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Why Keywords Are Still So Very Important for SEO

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Tylor Hermanson
Tylor Hermanson
Why Keywords Are Still So Very Important for SEO

Editor’s note: This is a chapter from Search Engine Journal’s new e-book, SEO 101: Learn the Basics of Search Engine Optimization. Want to read the full guide? Download your copy of SEO 101 now!


Are keywords still important for search engine optimization (SEO)?

Do keywords even matter to Google anymore?

The short answer: Absolutely.

The longer answer: Keep reading.

Table of Contents

What are SEO Keywords?

SEO keywords range from singular words to complex phrases and are used in website copy to attract relevant, organic search traffic. However, 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, keywords act as a conduit for your target audience to find the most appropriate content on your website.

google search query for "what are keywords in seo"

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)’.

not provided example from google analytics

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.

Here’s 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 Twitter, 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 unadulterated 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 informationImplicit information
concerned about safetylikely first-time parents
wants more than one crib to choose fromwants to know what makes cribs safe/unsafe
looking for article published in 2017understands safety standards change over time
in research phase with future intent to buy
possibly in process of buying other items for nursery
safety may be more important than cost or aesthetics
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 Betty 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.

funny seo persona

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.

How do You Choose the Right Keywords?

This topic could live in a post on its own, which it has many, many times. Here are some of my recent favorites:

While I highly suggest researching and experimenting with this topic in great detail if you’re serious about honing your craft, here’s a quick introduction to selecting the best keywords for SEO.

  • Don’t start with keywords: Before you put on your SEO hat or even your marketing hat, just be human. Learn about your customers from your customers. Before diving into tools and spreadsheets, try to gain some real empathy and understanding for the customers you’re serving and the perspectives they hold.
  • Build a seed list: Using what you gained in step one, along with what you know about where your customers’ needs and your business’ solutions intersect, brainstorm an initial list of words and phrases that effectively describe your core offerings.
  • Gather current keyword data (if your site already exists): Generate a list of what is currently (and nearly) driving traffic to your site using Google Search Console click data and any ranking data you have.
  • Expand the list using various keyword tools: Expand on the list you’ve built from steps 1-3 by looking for new keyword groups, alternate phrases, common modifiers and long-tail permutations. If you haven’t used many keyword research tools up to this point, now’s your time.
  • Group terms by search intent: Categorize your keywords in a way that will be simple and useful for you and anyone else who might look through them. This can be done by audience-type, phase of the funnel, or any other way that makes sense to you.
  • Map keywords to content: Choose 1-4 primary keywords to target on each page based on a careful balance between keyword difficulty, relevance, and search volume (taking organic SERP visibility into account). Once those are determined, find semantically-related and long-tail modifying terms to help support your primary keywords.
  • Do it all over again: Once your keyword strategy has been implemented, Google has had time to react and you’ve been able to collect enough data, rinse and repeat. They don’t call it search engine optimization for nothing.

What are the Most Common SEO Keyword Types?

Keywords can be categorized and tagged in multiple ways for a variety of reasons. Here are the most common types and examples of SEO keywords.

Branded vs. Unbranded

Branded search terms contain the brand in the query. This could include the official brand names, misspellings, branded acronyms, branded campaign names or taglines, parent companies, or anything else with obvious branded search intent.

Unbranded, or non-branded, terms are all other keywords you may consider. Unbranded terms often describe the customer problem or your business offering.

Some businesses have non-distinct names that can make this delineation more difficult. For instance, is a search for “Kansas City Zoo” branded or unbranded when the name of the zoo is… Kansas City Zoo?

Branded terms generally bring in the highest converting traffic because the searcher already has a certain level of brand familiarity and (often) affinity.

Examples:

  • Branded: Houston Rockets
  • Unbranded: the unequivocal greatest basketball organization of all time

Seed vs. Page-specific Keywords

Seed words are the obvious, initial list of words you start with in the keyword research process. They act as the seeds you “plant” to grow your list.

Seed words are often relevant to most of your website, if not all of it. Page-specific keywords are generally found later in the keyword research process and are applicable to only a single page or set of pages.

Examples for Home Depot:

  • Seed: home improvement store
  • Page-specific: deck building supplies

Long-tail vs. Head Terms

Those with the highest search demand are called head terms. Conversely, those with a relatively low demand are considered long-tail.

Why? When you graph them out, head terms fall off quickly in terms of the total number of keywords, whereas lesser searched terms seem to go on forever like a tail.

