By Mike Murray published August 7, 2016

7 Reasons Why Keyword Phrases Aren’t Dead for SEO and Content Marketing

keyword-phrases-seo-content-marketing

The tech-savvy president of a company recently told me he’s confused because he heard keywords don’t matter anymore with SEO.

It’s not the first time I’ve come across that view about keyword phrases.

Three major changes in recent years may be feeding the misguided notion that it’s foolish to focus on keywords. In a sense, Google is the culprit.

  • Google’s Panda algorithm update in 2011 placed a stronger emphasis on high-quality content.
  • Google also introduced “Not Provided,” its pathetic move to conceal organic keywords to protect searchers’ “privacy” interests in 2011.
  • In 2013, Google released Hummingbird, its new search algorithm that stressed the importance and meaning of search strings over individual keywords.

Other trends likely have shaped the “keywords-are-dead” attitude, including the significance of evolving search-engine-ranking factors like searcher intent and inbound links. Marketers also shape authoritative content around ideas and not specific keyword phrases.

I’m all for identifying topics for content. At the end of the day, however, you can easily fall short if your strategic set of “ideas” and “topics” excludes any serious keyword analysis.

Your #SEO will fall short if you don’t do serious keyword analysis says @mikeonlinecoach. Click To Tweet

Here are seven reasons why keywords are worth your time:

1. Someone will ask for a list

Content teams always want to know what keywords they need to target. I just try to temper their enthusiasm by moving toward a reasonable list of strategic keywords (the number varies by company size, product categories, and budget).

2. Reality matters

It’s good to know whether you’re shooting too high or too low with keywords. Many companies dream big. In other words, they target pie-in-the-sky keywords that have no chance of ranking given the competition. Or, they produce content with keywords that are rarely searched.

3. One page can be bogged down with keywords

It’s super easy for any given website page to be overwhelmed with keyword phrases. How so? If you have a page about product XYZ and it supports 42 keyword phrases, you might want to know that.

Well, that may sound terrific. Who wouldn’t want to have a page that ranks for 42, 60, or 100 keyword phrases? Not me. First of all, the page’s rank is not all likely to be No. 1, let alone No. 1 through 10 on any search engine. Chances are, a few results could be on the first page and some might be No. 12 or No. 56. I’d rather find more relevant pages (existing or new) for some of the keyword phrases so they have a better shot at ranking well.

Marriott has a problem that’s not uncommon. In the following example, you see ranking data for some Las Vegas keyword phrases.

Marriott-Keywords

To be fair, the same Marriott page ranks better for other branded and non-branded keywords. But this example illustrates the issue. Maybe Marriott should try to rank for these keywords on other pages. After all, this small set alone represents more than 4.4 million annual searches on Google.

Yes, keywords can make a difference if you pay attention to them.

Keywords can make a difference if you pay attention to them says @mikeonlinecoach #SEO Click To Tweet

4. Keywords belong in headlines

Can you really write headlines without keywords? Should the content title literally be: How to (fill in the blank) to build your business?

If you can’t work a phrase in your headline, at least pepper it with single keywords. I’ve deliberately added words like “checklist,” “template,” “B2B,” “brands,” “employees,” and “study” to help secure more long-tail keyword phrase rankings.

5. Keywords set the stage

Just like the headline, your page or post has words. How often would you write about something without any thought about whether your content might be found on a search engine?

Sure, Google can quickly size up the context of a page and may not care about one keyword phrase. However, you likely will get credit for similar words or synonyms that aren’t even in the content.

I’m not advocating a keyword repetition formula because there aren’t any rules along those lines. It helps to have a keyword in the navigation, SEO page title, headline, content, image name, etc.

I’ve always been amused by Google’s warnings about keyword stuffing. Sure, I could write something like: “Do you like CNC machines? We love CNC machines too. We think CNC machines are essential in manufacturing. With CNC machines, companies have improved profit margins and supported a highly skilled workforce.”

Of course that sounds ridiculous and unnatural.

On this Cleveland Clinic page, I see “mitral valve” a million times — and the references are natural. I bet the use of “mitral valve” helps with SEO.

Cleveland-Clinic-Keywords

6. Tools and platforms abound

Maybe I’m way off the mark here, but I’m guessing that Google and other platforms like SEMrush and BrightEdge make money because of keywords. They’re all about choosing the right keywords.

