Do keywords still matter?
The competition to rank for single keywords is getting even tougher as digital content is getting published at an overwhelming rate.
It takes more than an effectively placed keyword in a title to get that content to rank well.
In 2013, Google’s Hummingbird update reinforced the penalties for keyword stuffing. It also introduced long-tail keywords and semantic search as important SEO factors.
These concepts have increasingly dominated the way Google evaluates content, and give brands a better chance at ranking by targeting more specific keywords and focusing on using semantically related words.
So, yes. Keywords still matter. They’ve just evolved in the last few years. We’ll show you how to use long-tail keywords and understand semantic search to increase the quality of your content and SERP rankings. Plus, how to balance these practices with keyword placement.
What are long-tail keywords?
Traditionally, people attempted to rank for a single keyword, which can bring a ton of traffic to a website. But because more pages target single keywords, there’s a high level of competition to rank.
Long-tail keywords were introduced as a solution to target a more specific audience with less competition.
According to marketing influencer Neil Patel, “Customers who type descriptive key phrases (long-tail) are generally more qualified than those who type head keywords or short-tail phrases. As a result, the conversion rates are higher for long-tail keywords, as compared to head keywords.”
For example, if you sell kitchen tables, there is high competition to rank for “tables” or even “kitchen tables.” To develop a long-tail keyword, think about the specs of the table and then add some description. The long-tail keyword phrase may be “4 person mahogany kitchen table” or “round dining table with leaf extension.”
Though this phrase will get less traffic than the simpler “kitchen tables,” people who search for long-tail keywords are closer to the buying stage. They have a better idea of exactly what they want to purchase. Long-tail keywords can deliver results for those specific queries.
Long-tail keywords also use “natural language that matches the user’s conversational tone,” as noted by Search Engine Watch. This is valuable for those who use voice search. One out of every five searches already comes from voice queries, so long-tail keywords are better suited to satisfy those searchers.
What is semantic search?
In addition to targeting long-tail keywords, using semantic words can give your page a positive SEO boost.
There’s debate in the SEO industry about whether or not Google uses Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) when crawling billions of pages to learn what words are used together and in what context. But it’s noted that nowhere in Google’s patents does it state that they use LSI.
Regardless of the algorithm and technology Google uses, semantic search was introduced as part of the 2013 Hummingbird update to help Google better understand the meaning of words to do two things:
1. Gauge content comprehensiveness and quality.
2. Determine the intent of a user’s search query.
Using semantically related words, or synonyms, in a piece of content shows Google that you are knowledgeable on a topic. Naturally, the more thorough an article is, the more related words to the main topic you’ll use.
Backlinko’s analysis of 1 million Google search results found that “Google doesn’t need to see the exact keyword in your title tag to understand your page’s topic … because of Semantic Search, it doesn’t appear to be nearly as great as it once was.”
The author states that including the keyword in the title “may help with rankings for that keyword,” but using synonyms will increase a piece of content’s authority and quality.
As more people began using voice search and asking full questions, learning semantics was the solution to providing the best answers without the content having to match exact queries.
Other factors considered to determine a searcher’s intent are a user’s location, past search history and search settings.
For example, if searching for “best flowers,” you first see local flower shops in the featured snippet box. None of the title tags include the “best flowers” keyword. Google learns that these are good flower shops (factoring in the quality of their web pages, reviews, social media and much more).
Beneath this, you’ll see that of the top five results, only one title tag contains the exact phrase “best flowers.” This is an indicator of the power of semantic search vs. keywords.
Using semantically related words/synonyms
In our flower example, the first result (“20 Best Perennial Flowers”) is the only one on the SERP that is not related to purchasing flowers. It lists types of perennials and uses synonyms associated with the topic such as “shades,” “bouquets,” “plants,” specific flower names and other words related to flowers.
To determine the best results, Google processes what other users searched for, clicked on and read. Users may search with different queries and keywords, but it could generate similar results. For instance, when I searched “flowers to plant in fall,” the same “20 Best Perennial Flowers” article appeared in the SERP.
