Content Marketing and SEO: Do Keywords Still Matter in 2020?

In the early days of search engine optimization (SEO), keywords were everything. Google and other search engines relied heavily on matching keywords and phrases in a user’s search query with real pages on the web. For example, if a person searched for “hot dog restaurant,” Google’s algorithm would disproportionately favor domains and pages with the exact phrase “hot dog restaurant.”

Which thus led to the rise and dominance of keyword research and keyword-centric SEO strategies. Writing content and building links that contained the phrase “hot dog restaurant” could practically guarantee your ranking for the words.

But over the years, search engines have evolved, penalizing sites that abuse keywords and prioritizing the context of onsite content. Does that mean keywords are no longer a relevant element of your SEO strategy? Or do exact match keywords and thorough keyword research still have a place in your campaign?

Just how relevant are keywords in 2020?

A Briefer on Keywords

First, let’s establish some fundamentals, in case you aren’t familiar. A “keyword” is a word or phrase in your web content that a search engine can use to establish relevance. In modern parlance, a “head” keyword is a short, topical keyword or phrase; for example, “hot dog restaurant” could be considered ahead keyword. By contrast, a “long-tail keyword” or “long-tail phrase” is an extended, often more conversational string of words; for example, “where to find the best hot dog restaurants in Memphis” is much longer and, as you might expect, less common.

Conducting keyword research allows you to glean three main insights:

  • New keyword options. If you’re not sure what users are searching for, or if you’re interested in discovering new opportunities for content creation, keyword research can help you generate a list of new words and phrases. Most modern keyword research tools will automatically fetch terms related to your initial topic, and make recommendations for famous names to include.
  • Keyword search volume. You’ll also need to look up the search volume for each keyword and phrase. Amount refers to the number of people searching for this term over some time. Generally, strategies intentionally favor higher-volume keywords, since more searches mean more visibility (assuming you’re authoritative enough to rank).
  • Keyword competition. You’ll also be able to judge the competitiveness of each keyword term. As you know, SEO is a highly competitive field, so if you want to rank highly in results pages, you’ll need to outdo several competitors. By prioritizing low-competition keywords, you’ll find yourself ranking in less time and for less effort. 

From there, you can choose an assortment of powerful keywords for your industry. Hypothetically, there are a few ways you can utilize those keywords:

  • Onsite core content. Most search optimizers use keywords primarily in the core content of their site. They feature their most relevant keywords in the title tags and meta descriptions of their main pages, and sporadically throughout the body content of the website. They may also attempt to include them in their domain name and URL extensions.
  • Onsite blog posts. Even more commonly, optimizers use keywords as part of their content marketing strategy. They take keywords and phrases and build new posts around them. For example, if you’re targeting the term “hot dog restaurant,” you might write a post titled “The Best Hot Dog Restaurants in Memphis,” and include the name in H1 headers, as well as naturally throughout the text.
  • Inbound links and anchor text
  •  It’s also possible to build inbound links using anchor text that contains your target keywords and phrases. Links are essential in building the authority of your site, and it’s vital to include relevant anchor text; however, the exact match anchor text may no longer be as useful as it used to be.

Search Engine Algorithms: The High-Level View

Now let’s turn our attention to how search engines work. Google has always been the dominant competitor in the field, and most search engines mimic its functionality, so we’ll use it as our primary example and as a stand-in for other algorithms.

Google “decides” which sites to rank in its search engine results pages (SERPS) based on two clusters of different factors. There’s relevance, which determines how appropriate a piece of content is for a user’s query, and authority, which determines how trustworthy a part of the content is. 

Keywords are almost exclusively used to determine relevance. If your website has many instances of the phrase “hot dog restaurant,” and lots of content about hot dog restaurant-related terms, it’s probably going to be considered appropriate for a user search about hot dog restaurants. A tech blog, no matter how trustworthy and authoritative it is, will not be regarded as proper.

In this way, keywords are an essential consideration. However, you also must consider the authority (i.e., trustworthiness) of your site. This is mostly determined with an algorithm known as PageRank, which calculates how trustworthy a website is based on the number and quality of links pointing to it. A site with 100 links will be deemed more authoritative than a site with two links, and a website with 50 high-quality links will be considered to more trustworthy than a site with 50 low-quality links. This will be reflected in search engine rankings, with more authoritative sites always outranking their peers.

What does this mean for keywords in your SEO strategy? They still have a place, but they shouldn’t be your only consideration. Only policies that consider both relevance and authority will be successful.

Hummingbird and Semantic Search

Let’s ignore the “authority” part of the equation for now, and focus exclusively on the “relevance” part. Will the right keywords guarantee that your site will be considered by Google appropriately?

Even that is somewhat in question, thanks to the Hummingbird update, and a process called “semantic search.” Hummingbird is six years old now, but it continues to have an impact that some search optimizers choose to ignore. Hummingbird was a complete overhaul of Google’s core algorithm, introducing semantic search as a way to prioritize user intent.

