What keywords are you ranking for?
You want your website to rank for words and phrases that your ideal customers are using in their search queries.
Some online marketers still advocate for a high percentage of the words on any page containing the key words or phrases you are attempting to rank for. Other online marketers are touting a new era of interconnected topical and contextual ranking methods that utilize keywords more deftly.
This has led many businesses (and organizations) to question whether or not keywords still matter in their SEO strategies.
Psst! Keywords still matter for SEO… but shouldn’t be used quite like they were in the 2000s.
What’s a keyword anyway?
A “keyword” or “key phrase” contains the idea or topic your content is about.
If, for example, you run a cleaning business and you write a post about best window cleaning methods some of the natural keywords for that content may be “clean”, “windows”, “wash”, “how to”, and others. Hopefully, if your content is well written, many of these keywords would show up in close proximity to one another within the same sentence to make up a few “key phrases” or “long tail keywords”.
If your content is naturally using keywords that your target market is searching for you have a higher chance of driving organic search traffic over time.
Effective keywords are, essentially, the topics and ideas on the minds (and screens) of both your business and your ideal customers.
The obsession with keywords
Search engines still primarily crawl text when determining what your webpage is about. (That’s why lengthy well-written content still matters online).
Consequently, at one time, the most important part of your SEO strategy was keyword research and placement. The Web was (and still is) obsessed with keyword usage. There are still many articles that encourage an SEO strategy that’s almost keyword exclusive.
In the 2000s it was not uncommon for webpages to use the same keyword to distraction. You have probably seen websites with paragraphs like:
“Rystedt’s Body Shop can repair your vehicle after a collision and get you back on the road quickly! We can repair your car’s windshield, repair your car’s dents, repair your car’s bumper, and more. We are the top rated collision repair body shop in the Westminster, Frederick, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. area. Contact us about your collision repair needs today.
This [fictional] website is trying to rank for “collision”, “car”, and “repair” as well as the surrounding geographic area – even it it is hours away. This demonstrates an over-obsession with keywords. They are working off the assumption that the more they use a keyword the better they will rank.
Some mistaken search engine marketers even encouraged “keyword stuffing” which included the use of keywords the site wanted to rank for but were not directly related to that page’s content.
If your website ranked well for other reasons this overuse of keywords could work in your favor… but no longer.
What’s changed? Semantic search
In the early 2010s Google began implementing semantic search practices it had developed years prior. Semantic search scans an entire webpage (and usually an entire website as well) and uses complicated algorithms to determine what “keywords” (really ideas and topics) the page is about.
As semantic search was rolled out by Google the last vestiges of beneficial keyword overuse died.
Semantic search ranks your webpages based on relevance to the “keyword” rather than amount of times the keyword is in the webpage (in truth keyword overuse never fulfilled its promises anyway due to increased bounce rate).
Google also began contextualizing search results based on your prior search history, your advertising profile (yea, they have one for you), the device you are searching from, and your location.
Semantic search algorithms have gotten better with time as Google now better understands relationships between topics and thus relationships between your pages. For example, if your website already ranks well for “cyber security” an individual article may not need to use that key phrase as often (or at all). Google will understand that your article about preventing malware installation in a certain server infrastructure is related to “cyber security”.
Most other search engines are following Google’s example. Furthermore, advancements in “artificial intelligence” are increasing the computational power (and accuracy) of semantic search algorithms.
Do keywords still matter for your SEO strategy?
Keywords do still matter. The need for keywords hasn’t gone anywhere because keywords are really just the bits of language that sum up your content and are included in search queries. Even semantic search uses keywords.
What has changed is how keywords are used. You should now think of keywords in a topical sense and try to rank for certain topics rather than trying to rank for individual words.
Here’s how to succeed in semantic search engine optimization:
- Develop a list of topics you wish to rank for
- Do keyword research for those topics
- Include your keywords in your content when it is natural to do so
- Optimize your content pages (like articles, blog posts, products, and services) to rank for a few keywords within a given topic
- Tie related content pages together using a main topic page (like a cornerstone article or definitive guide). This page doesn’t need to rank in and of itself. If your content pages rank your main topic page will also rank. Thanks, symantic search!
A rule about hard and fast SEO rules
Sometimes the common SEO “rules” just don’t fit your brand, your content, or your audience.
Don’t compromise what makes you uniquely great just to rank.
If you garner visitors, keep visitors interested, and keep visitors coming back you will succeed in SEO. “Breaking” common SEO “rules” may make it more difficult for you to rank when you start. But breaking the mold to attract traffic can work for some websites.
Take Ars Technica for example. Ars often publishes content that is at a higher reading level than recommended and contains some technical jargon. Usually, you would want your content to be as easy to read as possible. Now Ars is doing a lot of things that are common sense in SEO. But “breaking” the “easy to read” rule now and again doesn’t hurt them because it fits their audience and their brand.
So, do your research, plan your strategy, and structure your content. Just remember to stay true to you and your market.