Almost exactly a year ago I posted about how keyword research has changed over time and explained a bit about how semantic search works. A year later and fresh off of a nice article I shared on social media yesterday about keyword phrase targeting, I think it is time to revisit the subject a little bit. The evolution of the keyword and how it is viewed by Google has changed significantly since the early days of SEO and my over ten years in the industry.
Keywords: What Has Changed in Ten Years
Keywords were once very specific and black and white. You wanted to rank for a keyword, you wrote content that included that keyword in important places and got people to link to it. Today they are a more nebulous thing based on user intent and historical data. I think rightly so, Google tries to stay one step ahead and perhaps even give you what you don’t even know you want when you are typing or saying your search.
We have all seen the old content where you would see a word or phrase repeated over and over in a couple of paragraphs, usually to the detriment of the actual usefulness of the content. One of the great things that came with RankBrain and the improvement of the Google algorithm is the understanding that useful content is really important. We can complain all we want about the other factors leading to high rankings, but in general, it is good that Google has gotten better at understanding what people want in a search and finding a way to make that important to the algorithm.
With the evolution of the algorithm, not only does Google get incorporate better clues on what searchers do after they click on a result (do they stay, search again, come back right away), they also sometimes automatically adjust your search due to data they have gathered over time.
For example, more and more searches automatically trigger a local maps result. This makes sense as statistics show that many transactions start with a search but end up in a local store. With that, searches that years ago may have had to be spelled out, are now assumed. If I search for “electrician” in my hometown, it will not only suggest while I’m searching, that I make it a local search, if I don’t add a local term like the town or county, it will simply assume it and provide me some local map options based on where I’m searching from and even my own search history (the algorithm takes into account sites you have visited in the past).
As you see above, Google tries to give you suggestions based on where you are and what others have searched in the past. This isn’t just for local, it is for more general searches as well. Google is in the business of trying to get you to the answer to your question, and especially with very broad topics, it sometimes helps to see these other searches to get you where you want to go. In the example I link to above, the search for “muffin” tends to give results that are recipe based, even if you didn’t search for “muffin recipes”. This is likely from a history of searchers that chose recipes after searching for “muffin”. Though Google does provide local listings for places that sell muffins close by further down the page, if you were trying to sell muffins by mail or from outside the immediate area of the searcher, you likely would struggle to rank for “muffin” unless you added a recipes section to your site and tried to convert them from there.
Deconstructing the Keyword Phrase
Though I typically don’t recommend to clients to copy competitors with content or strategy, usually because many are doing it wrong, or have different levels of site strength that the client doesn’t have, it is helpful to some extent to see what is ranking in the search engines for certain phrases to see if you have a chance to rank for that phrase, or if you even want to.
Traffic does not always equal sales. More often than not, a lesser searched, but more specific term is going to convert better for you, so it is important to use your resources effectively. We can’t all rank for everything, so understanding the landscape around a certain keyword and whether your site is “welcome” on that first page is important for shaping your content.
Keyword Planner + Search Results + Competitive Landscape
It is time to go beyond the Keyword Planner that Google provides and start looking more at what content works, which is based on what users are looking for. See what is on the first page for your target phrase with your search engine optimization, and plan accordingly. With your competitive data, you can see how far away you may be from a strength position, or whether your content contains the important pieces you need to be deemed relevant enough even with good strength.
There are many link strength comparison tools out there from Moz and Majestic and others that will sometimes even give you a taste for free. You also have to be honest with yourself on whether your type of site belongs in that neighborhood. Would a mail order muffin store have a good chance of ranking for “muffin”? Doesn’t seem likely in the current environment. They may want to use their resources to attack “mail order muffins” or “muffin delivery”, etc.
Guiding Your Semantic Content
Lastly, if you decide you can rank, look at what is there and the content that is ranking. Now more than ever, Google requires thorough and specific content. Your homepage ranking for everything doesn’t really work these days in most industries. Make sure your blog post or service explanation addresses all the main points. below is an example of the top phrases that show up in articles that rank on the first page of Google for “keyword research”. This gives you an idea of other terms that Google deems important for showing up in an article discussing keyword research, even if it is not the keyword itself. You may even want to include phrases that seem to be in every result as additions to your title tag.
Clients Focused on a Specific Keyword
As you can clearly see from everything above, keywords are just not what they used to be. I regularly have the conversation with people to not get too hung up on one keyword phrase, as they are always changing and some convert better than others. The main goal is to find where you can rank, and create the best content to show up there using many of the tools and best practices we share here. You can succeed, but it definitely isn’t as easy as it used to be. Give us a call if you want help with your content and keywords.