There is a danger of oversimplification when offering SEO advice. We’ve all heard something along these lines when it comes to content creation: 
“Research target keywords, and use these naturally within your content.”
For those that are not so au fait with SEO, this oversimplication can be dangerous. One might miss the importance of ‘naturally’. In turn, the point is to find keywords and ‘use them in your content’. It’s the classic conversation with someone who knows nothing about SEO, “That’s all about keywords and tagging, isn’t it?”. Sure.
These individuals are not to be blamed though. The over dependence on the term ‘keywords’ should have been eradicated years ago.
Instead, here we are, still talking about bloody keywords when Google have moved on years ago. 
In this article we will look at:
1) Why we might be stuck in a keyword rut
2) How keywords can be misleading & distracting
3) What Google has to say on the matter
4) How we can adjust our strategy and way of thinking to be more solution focussed

Why do we get stuck in a keyword rut?

1) The practice of search engine optimisation originated with keywords. It was a major factor in how search engines determined the relevance of your content to a search query. Note: ‘was’ being past tense and the operative word here.
2) The tools that we as SEOs use tend to be centred around identifying keywords. Here’s a selection of the major players advocating keywords. Hell, Google themselves have a tool called Keyword Planner:
Google Keyword Planner
SEMrush Keyword Magic Tool
ahrefs keyword explorer
Moz Keyword Explorer
3) Keywords are useful. They are still important for SEO. That might seem a little counterintuitive considering the rhetoric thus far. It will make sense though. Keywords allow us to target specific searchers with our content and therefore can help provide direction. We’ll leave this discussion till the end so that we have more context.
4) It’s a super easy concept to understand. Connect the dots and you win at SEO. As an industry we tend to forget how complex SEO appears to the uninitiated. Keywords turn SEO into a bite-sized, digestible nugget of outdated information and oversimplification.

How are keywords misleading?

Keywords as a concept can become very distracting. It has a negative effect on our performance of key tasks.
Take research as an example. A reliance on keywords may mean that we log on to our platform of choice (in this case SEMrush) and look at the following metrics:
  • What keywords does the website rank for at the moment?
  • What keywords do competitors rank for that our website does not?
  • What are the monthly search volumes and difficulty of these keywords?
  • Can we find further opportunities through the keyword magic tool?
We need to reiterate an important point here.
This is a useful process. This type of keyword research allows to identify terms that are relevant to our business. It is still widely accepted as an essential step in the SEO process and we are not telling you to ignore it.
But, keywords can be misleading. Especially when keyword research is not coupled with other forms of market research. It can be a distraction from other key factors, leading to a number of issues centred around search volumes first, customers second.
There is a real tendency to look at the numbers first. To dive straight into keyword research. After all, that’s the first step to SEO isn’t it?
We immediately jump to the following two questions:
  • Which keywords within this industry have the highest search volumes?
  • How can we create content that will target these specific searches?
We’re not asking the right questions. We should be looking to understand in-depth, how our buyers search and what is most relevant to them. In addition, this should be specific to what we offer as a business and our own differentiators. Only then should we be looking at keywords and search volumes.

Keywords affect our writing

If we’re focussed on keywords and their search volumes, it’s hard not to carry this with us when we start to write.
We start to write unnaturally. We are conscious that we want to include the right type of terminology. We start to assess our use of synonyms. What about the Hummingbird update? Is keyword density still relevant? It isn’t.
Before we know it, we’re writing for the search engine. Even SEOs that preach ‘write for the user first’ are under immense pressure to get results……from the search engines. The rhetoric around keywords only adds to this pressure. Clients start to ask questions on performance based on specific keywords. It can be a vicious cycle.
It’s very similar to the rhetoric that longer is better. It’s a binary view of statistics. Neil Patel has had considerable success with long form content, but also has considerable authority in the space. He also picks subjects that require longer explanations. His articles do well not because they have a certain keyword count, density or are a certain magical length. They do well because they provide comprehensive solutions to questions that need comprehensive answers. If he wrote a 10,000 word article for a question that could be answered in 100 words, it wouldn’t do well. I don’t know if this is used elsewhere but here in the UK we have a phrase: horses for courses. 
If you’re wondering where we’re headed with this: keyword rich copy does not equal success in today’s SEO climate. Therefore, focussing on keywords leads you in the wrong direction, the wrong frame of mind. 

What do Google Say?

We should be taking into account the different ways in which different customers might search. In turn, the Keyword Planner is there to help find new variations and approximate search volumes. Furthermore, that ‘compelling and useful’ content is likely to be the
most influential factor listed in that particular article.
We can understand how someone reading that would translate it into ‘find keywords, use keywords for SEO content creation’.
But that is not what it is saying. All it is saying is that people search and understanding how people search is useful. We couldn’t agree more.
The real supporting evidence is Google’s RankBrain update. Not only does this update in real time, but more importantly, it helps Google to understand more about queries. At the time of release (2015) Google stated that over 15% of their daily queries had never been seen before. It also became the 3rd most influential ranking factor. RankBrain allowed Google to understand the intent behind a search, and not just the keyword string.
That’s very important.
It’s the intent behind the search that matters.
Dare we say it, but it seems like Google is looking to give solutions to its users…..

