Keyword research is often the first thing you do when planning a new SEO campaign (or auditing an older one). It provides the skeletal framework for a campaign, and for years has been a mainstay tool in the SEO expertâ€™s belt. But over the past five years or so, keyword research has undergone some interesting evolutions, becoming less relevant in some ways and fundamentally changing in others.
If this trend continues, or if we see another major leap forward, could keyword research become totally irrelevant for SEO?
Why Keywords Matter in the First Place
Letâ€™s remind ourselves why keywords are important in the first place. The goal of SEO is to get your site ranked higher for various search queriesâ€”but how do you know which queries are best to rank for? This is where keyword research comes in. It allows you to find keywords that offer:
- Relevance, so that all incoming queries directly relate to your business and are capable of making your inbound users satisfied with the results.
- High traffic, so you have as many new people as possible seeing your site listed in search results.
- Low competition, so you donâ€™t have to work as hard to rank for your chosen queries.
This information allows you to selectively target valuable keywords and phrases to include in your siteâ€™s meta data and content.
Finding and keeping track of keywords also serves as a valuable metric which you can use to gauge the effectiveness of your campaign by tracking keyword rankings over time.
The Old Days of Keyword Research
Keyword research used to be pretty simple, back when optimizing for various keywords meant simply stuffing them into every meta tag, and as much throughout a pageâ€™s content as you could (along with exact-match keyword anchor text in link building efforts).
Through Google Analytics, Google used to offer tons of data about how people were searching and how they found your site through keywords, and once you had a list of keywords with high traffic and low competition, you could straightforwardly optimize for those queries.
Most Google queries featured a one-to-one search relationship; Google would take your word or phrase and look for near-exact matches to those words and phrases on the web.
Hummingbird and Semantic Search
Enter Googleâ€™s Hummingbird update, which rolled out originally in 2013. This update introduced a concept known as â€œsemantic search,â€ which drastically changed how Google handled incoming queries. Rather than taking a userâ€™s words and searching for matches on the web, Google now evaluates the intention behind a userâ€™s query, and then finds appropriate results that match it. This may seem like an small difference, but itâ€™s had a major impact on how search optimizers think about keywords.
For starters, including a keyword or phrase verbatim isnâ€™t a surefire way to optimize for it, and itâ€™s possible to gain rankings for semantically linked words and phrases that you didnâ€™t optimize for directly â€“ and sometimes ones that arenâ€™t even present on the page thatâ€™s ranking for them! Check out this query I tested out just now, â€œthat movie where the guy takes a pill to feel no emotionâ€:
Yes, the movie I had in mind was Equilibrium. Bravo, Hummingbird!
Long-tail keyword phrases, which comprise many words linked together (usually in some kind of conversational query) have also become more popular, in part due to Hummingbirdâ€™s effects, and in part due to increased search competition forcing marketers to find less competitive, rarer phrases.