Keywords: are they still relevant in 2020?

Keywords help Google understand what your page is about. Fact.

But are they the key to reaching that all-important first page? Not so much.

Ever since the Hummingbird update back in 2013, specific keywords are increasingly irrelevant when it comes to ranking. Yet many marketers still swear by keywords – often at the expense of their own audience.

Here’s why we should leave keyword-led content in the past:

It could land you in trouble

If your page is brimming with repetitive phrases and keywords – known as ‘keyword stuffing’ – you could be punished by Google.

Google can identify keyword stuffing and could demote your page as a result – or even remove it altogether.

In 2017, Matt Cutts (then head of Google’s webspam team) explained:

“We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page”.

Think of keywords like signposts. A few well-placed and accurate signposts will guide your audience to the correct location. But lots of irrelevant signs can be confusing – and once your audience lands on your page, they could soon realise they’ve arrived at the wrong address.

This is what Google actively works against. And as it gets smarter, it’s no longer wise to cram your content with as many search terms as possible.

Even if you’re not intentionally keyword stuffing, too many loaded terms could send the wrong signal to Google – so it’s best to only use your keywords when it’s natural to.

It doesn't help your customers

Keyword research tells you what your audience is searching for. And whether that’s guidance or a product, the main role of content is to provide a solution.

Simply mirroring search queries within your copy won’t satisfy the needs of your audience. To keep your users on-board, you’ll need to actually answer their questions.

A high bounce rate could suggest your audience hasn’t found the answer they were searching for. And if that’s the case, your ranking could plummet as a result.

Writing easy-to-digest and relevant content – that naturally relates to your keywords – will ensure your audience sticks around.

Top tip: try focusing your content around the solution, not the question.

It's not natural

Captivating content keeps your customers coming back for more. If you force long-tail keywords into your copy, it can often sound robotic. Plus, it will stick out like a sore thumb (making it easier for Google to penalise you).

And as Google learns to understand natural semantics, inserting word-for-word search terms may not yield the results you were expecting. That’s because a surprising 25% of all searches are totally unique – so mimicking the exact order of the keywords isn’t a natural reflection of the way people search.

Context is key

Since the Hummingbird update, we need to look beyond the surface of keywords. Google now intelligently interprets keywords and asks – what is this user actually searching for?

Take the search term ‘cheesecake’. While the user could be interested in the textbook definition of the term, it’s far more likely they need a recipe – or they’re after the calorie content before they tuck into a slice.

Google pre-empts this. Using semantic search, Google provides search results that take the broader context of a search into consideration – even when the keywords aren’t explicit.

As Google now analyses the wider context beyond our search terms, it’s no longer possible to rely on a few select keywords to rank. It makes more sense to focus on the value of the content – and, again, to concentrate on providing solutions and answers.

What's the verdict?

Keywords do matter. But they shouldn’t lead your content strategy – and you certainly shouldn’t guide your copy around them. Let your expertise do the talking and allow your relevant keywords to fall into place.

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