Search engine optimization seems to confuse a lot of people. Some small business owners I’ve talked to just frown when I try to explain it to them. Others don’t really even want me to explain it. They just want their pages to rank well.
Unfortunately, all the confusion is probably not going to go away. As the search engines get smarter, there are fewer hard and fast rules to cling to. Techniques that were widely endorsed even a few years ago could now land you in trouble. The whole debate around links is a good example of this. But keywords are an even better example.
Are keywords dead?
There are several articles about keywords being dead on pretty much every website that covers SEO. Most of those articles come to one of these conclusions:
- Keywords aren’t dead. It’s just the way we should use them has evolved
- Keywords are dead. They’ve been replaced by “semantic search” and “user intent“
Both conclusions are right. Keyword best practices have definitely changed. And those best practices have changed because the search engines now understand keywords in a way that’s much more like a human user would understand them.
Keywords are not dead
But just so we’re all clear: Keywords still matter. They aren’t dead. As long as people as still typing keywords, aka “search phrases” into search engines, keywords will still matter.
The question to ask with keywords is not whether they’re dead or not. The question is how to use them now. I will be giving you some very specific examples of how to do that in a moment. But to understand what’s changed with keywords requires a brief journey into search engine theory, namely the concept of “semantic search”.
What’s semantic search?
Semantic search is at the crux of how keyword usage for SEO has changed. Understand it, and pretty much every current best practice for keywords will make sense.
Fortunately, it’s not too hard. And the wordsmiths among you have probably already figured it out. It’s all in the semantics. In other words, the search engines are now attempting to handle keywords the same way humans handle words. The search engines are also actively trying to identify and downplay pages that have been overly manipulated to rank well.
Semantics is “the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning”, according to Google’s own results.
Here’s the definition of semantic search, according to Wikipedia (and Google, too):
Semantic search seeks to improve search accuracy by understanding searcher intent and the contextual meaning of terms as they appear in the searchable dataspace, whether on the Web or within a closed system, to generate more relevant results.
So what we’re talking about here is that the search engines aren’t just looking at the sequence of letters when someone types “Chinese food”. That might have been true ten years ago, and then it might have worked to have “Chinese food” in every subhead on your page and in your title. But now search engines try to decrypt a user’s intention from a search. They can do this several ways, like:
- Checking where the user is geographically and serving up information based on that
- Checking what the user has searched for before, and serving up information based on that
- Checking what the most common user intents are, and offering search results that fit the most common user intents
What’s cool about this is that search engines aren’t just dumb bots streaking through trillions of web pages to find exact matches for “Chinese food”. They’re learning machines. Search engines track and learn from our behavior. That’s why I see different results from my Google searches than you do.
Search is influenced by context
The other big part of semantic search is context. This is hinted at in user intent, but context also includes other related words. Context is why the search engines understand that “rose” and “planting” are related keywords, while “Chinese food” and “stencils” are not.
If you read articles or listen to SEO webinars of experts talking about keywords, they often talk about how we should now think of keywords as if they were concepts or topics. It’s a good way to describe what’s changed. But there’s an even easier: Start thinking of your keywords like a human, not like a search engine.
That’s not the complete story on semantic search (there are entire books about the subject), but it’s the gist of it. For a deeper dive into semantic search and how to understand SEO as a whole, see our ebook, “SEO 101: The Basics and Beyond.” It outlines
- The major recent search engine updates
- How to craft well-optimized content for specific audiences
- Keyword research
- How to optimize each part of your pages
- Best practices for site-wide SEO
Specific advice on how to use keywords now
Now that you’re armed with some background on keyword usage, I’ve got three lists for you: What to do, what to not do, and what to be careful with when you’re working with keywords.
- Vary your keywords. The days of insisting that one static term be used throughout a page are over. Toss that idea out. It’s far better to write your pages like you would naturally, without a search engine bot over your shoulder. Specifically, that means using tenses (write, wrote, written, for example) and related terms (like “penned”, “authored”, “composed”).
