Keywords used to be the foundation of a good SEO program, but are they really relevant anymore? Let's take a look at how Google and other major search engines view keywords, and what it all means for your business.
Keywords, A History
Search engine results used to be much simpler. Google and others only displayed 10 results per page. It was clean and easy for users to glance and pick a relevant link. Providing keywords in your meta tags helped search engines figure out what your page or entire website was about. Search engines were not as advanced, and they needed these clues. You could "stuff" your meta tags with keywords, and your site would rank higher.
Now when you submit a search, you are confronted with upwards of 50 links on the results page: ads, images, maps, social profiles, shopping matches, related searches and – that thing we were looking for – organic results. It's a bit overwhelming, and it's no wonder users rarely browse to page two of search results.
As search engines grow more advanced, they are moving away from wanting website owners to tell them what their companies do (providing keywords). Search engines want to interpret the data on your website and come to their own conclusions. This renders a lot of black hat SEO tactics useless, and in theory gives searchers more relevant results.
Enter semantic search, first introduced in 2013. Instead of using a string of keywords that a user searches as individual words, Google assigns meaning to the search phrase and returns results that it deems relevant.
For example, if I searched "clinical trial tissue sample storage freezer" prior to semantic search, I would have received results ranging from storage sheds and deep freezers to trial attorneys and free samples. Semantic search looks at my search phrase holistially and understands that I am looking for a storage freezer to be used to store tissue samples for clinical trials. It then finds me the most relevant matches.
So what if Google has not assigned the same meaning to your website as you intended? Your website doesn't show up as frequently, or it isn't displayed to the right people – your potential customers.
Is There a Formula?
Google has a complex algorithm, which is constantly changing. They are pretty secretive about the specifics, but they are open about the fact that website owners with quality content, fresh websites and who follow the rules have nothing to worry about.
If you are using keywords, placement matters, and keyword "stuffing" can harm your rankings. Even if you are trying to target specific keywords and phrases, write your content naturally. The placement of your keywords matters more than how often they appear.
Are Keywords Dead?
The simple answer is no. Keywords still help Google and other search engines determine what your website is about. They still offer value. But the placement and strategies are different from when Google first launched.
The bigger question is: are keywords still the most important component of an SEO program? I would have to argue that they are not. Modern SEO's goal is to help search engines derive your intended meaning from website data. This in turn leads to quality traffic on your website, better leads and more sales. Keywords play a role in this process, but the most important factor has shifted to content – optimized, fresh and shared on a variety of platforms, all linking back to your website. Content engages prospects and starts them on the path to becoming loyal customers. It is at the heart of digital campaigns ranging from SEO and SEM to social and email marketing, and it is here to stay.