As marketers, we love to announce the death of old advertising trends. We praised the death of print, the death of email, and even the death of SEO as we know it. With the introduction of Google’s RankBrain, many marketers proudly claimed that keywords were dead.
Of course keywords aren’t going anywhere. They’ll likely always have a place in search, just how people still send email, or read the newspaper. Instead, it’s in the process of evolving.
This has occurred parallel with Google’s RankBrain launch, which aspires to show results based on user intent rather than the exact search term. Here’s how keyword targeting has changed in the past year, and how marketers need to rethink their approach.
Are Keywords Still Relevant?
According to Jayson DeMers, keywords still have some relevance in 2016, but serve as more of a tool to let Google know what your content points to. Marketers might highlight a few keywords they want to center the content around, but they won’t feel the need to stuff them seven times throughout the piece. If anything, using your keywords too many times could result in a penalty and turn off your audience.
However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for marketers. Historically, SEO specialists were creating targeted content for every type of keyword and phrase, from niche brand names to generic terms. This often lead to a cluttered, convoluted website where customers wouldn’t find the content they needed, forcing them to click through multiple pages to find what they need.
As Google tries to focus more on intent and context, brands are more likely to rank for terms they never expected to, but make total sense. When someone searches “date night ideas in Chicago,” cooking classes are likely to rank highly — even if the business didn’t create a microsite and five blog posts explaining why it’s perfect for couples.
Thanks to the popularity of virtual assistants like Siri, and Google’s RankBrain-improved search engine, people will start using longer, natural language queries as well. These terms are the long tail, where only a handful of people might use the same term in a given month, but millions of people are using similar searches. This makes optimizing for every keyword impossible, which is why the context of what you’re writing about matters.
Keywords went from telling Google what to rank your site for, to acting as a signpost, letting the search engine know the general topic, product, or service customers will find if they visit that page.
The Importance of Context and Intent
To understand why keywords aren’t as important anymore, you need to understand how customer search habits are changing. As Google gets better at understanding user intent, people become more comfortable asking questions to the search engines like they would another person, instead of a computer.
Take the term “gluten free pastries.” Should the results reflect popular recipe blogs teaching users how to make their favorite cookies and cakes without flour? Or should there be local results with directions and reviews to the nearest bakery? Both results are relevant, but the right results are the ones that answer the customer’s question.
If the customer’s searching from their home on the computer, the listing of recipes might be more appropriate. But if, however, they’re searching from their mobile phone while they’re out shopping, it’s more likely that they want somewhere to grab a quick snack.
More importantly, users rarely have only one question for Google or one search criteria they’re looking for. Almost every question requires follow-up questions or multiple answers, and Google is looking to anticipate and answer each of them all at once.
Using the Gluten free pastry question, once the user finds gluten free bakeries near them, they want to know the hours, the menu, and if they cater. You can see how Google wants to anticipate these needs, giving customers the information they’re looking for, which can change depending on where they’re looking for.
One of the latest advances in Google’s search technology is that the company has the ability to match related searches. If you search for “How to make pastries” and follow the search with “gluten free pastries” the search engine might show different results than if you just started with the second search.
The search engine is still working on context, but as it learns more about it’s users, it will get smarter at the results it displays. The company makes no secret of the fact that they want to build the Star Trek computer, a search engine that doesn’t need an interface because it gives you the right response the first time.
The Rise of Voice Search
Today, 41% of adults and 55% of teens use voice search on a daily basis. These customers don’t speak in keywords, but ask Siri, Alexa, and Cortana full sentences. This fills in a lot of the context for Google, giving them intent and making them less reliant on keywords.
If the digital assistant they’re using is confident it understands what they’re searching for, it doesn’t give them a list of search results. Instead, the program reads the correct answer back to them. To capture these search terms, you have to provide the best answer, and not something that’s optimized around a specific keyword.
Marketers looking to capitalize on this trend — especially those who target younger customers — are building entire campaigns around voice-friendly search.
As a result, this makes their content seem more human. When deciding what to title a page, these companies choose something that addresses the question that the content on the page will solve instead of trying to fit as many keywords in as possible. On their site, whether a product or a blog, companies try to write in a conversational, approachable style.
Optimizing for voice search also means making it as easy as possible for search engines to highlight the content customers want to see. Using Schema markup to highlight the product name, price, and reviews will help digital assistants match your product to customer searches. This helps the search engine find the right answers for complex questions.
For example, a flower store who uses structured markup on their page may have a better chance of appearing in search when someone asks “Who can send me roses overnight?” the morning before Valentine’s Day.
How National Companies Can Optimize their Pages
Optimizing for Voice search benefits more than just local businesses. Large companies that market to a national or international audience still need their content to appear in google results, and the way customers search is changing.
If someone is asking their phone a question, optimizing your content just around keywords means you can leave potential revenue on the table. Thanks to advanced analytics, eCommerce merchants can follow the path customer’s take before making a purchase. This includes how they learn about your site, how they interact with your sales funnel, and what parts of that funnel cause them to leave before they submit their order.
Using this information, you can attempt to build new landing pages that target the specific questions your customers are looking for the answers to. Instead of creating pages optimizing around a single keyword, your content strategy might change into something that includes:
- Awareness: Inform visitors about your company, products, and culture.
- Education: Give useful, informative information about problems related to the solution you offer. For example, if you sell lawn mowers, having content about lawn fertilizing, pest control, in addition to mowing gives users a reason to come back to your site.
- Trust Signals: User reviews, Authoritative information or advice from experts, and testimonials will help potential customers decide if they should do business with you.
- Answer Their Questions: Explain how the products, services, or content you offer is the solution your customer is looking for.
This strategy does not replace a traditional sales funnel, but instead complements it. Instead of trying to build broad pages that try and give answers for every question that uses a specific keyword, you can instead create content that answers questions based on intent, even if they don’t use the keywords you’re expecting.
Targeting solutions and creating campaigns around solving your customers’ problems is a more sustainable plan than trying to predict every keyword someone might use to ask their phone a question. Keywords are useful signposts, but they’re not what will help your site generate conversions. What will, are pages designed to offer solutions to their problems, no matter how they ask their questions.
Solution-focused content is natural, informative, and engaging. More importantly, solutions convert.