How Important are Keywords in SEO?
At one time SEO was easy to understand by simply embedding a ton of keywords into your website at strategic positions and Google lapped it up. However, things inevitably have moved on and like all technology that was once abused, the search engines including Google now look at the content structure and the placement of keywords in a whole new light. Rather than randomly placing keywords in your site or blog, Google looks at many things, such as placement over frequency, keyword relationships in context to the topic and semantic search criteria.
The need to be more ethical and strategic in your approach has at long last come of age.
So are keywords important? Yes. In fact a big YES.
Humans like search engines are programmed in a certain way to identify searches and their respective solutions. The use of keywords by themselves is not enough, search engines now search more effectively for keyword phrases to narrow down the billions of articles, blogs and news pieces available on the web.
So if we know the answer to be yes to keywords being relevant and continuing to be so in the future, how do we approach it both ethically and strategically to achieve our ultimate goal of increased traffic and higher rankings?
Let’s take it one step at a time.
Keywords and Relationships
In a natural speech when we converse with other human beings we use words and phrases that are related to the topic we are talking about. Naturally, we do this without thinking and relate words in varying combinations to achieve our overall goal of topic continuity. Thinking like this is exactly what we need to analytically write down and structure for the search engines to understand not just words, but their higher meaning of a connected conversation which relates to an overall topic.
So our first task is to perform keyword research and build on the ‘target’ keyword with related keywords and phrases. In doing so we have the right building blocks to develop the ‘architectural structure’ of our desired written topic. This forms what is known as contextually rich content.
Contextually rich content includes the following:
- Close Variants and Synonyms: This includes abbreviations, plurals, and phrases that mean the same thing.
- Primary Related Keywords: These are words and phrases that relate to the main keyword or phrase.
- Secondary Related Keywords: These are words and phrases that relate to primarily related keywords.
- Entity Relationships: This is a concept that describes the properties and relationships between people, places, and things. See the section on Entities and Semantic Markup.
The diagram below demonstrates the relationship and its hierarchy:
Image courtesy of Moz
A good keyword phrase or entity is one that predicts the presence of other phrases and entities on the page. Therefore a page about ‘The White House’ will predict other phrases such as the ‘President’, ‘Washington’ and the ‘Government’. After this, we can build even more secondary related keywords and phrases such as ‘President’s Names’, ‘Policies’ and ‘Political Agendas’. Incorporating all these related keywords and phrases can help in strengthening the main topic – @The White House’.
Content Structure Matters
With all the bad practice of keyword stuffing that took place over many years, the Panda update implemented by Google has helped change the face of content as we know it. Instead of ‘thin sites’ with little or no relevance to what you were searching, the craft of building websites that offer exactly or a close to what you require in the form of content (text or images) is becoming the norm.
Firstly by the strategic placement of the right keywords and phrases within the right locations on your site or blog. The search engines then determine the important keywords and their relationship to related keywords.
Three techniques are used to communicate this to the search engines:
- Position: Keywords placed in important areas like titles, headlines and the first paragraph of content carry the most weight.
- Frequency: Search engines determine important phrases by calculating how often they appear in a document compared to a normal distribution. Such techniques like TF-IDF (Term Frequency-Inverse Document Frequency).
- Distance: Words and phrases that relate to each other are often found close together. Carefully leveraging related concepts close to each other using paragraphs, lists and sections of content.
A great way to organise your on-page content is to segregate your keywords into primary and secondary lists which support your target keyword. Therefore each primary related phrase or keyword becomes its own subsection, with the secondary related phrases and keywords supporting the primary. Please see the diagram below:
Image courtesy of Moz
The Right Building Blocks
Now we know the importance of keywords and their relationships, we now need to know where to implement the changes effectively. Below is a list of the obvious locations in order to place the keywords and phrases.
Page Title: Need to be between 50-60 characters to display correctly and the keyword or phrase should be within the first five words, as the search engines like to read it early on. Do not stuff more than one keyword or phrase if you can into the page title.
Meta Description: This is the snippet of information that describes the contents of a webpage and forms part of the SERP (Search Engine Results Page). Ideally, search engines will display between 150-160 characters and again the keyword or phrase should be early on in the description.
Header Tags: Use of keywords for H1 and H2 tags help search engines to identify headers that are important and increase your chances of ranking higher.
Content Headline: This is an important area and requires the keyword to be incorporated. Plus it doesn’t have to stop there you can also use popular terms that search engines look for and improve your click-through rates, such as; New, How to, Facts, Exclusive, Secret, Why, Who, etc.
