Keywords Are Dead. Keywords Aren't Dead.

Keywords are dead.

Mic drop. Walk away.

...Just kidding. It’s not that simple. Keywords aren’t dead—not yet. But the world is changing. In fact, it has already changed significantly, and not everyone has changed along with it.

There are still a ton of myths and misconceptions about keywords, keyword density, and optimizing content for search engines in general. So to clear these up, we’ll take a look at how Google’s algorithm has changed and how you can ensure that your site gets found by bots and enjoyed by humans.

The Hummingbird Effect

Way back in August 2013, Google released the Hummingbird algorithm update. This update did a lot of things, but its main purpose was to help Google better understand the intentions behind its users’ searches—and to provide those users with more relevant results than ever before.

Why would Google do this? It needed to better understand its users’ intentions because we are changing the way we search for things online due to the rapid swell of mobile use, voice search, and more.

Voice search is becoming increasingly more popular, and Google is preparing its search algorithm for the day you stop typing “calories banana” into Google on your desktop, and instead start asking your phone, “How many calories are in a banana?”

This is the bright and beautiful dawn of semantic search—search based on the meaning of a series of words presented in natural human speech patterns, rather than a shortlist of pertinent keywords.

Google search for "movie about the guy who invented windshield wipers"

I didn’t search for the keywords “Flash” or “Genius”. And the keywords “movie”, “guy”, “invented”, “windshield”, and “wipers” are nowhere in the movie title—but Google knew what I meant.

This is Semantic Search.

WebLib’s Dr. Tamas Doszkocs offers my favorite definition of semantic search:

"Semantic search is a search or a question or an action that produces meaningful results, even when the retrieved items contain none of the query terms, or the search involves no query text at all."

“None of the query items”—that’s definitely our first search. As for “no query text at all”, the possibilities of the semantic web are certainly exciting—and we’re getting there faster than you’d think.

So Do Keywords Still Matter or Not?

You’ve probably noticed that even semantic searches still use keywords—“calories” and “banana” are essential (“key”) words for the above search.

Even when Google didn’t necessarily use my keywords in the results as expected (e.g., the “Flash of Genius” example), it still used them to derive meaning and deliver the correct result.

The fact is that people will still use words to ask for what they want online, whether typing or speaking, and those words are still, as AJ Kohn insists, essential for determining user intent.

So that hasn’t actually changed.

What has changed is how Google delivers results for those searches. Here’s what I mean.

Since 2002, Google has been able to understand synonyms. (That’s right—2002. More than a decade ago.) So it knows that when you type “car”, you also mean “automobile”, and vice versa. And it’s known that for a long time.

Google has also understood what it calls “previous query” since 2008. Previous query allows for chained spoken searches about a subject—for example, you can do a voice search on Google or Google Now for “How old is Robert Downey Jr.?” and follow it up with “How tall is he?”—and Google will understand that “he” refers to the subject of your previous query, Robert Downey, Jr.

Voice search for "how tall is he"

(Try it yourself—just click on the little microphone in the Google search box and start asking questions. I’ll wait.)

Google is also currently using implicit data with voice search to take into account the device you’re using, social network information, and even information from your Gmail account to enhance your search results. Think of this as your context.

So Google gets your context, and it understands synonyms and pronouns as well, which means that it understands what you’re not telling it every time you perform a search.

And now, with semantic search, it gets the meaning of what you are telling it, too.

This is a huge deal, guys.

But if you’re not geeking out like I am—if instead you’re feeling the vague scramblings of panic at what this means for your website, let me reassure you that everything is going to be okay. You don’t need to panic! I promise.

Because believe it or not, on-page SEO for your website just got a whole lot easier. All you need to do is follow the steps I’ve listed below… and throw out some outdated SEO tools and metrics.

Keyword Density and Optimization ARE Dead.

Keywords aren’t dead yet—but some SEO tools and metrics definitely are.

One infamous example of an SEO metric that has wayyyyy overstayed its welcome (not to mention usefulness) is keyword density.

Keyword density is the percentage that represents the number of times a certain keyword is mentioned out of all the other words on a webpage. This metric is responsible for the ridiculously crappy content that plagued the early days of the web (the 1990s), as it led to the dreadful practice of keyword stuffing. Ugh.

SEO keyword stuffing
Image via Paul Agabin.

Happily, as a metric, keyword density has been dead for a long time. And, given everything we’ve discussed above, you can see why.

Similarly, the idea of “ranking” for a particular keyword is also passé, since it really misses the point of SEO by focusing on mass traffic generation for particular keyword—not necessarily targeted or useful traffic. With keyword ranking, the searcher’s intent is often ignored, which is at odds with the basis of semantic search.

Another popular but soon-to-be-dead keyword-centric SEO metric is keyword optimization. This is the practice of targeting your on-page web content, your meta data, etc., toward a specific keyword or group of keywords. And this, too, will most likely die out as search engines continue to evolve.

Help! What Do I Do Now?

With all this talk of context and user intent, and with so many traditional SEO methods getting killed off like “Lost” characters in the process, getting people to your website sounds more daunting than ever.

But it’s actually not! You can still optimize for SEO, and make sure your website finds success in the era of semantic search. Here’s how:

1. Write great content.

Because as Gianluca Fiorelli notes, the Hummingbird update means that “‘SEO copywriting will end up being the same as ‘amazing copywriting’.”

  • Write human-friendly web content that is engaging, useable, and useful to your users.
  • Optimize for topics, not keywords. Write naturally, include a variety of keyword synonyms, and answer any questions your users may have. What matters most here is providing value to your users and establishing yourself as the expert on the topic.

2. Properly mark up your content.

The goal here is to “help Google understand rather than just index your site”.

  • Utilize Google Webmaster Tools, marking up your phone number, hours of operation, etc. for the Knowledge Graph.
  • Use markup. Very few other websites are using the markup code right now—stand out by taking advantage of rich snippets.
  • Make sure that your metadata is accurate for pages and objects.
  • Implement Authorship on any blog posts and people-related pages on your website.

The web is changing, certainly. But it’s changing in some really awesome ways, and search engines are only going to get better at delivering more and more relevant information to users in more and more sophisticated ways.

So get on board now, because this train isn’t stopping. Quit measuring your site’s success in how well you’re ranking for Keyword X, Y, and Z, and focus your energy on creating great web content that’s marked up and structured well—which will ultimately result in something a lot more fun to measure: conversions.