Keywords are one of the most often-cited and perhaps least understood aspects of SEO. Content marketers from rank amateurs to seasoned pros suggest that you “focus on your keyword density” and “never publish a post without including your keyword in these 9 places.”
But is that really the best way to get your content to rank for a certain search term?
The Truth About Keywords
The exact importance of each of Google’s 200+ ranking factors is not public information. But research by SEMrush indicates that keywords are a surprisingly low ranking factor. They come in below time spent on your site, pages per session, bounce rate, number and quality of backlinks, and more.
In fact, the pages that rank highest for a specific keyword often don’t directly target that phrase at all. According to research by Ahrefs, nearly 75% of pages that rank in the top 10 on Google don’t ever mention the exact keyword in their content.
So how do they rank so well? Because they are among the best resources on the internet for that particular topic.
Another thing to remember about keywords — competition is fierce. Most keywords that have a decent search volume have very high keyword difficulty. Even the super-specific long-tail keywords can be a major battle. So unless your site’s domain authority rivals the biggest sites in your industry, you probably won’t be able to rank for those words based on keywords alone.
With all this in mind, why is it that many content marketers continue to cling so hard to the myth of the all-powerful keyword?
My guess is that it’s because tips like “include your keyword 12 times in these 7 places” is simple and actionable. And it’s much easier to write a mediocre piece of content with X number of keywords than to write an earth-shattering, break-the-internet-quality blog post.
Now, keep in mind that I’m not saying there is no value in keywords. Keyword research is a great way to figure out what questions need to be answered and what kind of content your audience is looking for.
But instead of spending hours searching for the perfect keyword and then shoehorning it into your content to achieve a perfect 3% density, try these strategies instead.
#1 Focus on search intent
Search intent is the basic “why” behind a search. It’s the reason a user typed their search term into Google. There are four main types of search intent:
Informational - Searches that are looking for more information on a topic. Examples include “how old is George Clooney” or “Chicago Cubs stats.”
Navigational - Searches that are aimed at finding a specific website. For example, “facebook” is usually a navigational search aimed at getting the user to Facebook’s website.
Transactional - Searches with the intention of buying something, like “used Toyota Camry” or “pizza near me”
Commercial - Searches that provide additional information about products, such as reviews and comparisons. Examples include “best binoculars under $25” or “email marketing services.” These often lead to a purchase down the line.
If you don’t focus on search intent, you could do a lot of work and get very little results.
For example, let’s say you’ve started a new content marketing service, and you want your website landing page to focus on the search term “content marketing business.” But when you do a Google search for that term, you’ll find that all the top results are “how-to” posts (an informational search) rather than looking for a business to hire for their content marketing services (a transactional search). By failing to address search intent, you’ve now optimized your landing page for a term that people don’t use when looking for marketing services.
To figure out search intent, get your clues from what is already ranking on Google. A first page full of “how-to” posts will indicate informational intent. A page full of Amazon or eBay results will signal transactional intent. And a page full of reviews and product comparisons will be evidence of commercial intent.
#2 Use semantic keywords for context
Google’s algorithm is pretty smart. It understands synonyms as well as terms that are related to your content topic. These related terms are called “latent semantic keywords,” or LSI’s. A blog post about “how to start a Youtube channel” could also be expected to include related LSI’s like “how to enable monetization on Youtube” or “how to make money on Youtube.”
Just like with regular keywords, I’m not suggesting that you pluck these related terms and pepper them throughout your content.
Instead, use these related terms as inspiration for additional talking points in your content. Do a Google search for your main topic, and scroll down to “related searches” at the bottom of the results page. This list will include related terms that people often search for, letting you create a more informative and helpful piece of content for your audience.
The added context from these LSI’s will help Google to understand what your post is about in an organic way while also improving the quality of your content.
#3 Write the best possible content
Content is more important than keywords. An in-depth, useful piece of content that completely ignores keywords will get you better results than a perfectly keyword-optimized piece of content that provides no value.
Great content keeps people on your site longer, reduces bounces, and gets more backlinks. These are much bigger ranking factors than keywords.
Plus, great content displays authority. If you can provide a useful piece of content to your audience, they’ll be more likely to think of you next time they have a question in your field. That means more web traffic and even better rankings.
Topics, not keywords
Keyword research is a useful way to get ideas for great topics that you’d like to explore in your content. But rather than awkwardly repeating a clunky phrase in your title, URL, subheadings, and blog post, just use the phrase as a jumping-off point for your piece.
Use Google’s “related searches” list to figure out what else users are interested in on the topic, and then spend your time writing or filming the best, most useful information you can put together.
That’s how you get the top spot and the biggest audience.