own googling to see which articles on your topic are most popular in search results. 

Another way to look at what people are asking is to look at competing articles that have comments. What are people asking about in the comments? Which concepts are people struggling to grasp, or which parts of the topic are confusing them? This can help you determine how you’ll want to cover it in your own content.

(For an in-depth look at how you can effectively conduct your own topic research, we recommend this article.)


Write for your readers’ INTENT

Your research may tell you right away that people want to hear about the topic of home makeovers. But when you type that in Google, you may get pages about “how to makeover your home” to “how to get a salon-quality makeover at home.” Depending on which of those the searchers are actually looking for, half of the results will be useless.

Clearly define your topic. If you want to reach an audience of do-it-yourselfers looking to improve their home on a budget, make sure all your content adequately reflects this. Based on your research, note the points of ambiguity as well as wording that would differentiate you content from other similar yet different topics.

Cover your topic thoroughly—write an outline! Consider all the subtopics necessary to include. For home makeovers you’d want to cover precautions to take, best ways to plan, best places to buy tools, etc.

Think about what you found in your research. What are people asking about? Answer those questions.

Be specific in your titles, headlines, and subheadings. In the same way “home makeover” can mean two very different things, when titles are vague you can end up attracting readers whose intent doesn’t match yours. Instead of “Tips for Home Makeovers,” try something like “Tips for DIY Home Remodels.”

In the same way, just think about all you can do with the broad topic of “Bible study,” depending on what your ministry offers:

  • Bible study videos
  • DIY Bible studies
  • One on one Bible study
  • Bible study webinars
  • Bible study training
  • Bible studies for kids
  • Bible studies for new believers
  • In-depth Bible study
  • Bible study group
  • Downloadable Bible studies

Each item on this list represents a different group of searchers with interest in the same topic, but with varying intent.

It’s also important to be situationally specific, thinking about what stage of the “buyer’s journey” your target audience will be in. Especially if your ministry sells items online.

For example, using words like “sale” or “discount” in your headlines or PPC ads can catch the searchers ready to buy something, while words like “better” or “best” can attract those focused on comparison shopping.


Write for readability

Did your English teacher ever get after you for straying from the main idea of your essay? Professor Google will get after you for the same thing.

It can be easy to want to address every subtopic brought up when writing about your topic of choice. But to keep readers focused, it’s best to stick to one piece of the puzzle at a time.

If you’re writing about the topic “choosing a college,” there are so many directions you can go just with that. There are different types of higher learning institutions to compare, different types of programs to consider, varying financial aid options, locations, types of campuses, etc. To discuss all of this in one article would be overwhelming for an online reader.

However, creating a “topic cluster” can organize these subtopics in a way searchers can easily navigate.

A “pillar page” is an overview page that introduces the broad topic and the subtopics within. But as each subtopic is brought up, an in-text hyperlink will lead the reader to another page that expands upon that subtopic. That internal link will open a new page in a new tab, so readers can jump straight to the part of the topic they’re interested in without leaving the first page.

That way readers can skip over what they aren’t looking for and skip right to the subtopic they are interested in.



Overall, content creation has taken a more sophisticated turn in order to work best with SEO best practices. But this is great news for writers willing to put in the time and effort to create this high-quality content in partnership with your ministry’s marketing and SEO efforts. This is a ministry opportunity with huge potential, given the amount of searches online looking for spiritual answers.

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