SEO keywords range from singular words to complex phrases and are used in website copy to attract relevant, organic search traffic. How- ever, keyword integration is just the start. When properly leveraged, targeted SEO keywords should be used to inspire all page content in order to satisfy searcher intent.
From a searcher’s perspective, keywords are the terms typed or spoken into a search engine. When effectively researched and optimized, key- words act as a conduit for your target audience to find the most appro- priate content on your website.
But Aren’t Keywords Obsolete?
Whether you’ve heard this a few times already or your first is yet to come, “Keywords are dead” is a phrase which continues to barge its way into SEO circles. Rather than tip-toe around this recurring, binary, often-click-bait motivated assertion, let’s confront it head on.
Several developments in the SEO world have caused this claim to be stirred from hibernation, but there are four major ones that come to mind.
1. “(not provided)”
If you’re brand new to SEO, you may be surprised to know organic keywords were once easily accessible in Google Analytics, Adobe Omniture, or any other analytics platform.
I’m not going to lie; it was pretty fantastic. We didn’t know how good we had it at the time.
However, things started changing in 2010 when Google began quietly taking steps to remove keyword data from our web analytics. In late 2011 through the following year, keyword data was being removed in a big way. It wouldn’t take long for the top keyword driver for every site to be ‘(not provided)’.
Once we lost our keyword data and were seemingly flying blind, many were quick to write the obituary for keywords.
But what really was different? After all, people were still searching the same and Google hadn’t changed how it was interpreting our content. We just had less visibility.
We’ve all heard, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This is the same thing. Nothing was different; we just weren’t around.
Bottom line: Keywords aren’t dead. The old way of tracking them is. 2. Hummingbird & RankBrain
Another time the validity of keywords was challenged was when Google rebuilt its algorithm in 2013. Receiving its name for being fast and precise, Hummingbird helped Google better understand search intent, particularly with complex and conversational searches. In 2015, Google incorporated the AI-driven ranking factor, RankBrain, into the mix to further improve its query interpretation abilities.
Before, a search for “what pizza places near me deliver?” would send Google off looking for content that matches those terms. Now, Google uses these keywords as contextual signals to learn what we really want and often rewrites our query behind the scenes (e.g., “pizza delivery 66062”).
Knowing Google often rewrites our search queries may make it seem like their usefulness is all but obsolete. But really, Google just got smarter with what we provided.
Here’s another perspective. Have you ever heard the statistic that only 7 percent of communication is through words alone? This was derived from a popular study in the late 1960s and is often used to boost the stature of nonverbal communion, diminishing that which is verbal.
I have a challenge for you. Go through your entire day tomorrow without using words – no typing, saying, or signing them. At the end of the day, let me know if you felt your communication was 93 percent as effective as it normally is. I think you can probably predict the outcome.
It’s not that the stat is wrong. There is so much more to communication (and search) than words. It is, however, often misunderstood.
The 7 percent speaks more to quantity than importance. We need that 7 percent, and we need keywords.
Bottom line: Keywords aren’t dead. Google’s former way of interpreting them is.
3. Voice Search
I love voice search. Even though it’s been around for years, I still feel like I’m in the future when Google magically captures my unintelligible stammering.
As voice search grew from being an occasionally-used novelty to a staple in our search behavior, many wondered what that meant for keywords. We all knew voice search impacted keywords, but did it kill them?
We’ve Become Long-Winded
Between us (subconsciously) picking up on Google’s heightened interpretation skills and our communication tendencies when talking versus typing, we have become very conversational and detailed searchers.
In the old days, if we wanted to know who Brad Pitt’s first wife was, we would translate our thoughts into a search-friendly query, like “Brad Pitt’s wives”. Now, we simply tell Google what we want: “Who was Brad Pitt’s first wife?”. This is one of the main reasons why 15 percent of searches have never been heard of before by Google every single day.
So, while it’s been a huge win for searchers, it’s posed challenges to SEO professionals. For instance, it’s hard to know which keywords to keep an eye on if a significant chunk of traffic is driven by those that had rarely, if ever, been searched before.
But this goes back to the “(not provided)” argument. Just because our tracking is imperfect doesn’t mean the significance of keywords lessens in any way.
We Omit Important Keywords
Did you know through voice search you can find out when Scarlett Johansson’s first album was released from a query that doesn’t include her name or the name of her album? (Side note: Did you know Scarlett Johansson had an album?)
Google understands context matters, not only within a search, but between strings of them as well.
So, do keywords actually matter if you can leave out crucial bits and still get what you want? Of course! This just forces us to step back and look at the bigger picture, rather than examine each individual search in a vacuum.
Bottom line: Keywords aren’t dead. Typing as our only way to search them is.
4. Google Planner Grouped Keyword Volumes
Starting in 2014 and kicking things up a notch two years later, Google’s Keyword Planner tool began grouping volumes for similar terms. Instead of showing keyword A gets searched 100 times per month and keyword A1 gets searched 50 times per month, both would show 150. Google said the reason for this to make sure “you don’t miss out on potential customers” and to “maximize the potential for your ads to show on relevant searches.”
That explanation certainly implies searcher intent doesn’t vary much between closely related terms.
The move seemed to reinforce the notion that topics, not keywords,
are all SEO professionals need to worry about. However, this doesn’t explain why Google search will often significantly shake up its results for keywords that Google Keyword Planner deems synonymous enough to lump together.
Ultimately, Keyword Planner is a PPC tool. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to understand how forcing PPC bidders to expand their keyword targeting could be a financially-motivated decision.
Bottom line: Keywords aren’t dead. But Google’s keyword metrics might as well be.
Why are Keywords so Important to SEO?
We know keywords are alive and well, but why are they so critical to SEO?
Keywords are Clues
The importance of keywords in SEO is in part due to their importance outside of it.
Forget about keywords, rankings, traffic, or even your website for a minute.
If you knew your customers’ true feelings, how would you operate your business differently? How valuable would those insights be to you?
In his book, “Everybody Lies”, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz shares his findings of what search behavior tells about human psychology. When in a focus group, taking a survey or responding to something on Twit- ter, we all tend to let our answers be impacted by how others may perceive them.
What about when we’re searching? The combination of anonymity and immediate access to a wealth of information paves the way for an un- adulterated look into what we truly want.
It’s data-driven truth serum.
At its core, keyword research is a powerful market research tool that can be leveraged in many different ways, not just informing website content. To get the most out of keywords, you have to look beyond the explicit, literal translation and also pick up on the implicit clues to gain the true intent of each keyword.
As an example, let’s look at the query, “safest baby cribs”.
Safest baby cribs 2017 Explicit information
- concerned about safety
- wants more than one crib to choosefrom
- looking for articlepublished in 2017
wants to know what makes cribs safe/
understands safety standards change
in research phase with future intent to buy
possibly in process of buying other items
safety may be more
important than cost or
likely looking for a list
of cribs ranked by safety measure
Keywords are Like Personas
Personas act as bullseyes. They aren’t all we’re after but by aiming for them, we’re setting ourselves up for success.
It’s not as if I only want to market to 54-year old women named Bet- ty who have a 401k and are soon to be empty nesters. But that level of granularity and focus helps ensure I’m attracting the right group of people.
Conversely, if you have no focus and try to appeal to everyone, you will likely come away empty-handed. It’s a beautiful paradox, really – the exclusivity of your target audience often is directly related to the size of your actual audience, and vice versa.
It’s the same with keywords. A quick peek into Google Search Console’s search query data will tell you it’s never just about one keyword. However, having a primary keyword target for each page
will give you the right direction and perspective to capture the right audience from a plethora of related searches.