The 5 Step SEO Strategy To Rank For Any Keyword (With Zero Risk of a Google Penalty)
Aug 27 2018
18 min read
18 min read
Table of Contents
- What You’ll Learn In The Next Few Minutes About Ranking In Google:
- Do Keywords Still Matter in SEO?
- Keywords vs. Topics - What's the Difference?
- Step By Step - How To Optimize Your Site for Topics
- The Conclusion: Stop Thinking Only About SEO & Keywords and Focus More on Your Audience In Order To Rank In Google
Last night I was telling a friend about a particular PS4 game that I played a couple of years ago and immediately fell in love with. The game’s graphics, storyline, soundtrack, and, above all, its the main character (a female warrior fighting against huge robots) were just awesome.
But I just couldn’t recall its name.
So like most other questions, I put this one to Google.
And there it is, Horizon Zero Dawn.
What a game!
Being a marketing geek, though, I noticed something else as well.
There wasn’t a single search result on this page with the exact keyword/search phrase I used (as you saw in the screenshot the search phrase I used was "best ps4 game 2017 girl warrior robots" with no mention of the name of the game 'Horizon Zero Dawn').
Does that mean keywords are no longer one of the primary ranking factors?
It can’t be true.
Maybe my keyword was just too long.
After all, who would optimize a page for “best PS4 game 2017 girl warrior robots”
I’ll try a more conventional search term “cancer-curing fruit”
Strange, not a single result with the "cancer-curing fruit" keyword in the title or meta description
And Google even highlighted the names of the fruits in the featured answer snippet.
What’s going on?
Does that mean Google actually understands what I want to search for and shows me the best results instead of ranking keyword-optimized articles?
I don't believe it.
I’ll try another one, “increase dog appetite”
Pretty high-quality search results, but why isn’t there a single page with my search keyword "increase dog appetite” in the title.
Let me try a more complex search like “Facebook virtual glasses”
Let’s see what Google comes up with...
OMG! Oculus VR, Facebook’s virtual reality gear, ranks at the top.
And not a single result with that exact keyword 'Facebook virtual glasses' that I searched for!
Google DOES understand what I want.
My keyword-stuffed articles, over-optimized landing pages, and keyword-specific domain sites are doomed!!
Okay, enough of this drama!
I hope you’ve understood the point I’m trying to make.
SEO has moved beyond conventional keyword usage.
Google no longer requires the exact keywords or search phrases in page titles or in the content body for a certain number of times to understand what the content is about.
It now understands and ranks pages based on topics, not just isolated keywords.
This means you can now identify the broad topics that you want to be known for, find out the questions your audience is asking about those topics, and then answer those questions in a better and more comprehensive manner than your competitors WITHOUT actually obsessing over useless and outdated metrics like keyword density, keyword frequency, exact keyword placement, etc.
Seriously, stop thinking about keywords all the time.
Focus on providing real value to your readers and write content based on THEIR needs.
Because Google's smart enough to figure out what's relevant to its searchers.
In simple words, the rules have changed.
And if you want to build sustainable traffic steam (and start a long term website) from search engines, you’ll need to adapt fast.
Keep reading if you want to learn more about how to use this on your own website in a sustainable way that NEVER puts you at risk from a Google penalty...
What You’ll Learn In The Next Few Minutes About Ranking In Google:
How the role of keywords has changed in SEO (you need to understand this).
How to rank for dozens of high-traffic keywords without even targeting them.
Why do you no longer need to create separate pieces of content for different related keywords.
How to build an internal link structure that'll turn your site into an SEO powerhouse.
Do Keywords Still Matter in SEO?
The short answer is yes, keywords still matter and so does keyword research.
But not the way you and most of THESE people in NicheHacks Facebook Mastermind think.
Here's another similar question
And another one.....
The problem here is with the mindset.
All these people are just too concerned about keyword placement, keyword density, keyword frequency, the keyword this, the keyword that!
They'll NEVER create engaging and useful content with this mindset
As this mindset means they are focusing on pleasing Google when you really need to focus on pleasing Google's "customers" (i.e. the people who search for things on Google).
Because when you please Google's users you actually please Google.
Think about it; Google wants to show the best possible and most relevant content to its search users.
And Google does NOT want their results to be gamed by crafty "SEO's" who use all the latest tricks, hacks, and loopholes to cheat their way to the top of the results.
