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Why Keywords Are Still So Very Important for SEO

What are SEO Keywords?

SEO keywords range from singular words to complex phrases and are used in website copy to attract relevant organic search traffic. However, keyword integration is just the start. When properly leveraged, targeted SEO keywords should be used to inspire all page content in order to satisfy searcher intent.

From a searcher’s perspective, keywords are the terms typed or spoken into a search engine. When effectively researched and optimized, keywords act as a conduit for your target audience to find the most appropriate content on your website.

But Aren’t Keywords Obsolete?

Whether you’ve heard this a few times already or your first is yet to come, “Keywords are dead” is a phrase which continues to barge its way into SEO circles. Rather than tip-toe around this recurring, binary, often-click-bait motivated assertion, let’s confront it head-on.

Several developments in the SEO world have caused this claim to be stirred from hibernation, but there are four major ones that come to mind.

1. “(not provided)”

If you’re brand new to SEO, you may be surprised to know organic keywords were once easily accessible in Google Analytics, Adobe Omniture, or any other analytics platform.

I’m not going to lie; it was pretty fantastic. We didn’t know how good we had it at the time.

However, things started changing in 2010 when Google began quietly taking steps to remove keyword data from our web analytics. In late 2011 through the following year, keyword data was being removed in a big way. It wouldn’t take long for the top keyword driver for every site to be ‘(not provided)’.

2. Hummingbird & RankBrain

Another time the validity of keywords was challenged was when Google rebuilt its algorithm in 2013. Receiving its name for being fast and precise, Hummingbird helped Google better understand search intent, particularly with complex and conversational searches.

3. Voice Search

I love voice search. Even though it’s been around for years, I still feel like I’m in the future when Google magically captures my unintelligible stammering.

We’ve Become Long-Winded

Between us (subconsciously) picking up on Google’s heightened interpretation skills and our communication tendencies when talking versus typing, we have become very conversational and detailed searches.

4. Google Planner Grouped Keyword Volumes

Starting in 2014 and kicking things up a notch two years later, Google’s Keyword Planner tool began grouping volumes for similar terms. Instead of showing keyword A gets searched 100 times per month and keyword A1 gets searched 50 times per month, both would show 150. Google said the reason for this to make sure “you don’t miss out on potential customers” and to “maximize the potential for your ads to show on relevant searches.”

Why are Keywords so Important to SEO?

We know keywords are alive and well, but why are they so critical to SEO?

Keywords are Clues

The importance of keywords in SEO is in part due to their importance outside of it.

Forget about keywords, rankings, traffic, or even your website for a minute.

Keywords are Like Personas

Personas act as bullseyes. They aren’t all we’re after but by aiming for them, we’re setting ourselves up for success.

How do You Choose the Right Keywords?

This topic could live in a post on its own, which it has many, many times. Here are some of my recent favourites:

  • How To Do Keyword Research in 2017 — Ahrefs’ Guide
  • Tactical Keyword Research in a RankBrain World
  • How To Do Keyword Research in 2017

While I highly suggest researching and experimenting with this topic in great detail if you’re serious about honing your craft, here’s a quick introduction to selecting the best keywords for SEO.

  • Don’t start with keywords: Before you put on your SEO hat or even your marketing hat, just be human. Learn about your customers from your customers. Before diving into tools and spreadsheets, try to gain some real empathy and understanding for the customers you’re serving and the perspectives they hold.
  • Build a seed list: Using what you gained in step one, along with what you know about where your customers’ needs and your business’ solutions intersect, brainstorm an initial list of words and phrases that effectively describe your core offerings.
  • Gather current keyword data (if your site already exists): Generate a list of what is currently (and nearly) driving traffic to your site using Google Search Console click data and any ranking data you have.
  • Expand the list using various keyword tools: Expand on the list you’ve built from steps 1-3 by looking for new keyword groups, alternate phrases, common modifiers and long-tail permutations. If you haven’t used many keyword research tools up to this point, now’s your time.
  • Group terms by search intent: Categorize your keywords in a way that will be simple and useful for you and anyone else who might look through them. This can be done by audience-type, a phase of the funnel, or any other way that makes sense to you.
  • Map keywords to content: Choose 1-4 primary keywords to target on each page based on a careful balance between keyword difficulty, relevance, and search volume (taking organic SERP visibility into account). Once those are determined, find semantically-related and long-tail modifying terms to help support your primary keywords.
  • Do it all over again: Once your keyword strategy has been implemented, Google has had time to react and you’ve been able to collect enough data, rinse and repeat. They don’t call it search engine optimization for nothing.

What are the Most Common SEO Keyword Types?

Keywords can be categorized and tagged in multiple ways for a variety of reasons. Here are the most common types and examples of SEO keywords.

Branded vs. Unbranded

Branded search terms contain the brand in the query. This could include the official brand names, misspellings, branded acronyms, branded campaign names or taglines, parent companies, or anything else with obvious branded search intent.

