Keywords vs Topics: What Is The Difference For SEO?

Keywords carry ambiguity. They do not provide context or show the semantic relationship between concepts in SEO like topics do. And as search engines continue to improve their ability to comprehend things in a human-like way, applying a semantic approach to SEO is becoming even more crucial.

This post will cover the main differences between topics and keywords and why you should think about approaching your SEO content strategy from a topic-based approach instead of the keyword approach that SEOs are used to. 

If you’re not yet familiar with the concept of semantic SEO, I recommend you start by reading our Semantic SEO guide to understand what entities are and how they aid Google’s information retrieval system. That understanding will help you comprehend this post better and see how topics can revolutionize your SEO efforts. 

Let’s get into it.

What Are Keywords and Topics?

Keywords are the specific terms and queries we use to search. In the early days of SEO, Google relied on keyword matching to retrieve and deliver content to searchers. So, optimizing your content by including the specific keyword you wanted to rank for regardless of intent was the recipe for securing a spot on the SERPs. Add some authority signals to that by way of link building, and you could even outrank highly authoritative websites.

Topics, on the other hand, are broader themes that your content resolves around. Unlike keywords that point to specific pieces of content, topics connect ideas, concepts, and information and can encapsulate various keywords.

The concept of topics made its way into SEO when Google switched from lexical to semantic search to focus more on entities (things) instead of words (strings). This switch changed the SEO landscape forever as the search engine started paying attention to the intent behind queries, not just the words used to search. Algorithm updates like Hummingbird and Rankbrain are central to this change. They focus on grasping the relationship between words and concepts and enhancing search results by improving Google’s understanding of user behavior and intent.

With the shift to underlying intent and topics, the old method of optimizing content pages with certain keywords, irrespective of user intent, became insufficient for ranking. Instead, a new method that involves producing relevant content around the topics and subtopics existing in Google’s knowledge graph, offering value, and demonstrating expertise on topics became the standard.

Keyword Approach to SEO vs. Topic Approach

Traditionally, SEO strategies are based around finding low-hanging fruit keywords (i.e., search terms with low difficulty and decent search volume) and creating content for all the terms deemed relevant to the website. That essentially is how most keyword research tools are built. 

However, the problem with this approach is that it treats every search term in isolation, without regard for semantic relationships, which form the basis of Google’s knowledge graph. Without semantics, keyword-centric SEO leads to a disjointed topic structure that:

  • Stifles your flexibility to cover content ideas comprehensively
  • Makes it difficult for Google to decipher your website’s core focus
  • Increases the risk of content cannibalization
  • Makes ranking for your important terms more challenging. 

On the other hand, topic-centric SEO allows you to cover content ideas that are graphically close together in a hierarchy similar to how Google organizes information (by topic and supporting subtopics). This efficient content organization demonstrates your site’s authority in a specific niche, aids more comprehensive content production, and enables you to rank for multiple related keywords as a whole. 

Let’s look at an example.

Topic Research vs. Keyword Research 

Say we want to build a content plan around the concept of “camera lens.” Entering the term into Semrush, a popular keyword research tool, returns the following results.

In a traditional SEO approach, writing different pages for “camera lens,” “lens of camera”, and “camera and lens” would create issues with cannibalization and possibly tank your overall ranking. Why? Because all these keywords are different ways of saying the same thing. Even if you wrote one page on camera lens and tried to incorporate all these keywords, you would end up repeating yourself without conveying any substantial information.

But run “camera lens” through a topic-focused tool like InLinks, and you’ll get a richer output with related topics like “camera lens f1”, “stm camera lens,” “camera lens sigma,” etc. 

Now, these are semantically related subtopics relevant to the topic of camera lens. With these subtopics, you can create varied but substantial content that’ll tell Google what concept your website is about and demonstrate its authority. Some of these subtopics will encapsulate keywords with different intents and so may be expanded with multiple pages. However, taking the time to cover all these subtopics will produce a network of useful content that offers a better understanding to users and ranks for multiple related search terms.

Here’s a short video to guide you in optimizing your content for topics when you get to the writing stage. 

(Embed YouTube video

Why You Need to Start Looking At SEO From the Lens of Topics, Not Keywords 

158,000 keywords on camera lens won’t mean anything to users and the search engine if they lack semantic relevance. Semantic relevance gives context to your content and separates keywords from topics. 

Continuing to treat keywords in isolation by optimizing your pages for every variation of a search term shows scant regard for modern SEO best practices and the user’s time. Instead, taking a topical approach and looking at keywords from the viewpoint of how they fit into your broad topic is the new way of approaching content creation.

In 2018, Google announced a new topic layer in the knowledge graph that allows it to organize and intelligently show the subtopics relevant to a current search. This advancement reiterates the importance of adopting a topical approach to improve your chances of appearing in search. 

Additionally, optimizing for topics future proofs your content. As search queries and trends constantly evolve, topics ensure your content stays relevant even as search behaviour changes over time. Also, considering that keyword research tools are incapable of reporting all search terms users type into Google, focusing on topics instead of specific keywords is an opportunity to rank for a wider range of relevant keywords, even the ones you’re yet to imagine.

Think Like Google. Consider the Bigger Picture

Topical SEO advocates considering the relationship between user search journeys and the entire information landscape. Don’t just focus on the initial search query. Instead, think about the possible questions searchers might have and how they might explore a topic further. Then, find ways to connect your ideas into a more cohesive information hub that improves understanding for your audience and builds your credibility in the eyes of the search engine.

By doing so, you’ll build an SEO content engine that is more user-centric, topically rich, and strategically placed for web success.

This post was researched and drafted by Juliet John and reviewed and edited by Dixon Jones.

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