Semantic Search: Do Keywords Still Matter?

Adnan Raja
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Semantic Search: Do Keywords Still Matter?

Just when we were starting to figure SEO out, it’s changing … rapidly. Search engine optimization is now geared more specifically to the individual, involves a more powerful social component (bolstering the importance of engaging content), and incorporates more sophisticated predictive analytics. All of these elements mean that Google can deliver relevant content to all users and better meet your own specific needs.

A core component of the shifting search architecture is semantic search. The Google Hummingbird Update represented a major alteration of the SEO landscape with its introduction of semantic search functionality. Essentially, the “artificial intelligence” of search has been propelled to another level. Rather than simply matching keywords to keywords, Google takes your search request and converts it into what it considers the most meaningful content for you. Words no longer have to be exact. Search can now understand you in a way that was never before possible.

This movement suggests that targeting specific keywords is much less of an issue than it was in the past. Knowing the keywords that populate your site on the search engine result pages (SERPs) can give you a better sense of how to focus your content, but it won’t spoonfeed you the answer of what words to put on your main pages or blog.

Do keywords matter anymore?

The short answer, according to some, is yes. Keywords still matter, but you should think of them in a completely different way, as explained by Ray Larson in Brandpoint last month. Larson says that what mattered before Hummingbird was keywords and links. The more your keywords directly matched what users typed into Google, and the more links obtained from outside sources, the stronger your search rankings. True.

Now, though, says Larson, it’s all about content – and he is referring to content in a much broader sense. The scope of a piece on your blog, along with social signals from people with identified interests in your subject matter and/or that were searching for subjects related to your field, will now determine how high you rank. Keywords and key phrases are still “key,” but they shouldn’t be the centerpiece.

Here are Larson’s basic rules of thumb:

  1. What people type into Google has become more crucial because Google is now capable of understanding precisely what they mean (which obviously does NOT mean, necessarily, that matching their exact words is the way to go).
  2. Focusing excessively on keywords or otherwise attempting to persuade the Google algorithm to find your site more relevant based on verbal sleight-of-hand is neither helpful nor wise.
  3. Rather than understanding specific keywords, you could should focus on understanding what your target audience wants – user intent. Target keywords from the perspective of the intent behind the user searches rather than their precise phrasing. Match what the user intends.
  4. Be natural. You can certainly use synonyms with the same confidence that you used your target keywords in the past. You don’t want or need to hammer keywords again and again. Your list of keywords should be much broader.
  5. When you produce content, think about what your reader or viewer wants. If you actually educate them on a topic, answer their questions, and provide a meaningful experience, Google will recognize that and give you a boost.

But no, really… do keywords matter or not?

Eugene Aronsky of Common SEO Questions also explores the question of whether keywords are being swept into the dustbin. Rather than stating explicitly that they are or not, he looks at both sides of the equation, seeming to imply that they both make valid points – which, in fact, they do.

Perspective one – forget keywords

On one side of the fence, says Aronsky, are the people who think that keywords represent the wrong frame of reference because your attention should be placed squarely on the relevance and quality of your overall content. This perspective completely embraces the concept of Hummingbird and understands that you should be thinking about filling needs or satisfying intent (agreeing with Larson on this point) rather than thinking in terms of individual words.

Perspective two – don’t you dare forget keywords

On the other side are those who believe that keyword research has changed dramatically: now you should focus on intent rather than exact verbiage. Keywords are still vitally important, but you should be thinking of the user instead of the search engine (which agrees entirely with Larson’s argument).

Wait… but again, are keywords kinda pointless?

Finally, Matthew Brown of Moz weighs in on the topic. Like Aronsky, he can see the issue from both sides, referencing arguments by AJ Kohn and Aaron Bradley. To paraphrase his sources’ perspectives:

  • Kohn: Keywords matter strongly because they help you zero in on user intent.
  • Bradley: Keywords are not completely worthless, but they now just represent one factor among many. Writing “to the keyword” could mean, in a sense, that you can’t see the forest for the trees.

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By Moazzam Adnan; comic words by Kent Roberts

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and art by Leena Cruz


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