Do Keywords Still Work? How to Improve Your Google Search Rank This Year
You might remember the days when keywords seemed to be the be-all, end-all of ranking a website on Google. Website owners would twist themselves into knots trying to add the right keywords to their content the right number of times. Fast-forward to the present and it turns out that the practice of keyword stuffing is frowned upon by search engines. For bloggers and businesses alike, it's no longer possible to gain heavy traffic by loading up every other paragraph with a specific word or phrase.
Do keywords still work?
With search becoming smarter and giving weight to so many variables when determining a website's rank, you can't help but wonder: Are keywords still important?
The short answer is yes. Content and keywords are still crucial aspects of SEO — the practice of optimizing a website to make it reach a high position in search engine rankings. It's just that new user behavior and search algorithms have modified how keywords trigger web content. Now, Google and others favor websites who understand and match people's “search intent" beyond using a bunch of keywords repeatedly.
Search intent and how keywords fit in
Search intent (also known as user intent) is at the heart of every successful keyword strategy. If you're aiming to rank for keywords that don't match your visitors' intent, you're unlikely to rank very well.
Google has made a variety of changes to its search algorithm aimed to present internet users with results that best fit their intent. It all started with 2013's Hummingbird update, which revealed Google's ability to judge the intent behind search queries. This allows the search giant to return a list of websites that offer the most relevant answers for those queries.
For example, if someone performs a search for “designer handbags," Google will try understanding the intent behind this search. Is the person looking for:
- Sites that sell designer handbags?
- A list of companies that manufacture designer handbags?
- General information about designer handbags?
- Different kinds of designer handbags?
The search engine will then present websites that best match the person's search intent. Sites offering the most appropriate answers for queries will rank higher than others. This ranking system has given rise to a new approach in SEO. Rather than just needing to include certain keywords, content now also must be focused on search context and topics. That means that your content (containing keywords) must be relevant to users in a specific context (when they search using those keywords).
Google aims to provide its users with search listings that just don't cover a specific topic but include the most well-written, meaningful, accurate and timely content.
How to leverage keyword search intent for better rankings
This means that to be effective when using specific keywords in your content, you have to determine your prospective visitors' intent. Here are some of the ways you can gain a better understanding of what people are searching for.
1. Ask people about their preferences directly
The best way to know more about the search intent of your target audience is through a quick survey that pops up when someone lands on your website. Asking visitors what they were looking for helps you understand if your content is meeting the expectations of your prospects.
After you gain data on people's search intent, analyze your web copy and old blog posts. Is the topic still relevant? Does the information provide answers to potential questions visitors may have about a certain niche or industry?
Longer, intent-relevant articles are now key to improving a website's rank in Google Search. The best strategy might be to tweak or lengthen older posts to create detailed, authoritative articles.
2. Study existing search results for your selected keywords
While you won't instantly know the intent behind a particular word or phrase, Google usually will. This means examining the search results for that keyword can give you an insight into what a visitor is looking for. Pay attention to the ads, organic results, and YouTube videos that appear when you search for that keyword. To give an example, let's assume you're thinking of writing an article about “surfboards." While you may assume that people searching this term are looking to buy a surfboard, there are many additional possibilities. They could be looking to see images of surfboards, compare different surfboards, or find local suppliers for surfboards.
That said, you can get a fair idea of whether they're looking for a “commercial" result or an “information-based" piece by analyzing the first page of search engine results. If most results contain websites that are selling surfboards, there's a good chance that those searching for the term are looking to buy a surfboard, rather than view information or images. So if you were to target this keyword, your best approach would be to create a webpage that allows visitors to buy surfboards with a description of their features.
3. Analyze competitors' keyword bids in AdWords
AdWords is Google's online advertising platform, which allows you to place bids on specific keywords. If you win the bid, your ad appears in Google Search as an ad. While you may have no intention of truly bidding on specific keywords, it's helpful to see what competitors are willing to bid and how competitive certain keywords are.
A rule of thumb is that highly competitive keywords that garner high bids are associated with high commercial intent. For example, if the keyword “designer handbag" has a very high proposed bid, it may indicate that individuals searching for designer handbags are in the later stages of the buying cycle, so they're probably searching for online stores and websites that sell designer handbags.
You can also leverage keyword spy tools like SpyFu to gain insight into what competitors deem as intent for the keywords they've bid on. Examine the landing pages and copy of your competitors to see how keywords have been used in descriptions, titles and CTAs. Based on this research, you can discover keywords that may help boost your online visibility.
The bottom line
Keywords are still the cornerstone of SEO, but Google now takes several other factors into consideration when determining the search engine rank of a website. In particular, keywords must be used a bit more strategically, and the content presented on your homepage and in your blog posts should be focused on satisfying visitor intent — that's the recipe today for winning a high position in search engine results pages.