Is Keyword Research Dead?

We know that Google is working on creating a smarter search engine.  We have started to see the next frontier in Search.  Probably one of the most seismic shifts that we have seen Google make is on how they handle keyword queries.  This was most evident with their Hummingbird update where there is a shift from “typed” queries in Google to more of a conversational search.  So the question becomes, do keywords even matter any more in the Hummingbird world?

It’s a good question.  From my perspective, keywords will always matter, but if we look at the historical efforts of the search engines and how they interpret keyword queries, there has been a fundamental paradigm shift.  This is something that I (and others in the industry) have been stating for a while now.  In fact, just under a year ago I wrote a piece on The Future of Keyword Research in Organic Search where I outlined three thoughts on keyword research in the future:

  1. Keyword research is all about user intent
  2. Keyword research is continuous
  3. Semantic Search is the future

The historical process of conducting keyword research, applying these keywords to a given page, further optimizing for these keywords, then rising to the top of the search results is effective no more.  While you still need to focus on keywords, it is with a different mindset.  In today’s Search, results are re-tuned based upon an understanding of what the user is looking for and not based on the fact that the keywords you typed into Google are actually found on the pages that are returned.  Google is improving on how they interpret the meaning of keywords in a search query.  When you type “auto” Google realizes that you mean “car”.  When you type “Miley Cyrus” Google understands that you mean “she”.  When you type “medical” Google can interpret “health”.  When you type in “Chicago Blackhawks”, Google associates this with tickets, schedule, scores, or roster moves.  This in essence is semantic search where Google is attempting to interpret the meaning of the words in a search query.  This article  sums it up nicely as to how keywords are being used by Google when it states:  “A search query entered by the user is treated using semantic variables and programming rather than matching the keywords present on a web page.”

A few years back I was attending a Search conference and Keith Hogan who was then with had a great presentation in which one of the items he mentioned was on how the number of keywords in a given search query were getting longer.  This meant two things to me:

  1. People were not finding what they were looking for
  2. People were becoming more search savvy by using more longer-tail search queries

This also illustrated that the search engines were potentially having issues delivering up relevant results depending on the nature of the query.  The users were typing more questions in their queries and were not finding the information that they were looking for in all cases.  Fast forward a few years and we see some of the recent changes and algorithm updates that Google has made culminating with Hummingbird last summer.

With all of the recent changes to desktop and mobile Search, is keyword research dead?  Query data is changing from typed search to conversational search.  What does this mean for your keyword strategy?  Well the short answer is that keyword research is not dead but it is dramatically altered. The focus of your research must be on user intent.  Google’s change in how they interpret keyword queries has illustrated that the following is now reality:

  • Google is now capable of identifying word associations meaning that the words surrounding your keywords have more meaning and are being better understood by Google.  What this means for you is that you must support your “primary keywords” with relevant terms and synonyms.  If you are a plumber in Vancouver, you probably will want to serve up richer content to communicate that you are a commercial plumber capable of HVAC and related mechanical services when it comes to heating, ventilation and yes, plumbing.
  • Answering questions should become part of your content marketing strategy.  The reason people use Search is to find information about something that may not yet have the answer to.  Whether that is on how to install a router, which TV is the best for under $1,000 or what the weather is like in Las Vegas, people are looking for answers.  Google understands this and is trying to provide these answers quickly and accurately.  So if you search for information on “how to install a toilet” you can expect to find video results, instructional results from large brands like Home Depot or Lowes, or results from TV episodes on bathroom renovations.  Google is trying to provide the most relevant result as quickly as possible.
  • Keywords are still critical to your content efforts.  While things like keyword density are not what you should be focusing on, the thematic nature of your page needs to feature keywords relevant to your page topic.  The number of times a keyword appears in your content is not as important as to which keywords you surround your “primary” key phrase with.

If you are the authority on a given topic and your content speaks to address the needs and questions of your audience, you should experience great visibility in search whether that is desktop or mobile search.

Your content must be crawlable, indexable and most importantly, relevant so that if you are expecting to use Search as a channel to drive business and engagement with your brand, you can achieve this.

Key Takeaways for Keyword Research

  1. Leverage synonyms – In the near distant future, Google may replace the actual search query with the closest matching synonym term.  We have already seen this in some cases.  Your content needs to be robust enough to ensure that you are an authority for the given topic on that page or pages of your site.
  2. Understand Semantic Search – Google could very well be building a semantic search engine with solely a semantic search index in order to return the best result to a user’s query.  This patent  seems to speak exactly to this idea.
  3. Work on understanding your existing keyword relationships – Similar to gaining a better understanding of semantic search, you really should take the time to understand your existing word relationships.  There is a Google patent around the idea of identifying search units from with a search query whereby Google is looking to group or classify multiple terms of a given query into a single query.   As taken from the abstract of the patent: “…A search engine for searching a corpus improves the relevancy of the results by classifying multiple terms in a search query as a single semantic unit.”.  It is all about improving the relevancy of the results.
  4. Work on building themes with your content – The keywords and terms that you focus on need to support the content themes that you are building on your websites.  Pay attention to items such as Google’s Knowledge Graph and how they compile the results for the Knowledge Graph and things such as carousel results.  They work around a given entity or theme that may in fact be triggered by a related query.  Focus on concepts rather than individual keywords.

Keywords are still at the heart of the act of a search.  Search (in terms of using search engines) is approaching its third decade.  People have become smarter ‘searchers’ and to keep up, the search engines such as Google have had to build a better search engine.  Google’s continues to improve the relevancy of results and will continue to do so until they no longer exist.  Last time I checked, Google was still the dominant player in Search… there is a reason for that.  Work smarter not harder right?  The same goes for your keyword research.  Be smart about your content and the topics that you want to be an authority on.  Support this content with relevant terms and stop worrying about the algorithms.  Focus on your user and the audience you want to engage with. To quote Stan Lee, “Excelsior”.