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The Future of SEO: A Theme Based Approach

SEO Targeting
Photo Credit: Augur Marketing via flickr

What’s Your SEO Theme?

If you haven’t looked into it before, it might be time to consider theme-based SEO. Refined and officially launched in 2010, the general concept has been around for far longer and acts as a natural extension to how sites are organized when good design practices are implemented. To make this easier to follow, I’ll break into bite-sized sections.

What Is It?

Theme-based SEO allows you to focus your SEO efforts on an overall topic or “theme”. You can cover a lot more ground and have the optimization appear as truly organic and natural. This is helpful in your onsite SEO efforts and Meta tags but absolutely game-changing when it comes to offsite SEO – including link building.

How Does It Work?

Instead of targeting a list of very specific keywords, and risking serious backlash for what Google calls “over-optimization”, you target keyword topics or themes. This is made even simpler by the fact that this is how most sites are already organized. Take a plumbing site for example. The home page probably talks about everything, but most interior pages will place a major focus of one or two topics like “plumbers”, “plumbing repair/services”, “drain cleaning”, etc.

What are Its Main Advantages?

Aside from appearing far more natural, theme-based SEO provides a lot more bang for your buck because a typical theme package costs about as much as a common 10-keyword SEO package but usually provides 40, 50, or more useful keywords. Just keep your expectations realistic. All 50 keywords are not going to be block-busters. In general, however, most people find that theme-based SEO provides 1.5 to 3 times the return on investment over traditional keyword-based packages.

How Do You Begin?

First you will want to research your products and/or services to select your keyword themes. If you have a Google AdWords account (even one with no funds) you can use the freely provided Google Keyword Planner tool at https://adwords.google.com/KeywordPlanner

If this is not an option, just Google “SEO keyword suggestions” and you will get plenty of options to help you find the best opportunities available. Worst case; stick to the biggest “core keywords” you already know and go from there.

What are Core Keywords?

A core keyword can be thought of as the lowest common denominator keyword grouping. Let’s say you are optimizing a site for a plumber in Indianapolis, Indiana. Your core keywords might include: plumbers Indianapolis (590), Indianapolis plumbers (320), plumber Indianapolis (320), Indianapolis plumber (170), plumbers Indianapolis IN (40), plumber Indianapolis IN (30) – and a few more.

What Kind of Search Volume can I Expect?

Before we go any further, let’s look at the numbers within the parentheses following each core keyword. This is the number of exact match searches performed on Google, per month, on average (total yearly search volume divided by 12). If you add these up, it’s 1,470 EXACT Match searches performed per month on average. That’s huge and it’s only 6 keywords!

What does “Exact Match” Mean and Why is This Important?

“Exact match” means that the person typing in the search query typed only those exact characters with nothing before, after, or in-between.

Do Long-Tail Keywords Count?

Absolutely! One example might be “plumbers in Indianapolis” (just adding the word “in” to the middle). That’s what we call a long-tail or “focused keyword” (using traditional theme-based SEO terminology). I’ll grab a dozen common ones and get a search volume count…

plumbers in Indianapolis (90), emergency plumber Indianapolis (50), 24 hour plumber Indianapolis (30), best plumbers in Indianapolis (30), plumber in Indianapolis (30), plumbers Indianapolis Indiana, (30), Indianapolis IN plumber (20), plumber Indianapolis Indiana (20), plumbers in Indianapolis IN (20), Indianapolis IN plumbers (10), plumber in Indianapolis IN (10), plumbers in Indianapolis Indiana (10)

How Does This Impact My Potential Target Market?

That’s another 350 exact match searches, which brings your potential up to 1,820. That’s at least 1,820 searches per month being done for your exact service in your exact location. And with another ten minutes of research you can easily find 30 additional focused keywords adding up to another 550. I just did it. That’s 2,370 potential searches per month (28,440 per year!) – in a single SEO theme.

You probably would not spend the money for a traditional SEO company’s 50 keyword pack to get all of these, but since you can get all of these as potential keywords in a single SEO theme – why not? The cost or time and effort investment is about the same as that original 10 pack traditional SEO package and the focus and rankings will fluctuate organically, which is what it’s all about.

Let’s do This! What’s Step 2?

Once you have your SEO themes figured out, it’s time to start optimizing. The trick here is to consider using multiple variations of your core and long-tail keywords as organically as possible. In other words; be natural. Just place the words in your text naturally, and don’t worry about using exact keyword phrases. In fact, say you have 500 words of text on the page – you will do better by having just a few mentions of “plumber”/ “plumbers” and a single mention of “repair”, “service”, “emergency”, “affordable” or any other focused keyword descriptor.

What’s Next?

Once your text is written, refine it a bit to make sure you have not included any keywords too often. Most of all; make sure the text reads naturally and is meant for human readers. And keep in mind that humans want quick answers so put the main ideas toward the beginning of the page. I might start with:

“Need a reliable, affordable plumber in Indianapolis? Trust Jack’s Mechanical for all of your plumbing needs; both residential and commercial. Proudly serving Central Indiana since 1999, we…”

That’s less than 30 words; all carefully placed to answer the question the visitor has top of mind – and best of all it’s totally natural sounding and will pass Google’s natural text algorithm test with flying colors.

H Tags

Next you should carefully consider what you want as your H1 tag (main heading). While it’s tempting to use something obvious like “Plumbers Indianapolis, IN”, it’s not very natural sounding. You can actually get more from an even simpler tag such as “Your Indianapolis Plumbers Since 1999”. It’s short and sweet and looks like a tagline you might find on a business card or letterhead. It’s natural sounding as a tagline.

