What is topical authority?

Here’s how to build subject matter expertise – also known as topical authority.

Jessie Willms  - December 6, 2021

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.

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. 

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.

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. 

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. 

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.

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). 

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:

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. 

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.

This post is reprinted from WTF is SEO?

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