Are Keywords Necessary in a Semantic Search World?

In an earlier post we explained what semantic search is. Let’s now dig deeper into how this affects your efforts to identify and employ keywords. To start, let’s pose this important question:

Do keywords even matter anymore?

First let’s quickly summarize what semantic search is. Google quietly introduced it into its summer 2013 algorithm overhaul, code named “Hummingbird.” Semantic search returns much more specific answers to search queries rather than the previously deployed hierarchical list of approximations Google guessed the user meant.

In the pre-Hummingbird days, keywords and links acted as a de facto currency. Content was created around keywords, which were then strategically placed (and sometimes nonsensically stuffed) in the hopes of attracting links (votes= trust) back to the website, increasing its rank. The more links you had, the more confidence search engines placed in the trust of the website, and this was then reflected in the search engine results pages for the website — producing more visitors and ultimately more revenue.

In short, keywords and links meant everything to website optimization.

But in the new post-Hummingbird age, content is the new currency.  The improved algorithm smartly interprets queries with associations, a technological feat unattainable until recently. Google now does a much better job understanding the relationship amongst words and thus the context and intent of the queries. This yields a much more precise and satisfying result, epitomized by the Knowledge Graph on the SERP pages.

In the SERP returned for the query “Miami’s best Cuban food” Google understood, based upon my previous behavior, that I did not mean “Miami, Ohio” or the Native American tribe of the same name. Furthermore it returned results for Cuban restaurants (of which I am always seeking the best) with reviews, rather than recipes or ingredients. The search engine also associated the query with a popular Cuban dish, the Cuban sandwich.  A venerable Miami restaurant known for their hefty Cuban Sandwiches, the Versailles, rose to the top of the SERPs for my query without the keyword “Cuban Sandwich” in my search.

So what are some practical implications for content creators and search marketers? With the emphasis on user intent, are keywords dead from an optimization perspective? Do they even matter?

Here are 5 key takeaways:

  1. Because Google can effectively link associations between words, the query itself becomes much more important, as do all the words in it.
  2. Content created merely to satisfy an optimization requirement (such as keyword density and architecture) for search engine ranking is a waste of time and effort.
  3. Replace keyword research with user intent research. Keywords are still an integral part of content strategy. But what’s more important is to determine the intent behind those keywords.
  4. Keywords need to be employed in a natural way, not to game the algorithm. Because Google has the ability to understand relationships much better, synonyms work equally well. No more keyword repetition is required. Your keyword lists, since the implementation of semantic search, should grow exponentially.
  5. Content creation, now more than ever, means writing for the user: solving their problems, addressing their issues, and enriching their lives. Answer their questions by creating content that does so.

So to circle back to the original question: Do keywords matter anymore? The answer is yes, but very differently from the days when keywords reigned. Keywords are used as tools to discover and uncover user intent. How they are used matters, now more than ever.

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