What is topical authority?

Topical authority is SEO jargon for subject matter expertise. According to Search Engine Journal, it is the “perceived authority over a niche or broad idea set, as opposed to authority over a singular idea or term.” It’s one measure for the overall quality of a site and a contributing ranking factor.

  • Sportsnet or TSN are likely to have topical authority for CFL trade news, where Grist or The Narwhal may be considered expert sources for policy questions that emerge during the COP26 climate conference
In this example: News that the Edmonton Elks, a football team in Canada’s football league (yes, we have one! Oldest trophy in North America!) traded their quarterback Trevor Harris to the Montreal Alouettes. As expected, publications who frequently cover the CFL or the Edmonton Elks rank highest in SERPs, followed by another, even more niche publication (3downnation.com covers CFL and Canadian football exclusively). 

Google is smart enough to map out topics (the CFL) and how ideas or concepts within these topics (the CFL draft, a specific athlete being drafted) interact with one another. 

The search engines understand these sites to be more knowledgeable in the overarching topics, and therefore are more likely to rank articles from those sites higher in a search result over competitors who do not write in depth on the subject. 

  • Imagine if Google were a bookstore. It’s the difference between the store having one great book on Trevor Harris vs. an entire CFL section. The entire section shows your store has expertise in a topic. 

Instead of individual keywords or keyword groups, topical authority is your depth of expertise on an overall topic.  Google cares more about topical authority now

In 2018, Google changed its algorithm, putting more emphasis on the topical authority of a website. Instead of major news publishers ranking for any topic on the strength of their site’s authority, ranking focuses more on a niche or the expertise of a site.

  • Where previously a national news organization could rank for some random sports team winning a trophy (your Stanleys, your Larrys, your Heismans etc); now Google is more likely to put a sports-focused outlet in the Top Stories slots for that event. 

What that means: Now, your national news outlet based in Toronto with a focus on politics and business is more likely to rank for stories on a federal cabinet shuffle or major telecom acquisition, but may be less likely to show up when Tampa Bay wins the Super Bowl. Most likely, Google will know to feature coverage from the Tampa Bay Times or the Athletic – regional and niche outlets. 

  • The bad: It’s unlikely publishers will rank easily for any and every topic. 
  • The good: You can focus search efforts on stories that are core to your brand. 

Two related topics: Page authority and domain authority 

Domain authority, page authority and topical authority are similar, related SEO topics. Think of them as more or less granular concepts. 

  • Domain authority refers to the search power of your overall website (theathletic.com or grist.org). Metrics used to measure your site’s authority is not related to a specific keyword or set of keywords, but the overall health of the site.
    • Domain authority is a metric, developed by Moz, to help understand the strength of authority of another site, but does not always correlate to page rank.
  • Page authority is a metric that considers how a specific page will rank in search results. Pages with low quality content (very little text, no service to the reader, have spammy links or are clearly written by a computer) should not see high authority scores. 

Together, these three topics help understand the landscape on the topics you’re focused on and help create quality content. 

Read more: Barry Adams includes an explanation of topical authority in the role of SEO in news issue of his newsletter SEO For Google News.


Understanding your authority

You have to be considered an authoritative source on a topic. (Is that inverting the phrase to explain the phrase? A bit! But that’s the gist.) 

You must write quality content over a period of time on a subject to be understood by search algorithms as a source of expertise reporting.

  • Obviously, you are already doing much of this work. You are writing E.A.T. content that answers the questions readers are actively asking in search in a specific area. 
  • We know our audiences benefit from clear, trustworthy answers to their pressing queries (fulfilling a search intent). Writing those stories or compiling those explainers benefits your readers, and potentially your search rankings.  

But remember: When considering topical authority, we can narrow our focus on what topics we put extra search energy behind. Build topical authority for the key areas your publication cares about (the NFL, the climate crisis, etc.) most to get the most bang for your SEO buck. 

How do you do this? Revisit your mission, vision and values – it’s likely you’ll understand what your main expertise is from your publication’s stated objective(s). 

  • If you’re a local publication, it may be local news in your specific area (i.e., The Independent in Newfoundland and Labrador is a community-powered newspaper focusing on municipal affairs in the province. This is their expertise.);
  • If you’re a national publication, which sections or topics do you tend to lean into for your audience? (i.e., The Globe and Mail on Canadian business news and political analysis.);
  • If you’re a niche publication around lifestyle, sports or tech: which topics tend to have your readers always coming back for more?

What data can be used to decide what topics to focus on?

Look at the keywords that you are already ranking for and stories that consistently do well in search results (look at your Google Search Console data or another SEO tool). Aggregate these into coherent topics. Identify the overlap between existing search interest, a coherent topic and editorial priorities: these are the topics to focus your search efforts on. 

Then consider other SEO metrics:

  • Search volume: The number of times a keyword is searched, on average, in a month. The number fluctuates and isn’t a clear predictor of search traffic – but it can be used to identify story opportunities or trends; 
  • Keyword difficulty: This is a measure of how much effort will be required to rank for a keyword (the higher the score, the more effort required); 
  • Search intent: When reviewing keywords already sending you traffic, ensure the intent of a query informational. Any new stories you write should directly align with the purpose of the search;
  • Content volume: The topics you focus on should be areas your newsroom has the resources to cover often. Think in terms of reporter beats: topics that warrant the focus of a reporter (or reporters) are likely topics your newsroom considers important, and should be considered; 
  • News value/editorial mission: Consider the long-term editorial value in developing expertise that is too nice. Authority in passing news moments or trending queries is unlikely to help long-term goals. Will this topic still be relevant in six months or a year? If the answer is no, zoom out and consider the broader topic and determine if that’s a more useful topic to explore. 
    • There is always interest in something from search. It’s our job to find where the interest is and where it goes.

