If you’re at all interested in SEO and the ever-elusive nature of Google’s ranking algorithm, you’ve likely come across this familiar headline:
SEO Keywords Are Dead
Are Keywords Dead?
Are Keywords Dead? 10 Essential Ranking Factors to Include in Your SEO Strategy
Keywords Are Not Dead
Are Keywords Still Important for SEO?
Why Keywords Are Still So Very Important for SEO
Keywords Are Still Very Important in SEO – Know Why
These were all published between January 2017 and February 2018, but SEO experts have been questioning the relevance of keyword usage since September 2009, when Google announced that they don’t use the “keywords” meta tag in web ranking.
Meta keywords are an HTML tag used by developers to signal to bots and crawlers what exactly a page’s content focuses on. A lot of developers—including Hudson Fusion—have long abandoned the meta keyword tag in lieu of more effective SEO practices.
Let’s put it this way. When I asked our Technical Lead, Jillian Romeo if we ever use meta keyword tags, she actually laughed. “I don’t even remember the last time we did that.”
That being said, we know that keyword research is a vital part of any SEO strategy—just maybe not in the way you think.
Google Put on the Keyword Blinders
In Google’s 2017 I/O keynote, CEO Sundar Pichai continued to hype up their “AI first” future.
Basically, Google Search now uses machine learning, which means that Google Search will continue adapting to increase usability.
Google knew that marketers were sitting down with a list of keywords that were bringing in traffic to their website and creating all of their strategies around certain phrases users searched to get there.
That’s when they started removing keyword data from Google Analytics in 2013. Most of the time, we’re given “undefined” direct traffic from Google. Without the ever-reliable list of search terms bringing in traffic, people started ringing the alarm.
Google still takes keywords into consideration—marketers just have less visibility.
They inadvertently motivated SEO experts to develop high-quality content that focuses on pain points in addition to keyword reports.
Search engines are learning natural language to go beyond targeting how people search—but why they search.
This is a basic tenet of inbound marketing. We focus primarily on the buyer’s journey, starting with customer pain points to understand their motivation to eventually purchase a product.
Google’s Focus on Usability
A lot of SEO thought leaders are hopping on the shock-factor click-bait train with articles that are less about keywords being “dead” than they are about keywords no longer being the forefront in SEO strategy.
The whole “keyword” concept seems simple enough for people who don’t know better. If you have more keywords, your page ranking goes up.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
A quick history lesson: Google has been flagging bad practices like “keyword stuffing” since the Florida update in 2003.
Say you were hoping to rank for “Westchester business leader” and you rewrote your “About” page to the following:
Westchester business leader Jane Doe has been run her company in Westchester for over 30 years. The Westchester business leader earned her MBA from Quinnipiac in 1979, and as a Westchester business leader, she understands that we need better business—now.
You don’t need to be a content marketing expert to know that it’s not a great bio. (Sidenote: We know the secret behind writing a great "About" page.)
Here’s the bottom line: Google is on a constant hunt for usability. All of their algorithm updates aim to enhance user experience by rewarding high quality websites—which means high quality content.
Instead of jamming as many keywords as you can into your web copy, Google urges you to weave together thought leadership, relevance, and coherence (unlike the above example).
High-quality websites are organized, easy to read, easy to navigate, and provide value. Researching competitor keywords and designing copy around which keywords you’d like to rank for is a fundamental first step, but no one benefits from focusing on keywords alone.
Google’s Quest for Colloquialism
Voice search is here to stay—and Google’s definitely listening.
If you’re sitting at a computer and searching for the best HR training businesses and organizations in Westchester, you’ll likely type “best HR training Westchester” into your search bar.
However, when it comes to voice search, we’re only human. We don’t rattle off a list of keywords in monotone. We may say something along the lines of “OK Google, show me the best HR training businesses in Westchester.”
That’s when Google Hummingbird happened, affecting 90% of all searches.
The 2016 algorithm revamp introduced semantic search. Basically, semantic search takes into consideration the searcher’s intent to generate more relevant results.
For example, Google understands us enough to know that if we’re searching for “poison ivy rash,” we’re not just looking for a description of the rash, but other symptoms, treatment plans, and additional information.
Instead of spitting out a list starting with www.poisonivy.com (which, if you’re curious, leads to the DC Comics Superman page and provides zero information on plant irritants), Google Hummingbird understands that the user is likely looking for a specific set of information relating to the rash.
So are keywords dead? Put the eulogy on hold.
Keywords are always going to be an important element of SEO strategy, but they’re only one small part of a greater plan.
Understanding best SEO practices takes constant research, experimentation, and expertise. We can’t all become SEO experts overnight, but if you’re looking for a team of practiced SEO strategists and marketing professionals, we’re only a click away.