7. Keywords influence leads and sales

Sure, you might have some trouble knowing how a keyword phrase converts if Google hides it in “Not Provided.” But you can still define a keyword focus for your critical organic landing pages. Use your website analytics, marketing automation, and other software to track how well those landing pages lead to conversion forms and e-commerce sales.

Here’s the deal: Every website has a different capacity to rank for relevant keyword phrases. Your website age, domain name, number of pages, content, internal links, inbound links, design, programming, and more will determine how well you’ll succeed.

Don’t overlook keywords outright or insist on a short list of five. Whether it’s a set of 25, 250, or 500, target the right content or build some new pages.

Your strategy will have some unexpected rewards. When you use each keyword phrase, it will resonate with all of the other words on the page. You’ll rank for any number of permutations. It’s always been that way with the internet. Increasingly, you’ll just have more opportunities to perform well for keyword variations and even words you never thought to include in your content. You have algorithm changes to thank.

Effective use of keywords involves planning and analysis. How are you managing your efforts?

Want to stay updated on the latest ways to use keywords and to create high-quality content to improve your search rankings? Sign up for the daily or weekly CMI newsletter.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Mike Murray

Mike Murray has shaped online marketing strategies for hundreds of businesses since 1997, including Fortune 500 companies. A former journalist, he has led SEO studies and spoken at regional and national Internet conferences. Founder of Online Marketing Coach, Mike is passionate about helping clients identify their best opportunities for online marketing success based on their strengths, his advice and industry trends. You can find him at his blog, Online Marketing Matters or on Twitter @mikeonlinecoach.

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  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/brauner Larry Brauner

    Running keywords in AdWords can help gauge their ability to convert.

    • http://www.onlinemarketingcoach.com/ Mike Murray

      Larry, that’s a good point about AdWords – another way to weigh what keywords to target.

  • Sean Colin Manion

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the Marriott example above. Using search volume to get data-driven actions is still best practice. For example, imagine ranking better than Marriott because you chose “las vegas hotelS” and they ranked lower because their page only contained “las vegas hotel”! The data above shows that using plurals would get more traffic – and potentially more sales.

    • http://www.onlinemarketingcoach.com/ Mike Murray

      Sean, thanks for checking out the article. Plurals can help in some cases. But they they don’t always result in what I call “2 for 1 specials,” meaning the plural form of a phrase won’t necessarily result in two top rankings – like #4 for the singular and #5 for the plural. Google weighs many aspects of the content, website structure, backlinks, etc. Marriott’s competitors could make the extra effort and create several pages and target a wider selection of “hotel” and “Vegas” keyword phrases. Large brands can do well with natural search because of their high traffic, backlinks, etc. They should all exploit their advantages. Unfortunately, they don’t.

      – Mike

  • pjperez

    Love the Cleveland Clinic example. Sure enough, 1st-page ranker for “mitral valve.”

  • http://www.contentmarketing.dk/ Joakim Ditlev

    I like your approach to specific keywords in SEO. Google tries to get our focus away from specific keywords – software vendors do the opposite. In my experience, I found that it still makes sense to include a solid keyword analysis in content marketing and include rankings on specific keywords as an KPI. If the content marketing effort is focused on Search, that is.

    I don’t understand your example with Marriott though. To me it looks more like an unfortunate result of how they structure data on their website, which has little to do with content marketing. Am I missing anything here?

    • http://www.onlinemarketingcoach.com/ Mike Murray

      I’m glad that you value keyword analysis and selection as well.

      With Marriott, the website structure does allow for some keyword rankings. The page I cited ranks for more keywords (some on the first page). I highlighted a few that rank #11 or worse as an illustration. For a better SEO strategy, Marriott should identify other existing pages and update them to support some of these keywords that haven’t made the first page of Google. Or, they could simply create new pages for some of the keyword phrases. I think a new page would do well.

      – Mike

  • Michael Katz

    A really helpful perspective and overview. I had written off keywords too but I now believe i’ve been too hasty! Thank you.

    • http://www.onlinemarketingcoach.com/ Mike Murray

      Michael – thanks for reading. It’s easy for marketers to write good content and hope for the best with natural search. But sometimes the content doesn’t drive much organic traffic because the the content is filled with words that are seldom searched or are too competitive. SEO has certainly changed over the years. It’s just tough for me not to think about keywords at some point.