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

Do keywords even matter to Google anymore?

The short answer: Absolutely.

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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.

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.

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.

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:

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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.

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:

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:

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.

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

Keyword integration tips

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