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.”

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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:

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

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. 

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:

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.

This content was originally published here.

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