Do keywords still matter in SEO? It’s a question heavily debated for the last few years within the SEO and digital marketing industry. Some argue the keyword is dead and we should focus on providing only great content. Others say there is still value in focusing on interspersing keywords throughout your content.

We believe both sides are correct. Google has made it abundantly clear that providing quality content that answers user’s questions is the way to get both rankings and engaged traffic. At the same time, recent studies continue to show a well-executed keyword strategy leads to rankings and metrics improvements. So with that being the case, what makes a good keyword and how do you come up with and execute an effective keyword strategy?

What is a keyword?

Let’s start with the basics. What is a keyword exactly? It’s a question we get all the time, and admittedly, it can be a little confusing. Is a keyword just one word or a long string of words? Is it conversational? Again, the answer here is all of the above.

The term “keyword” sounds singular. It actually refers to a word or phrase that best summarizes or defines the essence of your content. Sometimes it can be fairly simple, such as “area rugs” for example. Other keywords are more robust, like “how much to water a potted Boston fern.” Both are perfectly acceptable for their respective content.

Short-tail and long-tail keywords

A keyword consisting of just a few words is considered a short-tail keyword. Keywords consisting of more than three to four words are considered long-tail. Each has its benefits.

Short-tail keywords are more competitive to rank for, but help drive more traffic since users are searching with fewer words. Long-tail keywords are usually easier to rank for and will attract highly engaged traffic, but most likely less traffic overall.

Probably the most important factor to consider with either type is to choose strings that are conversational and fit easily into your content. There’s nothing worse than a keyword that feels out of place or forced. For example, if you’re trying to rank for “best area rug Paducah, Kentucky” it would be quite difficult to try and slip that into a sentence. It would be better to try keywords such as “best area rugs in Paducah” or “quality area rugs in Kentucky.” Those are much more natural and will benefit your content, users, and overall keyword strategy.

How keywords are evolving

As with everything SEO, things are constantly changing. While the definition of a good keyword applies today, algorithms and technology are always evolving. So what does the future hold for keywords?

Going beyond exact keyword phrases

If Google’s updates (like 2013’s Hummingbird) are any indication, search engines will focus less on specific, exact keywords. In the future, they will focus more on the overall meaning, quality and context of your content. Search Engine Land sums up Google Hummingbird’s intentions well, saying:

Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query — the whole sentence or conversation or meaning — is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words.

As search algorithms continue to grow smarter, they will be able to examine your content as a whole rather than as a culmination of various words and phrases.

Conversational and voice search

In the future, keywords will also be much more conversational than they are today. As we become more connected with voice search and artificial intelligence (think of Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant), people are expected to perform an increasing number of voice searches. In fact, one study commission by Google showed 41 percent of adults and 55 percent of teens conducted at least one voice search a day. When users perform a voice search, they’re much more likely to use natural language than the disjointed terms we type into the search bar today. So instead of “best seafood restaurant Lebanon, Kansas” they might instead search by saying, “Hey Siri, what’s the best seafood restaurant in Lebanon?” The differences are small but important.

In the not-too-distant future, gone will be the days of jumbled, seemingly unrelated terms making up a focus keyword. They’ll be replaced by coherent, conversational sentences reflecting natural language. Not only will they be more understandable, but they will also make more sense contextually. This will help ever-learning AI programs serve users the most relevant content based on their search.

Why keywords are still important.

As much as we would like to zoom ahead to a world where algorithms are smart enough to determine context and intent of content without the use of keywords at all, keywords are still important to the process.

A thoughtful keyword strategy integrated into a well-executed SEO content plan can still be extremely effective in boosting website rankings. It’s all about using keywords as a part of your overall SEO strategy as opposed to keywords being the foundation of your strategy. These days, many other factors can weigh just as heavily on your search ranking score.

And experts in the SEO field agree. Keyword research is still an important part of the optimization process. As leading SEO authority Moz puts it:

You should still do keyword research. Keyword research is always going to be essential. But you should also consider the bigger picture, and as more tools that allow you to use natural language processing become available, take advantage of that to understand the overall topics you should write about, too.

Though the framework of how keywords are being used is changing, there will always be a need for comprehensive, focused topic research when creating content that users and search engines love.

How to use keywords effectively.

We’re going to sound sort of like a broken record here, but it bears repeating. Fit in keywords as naturally as possible within your content and keep user readability at the top of the priority list. After all, your content is worthless if nobody consumes it. If it’s clear you only wrote it with the intent to boost your rankings, people will bounce. If a piece is stuffed with keywords but offers no insight, you’ve already failed before hitting the publish button.

Instead, as a content creator, you should be using your keyword strategy as a guide through the entire content development process. Reference your strategy — including keywords and broader topics — as you brainstorm blog ideas, write and edit. Don’t focus as much on including keywords into your content word for word. Make sure your content is focused on the broader theme of your keywords. In doing so, words from your keyword list should naturally flow into your content.

Don’t overthink or over-complicate this process. Many people do to little effect. Think of this in the simplest terms. If you create quality, cohesive, informative content that answers your audience’s questions on a particular topic, keywords should naturally occur.

Use your keywords!

Keywords are still an important part of SEO and content creation, but only if they’re used in the right way. One-line summary? Use keywords as a guide to drive quality content rather than a number of mentions within an article.

Google has positioned itself to value quality, informative content with the audience in mind over content created for rankings and search engines. In the end, keeping user intent as a top priority is the way to a solid keyword strategy.

Not sure where to start on an SEO strategy? Our digital team will execute a free SEO audit of your brand’s website to understand how you rank today.

Editors note: This article was originally posted on August 8, 2017. It was updated in 2020 to reflect the ongoing changes in the SEO world.