The middle of the graph is often aptly named “middle” or “chunky middle” (or torso). With 15 percent of searches being new to Google each day, it shouldn’t be surprising that most search queries are considered long-tail, even if each individual long-tail query gets searched very few times.

dinosaur with long tail

Head terms and long-tail terms tend to have the following contrasting characteristics. However, besides volume, none of these are absolute.

HeadLong-tail
High search volumeLow search volume
High ranking competitionLow ranking competition
Low converting trafficHigh converting traffic
Few wordsMany words
Best for top-level pagesBest for lower-level pages
Multiple search intentsSingular search intent


Examples:

  • Head: Bob Dylan
  • Long-tail: Who is Jakob Dylan’s father?

Primary vs. Secondary Keywords

Also labeled “targeted” or “focus”, primary keywords are used to describe your most important keywords. These terms can be used in the context of your entire site or a single page.

Secondary (also called “tertiary” or “supporting”) keywords include all other keywords you are targeting and/or incorporating. In some contexts, secondary terms are those you are loosely optimizing for, but they’re just not considered a high priority. In other scenarios, secondary keywords act as the semantic or long-tail support to help you get the most out of your primary keyword targeting.

Examples for a subscription shaving kit product page:

  • Primary: shaving kit subscription
  • Secondary: monthly, razors, free trial, custom

Step, Stage, or Phase

SEOs often recommend categorizing your keywords according to a marketing funnel or customer journey. This can help ensure you are targeting customers at each critical point.

Some sets of categories have the brand in the center (e.g., awareness, consideration, conversion, retention) while others are more customer-centric (e.g., unaware, problem aware, solution aware, brand aware). Similarly, some simply determine the action-oriented mindset of the consumer (e.g., navigational, informational, transactional).

Examples:

  • Awareness: 30th birthday party ideas
  • Consideration: Las Vegas travel reviews
  • Conversion: flight and hotel packages to Las Vegas
  • Retention: Mandalay Bay loyalty program

Local vs. Global Keywords

Depending on its usage, a local keyword can mean one of two things:

  1. The searcher is looking for something geographically nearby: This can be very straightforward like “library near me” or “2-bedroom rentals in Phoenix”, or it could be more subtle like “restaurants” or “What time does Whataburger close?”.
  2. The searcher has a high probability of being in a certain area: For instance, “Why did Oklahoma Joe’s change their name?” could be considered a local term because there’s a good chance the searcher is from Kansas or Missouri. Why? Those are the only two states where this exceptional barbecue establishment calls home. By the way, it is now called Joe’s Kansas City BBQ if you ever happen to be coming through town.

Examples:

  • Local: 2-bedroom rentals in Phoenix
  • Global: Is renters insurance worth it?

Audience Type

Rarely does someone self-identify themselves in a search.

When’s the last time you started a search with “I’m an XX year-old, college-educated digital marketer looking for [rest of your search]”? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this has never happened.

However, the ‘who’ behind the searcher can often be found in the implicit information of the query.

While almost no queries are exclusively searched by one group, many heavily skew towards a single audience.

One of the best ways to find out who is searching for a term is Google it and look at the results. Then ask yourself who the top results seem to be talking to.

If Google’s job is to give a searcher what they want, then the target audience for the top results of a query should be the same audience who completed the query.

Examples:

Patient: Is diabetes hereditary?
Doctor: T2DM treatment algorithm

Evergreen vs. Topical

Evergreen keywords have steady search volume with little variance over time. On the other hand, topical keywords are either seasonal (e.g., valentine’s day gift ideas), flashes in the pan (e.g., covfefe), or consistently relevant (e.g., Taylor Swift).

Some evergreen keywords can switch to being topical when an event makes them culturally relevant, like searches for a celebrity immediately after their unexpected death or a city when it’s hosting the World Cup. Google often favors new content for topical keywords because the “query deserves freshness”.

People like to create evergreen content because it can be a low investment relative to the long-term value it produces. However, the competition and initial cost are often steep. Conversely, topical content is attractive because it has a lower cost of entry, weaker competition, and provides immediate value – but that value has a short shelf life.

Examples:

  • Evergreen: how to know if you’re pregnant
  • Topical: movie showtimes this weekend

topical keyword google trends

Keywords vs. Carewords

For the first time since we moved in four years ago, we decided to pay to get our house cleaned. Our searches were very much based in logic:

  • What’s the cost for how much work?
  • Do they use natural products?
  • Did they get good reviews?
  • Are they flexible on timing?