They simply want the most relevant content for their search users at the top of their results and not the content run by the savviest SEO's who know how to stuff it with keywords and game the algorithm.
So here's the truth.
Keywords still matter but not to Google.
They matter to you.
They give you direction and help you understand the topics your target audience is interested in. They give you insights into the needs of your audience and allow you to structure your content around those needs.
But does that mean you need to use the exact keyword in a certain way in your content to rank?
Google no longer relies solely on keywords to understand the content of a page or determine its relevance to a search query.
Thanks to Google's search algorithm updates like Hummingbird and RankBrain, it can now understand the link between different keywords and topics and use machine learning to determine the best results based on the searcher's intent.
It no longer needs you to stuff your content with the exact keywords you're targeting.
As the infographic suggests, with the Hummingbird update, Google moved away from keywords and became more interested in ranking search results based on what the searcher is trying to accomplish.
This means you can write naturally and use different variations of your target keyword just like we do in our everyday conversations.
So, for example, if your target keyword is "best SEO tips 2018", you don't need to optimize separately for stupid variations like "best SEO tip 2018", "best search engine optimization tips 2018", "seo tip 2018", "seo tips 2018".
Google knows they all mean the same thing, so if you rank for just the main keyword, you're likely to rank for all the others as well.
Keywords vs. Topics - What's the Difference?
Google now ranks websites based on their topical relevance and authority instead of just random keywords.
But what exactly is the difference between keywords and topics?
A Keyword is just a word or phrase used by a searcher. For example, "blog writing tips", "get email subscribers", "traffic generation tips", "buyer persona"
A Topic, however, is a group of keywords that are related to each other. And this relationship isn't necessarily limited to synonyms.
For example, you can group the keywords I just mentioned under one topic, "content marketing"
Let's take the keyword "football" as another example.
What are the things that come to your mind when you think of football?
Christiano Ronaldo, Messi, David Beckham Free Kick, Greatest goals, Football dribbling, Manchester United, English Premier League, World Cup Football.
All of these keywords fall under one topic, Football News.
Since Google now analyzes the authority of a site on a topic and ranks content based on its overall relevance to the searcher's intent.
Therefore a site with higher topical relevance and authority will rank higher in search results for all the keywords related to that topic even if it isn't optimized for the exact keywords (provided the content answers the searcher's query).
If you understand your audience, know the terms they commonly use and have a good idea of their problems, you just have to target those problems (topics) and write naturally. You'll not only cover most of the popular keywords but also rank well for the overall topic.
According to Rand Fishkin, found of MOZ, Google is more concerned about matching the searcher's intent than matching keywords
In this image, Rand describes how search has evolved over the years.
For SEO 2018 and beyond, he mentions that the main focus while creating content should be on the searcher, instead of keywords.
Which is why it's crucial to understand the needs of your audience and think from their perspective.
What is their intent? What are they looking for? What are they trying to achieve?
If your content matches the searcher's intent (in simpler words, gives him what he wants) Google will rank you not only for the keywords you're targeting but also for other related keywords that match the same intent.
Because it understands how they're related to each other.
Let's look at the step-by-step process to optimize your site for topics over keywords...
Step By Step - How To Optimize Your Site for Topics
Okay now that you know the difference between topics and keywords and how they impact search results, let's talk about how you can build topical relevance and rank for all the relevant keywords in your niche.
This is a proven strategy that has not only worked well for major brands like HubSpot, Inc., and Entrepreneur, but also for niche marketers like Matt Diggity
In fact, HubSpot used it to not only rank number 1 for most of its target topics and their related keywords but also made it to the featured snippet for many of them.
What exactly is the strategy?
You'll build topical relevance by
identifying the broad topics you want to be known for
creating pillar pages for each topic
creating supporting articles and blog posts for each pillar page
creating a strong internal link structure for each topic and its supporting blog posts.
Essentially, we're going to create topic clusters on our site, like this one created by HubSpot.
The image shows clusters of different topics with their own supporting articles closely linked with each other, but completely separate from the other clusters.
Here's how you can apply this model to your niche site.
1. Identify the Topics You Want To Be Known For
The first step is to actually identify the topics that YOU want to be known for.
These would be the topics that relate directly to the products you're selling or promoting, and also have a direct appeal to your audience.
For example, if you have a blog on social media marketing, here are some of the topics you can list down.
Social Media Monitoring
Or if you have an affiliate site promoting Pet food products, here are some of the topics your audience might like.
