SEO best practices frequently get revised as new algorithm updates are released by Google and Bing. These changes render some tactics more popular, and others entirely irrelevant. Keyword research, and the obsession with keywords when it comes to SEO campaigns, is a prime example of this. Years ago, prior to the April 2012 launch of Google's Penguin algorithm, using the right keywords strategically within your website content as well as within the anchor text of inbound links to your website was the best way to increase your rankings for those specific keywords. 

However, a number of factors have reduced the usefulness and popularity of keyword-focused SEO, including the release of the Penguin algorithm and other updates designed to level the playing field for non-SEO-savvy businesses, along with the stiff competition many high-value keywords now face in organic search. This shift has many SEO strategists wondering if keywords should be considered at all as part of their SEO campaign in 2015 and beyond. 

In the past, keywords were everything. Google would collect data from blog posts and web pages and rank them according to the amount of specific keywords used within the page. It didn't take long for companies to realize that relationship and begin stuffing keywords throughout every article they published. 

That worked beautifully for a while until Google caught on and began penalizing the over-use of keywords. Now, the use of keywords is much more complicated. Keyword stuffing may be a thing of the past, but that doesn't meant that the use of targeted words for ranking results is entirely dead. 

A Greater Focus on Placement 

Search engines still value keywords within a page--if they're placed properly. Keywords are useful for search engines in determining how to categorize a web page when users enter a search query. However, they pay far more attention now to where those keywords are placed rather than how many times they're used. In fact, too many uses of keywords (known as a high 'keyword density') can actually lead to the page suffering in the rankings due to perceived manipulation of the algorithm.

To get around the keyword stuffing problem, focus on placing them strategically in specific areas of your page. Generally, Google looks for a specific keyword within the title, heading, and first subheading (title, h1, and h2 meta tags) of your articles. Such meta data takes priority over copy, side bars, and footers. 

Quality Articles Go a Long Way 

Search engines are developing a certain sophistication that many companies are struggling to understand. When Google, for example, scans your webpage, it doesn't stop at the title. In fact, nowadays, Google will often disregard the title if the body content differs significantly from the title.

Search engines can detect the main topic of your articles in order to deliver accurate search results for users. Search engines focus more on the meaning of the article than on the individual keywords or phrases found within the content itself, which explains why when you search for the phrase "roof maintenance," you'll see several articles within the top 10 results that don't have the words "roof maintenance" in the title. 

This sophisticated form of categorizing articles is also used to help searchers find articles that may be relevant, even if their search query doesn't specifically match keywords within an article. Using a method known as "semantic search," which detects the actual meaning of a user's search query rather than the exact wording, Google makes the user experience even better. This brilliant move on the part of search engines makes it integral for businesses to seriously consider the meaning of each article when inserting keywords. 

For a good example of this method, take a look at this chart from 42 Floors. Its focus is on local SEO, so it includes geographical information in the title and in subsequent headings. It also includes information that can be used in semantic search while picking up on the meaning, rather than just the keywords. 

Structure Matters When It Comes to Keywords 

When you think of keyword use, you'll need to think about more than just the wording. Structure of a webpage makes a bigger difference than most people realize. Begin by looking at the big picture of your website. Attractive design, easy navigation, and great search features within the site will reward you in the eyes of Google. They appreciate anything your website does to accommodate users. 

Take a look at your existing website and make any necessary changes to improve the functionality and user experience. If it loads slowly, speed it up. If it lacks proper security and encryption, take the steps to make users feel safer. Adding site maps and static footers that contain useful links and contact information can also be beneficial.

Keywords themselves are becoming less important in SEO as search engines learn to decipher semantic meaning behind content rather than simple keyword phrases, but there are some new and valuable lessons worth learning in order to improve your digital marketing campaign. The term "keyword" has evolved to more closely denote the meaning or purpose of your content and website than anything else. Focus less on using keywords and focus more on publishing only relevant, high-quality content that provides value to your readers, while maintaining topical relevance to the keyword phrases you wish you rank for in organic search results.

August 27, 2015

Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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Search Engine Guide > Jayson DeMers > Are Keywords Relevant in 2015?