There has been a debate about the use of keywords for years. Many SEO copywriters will tell you that using keyphrases in their entirety is the best practice for getting high rankings. Others insist it really doesn't matter — that as long as all the individual words within the phrase are used, your copy will do its job. Before we get into whether keyphrases are best used in their entirety or as individual words, let's sidestep for just a minute to talk about the inner workings of information-retrieval systems (aka search engines).

Search engines are all about words. That's their very nature. In fact, Google gives advice to searchers about how to get the best results. Its own Webmaster Guidelines state (among other things):

"Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it."

Taking it one step further, the Google Help Center offers this piece of advice to those using its engine:

"Google looks for the search terms you choose, so 'luxury hotels Maui' will probably deliver better results than 'really nice places to spend the night in Maui.'"

On that same page we also find:

"By default, Google only returns pages that include all of your search terms. Keep in mind that the order in which the terms are typed will affect the search results."

But it's not just Google's website that leads in this direction. The patent filed by Google in March 2005 discusses the background of this invention. A couple of key passages for copywriters to note are:

"...identifies relevant documents based on a comparison of the search query terms to the words contained in the documents."


"Typically, the search engine (Google) accomplishes this by matching the terms in the search query to a corpus of pre-stored web documents. Web documents that contain the user's search terms are considered 'hits' and are returned to the users."

And, last, but certainly not least, we look to a scientific paper written many years ago by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page (founders of Google) entitled, "The Anatomy of a Large-scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine." In it, they describe the core differences between Google and other search engines at the time. What do the creators of Google say is at its core?

That it "has location information for all hits and so it makes extensive use of proximity in search."

So, what does all this mean? While you can use the terms of a keyphrase individually, your best bet, by far, is to use the phrase as-is. Why?

Because Google (and other engines as well) makes extensive use of proximity.

That means Google breaks every Web page it indexes into individual words.

It tracks location information for all the hits it stores in its database.

Then Google tracks where on the page the words are located in relation to each other.

Again we ask, "Why?" For the sake of relevancy. And we all know Google walks, talks, eats and sleeps relevancy. Take this phrase for example:

Apple Laptop Computer.

If you typed that phrase, as-is, into a basic search engine, it could easily return results that include:

apple orchards

apple pie recipes

computer repair

computer tech support

used computers

and millions of other, completely irrelevant results. If the engine uses proximity, however, and is looking for the entire phrase (or at least the words as close together as possible and in the same order if possible), you get results that actually deal with the Apple-brand laptop computer. It's because of all the aspects listed above that Google is able to return highly relevant results. Those include:

  • Attempting to match the words in the search query with the words on the page.
  • Returning only pages that include all the search terms.
  • Looking at the order in which the words are typed.
  • Matching the terms in the search query to the terms in the document.
  • Making extensive use of proximity.

Can You Do Both?

Will it hurt to use the words within the search phrase individually as long as you also use the phrase as a whole? Absolutely not. In fact, it may even help to do both and to also use a few synonyms and complementary words as well. But remember, you want the keyphrase (or phrases) used as-is more times than not.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

June 8, 2007

Karon Thackston is owner of Marketing Words, Inc. a full-service copywriting company specializing in search engine copywriting. She is also publisher of the long-standing free ezine, Business Essentials. Karon is author and publisher of the popular Step-by-Step Copywriting Course, an e-course designed to teach sound and highly-effective copywriting techniques - including search engine copywriting techniques. With over 20 years of copywriting experience, Karon has contributed to the search engine and sales success of companies large and small including Gortons Seafood, Third Sphere Hosting and more.

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