These are not keywords, you're not trying to rank for them directly.
These are broad topics that YOU want your brand/blog to be known for. You want Google to show your site on the top whenever someone searches ANYTHING related to these topics.
You can think of them as categories in a WordPress site.
So how do you come up with topics for your site?
Learn From Your Competitors
The easiest way is to simply use your experience and a bit of common sense.
If you know your niche, you can identify 5-6 broad topics/categories all of your content will fall into.
You can also look at competitor blogs to get an idea.
For example, if you're looking for broad topics for a health & fitness blog, you can get ideas from a popular fitness blog like VeryWellFit.
Look at how they've categorized their content under broad topics.
If a blog doesn't have well-defined categories like this one, just look at their content and try to find the common themes they're targeting.
You'll be able to find anywhere between 2-6 (or even more) broad topics depending on the size of the blog.
Get Topic Ideas from Niche Forums
Niche forums are goldmines for finding broad topics for your blog
Simply head over to Google and use these search queries to find forums in your niche.
"Niche" + "forums"
"Niche" + "vbulletin"
"Niche" + "discussion board"
Let's search for baseball related forums and try to find a few topics on it
Here's one of the forums I found.
Like most discussion forums, this one is also divided into several broad categories. We can use many of them as topics for our blog strategy
All of these are good broad topics for a niche site that's selling or promoting baseball accessories.
You can use the same approach to find broad topics for your site on Reddit, Quora, and several other discussion platforms.
Once you have a list of a dozen to more topics, shortlist the ones that are the most relevant to your site and connect with your business objective.
Then move on to the next step.
2. Create Pillar Content for Each Topic
Now that you have 5-6 target topics, you need to create pillar pages for each topic.
A pillar page is a comprehensive and evergreen resource with detailed and in-depth content that covers every major aspect of your topic.
It is also the center of your topic cluster around which new articles and blog posts will be added. Every supporting article that you write about this topic will link back to this pillar page. This will increase its topical relevance and authority.
For example, if we're creating a pillar page for "Facebook Marketing" (a topic we identified in the previous step) we will cover everything from the very basics of Facebook marketing to the advanced techniques and strategies.
It will be one massive resource that will have everything a reader wants to learn about Facebook marketing.
You can call it something like "Facebook Marketing: The Only Guide You Every Need To Read" or "The Ultimate Guide To Facebook Marketing.
Here's a really good example of a pillar page on HelpScout blog
It's a massive resource (probably 10,000+ words) that covers everything from the very basics of email marketing to advanced techniques like automation and segmentation.
All other articles about email marketing on their blog link to this post.
This helps Google spiders understand the relevance of the internally linked pages and increase their authority on this topic.
Do this for each topic that you've identified.
Once you're done with this part, let's move on to the next step.
3. List Down All the Questions of Your Target Audience
You now have pillar pages with epic content on each topic.
It's now time to create supporting content around each topic which answers the common questions of your audience
Basically, you need to find as many questions as possible related to each topic that you've identified and the keywords searchers are using to ask those questions.
Here are a few smart ways to find the most common questions of your audience.
Use Google Correlate To Find Related Search Queries
Here's what it does.
Enter any keyword in Google Correlate and it will give you a list of other keywords and searches that it considers closely related to your keyword.
For example, people who search for affiliate marketing also search for terms like SEO, PBNs, Amazon Associates, ClickBank.
It's a great way to find related interests of your audience to generate new content ideas and create more well-rounded blog posts
So here's how you do it.
Head over to Google Correlate and search for a broad topic, let's take "Vegan Diet" as an example topic.
When you search for the topic, the tool gives you a long list of correlated terms that are frequently searched alongside your keyword.
It also assigns a correlation score with each term.
The closer the score is to 1, the more frequently it is searched alongside your keyword.
Most of these keywords point towards potential questions of your audience related to your main topic. Have a look at the list shortlist the ones that are more in line with your site's content theme.
From the list above, these keywords look promising
vegan diet healthy
eat before bed
supplement for weight loss
With a little brainstorming, you can identify dozens of blog post ideas from this tool for every topic.
Use Google Related Searches To Find Ideas
This is a simple but highly effective way to find the most pressing questions of your audience.
Simply search Google for your target topics and scroll down the results page to find other related searches.
For example, here are the related searches for the keyword "dog diet"
I don't know about you, but I'm already getting article ideas by looking at these related searches.