SEO expert Rand Fishkin states that if search engines see certain words frequently associated with a topic, “they’re going to reward content that uses those terms and phrases intelligently, and they might actually penalize pages that don’t have them.”
However, just as Google penalizes keyword stuffing, it will also penalize semantic stuffing. Synonyms must be used naturally throughout a piece of content so that they do not hinder the readability.
If your content is well-researched and the topic is covered in-depth, then the content may already include the most relevant synonyms — you didn’t even have to work for it!
But if you want to work toward a better rank, then you may want to conduct keyword research and understand your readers’ intent for searching and clicking on your article.
Conducting keyword research
Researching will give you a better idea of who to target, what users are searching and their intent for searching. You’ll also discover the best-related words to use in your content.
Neil Patel suggests starting with a seed keyword, which can be found using a tool such as Google Keyword Planner. Then use KeywordTool.io or insert the keyword into the search engine and use Google Suggest to discover related key terms, popular phrases or questions people are searching.
With the “best flowers” keyword, we see searchers have very different intentions. Choose one of these queries and dig deeper. Rand Fishkin recommends checking out the top 10 or 20 results of your query to see what words and phrases appear on those pages most frequently.
But it may not be necessary to include these words in your content. Rand suggests “it depends on how comprehensive you’re trying to be.” These words may be better suited for another piece of content or on another page.
Rand also notes that you may broaden your thinking when looking at related search words and phrases for future targeting opportunities. In our “best flowers,” search, there are three queries related to a time of year to plant flowers. You may want to create season- or month-specific content to enhance comprehensiveness and build authority on the topic related to “best flowers.”
Though we’ve been focusing on long-tail keywords and semantic search terms, it’s still important to use a main keyword in your content.
This helps pinpoint the content’s main topic and provides another SEO opportunity through keyword placement.
The Content Marketing Institute outlines five main areas where keywords should be properly placed so Google can correctly index and gauge your content’s relevance:
- Page title
- Body copy
- Meta descriptions
- Page URL
Now, the effectiveness of keyword placement is always up for debate — you can find keyword best practices all over the web, but Fishkin says, “as search engines have evolved and as other sources of traffic — social networks, referring links, email, blogs, etc. — have become more important and interconnected, the very nature of what’s ‘optimal’ is up for debate.”
A SearchMetrics study supports this claim, showing only 53 percent of the top 20 search queries have keywords in their title tag, and less than 40 percent of landing pages have keywords in their H1. “This number is dropping year-over-year, which clearly demonstrates that Google evaluates content according to its relevance — and not by the inclusion of individual keywords.”
Striking a balance
So, will not including the focus keyword in your title severely hurt your chances of ranking?
“Personally, I’m happy to sacrifice ‘perfect’ keyword placement in the title element or a URL for better user experience, a higher chance of having my content shared on social networks, or a better click-through rate in the search results,” Fishkin writes.
What matters most is that your content focuses on a main topic and provides thorough, accurate information. If you’re an expert on the industry, you’re already going to use semantic words naturally. This provide a better user-experience, anyway, which is what searchers and Google care most about.
Creating in-depth, comprehensive content and avoiding disruptive keyword use will help your marketing team publish higher-performing content in search engines and other channels.
This post is part of the Brandpoint Quality Content Series, which analyzes how Google assesses quality content and how you can get your pages to appear higher in search results.
Part 1: What is High-Quality Content?
Part 2: Google Search Quality Guidelines: What is E-A-T?
Part 3: Are High-Quality Links Important for SEO?
Part 4: How to Create Readable Content
Part 5: How to Create Comprehensive Content
Part 6: Duplicate vs. Original Content
Part 7: Latent Semantic Indexing and Long-tail Keywords
Part 8: How to Optimize Images and Visuals for SEO
Part 9: Content Freshness and Generating New Topics
Part 10: SEO Success Stories