How do we adapt our SEO strategies?

If you’re still reading, this may be a problem you are experiencing. Perhaps you’re an SEO that has been going through the motions for years. You might even be paying such an SEO. Or maybe you’re relatively new to SEO in which case, welcome. Hopefully this helps to set you on the straight and narrow.

1) Know your audience

Just because you operate in the same space as your competitors does not mean that you have the same audience.
Talk to your current client base, send out surveys, conduct interviews. Do whatever you can to gather data on your audience. Remember though that your current client base may not be representative of your perfect audience.
Use tools such as SparkToro, BuzzSumo and yes, even Keyword Planner to explore your audience.
Focus on relevant topics or subjects instead of specific keywords to start off with.

2) Build out buying lifecycles that are relevant to your business  

Buying funnels, lifecycles, sales funnels, whatever you want to call them. They’re desperately important. HubSpot have been great evangelisers of mapping out what they call your ‘inbound funnel‘, check out their stuff here.
HubSpot Buyer's Journey
Make sure that it is relevant to your business. That might seem a little patronising but hear us out.
Prioritise those customers that most closely align with your purpose as a business. If you haven’t formalised your brand strategy, this is a great opportunity to press pause and look at that project. A brand strategy should be something you can lean on throughout all aspects of your business. Defining how to target your audience is absolutely one of those aspects.
Whilst you may be starting to look at specific topics (and associated keywords), it’s critical that you don’t get distracted by the biggest number. Yes, one search may have double the monthly volume but if it is less relevant, the engagement and conversion rate will be lower. Aligning your targeting strategy with your brand strategy will pay dividends.

3) Start to look at keywords

The guys over at Google, SEMrush, Ahrefs, Moz and Majestic are no fools. Their keyword tools are there for a reason, they provide clear metrics on the popularity of searches. They also allow us to explore variations/related searches.
Keywords are not evil. As we said, they are still a crucial part of SEO. Use them when appropriate and with the right intention and they will be a fundamental building block of any SEO campaign.
We now want to start to identify the most relevant keywords (a.k.a searches) at each point of the buying funnel. You may want to break your topics down into individual queries where appropriate. We would highly recommend utilising a pillar content model, this tends to keep you focussed on the searcher. Without these pillars, there is a tendency to target the highest volume keywords regardless of their relevance to your strategy.

4) Plan each article based on the best solution for the searcher

If you were a prospect, what information would satisfy your intent? Don’t worry about keywords, that’s what the searcher has typed in. They don’t necessarily want to see their question repeated. What they really want is an answer to their question.
As Barry Schwartz puts it:
“The trick is not speaking in terms of what the searcher is going to type into the search box, but speak in terms of what the searcher wants to read”
Google have been clear that searches come in all different shapes and sizes. They also say that over 15% of their searches have never been seen before. This being the case, if we base all of our content on specific keywords, we’ll undoubtedly be leaving a lot on the table.
By focussing on providing solutions we fulfil key success factors:
  • We are aligning ourselves with the service Google is providing, i.e the most valuable results for a search.
  • Through Google’s ability to understand the intent behind searches, we open ourselves up to more searchers. If we have provided enough topical solution we spread our net wider.
  • Due to our focus on the user and our own brand strategy & funnels, our users will be more aligned with our messaging. In turn, we should experience higher conversion rates.
  • Our content creation has structure. We’re not just creating content to target the highest volume searches. Our content plan has real strategy behind it, better internal linking and user flow.

5) Change how you measure success

We’ve saved the hardest one for last, even though it might seem easy.
To reap the rewards of a solution based strategy, we need to change the way that we measure success. That goes for SEO agencies, clients and internal marketing teams.
Yes, we can still have a set of target keywords and track relevant rankings positions. This is smart, it gives us an index of sorts to work off. Furthermore, whilst these target keywords are very specific, they can also be very valuable to the business.
Though they can’t be the overarching metric of success.
Some of you may be shaking your head thinking “I’m not an idiot. Of course I understand that traffic and conversions are more important. I care about the impact for the business”. This may well be the case, but from experience, there is still a strong undercurrent of keyword rankings as the main metric.
Look at your level of brand visibility in the market. Look at your user and usage metrics, is what you are doing engaging prospects? Look at how your content is benefitting other marketing channels. Of course, look at conversion metrics and ROI.

One Comment

  1. Like!! I blog frequently and I really thank you for your content. The article has truly peaked my interest.

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