But let's dig even deeper and have a look at the related searches for one of the suggested search terms "healthy dog diet homemade"
You see where I'm going?
All of these are potential content ideas that come under the broad topic you've identified.
Your audience has lots of questions about all of these terms that you can answer with your blog content and rank for a whole range of keywords that are related to your main topic.
There are a couple of other tools you can use to identify such keywords
The point of this exercise is to get a feel for the kind of questions your audience is asking and then generate content ideas based on it.
Find Niche Questions With Quora
Quora is a goldmine for anyone looking for content ideas.
Search for your main topic keyword (or any of the related keywords you've identified) and you'll get dozens of questions that real people are asking about them.
Click on any of the suggested topics to find dozens of discussion threads
You can literally get unlimited article ideas for your target topic just by browsing through the different threads on Quora.
Make a list of the most common questions people are asking and think of different article ideas based on those questions.
Find Ideas With AnswerThePublic
AnswerThePublic is a really handy free tool that can fill your editorial calendar with hundreds of content ideas in no time.
When you search for your main topic on this site, it gives you a bucket load of questions that people are actually asking about it.
For example, here are just a few suggestions I got when I searched for the topic "Pregnancy"
You can download the ideas in a CSV file, shortlist the ones that are more relevant to your website, and filter out the rest.
Even if you don't use the exact ideas suggested by this tool it still gives you lots of new angles to think about your topic.
By now, you should have a pretty long list of questions that all directly fall under your main topic.
It's now time to turn them into value-packed blog posts.
4. Answer Each Question With High-Quality, In-Depth, and Actionable Content
Every search query is a question.
And the pages that answer those questions better than their competitors tend to rank higher in search results.
Since you now have a long list of the most common questions of your audience, it's time to answer those questions with long, detailed actionable and high-quality articles.
Doing so will not only provide value to your readers, build authority on your main topic, but also help you rank for a wide range of keywords related to your topic since all your blog posts will be based on questions that fall under that topic. It will form a topic cluster with the main pillar page at the center and the supporting articles around it.
Another major objective of creating these articles is to acquire links from relevant and high authority websites which will further our goal of building topical relevance.
Because although Google has more than 200 search ranking factors, the rankings mainly come down to two things.
The relevance of your content to the searcher's query
The number of high authority links to your site from other relevant sites in your niche
This is exactly what this image illustrates.
As the image shows, if you can create content that answers the most common questions of your audience and gain backlinks to it from other high authority sites in your niche, you'll almost always rank for the top keywords related to your topic.
So how do you go about turning questions into blog post titles?
Let's use the keyword "eat before bed", which we found through Google Correlate in the last step, as an example. Remember, our core topic was "vegan diet" so we have to create titles in its context.
Here are a few I could think of
11 Vegan Foods You Can Eat Even Before Going To Bed
7 Scientific Reasons Why It's Safe To Eat Vegetables Before Sleep
13 Cool Things Only Vegans Can Do (Hint: They Can Even Eat Before Sleep)
Cool ideas, right?
But how do you turn them into high quality and link-worthy pieces of content?
Here are a few tips
Don't Just Tell Readers What To Do, Show Them How It's Done
Gone are the days when you could put together a quick 500-word article sharing "tips" that everyone already knows.
Searchers are looking for complete answers to their queries.
It's not enough to tell them what to do.
You need to show them how it's done, even if it means writing 2000, 3000, 5000, or even 10,000-word articles.
The word count doesn't matter.
What matters is that you fully answer the searcher's query.
Tell them everything they need to know
This has two benefits.
It will keep readers on your site longer, indicating to Google that your site offers value to the searcher (which will result in higher rankings)
Longer content means you have a higher chance to rank for different long-tail and medium tail keywords.
Research also indicates that longer articles tend to rank higher (probably because of the two factors I've shared mentioned above)
The graph clearly shows a direct relationship between content length and search rankings.
But again, the focus should remain on answering the searcher's query in as much detail as possible, not the word count.
Link Out To Credible Sources in Your Niche
This is an often overlooked but REALLY important way to boost the topical relevance of your content and provide additional value to your readers at the same time.
As the famous saying goes "a man is known by the company he keeps".
Google applies the same principle while evaluating websites and content for search ranking.
This is why it penalizes the websites that link out to dubious, spammy, and low-quality sites.
But when you regularly link to credible, relevant, and high-quality websites and resources, Google counts you as one of THEM, considers your content more trustworthy, and rewards you in the form of higher rankings.
