I was reading an article yesterday on the most useful free tools for content marketers. At the top of the list was Google’s keyword planner tool. In the comments under the article, someone had written: “Keywords? LOL. Obsolete.” The commenter ran an SEO agency. I don’t know him, but I’m guessing he is very skilled and knowledgeable about SEO.
But I think he’s wrong. Because keywords are still relevant to your audience. Whether search engines need them or not.
Words are tricky. The comment is a perfect example of that. While he only wrote three of them—“Keywords? LOL. Obsolete”—I’m assuming he meant this:
“Based on my understanding of the sophistication of Google’s Knowledge Graph database and the company’s work on semantic clusters, keywords are no longer as important in helping crawlers identify and properly index certain pages. In fact, determining the exact high-demand keywords to target in an AdWords campaign may be less beneficial than just producing lots of content around a topic cluster.”
I’m inferring that he meant that. But he wanted to express those ideas in a short, punchy way, using a minimum of words.
Like this sentence. But that is still just an assumption on my part.
Are keywords still relevant for SEO?
If you are only interested in reverse engineering Google’s algorithm, there is a lot to agree with in the comment. If you’ve been tracking particular keywords and search queries over the last 18 months, you would have noticed a difference on results pages. You’ll have seen that sometimes you’ll land a good result for a keyword you’re not targeting.
For example, at the time of writing this article, if you Googled “content development process”, you’d see a rich snippet and a number one result for one of our articles. (I know, that’s a humble-brag, and I apologise, but I am trying to prove a particular point.)
Thing is, I wasn’t targeting the keyword phrase “content development process” when I wrote that piece. I was targeting the phrase “what is content development”—and we only have a number four position result for that exact phrase.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m very happy with being at the fourth position on page one of a search engine results page. But being number one is better, right? And landing a rich snippet is even better again.
When words don’t work
I’m not going to analyse how that result was achieved. It’s clear that Google’s software is being pretty clever, inferring meaning from my article and matching it to a searcher’s intent.
But if the searcher can’t find the right words when Googling something, then semantic search tends to fail them.
A very simple hypothetical example: I’m looking for some red shoes. More specifically, I really want to buy a pair of red shoes. But I’m drawing a mental blank on the word “shoes”. Still, I have faith in the algorithm. I figure if I use a search query that has keywords in it, including trigger words that will indicate I’m in the market to buy something, then Google will figure it out.
So I open up a search page and type, “red coloured things that you put on your feet to buy”. I figure, at least I’ll get a selection of things to buy which will include some red shoes. But this is what I get:
No shopping results. No pictures of shoes. I admit, I’m slightly intrigued by the Amazon result for foot hammocks, but it doesn’t solve my problem—no red shoes here.
In fact, the list of results suggests the algorithm has assumed “feet” is an important keyword. At present, good SEO advice is that if a searcher uses a long-tail keyword phrase, she will get a good result. But I’ve used a long-tail keyword phrase here, and haven’t gotten anything like the result I wanted.
All words are important
This is not a reflection on the weakness of Google’s knowledge graph or semantic search. It’s a reflection of the weakness of human brains. Sometimes, we forget words. Sometimes words mean more than one thing. We strive for precision in language, but language isn’t precise.
Language is the weak spot in Google’s algorithm. Because language is inescapably human.
I think search engines know this, and the engineers who build them work very hard to find a solution. But language remains one of their most important tools in solving the problem. And it is the problem, at the same time. It’s like trying to use water to stop yourself from drowning.
But language is what we’re stuck with. All of us—searchers and search engines alike. So we have two alternatives. To extend my metaphor: either learn how to breath water. Or just get out of the water.
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Keywords help people as well as search engines
Many years ago, I used to work at a rock magazine. A fair chunk of our time there was spent reviewing and discussing records. Just for fun, we used to have a challenge in the office: could you write a review of an album without ever mentioning the artist, the album title, or any of the songs?
In theory it was possible. You could write about the genre or sub-genre of the songs. The timbre of the artist’s voice. The instruments used. The country it came from. The issues addressed in the songs. You could hint at major themes in that particular artist’s body of work. After all, most of us music nerds can pick, say, a Bob Dylan song the moment we hear it, even if we’ve never heard it before.
But all of that was possible because of a shared body of knowledge, and a hundred other discussions about those things. It required lots of previous knowledge on all of our parts.
We never published a review like that. If we did, readers would have found it really annoying. Not because it was self-indulgent. Just because the readers didn’t know straight away who or what the review was about. They needed some important keywords to work out if the review was worth their time.
There are very few things we all know. That’s why we continue to outsource our memories and wisdom to the Internet. But we need to leave clues and guides for other people to access that wisdom. Those clues and guides are keywords. They’re for people. Search engines are just stuck with trying to use them.
If your business is using content marketing to build an audience, your content needs to be discovered. To be discovered, you need to use certain important words and phrases when you’re producing it that will be recognised by people who are looking for that information.
If you completely forget about search engines for a minute, it just makes sense to use keywords that other people would use to help them make that connection. Keywords are a tool for readers.
The reason they will always remain vital is—unlike any other form of media—people searching the web have no filter on what they can discover. You, as a site publisher, can make no assumptions that anyone online is looking for your content. So using keywords will always make it easier for those people to find you.
Keywords. Obsolete? LOL.