Content: This is the area that can reinforce and build up the ‘kudos’ required to gain higher ranking and increased traffic. It can be as long or as short as you like, but with good structure and careful placement of keywords and phrases, this can be the ‘diamond’ that makes it all worthwhile. After all, everything points here and the last thing you want is for your visitors to feel let down and disappointed by the content you are offering. Take your time, do the research, structure it correctly, add the call to action and social signals and see the results to aspire for. Use your keywords, synonyms, phrases and figures of speech to mimic natural speech patterns in order to meet two criteria. Firstly for the clever algorithms analysed by search engines and secondly for the benefit of reader engagement.
URL: Use of your keyword within the page URL is ideal, especially if it describes the page contents and helps the reader navigate as well.
Alt tags: Google and other search engines cannot read images and therefore look at the alt tag for a description of the image to help improve general searches and its inevitable ranking.
One final thought is that depending on the topic you are adding content about, the above suggestions are only guidelines, as like all things ‘it depends’ on what you are writing about and sometimes multiple keywords or phrases are unavoidable as they may be the only way to describe something. Ie. Swansea City Football Kits, or Ford Fiesta Zetec For Sale.
Links and Additional Content
Search engines also take into account the need for links to your content and therefore determine their relevancy. From internal links to your own pages, as well as external links to reference websites (as demonstrated in this blog) via the use of relevant anchor text.
Image courtesy of Moz
This blog discusses on-page topic optimisation, topical and relevant external links with relevant anchor text can greatly influence how search engines determine what a page is about. Whilst external links carry a lot of weight, both internal and external links matched in alignment to keywords and phrases about the main topic will rank best.
The Rise of Semantic Searches
Now we understand the relevance of keywords and phrases, their relationship and how to place them within your content structure, we now need to fully understand the way that the search engines will analyse the keyword and phrase density to better rank your content.
With the introduction of Google’s Hummingbird update, the search engine now focuses on the understanding of natural language patterns and ascertains the context of the sentence you have typed into the search query. Also known as semantic searching. Google tries to work out what the reader’s intent is and offers relevant results based on the combination of words and phrases, rather than just the isolation of one keyword.
Nowadays keyword optimisation means locating every possible keyword that could be relevant to the target audience and optimizing for each of them. Using an SEO tool for keyword research will deliver these ‘Low Hanging Fruits’ that can be used within a semantic search query. An example of the search term ‘ Mens t-shirts’ would bring the following related keywords:
Image courtesy of SEMrush
Once you have your list of primary, secondary and long-tail keywords, don’t rush in and paste across the page. Try the following strategy to achieve best practice:
- Build your structure to include the target keyword and its respective subsections that answer the reader’s questions.
- Develop the context of the target keyword by establishing entities and in doing so this will expand on the topic.
- Use variations, synonyms, phrases and speech patterns to develop the content. This will develop the Latent Semantic Indexing required by search engines to match content to user’s unstructured search queries.
- Aim to please the reader and not the search engine. After all, if the reader isn’t engaged they will simply click away and increase your bounce rate. A well-written, informative article will get read and hopefully shared extensively by your target audience by virtue of its quality. This popularity will provide the benefit of ranking higher in the search results and can become a perpetual cycle fuelling itself.
Entities and Semantic Markup
Without any effort on your part, Google extracts entities from your web pages automatically. These attributes are people, places and things that have distinct properties and relationships with each other. To help with entity relationships and properties with your web pages, the use of Schema can aid search engines in structuring the semantic markup of your content. This Google approved tool can greatly aid in enhancing your search results by inserting additional text, images and links known as ‘rich snippets’ within the webpage to give searchers a sense of what is on a webpage before they click on it. For example:
Christopher Nolan (entity, person) stands 5’4” (property, height) and directed Interstellar (entity, movie).
Image courtesy of Moz
On-Page Content Framework
A good webpage has a lot in common with a high-quality university paper. Whilst this is a simple guide to follow you’ll never achieve a perfectly optimised page, but it worth trying. This includes:
- A strong title that communicates the topic.
- An introductory opening that lays out what the page is about.
- Content organised into thematic subsections.
- Exploration of multiple aspects of the topic and answers related questions.
- Provision of additional resources and external citations.
So are keywords important in 2016? The simple answer is YES. And yes they will continue to be so. The only thing that will change will be the way that they are identified by the search engines and the way they know how to make sense of the unstructured search queries.
So going forward it pays to use collectively the science of keyword research along with the fundamentals of content marketing to achieve your SEO goals. Do it well and you’ll get more traffic and rank higher. But more importantly, beyond that the requirements of search engines, the reader will be served with a relevant article that should engage with them for longer and be shared due to its high content value.
Ideal SEO Keywords tools to perform keyword research include but are not limited to the following:
Additional reference and source information courtesy of the following contributors:
The Importance of Keywords
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