Unbranded, or non-branded, terms are all other keywords you may consider. Unbranded terms often describe the customer problem or your business offering.

Some businesses have non-distinct names that can make this delineation more difficult. For instance, is a search for “Kansas City Zoo” branded or unbranded when the name of the zoo is… Kansas City Zoo?

Branded terms generally bring in the highest converting traffic because the searcher already has a certain level of brand familiarity and (often) affinity.


  • Branded: Houston Rockets
  • Unbranded: the unequivocal greatest basketball organization of all time

Seed vs. Page-specific Keywords

Seed words are the obvious, initial list of words you start within the keyword research process. They act as the seeds you “plant” to grow your list.

Seed words are often relevant to most of your website, if not all of it. Page-specific keywords are generally found later in the keyword research process and are applicable to only a single page or set of pages.

Examples of Home Depot:

  • Seed: home improvement store
  • Page-specific: deck building supplies

Long-tail vs. Head Terms

Those with the highest search demand are called head terms. Conversely, those with a relatively low demand are considered long-tail.

Why? When you graph them out, head terms fall off quickly in terms of the total number of keywords, whereas lesser searched terms seem to go on forever like a tail.

The middle of the graph is often aptly named “middle” or “chunky middle” (or torso). With 15 percent of searches being new to Google each day, it shouldn’t be surprising that most search queries are considered long-tail, even if each individual long-tail query gets searched very few times.

Head Long-tail
High search volume Low search volume
High ranking competition Low ranking competition
Low converting traffic High converting traffic
Few words Many words
Best for top-level pages Best for lower-level pages
Multiple search intents Singular search intent


Head: Bob Dylan
Long-tail: Who is Jakob Dylan’s father?
Primary vs. Secondary Keywords
Also labelled “targeted” or “focus”, primary keywords are used to describe your most important keywords. These terms can be used in the context of your entire site or a single page.

Secondary (also called “tertiary” or “supporting”) keywords include all other keywords you are targeting and/or incorporating. In some contexts, secondary terms are those you are loosely optimizing for, but they’re just not considered a high priority. In other scenarios, secondary keywords act as the semantic or long-tail support to help you get the most out of your primary keyword targeting.

Examples of a subscription shaving kit product page:

Primary: shaving kit subscription
Secondary: monthly, razors, free trial, custom
Step, Stage, or Phase
SEOs often recommend categorizing your keywords according to a marketing funnel or customer journey. This can help ensure you are targeting customers at each critical point.

Some sets of categories have the brand in the centre (e.g., awareness, consideration, conversion, retention) while others are more customer-centric (e.g., unaware, problem aware, solution aware, brand aware). Similarly, some simply determine the action-oriented mindset of the consumer (e.g., navigational, informational, transactional).


Awareness: 30th birthday party ideas
Consideration: Las Vegas travel reviews
Conversion: flight and hotel packages to Las Vegas
Retention: Mandalay Bay loyalty program
Local vs. Global Keywords
Depending on its usage, a local keyword can mean one of two things:

The searcher is looking for something geographically nearby: This can be very straightforward like “library near me” or “2-bedroom rentals in Phoenix”, or it could be more subtle like “restaurants” or “What time does Whataburger close?”.
The searcher has a high probability of being in a certain area: For instance, “Why did Oklahoma Joe’s change their name?” could be considered a local term because there’s a good chance the searcher is from Kansas or Missouri. Why? Those are the only two states where this exceptional barbecue establishment calls home. By the way, it is now called Joe’s Kansas City BBQ if you ever happen to be coming to town.

Local: 2-bedroom rentals in Phoenix
Global: Is renters insurance worth it?
Audience Type
Rarely does someone self-identify themselves in a search?

When’s the last time you started a search with “I’m an XX year-old, college-educated digital marketer looking for [rest of your search]”? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this has never happened.

However, the ‘who’ behind the searcher can often be found in the implicit information of the query.

While almost no queries are exclusively searched by one group, many heavily skew towards a single audience.

One of the best ways to find out who is searching for a term is Google it and look at the results. Then ask yourself who the top results seem to be talking to.

If Google’s job is to give a searcher what they want, then the target audience for the top results of a query should be the same audience who completed the query.


Patient: Is diabetes hereditary?
Doctor: T2DM treatment algorithm

Evergreen vs. Topical
Evergreen keywords have steady search volume with little variance over time. On the other hand, topical keywords are either seasonal (e.g., valentine’s day gift ideas), flashes in the pan (e.g., coffee), or consistently relevant (e.g., Taylor Swift).

Some evergreen keywords can switch to being topical when an event makes them culturally relevant, like searches for a celebrity immediately after their unexpected death or a city when it’s hosting the World Cup. Google often favours new content for topical keywords because the “query deserves freshness”.

People like to create evergreen content because it can be a low investment relative to the long-term value it produces. However, the competition and initial cost are often steep. Conversely, topical content is attractive because it has a lower cost of entry, weaker competition, and provides immediate value – but that value has a short shelf life.

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