Breaking a long-term habit is one of the most challenging things you’ll ever do. Have you ever seen someone try to change another person’s diehard opinion?
Of course, we all have. It’s usually futile because it requires disrupting someone’s entire worldview they’ve held for decades. Nevertheless, it’s important for us all to start breaking the keyword-centric worldview now.
At the center lies Google’s very less understood BERT update. Google even called BERT the “most important update in five years.” At the time, SEO specialists and marketers were stumped. They couldn’t formulate a proper reaction to BERT – but that’s the whole point. BERT wasn’t a blip in the system. It’s a sign of things to come: a world where keywords matter less than they once did.
But it’s a little more complex than that. Keywords still matter – a lot actually – but not in the way most marketers use them.
- It’s Google’s job to answer queries, not pick the winner of SEO for every keyword.
- Keywords help Google and users understand what your content is about.
- Google is always improving how it reads and ranks content. Your job as a marketer is to create content that answers the questions real people ask — and brings them to your site.
- Marketers that build their entire visibility strategy around keywords alone are missing out on the real opportunity — to engage your customers.
Google Hates the “Optimization” Part of SEO
Google’s algorithms are under tighter security than the nuclear codes for a few reasons.
For one, Google doesn’t want to share its technology with anyone. Perhaps more importantly though, Google doesn’t want to encourage spam.
Google hates SEO because it conflicts with the search engine’s stated purpose: to organize and present information optimally. If everyone knew exactly how the algorithms work, we’d get like three domains dominating all the search results.
Look at every Google update. Every single one makes it progressively harder to game the system – and that’s the whole point.
Instead, we must focus on answering queries as thoroughly as possible.
So do keywords still matter? Yes, a lot. Most marketers I see don’t approach them the right way, however. You can spot an SEO fiend a mile away: keywords in every subheading, 20 keywords throughout the copy, stuffed meta descriptions. It’s time to change your mindset.
How? By creating content that satisfies the “intent” of the person who’s searching for something.
How do you do this? By doing intent research instead of mere keyword research.
And that’s where content becomes even more important.
Keywords Provide Creative Direction
Intent research’s real value comes from the blog content research – not the keyword half.
Whenever you research seed keywords, you’re studying your audience’s behavior. You’re peeking inside their mind.
You’re studying their questions, problems, and concerns. Consider looking at stats a little differently:
- Volume tells you how widespread a problem/question is.
- Competition and difficulty tell you how many websites have already provided a solution.
- Cost-per-click tells you how many companies are selling products/services as a solution.
By searching “thought leadership” on SEMrush and filtering by question, we can see plenty of queries to structure content around:
KWFinder gives us a beautiful view of complete phrases as well. Here we can search “thought leadership” and filter by autocomplete to see a nice list:
You’ve probably heard 30 times by now that you NEED to choose long-tail keywords over short-tail ones for several reasons. Take it a step further by choosing one long-tail keyword just to structure your content and tell Google what it’s about.
The goal isn’t necessarily to rank for that keyword. The goal is to fill a content gap. Plus, you’ll end up ranking for shorter high-volume keywords if you create awesome content.
Consider Semantic Keywords and Questions
By now you should understand that your keyword research is a starting place – not a destination.
Once you have a long-tail keyword to guide your creation, head over to Google. Nope, not Google Keyword Planner or anything like that. Just Google.
You’re going to do some more content research so you can create the most thorough piece possible.
Again, this serves two roles:
- Finding keywords to tell Google what your content is about
- Offering solutions to readers (at the right times)
Let’s say we’re going to create a blog post around the topic of building a martech stack.
Those suggested questions literally tell us exactly what people ask.
Google’s autocomplete gives us some other ideas as well:
Finally, we’ll scroll to the bottom of the Google results:
These may or may not be the same phrases as autocomplete. It can never hurt to check.
If you can create a piece of content better than what’s on the first page, you’ll rank. That’s why keywords are more a launchpad for research than a means to an end.
Also, Yoast recognizes synonymous keywords now if they’re split up. Google bots are much better at reading broken up keywords than they were in the past. Don’t feel required to keep your phrases together if it doesn’t read right.
Use Thought Leadership to Increase Your Authority
No buzzword is quite as misunderstood as “thought leadership.”
The problem’s gotten so bad that Wikipedia goes as far as to call thought leadership “business jargon.”
When you hear the phrase, what comes to mind? For most marketers, “thought leadership” conjures images of:
- A unique point of view
- Making statements no one has ever said before
- Adding nuance to discussions that no one asked for
This is really a trap. It forces you to strive for nuance when it’s not necessary. You turn into the “nobody” meme:
You want to be a thought leader – not a philosopher, existentialist, or even a revolutionary.
Thought leadership should demonstrate your authority on a specific topic. It’s your chance to shine.
You tap into your talent and expertise to answer questions as they arise in your industry. Offer your point of view when appropriate but don’t center your entire piece around edginess.
True thought leadership is how you develop content that ranks for substance without relying on keywords.
Keywords Still Tell Google What Your Content is About
Both Google bots and humans still scan your content to understand what it’s about.
Searchers scan your URL, headline, and meta description to make sure your link is worth clicking. Google bots look in the same locations.
This is where keywords hold the most weight in terms of search rankings. Think of it this way: you use keywords to categorize your content.
Keyword placement still matters.
Don’t forget to use your keywords in the right places:
- Meta title
- Meta description
- Image ALT text
- Copy introduction
- Slug (URL)
Include a few semantic keywords in these places too, if it makes sense.
But repeating your keyword 20 times throughout the copy? Not needed anymore and relying on keywords alone was never the best SEO strategy.
Think Ahead and Plan Now
Truthfully, everything we’ve covered here isn’t new information.
SEO is just so pervasive and mathematical that people find it hard to believe it doesn’t matter as much as they think.
Google’s BERT update should serve as a wakeup call. With BERT, Google said it was improving its natural language processing. That means Google is prioritizing human language and answering questions like a human.
Design your content for humans to answer real questions and use keywords to show what it’s about. Focus on authoritative content and you’ll come out on top no matter what happens.
Keywords tell Google and readers what your content is about, so they still matter. However, it’s more important to focus on answering queries with thought leadership. Changing your strategy will build authority – both in the eyes of Google and readers.
How do you think keywords will matter in the next five years? Have you already adjusted your strategy or are you struggling to get others on board?
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