Remember that search readers are a valuable new top-of-the-funnel audience. They are actively seeking out information or the answer to a question. Put your SEO energy behind content that will draw in readers who are valuable to wider newsroom goals.

How to build topical authority 

After you understand which topics you want to focus on, consider the content you will create and how it will all link together on your site. 

  • Are you surprised to learn that keyword research is the first step!? Hopefully not! Identifying questions readers are asking and topics they’re interested in is the beginning of most of our work. Understand the range of questions readers want answered, then develop content to respond to that interest. 
  • Once content is created, review your checklist for on-page SEO. Clear headlines, meta descriptions, URLs, optimized images and a clear page structure will all help the likelihood a specific page will perform well in search. 
  • Look for opportunities to snag a Rich Snippet (aka Rich Result) in SERPs using structured data where applicable. 
  • Execute your internal linking and backlink strategies. Clearly defined topics connect to clear internal linking opportunities (helpful for the robots and your readers). Cross-linking takes readers further into your site, and deeper in the audience funnel (as in: get closer to converting to paid subscription ).
  • Consider aggregating existing (perhaps evergreen) content into content pillars and topic cluster pages. Well-organized content pillars and topic clusters can be useful not just for readers, but the search engines as well. 

The bottom line: No publication can be an expert in every topic. Pick your moments – and align your search efforts with wider editorial priorities for a winning strategy. 


Start with your publication’s core mission and existing search data. Where is there editorial and search overlap? Those are the topics you want to focus on to try to build topical authority.

  • To build topical authority, begin with keyword research, review the checklist for on-page SEO, look at internal linking/building backlinks and consider content pillars or topic cluster pages. 

This post is reprinted from WTF is SEO?

Three tips to write effective SEO headlines for news

Why are news headlines important for search? 

According to David Ogilvy, “five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.” If the only thing a person is going to read is your headline, you want to make it count. 

Headlines are captured in the <h1> heading tag in your site’s HTML. A web page should only ever have one H1 heading tag, containing the most important piece of information. 

A title tag is the number one element that Google looks at to rank your page. If your title tag is Your Headline + Your Brand (most content management systems will do this for you), then your headline — by default — is the most important thing you can control. 

Headlines tell Google the purpose of the page, and conveys to readers the context and meaning of the story. A well-written headline convinces readers to click and tells Google what your story is about. 

Three tips for crafting effective SEO headlines

1. Headline length 

Headlines should be under 70 characters. However, on the search results page, Google will cut off a headline based on the pixel width (at 600 pixels).

Headline examples:

  • YES: 81% of Canadians say Canada-U.S. border should remain closed: poll  
  • NO: A new poll shows a majority of Canadians think the US-Canada should remain closed

2. Front-load your main-focus keywords

Based on the character and pixel limits, try to front-load headlines with the main-focus keyword or phrase — but don’t overload or overwhelm your headlines with target keywords. This is called “keyword stuffing” and it’s a no-no for Google. Identify your main search phrase and maybe one secondary key word/phrase, and get them in at the beginning of the headline. 

When readers scan your homepage or search results, they will often only read part of a headline. Make the most of the first few words. 

Headline examples:

  • YES: Data shows 54 Florida hospitals out of available ICU beds as COVID-19 cases surge
  • NO: Some intensive care units are running out of beds

3. Hacks to help your headline 

Here are six helpful hacks to consider when writing a headline: 

Numbers: Numbers are a concrete way to let readers know what they can expect in a story, especially if your article has clear action items or takeaways. Odd numbers seem to do better (the human brain is a mystery!), and common figures (5, 7, 9, 15, etc), are great — though something unusual (79? Why not!) can catch someone’s eye, too. 

Dates: Useful both for search and for conveying a particular, specific moment when something will happen. People will add the date (March 11, 2021), days (Monday to Sunday), or a recency (today, now, etc) when looking for recent or current news. Use those same phrases in your headline.  

Questions/W5 words: Who, what, where, when, why. These trigger words are the bedrock questions your story needs to answer, so tease that information by asking a question in the headline itself. This can help set a reader’s expectations, so be sure your story delivers whatever question you set up in the headline (otherwise this is clickbait). 

Synonyms: Consider variations of a name or place, especially if you need to trim for length. 

Top keywords and related keywords: Look at the phrases that send traffic to your site or story. Be sure to use those terms in related reporting.  

Places: Where a story is happening. If the story is about a specific place/physical location—those words should be in the headline. Specificity is your friend here. 

BONUS: The most important headline hack

The most important headline hack: Write for a person. As important as headlines are for search, readers should remain your first priority. Ensure headlines are descriptive of the article while considering SEO. Clarity over tricks. People first, search second. 

Action item: Look at the top headline(s) on your website. Run it through a headline preview tool. Ask yourself:

  • Is the character count under 70?
  • Are key search terms cut off? 
  • Would you click this headline?

If the answer to the above is yes, you’re good to go.

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