One of the first things you’ll need to do for any search engine optimization campaign is keyword research; At least, that’s what you’ll hear from most SEO experts. For the most part, I am inclined to agree. Having the right selection of target keywords can make a big difference to the long-term success of your campaign.
However, the importance of keywords has been distorted in the SEO community over the years. As a result, some professionals place keywords as their top priority or focus almost exclusively on optimizing for keywords, at the expense of other elements of their campaign.
Is it possible to focus too much on keywords in your search engine strategy?
The short answer is yes. And if you have tunnel vision for keywords, it could actually do more harm than good.
What are SEO keywords?
Before we can delve into the problem with excessive focus on SEO keywords, we need to explain the purpose of the keywords first. What exactly are keywords and why are they important?
If you’re like most people, you rely on Google for a lot of searches a day. Type a word or phrase in the search bar and hit enter to see the results. Basically, you are typing in a keyword or keyword phrase.
This is important because it allows search optimizers the opportunity to deliberately target a specific audience. For example, do you have a hot dog stand? If so, it would be nice if your website gets high marks for terms like “hot dog” or “hot dog seller near me.” Optimizing your website and its content for specific keywords can increase your chance of ranking high for those terms, but the keyword landscape has changed over the years.
In the early history of Google, it was possible for a website to practically guarantee rank one simply by spamming the same keyword over and over again on its website. Today, Google’s algorithms are much more sophisticated. They are capable of detecting the use of unnatural language, keyword spam, and other black hat tactics. Furthermore, Google explicitly recommends that they not get cluttered with keywords and instead urges webmasters to write high-quality, natural content for their visitors.
However, most optimizers do at least do keyword research to help drive the campaign. Calculating search volume is essential to assess the popularity of various search phrases, and it is crucial to analyze the competition to find out which keywords will be most valuable to target.
The state of modern keywords
The value of researching and focusing on your target keywords has eroded a bit, for a number of reasons.
- Semantic search. The biggest culprit has been the advance of Google semantic search capabilities. Introduced around 2013 with the Hummingbird update, semantic search is basically Google’s way of analyzing the intent behind your search query, rather than just looking at the specific words you used. With these capabilities in place, Google is not strictly dependent on keywords entered by search users; instead, analyze the wording, analyze synonyms and alternative phrases and try to find out what the user is looking for. Consequently, targeting one keyword is not as effective as it used to be.
- Sanctions and algorithm changes. Google is also stricter with its content evaluation and penalty system. If your website is found to flagrantly violate Google’s terms and conditions, or if it clearly provides a bad experience for users, you could face a ranking penalty or even be removed from the list in extreme cases. Because of this, it is a bad idea to include keywords on your site with a specific frequency or volume.
- Target keywords and competition. Top keywords, the short, common keywords most likely to be used in search, are highly competitive. Large companies that have been around for decades have spent millions of dollars optimizing their websites to master those terms. Your chances of directly competing with these organizations are slim, making intensely focused keyword optimization (at least for top keywords) less desirable.
The effects of focusing exclusively on SEO keywords
If you focus too much on keywords in your strategy or if you don’t use keywords responsibly, you run the risk of the following:
- Excess of time and effort. Keyword research takes a long time. You could easily spend dozens of hours searching for the perfect keywords to target and yet find very few that are worth your while. If you put significant effort into finding the “perfect” balance of keywords for your website, you’ll end up investing even more time and effort. And don’t forget that spending time and effort is not just an inconvenience, it is also an expense. This can increase the cost of your entire campaign disproportionately, threatening your return on investment (ROI).
- Poor quality of content. Keyword stuffing and related tactics almost inevitably lead to poor content. Too often SEO experts get blinded by their keyword goals, pushing them towards the headline, forcing them into the body where they don’t belong, and using unnatural phrases to hit the right target. Not only does this not give you better results, it is also detrimental to your readers.
- Risks with bad selections. Let’s say keywords are your top SEO consideration. Spend a lot of time and money choosing the best keywords. But what happens when a competitor overtakes you? What happens if the search volume decreases? Yes, you can adapt, but you could also end up wasting a lot of time and money on your poor picks.
- Direct competition. Being highly competitive with your keyword selections and your optimization strategy will present you with equally highly competitive players. Ripe fruit tends to be more accessible and affordable, while high-profile keyword purists sell out.
- Bad visitor experiences. Most people interested in SEO are not only interested in search traffic. They’re also interested in monetizing that search traffic by selling more to visitors (or making them see ads). If you want to convert your visitors, a strict and inflexible keyword optimization strategy won’t help you; in fact, it could end up putting people off.
- Difficult measurements. Don’t forget that Google doesn’t explicitly publish keyword ranking data. You can search yourself to see how you’re ranking or use a third-party tool to better understand your rankings across the board, but there are still limits to what you can achieve this way.
- Worse results. It’s hard to make a blanket statement, but many happy keyword purists end up seeing worse results. They rank lower (overall), get less traffic, and as a trick they end up with reputational issues due to their low-quality content.
Should you abandon the keyword approach?
So does that mean you have to abandon keyword research and keyword optimization altogether?
Not at all. Keywords still serve several important functions, helping you understand the search behavior of your top demographics, allowing you to analyze your competition’s search presence, and provide a general direction for your campaign. Additionally, long-tail keyword phrases are not as competitive as their main keyword counterparts, allowing small businesses and those with tight budgets to be more competitive.
Keywords also play a vital role in the following areas:
- Page titles and meta descriptions.
And keywords are still relevant to your content (although your article shouldn’t change entirely just to squeeze out specific terms).
Also, SEO is just one element of your overall digital marketing strategy. Your PPC ads, email marketing, social media marketing, and other investments will play a role in determining your overall success.
SEO keywords are not what they used to be. You can’t trust them to be the sole determining factor in your campaign being a success, and you certainly can’t include them in your website content and hope for the best. If you want to be successful with keywords and your SEO campaign in general, it is essential to understand the modern context of keywords and to moderate your expectations.
Image credit: George Morina; Pexels; Thanks!