Keywords have been a part of SEO since, well, the beginning of SEO. Search engines emerged as basic algorithms to help people find specific material on the web, and as a result, their early limitations were centered on basic principles. Keywords were one of these principles; search engines would take specific words within a user’s query and find the website that used them the greatest number of times (or in the most key locations). Accordingly, the best way to rank was to find which of these keywords were being searched for most often and pump them into your site any way you could.
However, modern search engines are much more sophisticated, drawing on the power of “semantic search” to analyze the user intent behind search queries rather than resorting to pinpointing individual keywords within phrases. Even before this, Google and other engines released updates to target abusers of the keyword system, penalizing practices like “keyword stuffing” and rewarding those with natural content. Some have suggested that keywords should therefore be abandoned entirely, but this isn’t necessarily the best move either.
Modern marketing strategies have been forced to evolve, and keyword-based SEO strategies should be no different. Keywords should still be a part of your ongoing strategy to rank higher—but not in the way they used to be. To help you understand the modern differences, take a look at the following dos and don’ts of SEO keywords:
- Pay attention to your ranks over time. Individual search queries can still be used as a fair one-to-one monitoring metric for your campaign performance. For example, you can choose to target a handful of different phrases, and pay attention to how your ranks for each of them change over time. If they rise, it’s a positive indicator; if they fall or remain stagnant, you know you have to change something.
- Partake in keyword listening. Keyword listening is a strategy similar to social listening, whereby you research how consumers are searching and how those patterns change over time. This can give you new ideas for potential keywords to target, new information about your demographics, and inspiration for new campaign directions.
- Use keywords to find new content topics. Content is at the heart of any successful SEO campaign, but you need to write about topics your audience actually cares about. Keyword research can help you do this; by studying rising patterns among certain keywords (and long-tail phrases), you can select the most popular or least-covered topics in your industry.
- Be judicious about what you use as title tags. Title tags are still important indicators for the content and context of your individual pages. Be sure to include words and phrases that accurately and concisely describe what you offer—it’s a perfect time to include keywords relevant to your brand (as long as they’re also relevant to the page on which you intend to include them).
- Focus exclusively on a handful of phrases. It’s true you should narrow your focus to a few areas of specialty, but don’t get caught up in only pursuing a handful of keyword phrases. Doing so will make you seem repetitive, and won’t give Google an accurate or thorough view of what your company’s all about.
- Stuff keywords into your content. The dangers of keyword stuffing are real and harsh. Including a phrase too many times throughout your site or in an unnatural context won’t just decrease your ranks—it will also turn off your customers. If you’re ever in doubt, read your selection of text out loud—if it sounds weird or funny, you know something’s off.
- Use keywords as anchor text for inbound links. It used to be a good idea to frame your inbound links in hypertext that exclusively contained a target keyword phrase, but such practice is no longer beneficial. In fact, Google sees this as a deliberate attempt to manipulate your rank without adding any user value whatsoever. Instead, embed your links in contextually relevant text (and you’ll probably get the same keyword benefits anyway).
- Use keywords verbatim. Semantic search means Google is capable of understanding context and conversational language. Accordingly, you don’t need to use exact verbiage like “men’s outdoor shoes” over and over to rank for queries related to men’s outdoor shoes. Simple variants like “men’s shoes for outdoors,” “hiking shoes for men,” or “outdoor men’s shoe” will all work perfectly well. Remember, all your text should sound natural in a conversational context.
If you adhere to these general best practices, you should be able to avoid the risk of a Google penalty while simultaneously earning a higher return on your SEO investment. It helps if you stop thinking about keywords as a way to manipulate your rank, and start thinking of them more as a tool to help guide the focus of your strategy. Tread carefully, and never stuff keywords where they wouldn’t otherwise belong.