Are keywords still relevant to SEO in 2018?

What a useless article! Anyone worth their salt in the SEO industry knows that a blinkered focus on keywords in 2018 is a recipe for disaster.

Sure, I couldn’t agree with you more, but when you dive into the subject it uncovers some interesting issues.

If you work in the industry you will no doubt have had the conversation with someone who knows nothing about SEO, who subsequently says something along the lines of:

SEO? That’s search engine optimization. It’s where you put your keywords on your website, right?”

Extended dramatic sigh. Potentially a hint of aloof eye rolling.

It is worth noting that when we mention ‘keywords’ we are referring to exact match keywords, usually of the short tail variety and often high-priority transactional keywords.

To set the scene, I thought it would be useful to sketch out a polarized situation:

Side one:

Include your target keyword as many times as possible in your content. Google loves the keywords*. Watch your website languish in mid table obscurity and scratch your head wondering why it ain’t working, it all seemed so simple.

(*not really)

Side two:

You understand that Google is smarter than just counting the amount of keywords that exactly match a search. So you write for the user…..creatively, with almost excessive flair. Your content is renowned for its cryptic and subconscious messaging.

It’s so subconscious that a machine doesn’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Replicate results for Side One. Cue similar head scratching.

Let’s start with side one. White Hat (and successful) SEO is not about ‘gaming’ Google, or other search engines for that matter. You have to give Doc Brown a call and hop in the DeLorean back to the early 2000s if that’s the environment you’re after.

Search engines are focused on providing the most relevant and valuable results for their users. As a by product they have, and are, actively shutting down opportunities for SEOs to manipulate the search results through underhanded tactics.

What are underhanded tactics? I define them by tactics that don’t provide value to the user; they are only employed to manipulate the search results.

Here’s why purely focusing on keywords is outdated

Simply put, Google’s search algorithm is more advanced than counting the amount of keyword matches on a page. They’re more advanced than assessing keyword density as well. Their voracious digital Panda was the first really famous update to highlight to the industry that they would not accept keyword stuffing.

Panda was the first, but certainly not the last. Since 2011 there have been multiple updates that have herded the industry away from the dark days of keyword stuffing to the concept of user-centric content.

I won’t go into heavy detail on each one, but have included links to more information if you so desire:

Hummingbird, Latent Semantic Indexing and Semantic Search

Google understands synonyms; that was relatively easy for them to do. They didn’t stop there, though. Hummingbird helps them to understand the real meaning behind a search term instead of the keywords or synonyms involved in the search.

RankBrain

Supposedly one of the three most important ranking factors for Google. RankBrain is machine learning that helps Google, once again, understand the true intent behind a search term.

All of the above factors have led to an industry that is focused more on the complete search term and satisfying the user intent behind the search term as opposed to focusing purely on the target keyword.

As a starting point, content should always be written for the user first. Focus on task completion for the user, or as Moz described in their White Board Friday ‘Search Task Accomplishment’. Keywords (or search terms) and associated phrases can be included later if necessary, more on this below.

Writing user-centric content pays homage to more than just the concept of ranking for keywords. For a lot of us, we want the user to complete an action, or at the very least return to our website in the future.

Even if keyword stuffing worked (it doesn’t), you might get more traffic but would struggle to convert your visitors due to the poor quality of your content.

So should we completely ignore keywords?

Well, no, and that’s not me backtracking. All of the above advice is legitimate. The problem is that it just isn’t that simple. The first point to make is that if your content is user centric, your keyword (and related phrases) will more than likely occur naturally.

You may have to play a bit of a balancing act to make sure that you don’t up on ‘Side Two’ mentioned at the beginning of this article. Google is a very clever algorithm, but in the end it is still a machine.

If your content is a bit too weird and wonderful, it can have a negative impact on your ability to attract the appropriate traffic due to the fact that it is simply too complex for Google to understand which search terms to rank your website for.

This balancing act can take time and experience. You don’t want to include keywords for the sake of it, but you don’t want to make Google’s life overly hard. Experiment, analyse, iterate.

Other considerations for this more ‘cryptic’ content is how it is applied to your page and its effect on user experience. Let’s look at a couple of examples below:

Metadata

Sure, more clickbait-y titles and descriptions may help attract a higher CTR, but don’t underestimate the power of highlighted keywords in your metadata in SERPs.

If a user searches for a particular search term, on a basic level they are going to want to see this replicated in the SERPs.

Delivery to the user

In the same way that you don’t want to make Google’s life overly difficult, you also want to deliver your message as quickly as possible to the user.

If your website doesn’t display content relevant to the user’s search term, you run the risk of them bouncing. This, of course, can differ between industries and according to the layout/design of your page.

Keywords or no keywords?

To sum up, SEO is far more complex than keywords. Focusing on satisfying user intent will produce far greater results for your SEO in 2018, rather than a focus on keywords.

You need to pay homage to the ‘balancing act’, but if you follow the correct user-centric processes, this should be a relatively simple task.

Are keywords still relevant in 2018? They can be helpful in small doses and with strategic inclusion, but there are more powerful factors out there.

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