The Case for Keywords: Why Keywords are Still Essential for SEO

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


Here at Lessing-Flynn, we believe both sides are correct. Google has made it abundantly clear that providing quality content that answers user’s question 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? Is it a long string of words? Is it conversational? Again, the answer here is all of the above.


Though the term “keyword” sounds singular, in this context it actually means a word or phrase that best summarizes or defines the essence of your content. Sometimes that might be fairly simple, like “area rugs” for example. Other times you might be a bit more robust with something along the lines of “how much to water a potted Boston fern.” Both are perfectly acceptable for their respective content.


A keyword consisting of just a few words is considered a short-tail keyword while keywords consisting of more than three to four words are considered long-tail. Each has its benefits. Short-tail will be more competitive to rank for but could help drive more traffic since more users may be 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 both long- and short-tail keywords is to choose strings that are somewhat conversational and fit easily into your content. There’s nothing worse for a user reading through your content and coming to something that feels very out of place or forced. For example, if you’re trying to rank for “best area rug Paducah, Kentucky” it would be a little jarring for your users if you tried to slip that into a sentence. It would be better to try to rank for “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. Though the above definition for what makes a great keyword applies today, search engine algorithms and technology are always changing. So what does the future hold for keywords? Well if Google’s updates (like 2013’s Hummingbird) are any indication, search engines will focus less and less on specific, exact keywords and 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.


In the future, keywords will also be much more conversational than they are today. As we become more connected with mobile devices and as AI – like Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google Assistant – become more integrated into our everyday lives, 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 — context that will help ever-learning AI programs serve users the perfect content.


Why Keywords Are Still Important


It’s great to think about such an exciting future, but for right now we have to continue with what works — using focus keywords to help inform search engines about your content. As much as I, along with many others, 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 plan can still be extremely effective in boosting website rankings and attracting an engaged audience. 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.


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.


Experts in the SEO field agree keyword research is still an important part of the optimization process. 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


Now that we’ve established that it’s still a good idea to integrate a keyword strategy into your over content marketing and SEO plan, how do you use that strategy effectively? We’re going to sound sort of like a broken record here, but it bears repeating: as naturally as possible in your content with your audience’s goals and 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 of content is stuffed with keywords but offers no insight, you’ve already failed before hitting the publish button.


Instead, as a content creator or SEO, 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. Reference it as you write. Reference it as you edit. Don’t focus as much on including keywords into your content word for word, but rather make sure your content is focused on the broader theme of your keywords and in so doing 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. But think of it this way, if you are creating quality, cohesive, informative content that answers your audience’s questions on a particular topic, won’t keywords naturally occur in your content? They should. And at the same time, you’re providing your audience the information they wanted when they performed the search in the first place, making you an authority on the topic. It’s a win for everybody and is why Google is so insistent on quality content that, in the end, provides answer to questions.




Moral of the story, keywords are still an important part of the overall SEO and content creation process as long as they’re used in the right way. To use keywords effectively, you should essentially be viewing them as more of a guide to drive quality content instead of a numerical goal post to hit in a piece of writing.


Now and in the future, 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. Now that we’ve laid the groundwork in explaining why a keyword strategy is still important, in part 2 of our The Case for Keywords series, we’ll show you how to create an effective strategy. We’ll detail our process and go in-depth with a few of the tools we use here at LF.


For additional interesting facts and figures on the rise of voice search, check out our blog, “The Next Big Thing in Digital Marketing Might Even Have Google Shaking,” by Lessing-Flynn CEO Tom Flynn.


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