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How Much Do Keywords Still Matter?

Back in the early 2000s, microsite millionaires were springing up like daisies. Fortunes were literally made overnight because of the way Google SEO worked, and the formula couldn’t have been simpler:

  1. Identify a neglected niche using keyword research (and Amazon’s autofill function)
  2. Create a microsite for that niche with HIGH keyword density
  3. Use that site to drive traffic towards an ebook (the money-maker)
  4. Rinse and repeat for different niches and keywords

Eric of My4hourworkweek.com did this successfully and documented how he did it back in 2011, and several other microsite entrepreneurs have written posts on the same process. Barring luck and perfect timing, you needed 30 sites to get about $1,000 a month. Since microsites were really easy to set up using WordPress, this was a guaranteed way to print money for those who understood SEO.

But then the Google Panda update in 2011 changed everything. The microsite millionaire method of making money was guillotined, and no matter what SEO marketers tell you, SEO is not as important as it used to be.

What SEO Looks Like Today

google-hummingbird-logo

Today, SEO’s role is greatly diminished, but it still matters—understanding how SEO works today will still give you an upper hand.

Google has continued to roll out new updates to its search (like Google Hummingbird in 2013) that make SEO keyword gaming less and less relevant because Google is increasingly doing the SEO for you. Their search has become so sophisticated that it can decipher the meaning behind your words and behind the questions your customers might type into its search bar. It uses that intel to automatically make you show up for queries that may not involve your site keywords at all.

But not only should you understand how SEO has changed, you should also recognize the danger in continuing to implement outdated SEO tactics that no longer work the way they did a few years ago. These techniques are really just a waste of your time and your money.

Here are 3 major ways the SEO game has changed:

1. Authority over SEO

PageRank isn’t dead—but it went from being the top determinant for your ranking to one of over 200 metrics used by Hummingbird to determine your ranking. Now there are tons of metrics that, taken together, help Google determine your page authority. They weigh inbound links, outbound links, social media shares, content quality, site design, ease of use, etc.

All of these metrics are really just measuring your worthiness as a thought leader. If you’re up to snuff, so to speak. And SEO matters insofar as other authorities will have search engine optimized pages. If you don’t, you’re already behind in the race.

2. Keyword Placement over Frequency

So it’s important to know that SEO does still matter—to a degree. For example, it’s still very important that your longtail keyword shows up in your page title, URL, subheaders, image descriptions, meta descriptions, etc. In other words, keyword placement is still important.

But frequency is not. You definitely don’t need to repeat a keyword at least 7 times in the body copy anymore. This is a ploy that no longer works. And as any writer will tell you, it often makes the writing worse and less enjoyable to read.

3. Semantic Search over Long and Short-Tail Keywords

We’ve heard the terms “long tail” and “short tail” keyword since 2004, when Chris Anderson coined them in a Wired article. And we all know that long tail keywords—keyword phrases longer than three words—are better than short tail keywords because they target more specific search queries and help target your niche better.

Except, how true is that really after Hummingbird? Today, Google uses something called semantic search to tease out the meaning behind your words.

Here’s an example of how it works:

Let’s say that you have a great website site for your organic, fair trade cafe in Williamsburg. Let’s also presume that you never use the words “affordable coffee” in your content (because you don’t want people to feel like your offerings are cheap). Except your coffee is affordable—in fact, given your expenses, you could charge a lot more. And you do list your prices, so you hope customers can figure it out on their own.

Assuming you have decent monthly views, if a potential visitor were to type “organic, cheap coffee in Williamsburg”, your site would likely pop up in the top search results. Google would be able to determine on its own that your cafe also fits the “cheap” qualifier, and that potential visitor would probably be browsing your site in a few seconds flat.

What SEO Will Look Like in the Future

Head in Hands

It’s safe to say that keywords won’t disappear anytime soon. But make no mistake—things aren’t looking great for traditional SEO marketers.

In all likelihood SEO marketing as we know it will eventually disappear. In fact, given Google’s dislike of any sort of search engine gaming, it’s entirely possible that one day semantic search will be so powerful that you can be SEO ignorant and keyword insensitive and still rank high for your target search queries based entirely on other measures of page authority.

That day is not tomorrow, and it’s probably not even 2020. But marketers who have been keyword-dependent in the past should start learning as much as they can about other methods of improving SEO.

Read the follow up to this post: Will Search Engines Outsmart Marketers One Day?

About the Author: Alp Mimaroglu is a Marketing Luminary at Symantec. He specializes in marketing automation, demand generation, analytics, and marketing technology. Alp has extensive experience with both business and consumer marketing. He’s passionate about how technology is rapidly becoming the key to success in both the corporate sales and marketing landscapes. Follow Alp on LinkedIn and Twitter.

