Keyword [noun] “a word that you type into a computer so that the computer will find information that contains that word”.
Since Google began, the words included in a user’s search query have always been used to determine intent; for example, whether I am simply looking for images of “cars”, a website offering “cars for sale” or specifically “aston martin cars for sale”? All three of the above count as search queries and keywords in their own right, but put together, the user creates a refined signal to Google to serve them content directly relevant to their request.
One of the most recent algorithm updates to change the keyword landscape was BERT – Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. On 25th October, 2019, Google released BERT, enabling Google to find deeper meaning in search queries, from identifying regional language or industry jargon, to combining several keywords together to find a user’s true search query.
Search for ‘cow fishing’ and you will see that alongside the many articles praising BERT’s arrival, you will not be served up content on cows of the four-legged kind. Instead, you will see articles on bass fishing, as BERT has enabled Google to now understand regional dialect, deciphering that in places like New England a cow is another term for bass.
So while SEO keywords are nowhere near dead, they have definitely evolved from what they were. As Neil Patel notes, in the early 2000s, the formula to reach the top of Google couldn’t have been simpler and had everything to do with keywords. All SEOs had to do was identify a neglected niche using keyword research, create a microsite for that niche that was well optimised for the identified keywords, use that site to drive traffic towards a monetised asset like an ebook, and repeat with different niches and keywords.
When Google Panda was introduced in 2011, it changed everything, ultimately making the role of SEO keywords less important. Since then Google has introduced algorithms like Hummingbird, which continue with this trajectory and allow Google to take more control of ranking positions based on what it feels is truly useful for the user.
Site owners and SEOs today need to recognise that unnatural keyword frequency will not get them where it used to and will turn readers off in the process, but that keyword placement in the page title, URL, subheaders, image descriptions, meta descriptions is still important. What’s more, Google’s semantic search ability allows it to pay more attention to the searcher’s language and what is really on your website – beyond just picking up on your target keywords. This means that it is less important to stick to exact keywords, and more important to include helpful, factual information about your business, ideally including synonyms of the relevant keywords you are targeting.
So… are keywords important for SEO anymore? In short, the keyword is here to stay. Google’s investment in understanding the spoken word signals to us that choosing relevant terms for your website content is still of the utmost importance. The way in which you optimise your pages may be evolving, but the crux of the matter is that without keywords or keyphrases, there is no SEO.