However, how the companies made us feel certainly played a key role, even if it was mostly subconscious. In this instance, content that made me reflect on all the time I was going to save, how this would be one less thing I had to stress about, even the smell of a fresh house when I walked in the door – likely played a role in my final decision.

We search with our Neocortex but our reptilian and paleopallium brains often make the decisions.

Sara Howard describes carewords using an example of buying a car. Would you include “reliable warranty” in a search for a new vehicle? Probably not. Do you want to know the warranty is reliable once you’re on the page? Absolutely.

In short, carewords are low-to-no-traffic-generating terms that increase on-site engagement and conversions for existing traffic.

Examples:

  • Keywords: wet bar ideas for basement
  • Care words: wine enthusiast, ample storage, simple, hosting, durable, man cave

How do You Optimize Your Website for Keywords?

Much like choosing keywords, effectively optimizing your website for keywords could live on its own blog post. However, here are a few tips to get started.

Where to Incorporate Keywords on a Webpage

  • URLs: URLs rarely change, are highly visible and describe the entire page. For those reasons, Google places some value in what they say.
  • Static content: Search engines are getting much better at crawling dynamic content. Static content is a near-guarantee for indexation.
  • Title tags: Title tags influence rankings and click-through-rate (CTR) and if written effectively, keywords can help with both.
  • Meta description tags: Unlike title tags, meta descriptions do not influence rankings in Google. However, including them can increase CTR.
  • Most visible content: Google’s job is to understand content the way we do. An H1 tag at the top of the page gets far more eyeballs than boilerplate content at the bottom. Whether it’s a heading tag, early body copy or a bolded phrase, the most visible content is generally the most influential for SEO.
  • Internal links and surrounding content: Incorporating keywords into the anchor text of links pointing to your page from others on the site helps show Google what your page is about. Similarly, content nearby anchor text pointing to your page is also observed by Google and, to a lesser degree, is used to describe the destination page.
  • Image and video file names: Instead of letting your phone give your image or video a default name that usually contains something random and nonsensical, give it a descriptive name using a relevant keyword.
  • Image alt attributes: Alt tags not only make your site more inclusive for your visually impaired audience, they give Google a better idea of your picture. Incorporate keywords when appropriate.
  • Image title attributes: Image titles don’t work on all browsers the same way, which is why Google may not put much weight into this content. However, if there is an opportunity to gracefully include keywords, go for it.
  • ARIA tags: ARIA tags are similar to alt attributes in that they help make website content more accessible to those with disabilities. You can use ARIA tags on certain types of dynamic content, interactive content, background images, and more.
  • Video closed captioning and/or transcripts: Some videos contain extremely relevant keywords but Google has no clue. Make sure what is heard and seen gets included in your indexable closed captioning or transcript.
  • Schema markup: Schema helps add context to content. When applicable, mark your keywords up with the most appropriate schema properties to remove some of the guesswork for Google.

Keyword integration tips

  • Don’t overdo it: Over-optimization is a real thing. It can turn away your customers and send you to Google’s dog (or Panda) house. Each one of the areas above has been automated, exploited, and tarnished. Ask yourself if it helps or hurts user experience. Make your decision based on that answer.
  • Ignore the meta keywords tag: The meta keywords tag gets little, if any, attention from the main search engines. Don’t waste your time here.
  • Don’t optimize each page in a vacuum: Unless you have a one-page site, you need to look at your keyword targeting by taking all pages into context. This will guard against any gaps or keyword cannibalization that can happen when you work on each page in a silo.
  • Test everything: If you have the opportunity to work on sites with a massive number of pages, you have a perfect opportunity to set up some worthwhile tests to polish your techniques.

When Won’t Keywords Matter?

How do we know keywords will always matter? In reality, there’s no way to know, but many of the root arguments shared in this guide have been the same for over 20 years, and they show no signs of pivoting.

With that said, I do think I can tell you the next time “keywords are dead” will ferociously bounce around the SEO echo chambers. Larry Page doesn’t just want Google to be at the level of a human, he wants it to be superhuman.

The introduction of Google Now has given us a glimpse of what is to come: Google searching for what we want without us having to ask.

If Google does our searching for us, would keywords still matter? Yes, but that’s for another time.


Image Credits

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita
Dinosaur Image: Clker-Free-Vector-Images/Pixabay
All other images, screenshots, and video taken by author, August 2017

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Tylor Hermanson

Tylor Hermanson

Sr. Manager of Search Strategy at Intouch Solutions

Tylor is the Sr. Manager of Search Strategy at Intouch Solutions in the burbs of Kansas City. He also runs ... [Read full bio]

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