Here's what Google Search Quality Guidelines say about citing external sources
A study by Reboot, which tested different outgoing links for several sites, established that contextual links to relevant and high authority sites in your industry definitely have an impact on your site's search ranking.
And no, there's NO NEED to add the "no-follow" tag to your external links (unless you're not really sure about a site's credibility or you're linking to an affiliate product page or sponsored content).
How many external links should you add to a piece of content?
There's no fixed number but use them sparingly and only when there's a good reason to do it because, although external links are important, they'll potentially take readers away from your site. And that's never cool.
Add Linkable Hooks To Your Content To Get Natural Backlinks
To gain authority in Google's eyes, you need backlinks from other high authority sites in your niche.
But getting backlinks is hard.
You need to give other websites a very strong reason to link to you.
There must be something in it for THEM.
Something that makes their content more credible, more attractive, more authoritative, or more engaging.
This is why adding linkable hooks to your content is crucial.
These are usually eye-catching visuals, charts, infographics, or embeddable diagrams that people can use to make their content look better. In return, they'd have to link back to you. You can also add case studies, original survey results, interviews or visual quotes to that list.
Studies show that content with such hooks usually gets more backlinks than simple text content (and it makes sense as well)
As the graph shows, the content which includes images, videos and text content, usually generates more backlinks than plain text posts.
Here's an image I've created with Pablo just to demonstrate this
You can use these tools to quickly create eye-catching and engaging images for your posts.
Look at any article here on NicheHacks and you'll see that we include dozens of images (often referenced from other sites) to make our content look more engaging. We link back to them because we see value in it for our site.
The same thing happens when you add these hooks to your content.
You'll get a much better response to your outreach efforts and more people will link back to your content.
As a result, your rankings will rise
5. Use a Smart Internal Link Structure To Build Topical Relevance
If you stop right here and don't implement this step, you'll still have a pretty good chance to rank for dozens of relevant and high-traffic keywords related to your main topic.
If you already have a website with regular traffic, you should probably skip this step since it's a bit risky to change the complete structure of an existing site and can result in a ranking drop.
However, if you're starting a site from scratch, I strongly recommend that you plan your internal linking strategy from the start.
Why are internal links important?
Mainly because of two reasons.
They help readers explore other relevant content on your site which helps them get more value out of your articles and also increases your site's average time on site metric which has a positive impact on your rankings.
Internal links help Google spiders determine the relationship between different pieces of content on your site. When you internally link one blog post to another, Google considers this a relevance signal and treats them as related pages.
The internal link structure for most blogs looks something like this
Basically, as the image shows, there is no fixed linking structure for most sites and they link to their internal pages whenever it makes sense.
There's nothing wrong with this approach.
However, several case studies suggest that a more compact internal link structure, that creates links between topically related pages only, helps Google spiders categorize content better and increases the topical relevance of the site.
Let's take the example of a site promoting pet food products.
If the 3 main topics of the site are "dog food", "cat food", and "bird food", the internal link structure of the site would appear like this
As you can see, in this internal linking model, every category and its related articles link to each other only and exist as a separate ecosystem that is not connected with any other category or the articles falling under it.
By linking to each other and the main pillar content page, all the blog posts under a certain topic transfer page authority to other pages in their ecosystem and build topical relevance.
When any of the blog posts get backlinks from other high authority sites, the authority is transferred to all the connected pages in the ecosystem, thus increasing its overall ranking for all the related keywords.
And because every ecosystem exists independently from other topics, the authority remains within the connected pages creating a closely bonded topic cluster.
The Conclusion: Stop Thinking Only About SEO & Keywords and Focus More on Your Audience In Order To Rank In Google
Seriously, stop asking questions like "how many times should I mention the keyword in my content?" or questions that are focusing just on pleasing SEO algorithms and robots.
Instead? Identify your core topics, the questions your audience is asking about those topics, and the keywords they're using to ask those questions.
Then just write naturally and focus on answering the questions of your audience and fulfilling their needs in the most comprehensive manner. Focus on the broad topic you want to be known for and create articles that cover every aspect of your target topic.
If you do that, you'll not only become an authority on your topic in Google's eyes but also rank for dozens of related keywords that your audience is searching for (provided your content is great and other authority sites link back to you)
Think big, think long-term, think about your audience.
Because that's the direction Google is moving in and that is how it is eventually going to evaluate sites.