A few months ago, I got into a debate on the topic of keywords that left me incredibly frustrated (obviously, or I wouldn't still be thinking about it today).
I suggested that blog posts should target specific keywords.
The person I was talking to said keywords don't matter anymore, because search engines are so advanced that they can now determine the searcher's intent. The person then went on to accuse me of suggesting old-school, black-hat search engine optimization (SEO) techniques like keyword stuffing.
Now, I don't offend easily, but this last bit couldn't have been further from the truth. Therefore, I attempted to explain what I meant.
In this post, I'll go over my argument and explain what keywords are, how we use them - and why they still matter to today's marketers, which is important to understand as you go about your own content creation process.
What Are Keywords and How Are They Used?
Let's start with the basics - keywords are the words or phrases people type or speak into search engines when seeking information. Search engines respond to these queries with a list of links and/or short answers to address the searcher's need. This is the familiar result.
Keywords are also core to online marketing - marketers want their brand to appear on the first page of search results when potential buyers seek information related to their products or services. We refer to our position on the results page (relative to the other links) as our "rank."
To support our quest to achieve a high rank, we research the keywords our customers use when submitting queries. We then build ad campaigns, marketing materials (content) and SEO strategies that target those keywords.
So, keyword research is simply a form of market research - it's part of the process of getting to know your customers and understanding the terminology they use so you can design targeted marketing campaigns.
Let's imagine you work for a budget-strapped start-up that makes a tool for content marketers. You create a free Google AdWords account and use its Keyword Planner tool to research the term "content marketing tools."
You see that the competition for that specific term is high - ultimately, you'd like to rank for that term, but you feel that you need to do some foundational work first. You review Google's list of related keywords and decide to target terms where the search volume is similar, but the competition is less fierce, such as the ones indicated below.
Naturally, this is a very simplistic example using a free tool, and this is only the beginning of a research process, but you get the idea. Once you decide which terms to target you can get to work building campaigns and content to match.
Paid vs. Organic Methods of Targeting Keywords
Marketers typically use a combination of paid and organic techniques to appear in search results. Advertising can be expensive, but you can achieve results quickly. Organic techniques are more cost effective and the results last longer, but they also take more time to achieve. Both methods use keywords.
With paid ad campaigns the use of keywords is fairly straightforward - we create ads for a specific purpose, usually to attract traffic or leads. We pay the search engines to show our ads when someone performs a search using our target keyword(s).
A specific skill set is required for the effective creation and execution of these campaigns, but at least the goals are clear. We want that ad to achieve a specific result.
Attracting traffic or leads organically (without paying for ads) is more complex.
In 2017, we know that search engines favor high performing, trustworthy websites that provide a consistent source of fresh content (updated pages, blog posts, eBooks, infographics, etc.). We also know that search engines can now recognize words that are similar to your target keyword.
So, we study how search engines operate and carefully design the structure and technical elements of our websites to make them easy to crawl.
We then craft individual pages of our site (and the content they contain) to target specific keywords.
And to top it all off, we build relationships with others in our industry to attract natural links to our content.
This entire "organic" process is part of SEO, but (as I'm sure you can imagine) it requires a wide range of creative, technical and social skills. Orchestrating this effort and keeping everyone focused on achieving the same result can be a challenge.
This is how a blog post appears in search results. This one targets the term "keyword research". Notice that the term appears in both the title of the post and the customized meta description. This is a common SEO technique and is one (of many) you can employ.
So, Why Do Keywords Still Matter?
Some argue that the search engines are so much better at understanding context now that you don't need to think about keywords at all when it comes to organic rankings. The concept is that if you create amazing content that focuses on the needs of your customers, you'll do fine.
I understand how someone might arrive at this conclusion, and it is true that search engines are more sophisticated, and they do aim to understand the searcher's intent. I would also agree that you should craft your content to meet the needs of your buyer personas. But this still doesn't mean you can ignore keywords altogether. Why?
1. Search engines aren't perfect
You have a vested interest in making your business visible. The search engines don't. They simply want to provide the best answer to the searcher's question, which means your content needs to compete with every other possible answer.
Search engines respond to the words your customers use. If you want to improve your rank, it only makes sense for you to start with those words too. Then you need to make it crystal clear that you are an authority on that topic. In 2017, this means that in addition to targeting keywords, you must address them in depth.
One way you can do this is to take a topical approach to planning your content. HubSpot does a great job of describing this in an article titled "Topics Over Keywords: A Simple Framework for More Effective Content Creation" and this visual brings it home.
The idea here is that instead of creating stand-alone, one-off pieces of content, businesses should identify high-level topics related to their products or services. They can then demonstrate their expertise by building groups of interrelated content that all link to the main topic.
In this scenario, each piece still addresses an individual keyword (sub-topic), but since they all tie back to the bigger theme, the resultant content effectively showcases your knowledge while also creating a better brand experience for your customers.
2. Keyword targeting helps you to pursue and track results
Goal setting is important for every business initiative, and your website content is no different.
Going back to the debate about blogging that inspired this post, the main reason you blog is to attract people to your business. Keyword targeting helps to keep your posts focused. It also influences how you optimize the posts to improve their visibility in search results and on social media.
And once you've put all that effort into designing a keyword targeted article, tracking and reporting on your effectiveness is the next natural step. If one of your posts falls flat, knowing the term you were targeting will help you to unearth why.
3. Competition to appear in search engine results is fierce
Let's go back and look at the search engine results example I used earlier in this article.
Notice how many ads appear at the top of the page. In this case, the searcher needs to wade through three ads before they arrive at the organic results. Sometimes there are more.
Now let's look at the number of results. Over 8 million? Are you kidding me? Most searchers won't look past the first page or two - if your content doesn't appear early, your customers may never see it at all.
Improving your website and developing fresh content can be an effective strategy for improving the visibility of your business, but it requires a significant investment. Take the time to do it right.
The practice of targeting keywords is still alive and well, all that's changed is the way we optimize for them. If it makes you feel better to refer to keywords as key "phrases" or "topics" that's fine, but please don't skip this important step when creating your strategy.
Search engines seek to provide the best information to searchers, and marketers want to be that source of that information. Researching and targeting keywords is simply a way to focus our efforts and track our effectiveness.
Understanding the words our customers use as they move through their buyer's journey allows us to create clean, modern, easy to navigate websites with content tailored to our target audience.