- Think of your keywords more as topics or concepts. This viewpoint makes you more likely to create content that includes your keywords but isn’t chained to them.
- Place your keywords strategically throughout your page. Don’t overdo it and always keep the best interests of your reader as your primary goal, but adding keywords in a few strategic places can increase your page readability, and increase the likelihood that a searcher will select your page vs a competitive page when they are looking for information. For more information, check out Critical Rules for SEO Success.
- Title. Each page on your site should have a unique title tag. If possible the keyword (core concept of the page) should start in the first 10 characters.
- Meta description. Each page on your site should have a unique meta description. You want the give the reader a quick summary of what they will find on the page, and including the keyword is a good way to do this.
- Alt tags are the tags used to describe images. Their highest duty is to help visitors who can’t see the image to understand what the image is trying to convey.
- H1 – H6 tags. H1 tags are headlines and give the reader a quick understanding of what is on the page. H2–H6 tags are subheaders and give the reader a quick way to skim the page and stop at the section that is relevant to them.
Also add keywords (carefully) to:
- File names
- Directory names
- Blog categories
- Do not focus on keyword density: It’s over. Stop counting how many times you use your keyword on a page.
- Do not “stuff” or overuse keywords. Here’s an example of keyword stuffing in an alt tag:
<img src=”sampleimage.gif” alt=”CRM software, CRM, CRM software companies, best CRM software, CRM services, CRM companies”>
A good ALT tag wouldn’t be written at all like that. It would be written to actually help the user. Keep in mind that ALT tag copy also sometimes gets grabbed by social media platforms (like Pinterest) as description copy. And keep your ALT copy short: The recommended maximum length is 65 characters (including spaces).
Here’s good alt text:
<img src=”sampleimage.gif” alt=”Use our CRM software guide to decide which solution is best for you.”>
For more information on keyword stuffing and what Google considers irrelevant keywords, see their Quality guidelines article about irrelevant keywords.
- Do not focus on ranking for one single, chosen keyword. There are tens of thousands of searches occurring that include your keyword, or that your page might rank for. (Your page can rank for a keyword that you don’t expect. It depends on the meaning of your content, and the terms the searcher uses.) Just obsessing over that one keyword would actually cost you traffic – and a lot of it. Remember, 16 to 20% of search queries have never been searched for before. That’s how many variations of searches are. Don’t just restrict yourself to one static keyword because that’s what popped up in a keyword tool. Remember: Optimize for concepts, not keywords.
- Do not think that a page perfectly optimized for one keyword is a guarantee of good search rankings. There are many other factors influencing rankings.
Be careful with:
- Over-using keywords in hyperlinks. This applies both to inbound links you create, and to links you create within your site.
For example: Marianne Smith is a world-class copywriter at ABC Agency.
In the example above, “copywriter” is the “anchor text”. Anchor text is just the words that are hyperlinked. It’s okay to sprinkle keywords into hyperlinks/anchor text, but don’t overdo it. And you’ll be better off if you vary that anchor text. For our example, we could have:
- Marianne Smith is a world-class writer at ABC Agency.
- Marianne Smith is a world-class wordsmith at ABC Agency.
If this was an author biography at the end of a guest post, the best practice is to skip the keyword altogether and go with the person’s name or company name, like this:
- Marianne Smith is a world-class copywriter at ABC Agency.
- Marianne Smith is a world-class copywriter at ABC Agency.
For more details on how to play safe with inbound links, check Google’s Quality Guidelines page about Link Schemes.
Keywords do still matter, but they’re now shaped by their context and each user’s search intent. Simply thinking of keywords as static things now will hurt your search engine optimization work. Instead, think of keywords more like concepts or topics. Try to understand – and deliver on – the intent of the user who typed them. What is the question they are asking? How well does your page answer that question? And remember that keywords are just one piece of the overall SEO puzzle.
Want more tips about how to optimize your content for the long haul? See our ebook, “How to Make Any Content SEO-Friendly”.