The inner workings of Hummingbird are somewhat secret, but the functionality is precise. Rather than taking a user’s query and looking for exact matches throughout the web, Google Search now attempts to analyze the general meaning and intent of a user query. This may seem like a subtle difference, but it has some critical side effects.

For example, take the query “hot dog restaurant” above. Rather than looking for this exact phrase throughout the web, Google will understand that a user is looking for a restaurant that sells hot dogs, and probably nearby. It may make some assumptions, and consider topic-adjacent keywords, including synonyms. For example, a restaurant may bill itself as a “frankfurter eatery.” It’s a clunkier phrase and not a realistic one, but Google will understand that “frankfurter” is the same as “hot dog,” and “eatery” is the same as “restaurant.” Accordingly, even though the eatery doesn’t feature the keyword exactly, Google can still consider it to be relevant to the query.

In a related update, Google has introduced RankBrain, a machine learning component to their search algorithm that attempts to streamline user queries. RankBrain was designed to handle complex, hard-to-decipher, and colloquially phrased questions; mostly, it boils them down, reducing them to their core intent. You can think of it as a user query translator that mediates complex user queries. In other words, it’s yet another way for Google to bypass exact match queries in favor of contextual understanding.

The blanket term for keywords that are conceptually related is latent semantic indexing (LSI) keywords. Focusing on semantically related keywords can be as effective as focusing on exact match keyword terms, at least for most businesses and most high-level goals. Note that LSI keywords aren’t just synonyms; they include synonyms, but also topically related terms. In our hot dog restaurant example, associated terms might be “French fries” or “ketchup.”

The Consequences of Low-Effort Keyword Strategies

Even with the presence of semantic search, keyword research and inclusion can be a valuable way to boost the visibility of your strategy. However, you need to realize that excessively or thoughtlessly using keywords can actively work against you.

There are several tactics that could end up weakening your position or even earning you a manual penalty, including:

  • Keyword stuffing and hiding. Including a keyword, too many times in a given context, is going to trigger a red flag with Google. For example, if the phrase “best burger restaurant” appears 25 times in the body of an article, it’s going to look suspicious. An older black-hat gimmick had users “hiding” keywords in the background of their site; if you attempt to do something like this today, you’ll be penalized immediately.
  • Irrelevant or unnatural keywords. Keywords should flow naturally in the context of your article. It’s not worth bending over backward to ensure an exact match; not only is there a little direct benefit, but you could also invite a penalty. For example, users might search for a term like “burger restaurant Memphis nearby,” but if you include this clunky phrase in a blog post, it’s going to read as awkward. This is bad for both search engines and users.
  • Bad anchor text practices. Anchor text is a debated topic in the SEO industry. While it’s essential to have some relevant text to house your links, if you use unnatural text, or if you use the same phrase in multiple links, it’s going to be seen as a red flag.

If you have a selection of target keywords in your SEO strategy, you need to avoid these pitfalls. It’s simply not worth the risk.

The Purpose of Modern Keyword Research

If you want to play it safe, you can avoid including exact match keywords almost entirely, and instead focus on creating content-rich with LSI keyword and contextually relevant long-tail phrases. However, even if you take this ultra-safe approach, keyword research can still be valuable.

Keyword research in 2020 will help you evaluate the relative popularity and competition surrounding topics relevant to your industry. For example, you may learn that people are frequently searching for “cotton boys hoodies,” but there isn’t much competition—meaning content semantically related to this query family will be a valuable opportunity.

Keyword research is also useful as a discovery tool. If you know the general topic you want to explore, but you aren’t sure what types of blog posts to generate, or how to explore that topic, a keyword research tool will help you populate some options. Moz’s Keyword Explorer is one of the top names in this field but experiments with multiple tools to see which suits your needs best. 

Keyword Selection and Main Priorities in 2020

So how important is your keyword selection, concerning your other SEO priorities?

First, remember that keywords are only crucial to the relevance of your site and its pages, and relevance is just half the equation. You’ll need a solid strategy to improve your authority if you’re going to succeed.

Second, content quality should always take precedence over keyword inclusion if the two come into conflict. For example, if you have to forgo an exact match to make a sentence flow naturally, do it.

Third, understand that your keywords should be a loose guide and not an absolute mandate. Just because you want to rank for one specific user query doesn’t mean you have to include that term verbatim in all your work.

Conclusion

The power of keyword-centric SEO strategies has declined over the years, thanks to the increasing sophistication of semantic search and Google’s capabilities in general. That said, keywords and keyword research still have a place in your SEO strategy in 2020. Conducting keyword research can give you a better understanding of your customers’ searches and of the competition you currently face. It can also guide you in covering better, more relevant topics. Just don’t let it consume your entire strategy, and don’t let it eclipse the more important aspects of content marketing and SEO: content quality and

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