How Targeting Keywords Effectively Has Changed

By Max February 16, 2017

Let's get this out of the way now: anyone who tells you that keywords don't matter in 2017 is flat-out wrong.

Are keywords viewed differently than they were 10 years ago? Yes. Is it harder to rank for individual keywords than it was in those days? Yes. There's no denying that targeting specific keywords in the present day is a whole different ballgame, but that's no reason to get ahead of yourself and start thinking that keywords are suddenly useless.  

Targeting keywords effectively is still very much a critical component of a strong digital marketing strategy. It's just the methodology behind doing it that's different.

The old ways

Here's a general overview of what targeting keywords initially looked like.

Step 1: Pick some keywords to target.

These could be simple, brief terms like "movies", "board games", and "rainy day activities"; or, perhaps what are known as long-tail keywords, slightly extended ones like "how to spend a rainy day in Toronto" and "best rainy day activities for kids".

Step 2: Write content that makes frequent mention of those keywords.

As crazy as it is nowadays to think that this is how SEO actually used to work, this is how SEO actually used to work. You would just stuff those keywords into the content, making sure they were featured in the title, the first sentence, regularly throughout the writing, etc. It was automatic. Objective. Mind-numbingly basic. Almost like running an assembly line, but for writing. This also meant that it made sense to create lots of different pages, each tailored to a specific keyword or a small group of them, lest someone get too carried away and dilute the prominence of the other keyword(s).

Step 3: Reap ranking rewards.

The paradigm shift

But alas, those days of formulaic keyword targeting did not last. There was a change, a paradigm shift.

Even though Google and other search engines are constantly refining their methods, capabilities, and algorithms, there was one development in particular that typifies the shift away from volume- and placement-based keyword targeting.

That would be the implementation of Google's Hummingbird update, which arrived in August, 2013. There were many nuances to it, but the main takeaway was that the search engine had officially begun prioritizing a content's meaning over its keyword makeup, a strategy that is best described by the term semantic search.

The new methodology

So if the old ways are out, where does that leave us now?

Well, let's start by looking at what hasn't changed. At the end of the day, people are still searching for the same kinds of things that they always have been. Torontonians who need a last-minute game plan for a rainy day (that involves more than staying home and watching Netflix) will undoubtedly put in a query to Google for something like "rainy day activities in Toronto".

If you read the sections above, then it should come as no surprise that two of the top three results do not explicitly feature the long-tail keyword that made up the search query.

However, what's important to note here, is that all of these top-ranking results are conceptually similar. Take the first hit, for example. The fact that it chose the word "Indoor" instead of "rainy day" makes no difference because Google treated them like they were the same thing.     

Scroll further down the first page of results and you'll see the same effect happening.

Everything is focused in some way around a phrase like "rainy day" or "indoor" or "when it rains". Moreover, you see things that are focused thematically even further, like for families: "Indoor Family Fun Attractions in Toronto" and "17 Rainy-Day Things To Do with Kids in Toronto".

So the takeaway here is that, since Google is ranking pages highly if they demonstrate a clear connection to the concept that was searched for, doing just that is what you need to be aiming for.

Now, you may be reading this and wonder, "How is this any different from not caring about keywords at all? Shouldn't I just write my piece and let Google do the rest?" Not exactly. It's true that Google has gotten better at gauging pure meaning over keyword density, but it's still your responsibility to demonstrate that thematic relevance. And in order to do that, you're going to need to load up your headline and content with certain types of phrases.

Notice, in those results photos, all the bolded terms that show up because they were mentioned. That's not a coincidence. Google can't take an article that lists a fantastic assortment of activities that would be suitable for a rainy day and then rank them as such unless that connection is demonstrated in some way. "Indoor" and "rainy day" are essentially synonymous, but "Joe Rockhead's Climbing Gym" and "rainy day" are not.  

Concepts and themes are huge for content SEO, but no search engine is intuitive enough to catch everything without your help. This is why you still need to target keywords and track them, but you need to do it with a broader focus. Be aware that pages with less of an explicit keyword overlap may rank ahead of you, despite your efforts to optimize specifically for a certain keyword. C'est la vie.

What you need to do is begin by thoroughly researching your chosen keyword and understanding how you can tailor your page to it so that the page demonstrates a purpose that satisfies the intent of all sorts of similar queries, while still staying true to the original keyword. If that sounds daunting, it's because it is. This takes time—and involves poring over many different metrics and analytics—but that's the reality of keyword targeting in 2017, and why it pays to have SEO experts on your side.