I was recently talking with a friend of mine who’s a business owner. He’s no SEO expert, but I consider him pretty savvy when it comes to marketing.
We were talking about our respective websites and he said something along the lines of, “well, you’ve always gotta fit those keywords in!”
Screeeeech! (That was one of those movie-sound-effect-scratching-record noises)
I’m a bit of a marketing nerd, so I enjoy reading up on things like search engine optimization. I know that’s not the norm, though, and our conversation made me realize something alarming: many entrepreneurs may still be using the outdated tactic of focusing solely on on-page keywords as their SEO “strategy.”
This is a mistake. In the post ahead I’ll explain why and tell you a better strategy to use instead.
The Old Way
You’re probably familiar with the old way of doing things to get Google to notice your website.
You pick a list of your top keywords to target. Then you fill your site’s pages with those keywords, using them several times on each page and creating separate pages dedicated to each keyword.
The thinking here was that the more Google saw the keyword, the higher it would rank you in search results (which, years ago, was in fact how it worked).
If you’ve still been using this strategy up until now, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone, and there’s no big bad Google monster who’s going to come down and punish you. In fact, you’re in a great spot, because a few tweaks have the potential to really boost your search traffic.
Anyway, that was the old way of doing things—the keyword-centric way.
Now, Google has gotten smart. Really, really smart. Ever started to type in a question and had Google finish your sentence after just a few words? It’s like magic!
The Google algorithm is reportedly updated several hundred times per year. Most changes are minor, but two major things have changed since the days of keyword-stuffed pages.
Intent and Context
Nowadays, Google is all about intent and context, collectively known as semantic search. Semantic search allows Google to look beyond the specific words you typed into the search box and understand what you’re actually looking for.
The intent factor removes the need for sites to match a searcher’s keyword exactly. For example, if you search “car repair in Dallas,” Google knows that the results for “auto repair in Dallas” and “Dallas mechanic” will serve your intended purpose just as well. So, it includes sites using those terms into your results.
This makes keyword stuffing unnecessary (in fact, Google now penalizes sites that do it). Instead of saying the phrase “car repair in Dallas” over and over on your site until you sound like a crazy person, you can and should use its synonyms interchangeably.
Now let’s talk context. Google takes LSI, or latent semantic indexing, keywords into consideration to help understand the context of your search.
LSI keywords aren’t synonyms, but closely related phrases that help Google better understand what a page is about. This has been around for years, but Google has gotten incredibly good at it as of late.
Here’s an example. If a person searches ‘fox’, there are several different things he or she might be searching for: the animal, Fox television network, Michael J. Fox, and so on.
LSI keywords are contextual clues on a website page that help Google determine which ‘fox’ your site is about so it can display the proper pages in its search results. If your page uses the word ‘fox’ a lot and also the phrase ‘Back to the Future,’ Google’s algorithm can understand this connection and tell we mean Michael J. Fox and not the fox of the four-legged variety.
Pretty amazing, huh?
For you, this means you want to focus on a content rich website rather than a keyword rich one. Work to build a website—like a literal web—of high-quality pages on topics that logically go together, helping Google nail down precisely what your site is about.
Instead of stuffing your pages with keywords, focus on making your site as a whole the authoritative source on your topic or industry.
But Wait, There’s More
Keywords still have a place in search engine optimization, but they don’t weigh nearly as heavily as they once did. While the Google algorithm isn’t public information, experts agree that there are many factors that probably make much more of a difference in a site’s ranking than just keywords.
The search engine geniuses behind SEO tool Ahrefs studied the top-ranking pages on Google and analyzed which factors were most closely correlated with a high page rank. They found a number of factors were more strongly correlated with a high page rank than keywords, namely:
- Strong page backlinks
- Strong site backlinks
- Social shares
- Use of HTTPS
- Fast load time
- And the strongest factor of all… the age of the page
While they’re careful to point out that correlation does not equal causation (so an older page or lots of backlinks or social shares don’t necessarily guarantee a higher page ranking), these are certainly factors worthy of our consideration.
The bottom line for you? Put in the work to build your site the right way, filling it with quality content users will want to click on, share on social media and link to on their own sites. Yes, this takes time, but that’s the point; Google has worked hard to make it near-impossible to game the system, so it’s the best way to make your site stand out in search results.
And about those lists of keywords: you don’t have to completely throw them out the window. Keywords are still a useful tool to help you mentally zero in on the topics you’ll cover on your site and work them in on an ongoing basis… just maybe not as heavily as you did back in the day.
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Rand Fishkin, one of the leading experts on search engine optimization, talks about the future of SEO with podcaster David Bain: