Lets Stop Talking About Keywords for SEO, OK?

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Can we please stop perpetuating the idea of “keywords” in the SEO process????? Yes language and words are important. But starting SEO in that context derails everything else. I know that as a technical SEO I am bias to this debate, but please hear me out here.

Many that approach SEO for the first time or with little understanding want to talk about keywords. As a colleague recently explained to me, “well I think that talking about keywords is just more accessible to them than technical SEO that they maybe don’t understand.” I completely agree here, and I understand that as a consultant it is partially our job to steer our clients in the right direction. Except, they must have learned about keywords somewhere right? My guess its from the endless chatter in the SEO community about keywords, and how to analyze them. So lets stop doing that. (Please?)

5 Reasons To Stop Talking About Keywords

Modern Search Engines Understand Content Beyond Keywords

Modern search engines have now implemented a level of artificial intelligence and machine learning that makes understanding content go far beyond keywords. Content instead should be based around ideas and business goals. The keywords will come later. Often times I’ll take a look at the terms my site is ranking for with a tool like SEMRush, MOZ or Google Search Console, and I will be surprised to see terms that the page is ranking for that aren’t even on the page. This happens because the algorithms now can analyze content and associate topics, ideas, and subjects to the page. When this happens the page is automatically associated with terms that it isn’t optimized for but are simply related to the topic discussed in the content. Because of this, it is now more important than ever to create really good content that is developed by a subject matter expert who can write in a way that is recognized by the search engines as an authority on a given topic.

Organic is not PPC

Considering the approach I mentioned above we can now see the search engines analyze content less on a keyword specific level but more on a topical or subject area. Because of this, having a laser like focus on your keywords is not always the best course of action for SEO. This of course is not the case for PPC where with PPC having an exact understanding of the types of words used is critically important to having a higher ROI. Using terms in your PPC campaign that don’t produce high conversion rates can be a waste of money and go against the foundations for what that channel strives to do. With SEO the objective is not as laser-focused because a web page can rank for literally thousands of different terms. After content is ranking the investment in SEO for that page is substantially smaller than that of PPC. Because there is much less of a risk of wasting money in the SEO process after content is ranking and well positioned within the search results. PPC needs to be laser-focused on the right keywords whereas SEO needs to have high-quality content in the right subject areas.

SEO Isn’t The Only Game In Town

As a marketing channel SEO is very attractive because of its high ROI and its ability to aid in other marketing and related objectives. However it is of course not the only channel that a business should focus on. Therefore your content strategy should not be solely built around any SEO element including keywords. Content development should also include branding, social media, public relations, and conversion optimization to fully drive all of a business’s KPIs. Considering that SEO is only one piece of the puzzle then obviously your content should include influence from all of the other pieces as well.

Query Intent is More Powerful Than Keywords

Query intent is the “intention” behind a search. It is the fundamental reason a user is searching for a specific term. Consider the term “cookies”. Is the user looking to buy cookies? Make cookies? Have cookies delivered? What type of cookies? Chocolate chip? JavaScript? Zeroing in on the actual intention of your target audience and delivering the best possible offering/content to meet that intention is much more powerful than optimizing for keywords. This approach is commonly understood as Product-Led SEO. (Check out Eli’s book). This approach to SEO relies on developing the best possible UX and solution for the user’s needs, that will result in attracting all of the other needed ranking signals such as backlinks.

For The Most Part Businesses Should Already Know Their Keywords

If you are a business owner that has any amount of experience operating within your industry you likely already know how your target customer talks about your products or services. You should already know the types of pain points they go through before finding your business. You likely also understand all of the different comparisons that they might make when deciding your type of product or service to purchase and you might already have a great understanding of the problems that they have with your product or service. If all of these things are already clear to you then you likely already know all of the keywords that need to be used. This is because the best keyword research is done by those that have an advanced knowledge of the products or services being offered on the website. Oftentimes when you work with an SEO to do keyword research, they have to spend a lot of time learning about your business and the types of customers that you are trying to target before they can start their keyword research. In most situations the business owner themselves is more of an expert on keywords and language used for their customers than the SEO is. An SEO can help you better understand the different types of content that can be utilized in relationship to those keywords but fundamentally the business owner is the primary expert at how their customers are using and talking about their products or services.

So forget about keywords entirely?

No, as long as search engines rely on textual or semantic analysis, you will need to continue to be aware of the right use of language. However, you shouldn’t let keywords be a starting place, dictate your strategy, or distract you from what really matters. Instead, focus on your customers and users to build content and site experiences that they love; on top of rock solid technical SEO foundations, and if you need help with that, I am your huckleberry. 😉

Disclaimer: I might be wrong here. Or I might be right. SEOs can be both at the same time.


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1 thoughts on “Lets Stop Talking About Keywords for SEO, OK?

  • Keywords CAN be useful to breakdown concepts/label stuff as well. But I think when you recommend anything people run all the way down to the most extreme version of that recommendation. “You should look at keywords” becomes “keywords are the most important thing.” (And this blogpost becomes JOE HALL HATES KEYWORDS.) It’s hard to get across nuance (though this does a great job of doing just that!)

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