By David Reich published October 10, 2011

Where and When Your Keywords Really Matter for Content Marketing and SEO

In this post-Panda world, shallow content written for keywords rather than people won’t just leave you with a website no one wants to read but could actually cause a decline in your rankings.  You won’t just see a decline for those pages with poor content but for your entire site!

Proper keyword use will always play an important role in content marketing and SEO. Even though you should no longer be writing for search engines, you obviously still want search engines to rank your content on the first page for your most important search terms.

You want to make it clear to search engines what your content is about and what terms your content deserves to rank highly for in search. And that involves proper use of keywords. Keywords can and should be used strategically, but they should never be overused for SEO.

Let’s explore where and when keywords actually matter for search rankings  and where and when they don’t.

1. Title tags

The single most important on-page SEO factor is the title tag. If you want a page to rank for a specific keyword phrase, make sure that phrase is in the title tag.

Also make sure the page you’re targeting is the most relevant page on your site for that keyword phrase. If that’s the case, including your keyword phrase in the title tag is natural. It benefits your audience by letting them know what information they will find on the page, and it clearly indicates to search engines what your page is about.

Content management systems will often enable you to create title tags that are different than the page or blog post title that’s visible to site visitors. This is particularly easy with WordPress. Certain premium themes, like Genesis and Thesis, have this function built in. You can also download one of many SEO plugins that let you easily adjust the meta data, including the title tags, for all of your posts and pages. The value of this is that you can craft a catchy headline that may be more attractive to readers but with a title tag that’s much more clear and direct for search engines.

2. Description meta tags

Despite a very common misconception, description meta tags do not actually impact rankings anymore. Meta descriptions are what search engines typically (but not always) display in your page’s search results snippet under the title tag, which you can see in the screen shot below.  But just because they don’t impact rankings,  it doesn’t mean they’re not important.

Your description meta tag is essentially your 160-character pitch to entice a web searcher to click on your page instead of the results above or below it in a search. Using keywords in your meta description can be a smart move because it can make your page look more attractive to click on in a search. The key is to be completely natural and convey precisely what searchers can expect to find if they click on your page.

3. Page and post URL “slugs”

The value of a keyword-rich domain name vs. a branded domain name when you’re building a new site is a discussion for a different day. But it is definitely a good idea to include keywords in the URL slug of a new page or post you’re creating. Including keywords in a URL slug can help your page stand out in the search engine results pages (SERPs), as you’ll see in the screen shot below, and provide another small signal to searchers and search engines of what the page is about.

You can see in the screen shot that Bing will highlight the snippet text in your title tag, meta description, and URL that correspond with a search query. Proper keyword use in these three places can make your search results pop. This applies to all major search engines, not just Bing.

Notice how “content marketing,” “content,” and “marketing” are highlighted in the title tag, description, and URL of these search result snippets.

4. Content and keyword density

Integrating your specific target keywords within the content of a page can certainly have an impact on rankings because it’s a very strong signal that tells search engines what that page is about. However, there’s a very fine line between acceptable use and unacceptable overuse of keywords.

So what’s the correct keyword density for a page? I’ve heard experts say all kinds of things: Insert your keyword phrase once every hundred words, once every paragraph or three times on the page.

Answers like these are inherently wrong because they indicate a flawed thought process: Thinking about keyword density means you’re not thinking about your audience.

Never get caught up in how many times you’ve used your exact target phrase. If your keywords are relevant and aligned with that page’s content, as they should be, then they will naturally fall into place.

Google is also sophisticated enough to recognize and connect different variations of phrases as well as synonyms, so there’s really no need to force anything.

5. Keywords meta tag

Since 2009, Google has openly stated that the keywords meta tag does not impact rankings. It’s just too easy to spam. Don’t waste your time thinking about the keywords tag as a ranking factor.

6. Internal links & anchor text

The clickable text of a link is known as “anchor text.” Anchor text can be a very important signal to search engines of what that linked page is about. One of the most crucial ways to use keywords across your website is in the anchor text of internal links from one page on your site to another. By using keyword-rich anchor text in your internal links, you’re telling search engines what those pages are about, and potentially, what terms those pages should rank for.

Be sure to never internally link your target keyword for one page to another page on your own site. This can contribute to what’s known as keyword cannibalization. You want to make it very clear to search engines which page you want to rank for which keyword. You don’t want to have multiple pages on your site competing to rank for the same keywords.

When you produce a lot of content — as with a blog for example — you’re naturally going to repeat your primary keywords across many different pages of your site. That’s OK. Just mind your anchor text and make sure you’re only linking a specific keyword phrase to the page you want to rank for that term.

These aren’t necessarily the only places on a site where keywords matter, but they are the places where I constantly see both missed opportunities holding back rankings and keyword abuses that can hurt rankings.

Have I missed any areas where you strategically integrate keywords? Have you noticed any sites misusing keywords? We’d love to read your comments.

Author: David Reich

David Reich is CEO of SixEstate, a content marketing and strategic SEO company that uses custom content created by seasoned journalists and editors as the backbone of our campaigns. SixEstate manages a growing network of experienced journalists with writing credits from such outlets as The New York Times, SELF, Glamour, and many other renowned publications and news sites. We're always looking for talented writers and editors to join our team. Connect with him on Google+ and Twitter.

Other posts by David Reich

  • Dkloter

    Great article David! It really hits the mark! Thanks!

  • Belinda Weaver

    A great post David. So many people get worried about the complexity of SEO but it doesn’t have to be when you know what to focus on. I absolutely agree with your point about keyword density. As an SEO copywriter I always write for the reader first and the search engines second and remind my clients that Google isn’t handing over the cash!

  • Angel Harrington

    I appreciate this awesome insight. But I have question. You write: “Be sure to never internally link your target keyword for one page to another page on your own site”  What if the purpose of the internal link is to get the site visitor to visit the other page? For instance, if I am selling green bowls, and on my website I write an article discussing the benefit of green bowls. If I want visitors to purchase my green bowls, I might link the target phrase “green bowls” to an ecommerce microsite on my page,where visitors can learn more about the bowls and buy them.  What do you suggest instead so the keyword phrases are  not cannibalized?

  • Owen

    Thank you, David, for bringing a good deal of sanity into the keyword-usage arena. For me, the priority is to write intelligibly for my readers and to leave the keywords to find their natural place in the text. I appreciate your perspective in this matter. I found your sixth point—internal links and anchor text—particularly useful.

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  • MLaney

    David, nice and consise explanations. I also agree with Owen that your 6 th point was the most useful for my main current project As the site is similar in structure to Huff Post how do they avoid the internal linking delimma as so much content is interrelated. Are related posts at the bottom of a page not seen the same way with internal linking? Thanks!

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  • Dawn Wells

    So many dos and don’ts with SEO. I like how you have everything broken down here…makes it really easy to follow. Thank you!

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  • Zahra

    I have a very useful comment for your future posts.
    Using two types of san-serif typefaces is not comfortable for an eye. At one point a viewer’s sight will start to garble. Use italic and not extra – spaced letters ! This method is never meant for the body of the text, only the titles. Other than that, the article is useful ! Thanks !

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  • Nayan

    hi David, great article. I have learned a lot from here but I have some confusion regarding long tail keyword. If you write details about this matter it will be very helpful for me. Thank you so much.