One of the things I find myself reiterating regularly to our content team is “what’s good for the reader/searcher is going to be good for SEO.” A lot of times this comes up as a disclaimer following a discussion—we’ll go through some best practices for structuring a page or common rules of thumb for linking, but then I’ll add that whatever will work best for the reader in the context of the page should be used as the ultimate guide. Sometimes, especially with writers who I’ve worked with for a long time, I’ll get some version of the question “so do keywords actually matter that much anymore?”
The short answer is yes, keywords definitely still matter. The less short answer would be that keywords are still important for SEO, but exactly how they’re used in content needs to be considered in the context of a particular page’s larger purpose on your website. Read on for the long answer.
Understanding Keywords vs. Search Intent
One of the main problems with how some people think of or talk about keywords comes from treating them as objectively valuable items rather than indicators of potential searcher intent. After all, keywords just signify what a searcher is trying to find when they enter a query on Google, Bing, etc.—it’s the quickest possible way to ask a question or request information without typing out entire grammatically correct sentences.
Discovering and directly matching these keyword phrases on a page used to be essential in order to show Google your website content was relevant for particular searches. However, that rigid approach ignored the fact that keywords are just simple signifiers of (potentially) much more complicated search intent. In the days of keyword stuffing and rigid keyword density requirements, SEOs were often making the error of writing specifically for keywords themselves as opposed to effectively addressing the intent behind them.
Thankfully, this approach has long changed thanks to improvements like…
Hummingbird and Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI)
With each new update, Google pushes closer and closer to being able to read online content like a human being would, and while they likely won’t ever get there completely, they are getting much better at making semantic associations and placing search results within a user-defined context. Latent semantic analysis has been incorporated into Google’s indexing processes for quite a while, allowing for webpages to be evaluated not only for specific keywords for which they may be a good response, but also for any related terms typically associated with those keywords.
However, Google’s latest algorithm—called Hummingbird and rolled out last fall—demonstrates some of the more advanced ways they are trying to read between the lines when it comes to a user’s searches. More than just mapping relationships between semantically related words and phrases, Hummingbird incorporates a number of ranking signals that not only better help Google to serve up results related to your query, but even help them better understand your query in the first place.
How Does Hummingbird Change the Way Google Sees Keywords?
Part of the reason for such a dramatic algorithm overhaul like Hummingbird is undoubtedly due to the need to adapt to a user base more and more frequently relying on mobile devices—and therefore search-by-speech functions—to find answers to their queries, but some of Hummingbird’s showcased changes also indicate that Google is trying to more effectively and intuitively interpret user intent. For example, a search for “new Sony TV” returns a few types of results: e-commerce pages for Amazon and Sony’s online store where you can buy specific new models, reviews of new models from sites like CNET, some pages like these offering up summaries and news related to Sony’s newest TVs, and even this page on Ultra HD and 4K TV technology.
All of these results are displayed on the first page, along with some inserts drawing in relevant “news” and “image” results placed between the 3rd and 4th organic results and the 6th and 7th organic results, respectively. Google has correctly concluded that a user’s intent when entering a fairly non-specific phrase like “new Sony TV” could range from basic initial research to ordering and paying for a specific product right at that moment. As a result, they’ve served up something for everyone, even going so far as to include the page on new 4K technology—highly relevant information for someone who’s starting to become informed in order to buy a new TV, even though Sony isn’t mentioned until the last half of the content on the page.
So this is all great info, but how does it help us understand the role of keywords in modern SEO? Kind of like my disclaimer above, it all boils down to…
Writing for Humans, Not for Computers
The first thing you should be doing when planning out content for your website, blog, etc. is thinking about the various queries for which your potential customers are likely looking for answers. This doesn’t mean you can’t use some basic keyword research up front to gain insights into what specific searches are most popular—but before you start thinking too rigidly in terms of set, specific keyword phrases, develop a picture of your potential online audience at various steps in the conversion timeline.
You know your products and services better than anyone else—so what kinds of questions would you have as a consumer who’s just entered the market and hasn’t yet done a single bit of research? What about a well-informed customer who just needs to make the final choice between the top 2 or 3 options? What are the types of questions you may have 1, 6, or 12 months after making a purchase? Once you’ve established a more complex, comprehensive understanding of the mindset(s) of your target audience—the various questions they may have and the type of information they’re seeking—then you can turn your focus to relevant keywords themselves.
By focusing on the intent behind a search and and writing content in direct response to a well-defined audience’s needs, you’ll set up a foundation where you can easily and naturally pull in relevant keywords from your research when appropriate. Keywords in this case (which again, should still be researched and weighed appropriately into your content plan), can help support your content and act to confirm the relevance of a page rather than taking on a disproportionate or distracting level of importance.