  1. I do agree with you that SEO as we know it will disappear. For one it has changed a lot over the last 4/5 years.

    • Alp Mimaroglu Oct 07, 2015 at 12:53 pm

      Hi Petar. Thanks for reading and for commenting. It certainly does seem that way, doesn’t it? SEO as it exists is a means to an end–empowering users to find what they need. It makes sense that, as technology gets better and better, search will become more and more semantic, and the power to game SEO will slip out of our hands. Quality content and authority will ultimately be what matter most.

    • I think SEO slowly shifting to app store optimization.

  2. “Assuming you have decent monthly views, if a potential visitor were to type “organic, cheap coffee in Williamsburg”, your site would likely pop up in the top search results. Google would be able to determine on its own that your cafe also fits the “cheap” qualifier, and that potential visitor would probably be browsing your site in a few seconds flat.”

    Are you certain about that? I mean, that is what Google probably wants you to believe, but I really doubt it works that flawlessly. Every AI is based on some kind of algorithm with strengths and weaknesses.

    • Alp Mimaroglu Oct 07, 2015 at 12:54 pm

      Hi Tom. Fair enough. It probably doesn’t work that seamlessly yet, but that kind of search seems to be Google’s ultimate goal, and I think marketers should have a long-term strategy. Of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t know how to use keywords, just that SEO strategies will lose their usefulness over time, because search engines will be increasingly harder to game.

  3. Sanjib Biswas Oct 08, 2015 at 8:11 am

    Its really disappointing to know that one day the traditional seo tactics will go down but what practice can we do to maintain a high rankings in google serp pages?

    • Alp Mimaroglu Oct 09, 2015 at 2:17 pm

      Hi Sanjib. If the current trend continues, quality content (measured in views, shares, links, etc.) is what will increasingly determine your ranking.

  4. Hemang Rindani Oct 08, 2015 at 8:56 am

    Hi Alp Mimaroglu,

    I feel that keywords are here to stay for all the good reasons. Gone are the days of black hat SEO activities. However the importance of Keywords and organic SEO hasn’t decreased at all.
    Now it’s all about the quality of your on page and off page optimization.
    If you’re using keywords, Make sure they are natural. In short every on page or off page activity you do must be genuine.

    • Alp Mimaroglu Oct 09, 2015 at 2:16 pm

      Hi Hemang, thanks for reading. Agreed. Organic SEO will always be important, because search will always have some algorithm running in the background. My point in this article is that it will be harder for marketers to predict the parameters search uses as it becomes more and more semantic.

  5. Its only natural to have repetitive words (different words same meaning) in an article if you are covering a topic in depth (which you will, to show/prove thought leadership) and that will never change.

  6. I hope my competitors read your blog post…

    Seriously though, although there’s no doubt that “classic” SEO is changing, you are implying that one day businesses will not need any SEO consulting. They can just put up a website and trust Google to send them traffic (as in your organic cafe example). I’ve never really liked the “SEO” moniker and I feel it is only a subset of what “SEO’s” actually do. Whether you call it Internet Marketing or Search Marketing, that’s really what we’re talking here and if you think needing to have expert advice in that arena isn’t going to be necessary in the future… I disagree.

    I think this blog post at Moz is actually a more reasonable version of what I think you’re trying to get across here:

    https://moz.com/blog/why-i-stopped-selling-seo-services-and-you-should-too

  7. Eric Van Buskirk Oct 09, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    Some good points, but as someone that works on the bleeding edge of semantic SEO, some you’re missing. SEOs are MORE sought after this year than last year– but it’s SEO that know there stuff, not the ones that do things like microsites. SEO’s are NOT just about keywords. Keywords are just a means to a semantic end! So, the work I do involves topic gap analysis. That’s mixed with traditional SEO techniques. “Outbound links” you said are important, they’re not. Google said so much in the last week (seo seo roundtable). Technical factors are also “SEO,” like load times. Some good stuff here, though.

  8. Great, post on SEO. Things have definitely changed from several years ago.

    Thanks for sharing, I’m glad I stopped by to learn about the future of SEO.

  9. Jonathan Gillespie Oct 14, 2015 at 3:38 am

    I won’t agree nor disagree about this matter, there are some good points, still keywords will always be a fundamental part of SEO. Onsite optimisation still requires good keyword strategy in technical metadata of the webite. How to use keywords offsite has fundamentally changed. Its clear after Google Penguin and Panda updates that an SEO can’t focus on rich anchor text keywords, they need to have a diverse profile of anchor text link, that includes brand, brand + keywords, a small percentage can have an SEO keyword but its important that a diverse profile is used. Co-occurace discussing similar topics that may have similar keywords on different websites and co-citations of brands across different sites is becoming more important as well.

  10. Keywords still matter most, it works better when we follow ethical practices to develop quality content not over emphasize on keywords centric.!!

  11. Keywords still matter and you should still do keyword research, but the difference today is that you don’t want to use the same keyword over and over on a page. It’s important to use different keyword variations. This allows the content to flow naturally without looking like spam and the search engines are smart enough today to understand what the page is about.

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