Back in the early days of SEO, marketers stuffed meta tags and content to the brim with keywords, and - voila! - their page ranking shot up, just like that.
Those were the days for marketers, but certainly not for annoyed, sick-of-spam users.
That’s where Google swooped in like a knight in shining armor.
The search engine decided it had had enough of spammy, shortcut page-ranking tactics and created a set of guidelines. That’s how white hat SEO was born, where marketers adopted SEO strategies that focus on humans and follow all the guidelines that Google laid out.
What made the deal more sweet was that there became a necessity to keep up with Google’s updates in order to maintain - or even boost - page rankings.
Follow the rules or get left behind - that’s how the world of SEO goes.
Arguably the most important update that Google released was Hummingbird in late 2013.
Well, all of the marketers who had their keyword game down pat suddenly were at a loss: Google changed the way that keywords affected the ranking of pages by almost entirely eliminating keyword phrases as a main deciding factor. Suddenly, semantic search replaced matching-phrase search entirely.
I know, dear marketer, I know. Now, there are theories galore of what is most important for ranking well in the SERPs - including content, backlinks, mobile-first user experience, and more, but what is missing from every top list is our good old friends, keywords.
Now, before you cast keywords into the depths forever, let me clarify something: just because Google doesn’t factor in keywords as much as in the golden days doesn’t mean you should forget about them. They’re still very important to the humans who your website is meant for in the first place. Hence the title, because keywords are now for humans, not just bots.
What’s different is that Google’s Hummingbird update introduced the idea of deciphering user intent based on their search phrase and matching it to content that has the most similarities based on the meaning of the search.
Because fancy virtual assistants like Siri and Cortana, as the most popular examples, encourage people to use voice search, it is imperative that search engines adapt and provide.
Have you noticed an increase in the popularity of full sentence or question search phrases?
That’s because Google’s Hummingbird update doesn’t just pull the keywords from the sentence and match them exactly as written in the results; instead, it maps out individual keywords or phrases, then deciphers whether or not a page’s content has the same meaning as the user’s search to deliver highly relevant results.
We are living in the future, people, and it’s moving fast.
What Does it Take Now?
Google is not one to release all of the answers to the web universe easily, so the best answer I can give you is that the search engine is looking for original, high-quality content.
This means your website’s content should be relevant, comprehensive, and naturally-written, not keyword-focused and confusing.
Most importantly, if you want to rank well in the SERPs, you need to write content that is good (read: awesome) enough for users to click.
So, it’s better to write an in-depth article on a single, focused topic in easy-to-read language than to try to stuff as many diverse keywords as you can - which inevitably results in babbling gibberish that is sure to make visitors bounce.
Your content - and website, and ranking, for that matter - all depends on user experience. The more enjoyable the browsing experience is for prospects, the more likely they are to convert, which is the ultimate goal of a website anyway, right? Right.
That being said, it’s still important to optimize for keywords - but in a modern way, if you will. Within your content, use synonyms to avoid risk of overusing one word; this allows for naturally-sounding content that still increases the relevance when bots evaluate the meaning of it.
Furthermore, the keywords must actually reflect what’s in the link.
Even though your business may sell all things gardening, including tree seedlings, it would absolutely not make sense to use the keyword phrase “tree seedling” in an article that is strictly about how to plant flowers in pots. The result would be spammy behavior, a slap on the wrist from Google, and likely a decrease in SERP ranking.
Good optimization is the key to getting keywords just right. Remember: placement is more important than frequency.
Your relevant keywords should be present in your page titles, sub headers, URL, meta descriptions, and any other place that helps the bots know what the page is about, but remember to keep the language natural and logical.
The goal is to still have readable titles and headers that reflect the topics or phrases that users would use and understand when seeking out that information - not nonsensically-stuffed gibberish.
Stuffing keywords would be considered a black hat SEO tactic, which is absolutely punished by Google.
How to Use Keywords Properly
Instead of risking getting punished, let’s review what you can do - or verify you’ve already done - to be rewarded with boosted visibility.
1. Optimize every page for desktop and mobile.
We’re living in a mobile-first world, meaning that searches on mobile surpassed desktop ones back in 2015.
Your website needs to be easy to read and use on virtually any device these days.
The benefit: Google will prioritize your pages over those that are not yet mobile-friendly, so get on it if you haven’t already.
2. Put keywords in the most important places, but strategically.
The headings, summaries, and above the fold on each page should have keywords that help explain what your website’s pages are all about - without sounding spammy and nonsensical, of course.
Back in the days, keyword stuffing on the bottom of the page was a sneaky trick for boosting page ranking, but now, it’ll bring you more harm than good.
3. Use related keywords...in a natural way.
If you’re writing about a topic like entrepreneurship, you may find yourself mentioning some famous innovator, such as Elon Musk.
His name probably holds a high search volume (he is quite accomplished, after all), and so the page with your content that mentions the guy can be helpful to boosting the page’s ranking on search engines.
4. Make your pages bot-friendly in every way.
That way, Google knows everything it needs to in order to categorize your page accordingly, rank it for the right search phrases, and make the experience better for everyone.
Besides, if you can prove to Google, through white hat SEO strategies, that your page is high-quality, relevant, and useful to users, it will rank it higher as a reward.
One important factor to optimize is photos: alt text is so important, as Google cannot “see” the photo for what it is and deem its relevance. Describe any photos in your content for what it is with natural language - and, as usual, avoid keyword stuffing.
The Bottom Line
There isn’t too much to it, and the people who freaked out about keywords “dying” completely are, well, overreacting a tad.
The main takeaway: keywords are still very important for giving users all the important information they need when deciding which search results to click.
Though Google’s bots are focused on other factors, such as quality of content, don’t forget about the real, live humans who you’re catering to in the first place.