Meta Tags

On the back-end we have the Title and Description to think about (Don’t bother with the “keywords” tag). These should also appear natural – but don’t waste space with empty characters! Google has reduced its recommended character count in the title tag from 64 down to a maximum of 56 (including spaces) in order to better accommodate tablet devices and smart-phones.

Title Tag

For your page Title, keep it simple by separating topics with pipes (|) or dashes (-). Make sure you get the business name in as well as the main geography. Here’s an example:

Indianapolis Plumbers | Jacks Mechanical Plumbing Repair

By removing the apostrophe in Jack’s and adding “Plumbing Repair” to the company name, we stayed within 56 characters and included: 2 themes and the main geography. But this is just one possibility. It might have been more like this:

Jacks Mechanical – Plumbers Indianapolis, IN – Plumbing

You might even try using a more common name for the company. If you are locally known as “ack’s Plumbing”, use that…

Jacks Plumbing Indianapolis, IN | Emergency Plumbers

Spend some time deciding what aspects of the theme are most important to you (repair, emergency, cheap, fast, etc.) and work around that. The title is a very important aspect of your on-site SEO.

Description Tag

Ready for a shortcut? We already did this; well – mostly. Feel free to use the first 160 characters of your page text. That’s what Google will grab if you don’t have a title anyway. I would, however, suggest you make slight changes to get the most you can. For example:

“Need a reliable, affordable plumber in Indianapolis, IN? Trust Jack’s Mechanical for all your plumbing needs. From leaky pipes to drain cleaning, we do it all.”

You will see subtle changes in the first part and an entirely different second part. Bottom line… It’s all totally organic and naturally flowing text that Google LOVES.

Link Building

Unfortunately, a “how to” on link building is an article (or book) in itself. What I can tell you here is that the anchor text (clickable words) used in theme-based SEO can be far less obvious than in traditional keyword-based SEO.

For example: Instead of the traditional “plumbers Indianapolis” we are used to seeing; theme-based SEO gets great results for multiple keywords at once, with something like “fast and affordable Indianapolis plumbers”.

That’s just one example. And, of course, the first example is almost always a paid link (and Google knows it) while the second is much more likely organic because people link like they speak.

Good luck!

About the author


Mike Small

Mike Small is the SEO Manager for NetSearch Direct, an SEO and PPC company based in Richmond, VA. NetSearch Direct services the online marketing needs of more than 400 clients from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.


Click here to post a comment
    • Hey Mike,

      Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. It has helped me learned more about SEO. Theme based approach is really looking promising. Cheers!

  • Here the well managed way explains the new era SEO.

    Keyword Analysis/Research is the back bone of SEO and by this we identified what we do and which direction.

    This article wonderfully explain & bifurcate traditional keyword analysis to current scenario SEO.

  • It’s 100% True, but the reality is that people want Organic results and that Google is removing these because they get 0 Rupees from Organic results.

    In 5 years you’ll get only Google Adwords results.

    Sagar Ganatra

  • It’s a amazing article on SEO. I need to bookmark it for further use. Thanks Mike Small

  • The long and short of this is that if you want to rank I personally would never try to target 1 keyword. Just create good content that people will like, not robots. With that you will acheive good results

  • I won’t say what value I got from this article but I can say that its spot on. Theme based seo has been the way to go since late 2013 if you know what I mean.

  • EXCELLENt piece, Mike! I think it’s truly brilliant you talked about the future of SEO being found in topics not keywords.

    Basically, this makes a ton of sense for the future of upcoming SEO. Keywords are VIABLE. They can be a one-hit wonder but you never know who will rank above you the next day. A specific keyword is NEVER a good bank to count on. But, a topic – there’s a wealth of investment! Blogs, entire websites, LOTS of content can be curated, well-written, and published under the umbrella of a topic, instead of one specific ugly keyword that gets harder and harder to write for the more content you try to publish for it.

    Great thoughts!

    • Thanks so much for the kind words Julia. You make a great point about the long-term viability of keywords and where we should invest our time and effort. Thanks again.

  • Hi Mike,

    This is wonderful article, well described, covered all the major topics. Hoping for such kind of articles more from your side.

  • I learned a lot from your page Mike and I can apply this techniques on my work. I can now gain quality backlinks in less time. If you’re interested, check ClickMinded SEO Courses for more info.

  • As a very succesful top result SEO marketer I have been increasingly seeing that themed content wins in many situations. HOWEVER! How do I structure my content and pages to make the most of a theme is a BIG question I’m not seeing the answers to, nor even anyone asking?
    Questions like:
    Should I have long pages full of rich natural content? Should I break the content into pages and subpages?

    Remembering that quantity of valuable content is also a ranking factor – how does that factor in to a theme? Does the content need to be broken down granularly into hundreds or thousands of pages or can I lump everything in a theme into one page?

    In my opinion these are two strategies on each end of extreme.

    A strategy that has worked well for me is the pyramid structure approach. Starting from a broad topic which speaks generally about ‘theme’ and then branching into more specific ‘sub-themes’ using sub-pages will allow you to optimize your Title and H1 tags in a drill-down configuration.

    There are 2 immediately obvious benefits to this:

    1. Google is likely to return better results for searches which are not of obvious intent.
    2. You will have the opportunity to rank with multiple results within a theme (yes more than 1 listing for you site in a single set of results)

    Jason Jewer is a digital marketer in Mississauga Ontario.