Why Keywords Still Matter in SEO (But They Aren’t Everything)

In the early days of search engine optimization (SEO), keywords were everything. Many search engines including Google relied heavily on matching keywords and phrases in a user’s search query with real pages on the web. For example, if a person searched for “hot dog restaurant,” Google’s algorithm would disproportionately favor domains and pages with the exact phrase “hot dog restaurant.”

This led to the rise and dominance of keyword research, and keyword-centric SEO strategies. Writing content and building links that contained the phrase “hot dog restaurant” could practically guarantee your ranking for the phrase — but that’s not the case anymore. 

Google’s algorithm update in 2013, called Hummingbird, introduced semantic search capabilities. Google started looking at the context of content, rather than just scanning for specific keywords, which required SEO and content marketing strategies to shift away from a keyword-density focus.

But that doesn’t mean keywords aren’t still relevant. So how can you implement the best content marketing and SEO strategy?

The importance of keywords

A keyword is defined as a search targeted word or phrase in your web content that a search engine can use to establish relevance. In modern parlance, a “head keyword” is a short, topical keyword or phrase; for example, “hot dog restaurant” could be considered a head keyword. 

By contrast, a “long-tail keyword” or “long-tail phrase” is an extended, often more conversational string of words; for example, “where to find the best hot dog restaurants in Memphis” is much longer and, as you might expect, less common.

Conducting keyword research allows you to glean three main insights:

  • New keyword options. If you’re not sure what users are searching for, or if you’re interested in discovering new opportunities for content creation, keyword research can help you generate a list of new words and phrases. 
  • Keyword search volume. You’ll also need to look up the search volume for each keyword and phrase. Volume refers to the number of people searching for this term over a period of time. 
  • Keyword competition. You’ll also be able to judge the competitiveness of each keyword term. As you know, SEO is a highly competitive field, so if you want to rank highly in results pages, you’ll need to outdo a number of competitors. 

Read more: 7 Reasons Why SEO Matters for Every Startup

From there, you can choose an assortment of powerful keywords for your industry. Hypothetically, there are a few ways you can utilize those keywords:

  • Onsite core content. Most search optimizers use keywords primarily in the core content of their site. They feature their most important keywords in the title tags and meta descriptions of their main pages, and sporadically throughout the body content of the site.
  • Onsite blog posts. Even more commonly, optimizers use keywords as part of their content marketing strategy. They take keywords and phrases and build new posts around them. For example, if you’re targeting the term “hot dog restaurant,” you might write a post titled “The Best Hot Dog Restaurants in Memphis,” and include the term in H1 headers, as well as naturally throughout the text.
  • Inbound links and anchor text. It’s also possible to build inbound links using anchor text that contains your target keywords and phrases. Links are important in building the authority of your site, and it’s vital to include relevant anchor text; however, exact match anchor text may no longer be as useful as it used to be.

Search engine algorithms: the high-level view

Google has always been the dominant competitor in the search engine field, and most other search engines mimic its functionality, so we’ll use it as our main example and as a stand-in for other algorithms.

Keywords are almost exclusively used to determine relevance. If your website has many instances of the phrase “hot dog restaurant,” and lots of content about hot dog restaurant-related terms, it’s probably going to be considered appropriate for a user search about hot dog restaurants. A tech blog, no matter how trustworthy and authoritative it is, will not be considered appropriate.

But let’s ignore the “authority” part of the equation for now, and focus exclusively on the “relevance” part. Will the right keywords guarantee that your site will be considered by Google appropriately?

The inner workings of Google’s Hummingbird algorithm are somewhat secret, but the functionality is clear. Rather than taking a user’s query and looking for exact matches throughout the web, Google Search now attempts to analyze the general meaning and intent of a user query. This looks like a subtle difference, but it has some important side effects.

Take the query “hot dog restaurant” above. Rather than looking for this exact phrase throughout the web, Google will understand that a user is looking for a restaurant that sells hot dogs, and probably nearby. It may make some assumptions and consider topic-adjacent keywords, including synonyms. 

Related: Here We Go Again: What Entrepreneurs Need to Know About Hummingbird, Google’s Latest Update

The consequences of low-effort keyword strategies 

Even with the presence of semantic search, keyword research and inclusion can be a valuable way to boost the visibility of your strategy. However, you need to realize that excessively or thoughtlessly using keywords can actively work against you.

There are several tactics that could end up weakening your position, or even earning you a manual penalty, including:

  • Keyword stuffing and hiding. Including a keyword too many times in a given context is going to trigger a red flag with Google. For example, if the phrase “best burger restaurant” appears 25 times in the body of an article, it’s going to look suspicious.
  • Irrelevant or unnatural keywords. Keywords should flow naturally in the context of your article. It’s not worth bending over backward to ensure an exact match; not only is there little direct benefit, but you could also invite a penalty. 
  • Bad anchor text practices. Anchor text is a debated topic in the SEO industry. While it’s important to have some relevant text to house your links, if you use unnatural text, or if you use the same phrase in multiple links, it’s going to be seen as a red flag.

If you have a selection of target keywords in your SEO strategy, you need to avoid these pitfalls. It’s simply not worth the risk.

The power of keyword-centric SEO strategies has declined over the years, thanks to the increasing sophistication of semantic search and Google’s capabilities in general. But make no mistake: Keywords and keyword research still have a place in your SEO strategy.

Related: Should You Simply Ignore Keywords When Writing Content for SEO?

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