May 15, 2017

When Keywords Are Not Enough, SEO Needs More

Published: 15 May 2017 

Once upon a time keywords were a dominant force in the SEO world. Day-to-day optimisation tasks involved how to best integrate keywords onsite and offsite. However, trying to use keywords as the driving force in your SEO strategy today would be considered to be a waste of time and a distraction from more important strategies.

Search engines have changed

One of the biggest reasons why keywords have begun to lose their relevance lies in the fact that search engines are constantly changing and making it more complicated to rank well.

Semantic search

The evolution of semantic search has seen an increase in long-tail queries and search engines striving to provide more accuracy and relevance to users.

Semantic search is achieved by understanding user intent and contextual meaning to generate more relevant results.

Intent involves the user explicitly stating what they are looking for, while context refers to everything surrounding the search (for example, what gives it meaning). By making a connection between intent and context, search engines are able to understand what motivates and what is expected of the queries.

Using the search query “Apple” as an example. If you are a fruit and veggie enthusiast with a search history containing search queries about “apple” as a fruit, it will direct you to that rather than the technology company Apple’s website. On the other hand, if many of your previous search queries involved the latest iPhone, then it would most likely be directed to Apple website rather than a blog about apples.

Do you need keywords to rank well?

Whether you even need keywords to rank on search engines depends on your domain. A high-authority site with great content and lots of high-quality inbound links relevant to a particular keyword might find themselves ranking well for keywords not specifically included on their page. Therefore, you should focus more on establishing meaning for your site rather than wasting time on repetitive keywords.

Does keyword ranking matter?

For many businesses and SEO specialists out there, keyword ranking remains a very important metric to track when measuring success. However, there is a lot more to it than you might think. While high search engine rankings can be an indication of success, this is only if the keywords drive traffic, conversions and improve ROI.

Your website might be ranking well for high-volume keywords, however, if your keywords don’t meet user intent, they will promptly leave your site as they couldn’t find what they were looking for. A bad user experience won’t do you or your site any good.  

Search engines can look at contextual data, meaning they can sometimes determine the intent behind a keyword or phrase. For example, as well as taking the search term into consideration, search engines will also have a look at previous user queries in order to give a more personalised response.

We can also consider query expansion as an example, where exact keywords are not present on the page but are still relevant enough for a search term that you show up in the search results.

Search engines are becoming more intelligent by constantly updating their algorithms. They are able to establish these relationships, which is another way tracking keywords can get tricky. This means keyword rankings might not be a relevant indicator of success.

If keywords are no longer the driving force in gaining rankings, then what should we really be focusing on?

Adding more to your SEO strategy

Many people go overboard with their concern over keywords, however, the way search engines function these days makes it more complicated to rank well.  

Keyword positioning

The location of keywords within a body of content matters much more than the number of times they appear. For example, more value is held in the page heading rather than in the middle of a big chunk of content.

Instead of worrying about how keywords exist around your overall site, it is more important to place them in page titles and focus on good quality, engaging content.

Content strategy

One of the biggest factors for improving your rankings is to develop a good content strategy.

You should focus on consistently creating good quality, shareable content and focusing on the needs of the user.

For example, if you are a business that remodels kitchens, you might develop a keyword list that looks something like this:

  • Kitchen remodelling
  • Custom kitchens
  • Modern kitchens

You should then think of these keywords in relation to user intent. You can use this context for content ideas which will be beneficial for your target audience.

So who is your target audience, and what are their search intentions?

To figure this out, you need to as the following questions about your audience:

  • What is their location?
  • What do they need from you (e.g. types of services)?
  • Are they only after some information on pricing (transactional), or are they also looking for tips on remodelling (informational)?
  • What does the user need? (e.g. is their kitchen completely destroyed or are they just looking to make a few small changes?  

You should be able to determine whether your content should be educational, promotional, transactional, or a combination, based on the needs of your audience.

Link Building

It is considered to be one of the most grueling and time-consuming tasks in SEO, however dedicating time and energy into link building has the capability of doing wonders for your site’s rankings.

How do we know this?

A 2015 study by Moz which examined the top 50 Google search results for around 15,000 keywords found a strong relationship between external links and rankings.

Among the top results, 99.2% of all websites contained at least one external link. It was also found that there were almost no website’s ranking for competitive search terms which didn’t have at least one external link. From this, it can be concluded that external links are almost always present in high ranking websites. Furthermore, the study confirmed that a bigger number of external links held are associated with higher rankings.

There are many ways to get started on your link building process:

  • Promoting quality content: create high-quality, shareable content and tell people about it (e.g. blogger outreach).
  • Submissions: Submit your site to directories - just make sure you don’t spam low quality directories, to avoid undertaking black hat SEO tactics.
  • Reviews and mentions: Present your product or service to influential bloggers.

Once you get started, you can research and find more ways to build links. Ultimately it’s a trial and error process, however it could mean an improvement in your rankings.

Social Media

Findings from Econsultancy’s State of Search Marketing Report 2013 found that 82% of agencies and 74% of companies surveyed stated social media was either somewhat or highly integrated into their SEO strategy.

Social shares themselves do not improve a website’s rankings, however social media profiles certainly influence the content of search results. You usually find that social media profiles are amongst the top results in search listings for brand names. Therefore, it can be argued that in some cases a user is just as likely to click on a social media profile as they would the actual website. Having active and engaging social media channels allows your audience to get to know your brand in a way that is fun and unique.

Furthermore, many people these days use social media channels as search engines.

  • In 2016, Facebook was receiving approximately 2 billion search queries a day
  • On the same year, Twitter handled 2.1 billion search queries a month

Because of this increase in popularity, businesses will need to start expanding their concept of SEO to include social search engines alongside traditional search engines.

There is much more to SEO than keywords

Nothing is worse than spending a lot of time and effort only to reap very little rewards. While keywords once held a great deal of relevance in SEO, search engines are constantly changing and so should your SEO strategy. In order to improve rankings, there is much more you need to consider than the number of keywords you have floating around on your site.

Got any other thoughts? Let us know in the comments.

Ben Maden

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