In today’s SEO, the place of keywords within Google’s algorithm has changed. This change, however, is directional, maintaining the relevancy of keywords. The notion that we can simply place keywords in our HTML to rise in Google’s ranking is so 90s. While it is true that Google does not read the keywords within the HTML, putting the weight on specified keywords, like it used to do in years past for direct ranking purposes, they are still far from dead. The truth is that we do not control keywords, and we should not be targeting an individual keyword as an isolated search strategy. Rather, keywords should be used to guide us in topical relevance that provides a great customer experience.

So what do we do? How do we rank for those important keywords? What is the role of keywords in today’s SEO? What should our keyword search strategy be?

Short Head vs. Long Tail

First, let us understand the role of a keyword today. We have the shiny, bright, high volume terms that get all of the attention – we call those short head terms (ie. Mountain Bikes; search volume of 49,500 monthly searches). These terms gain the attention of business leaders for their high volume and high profile of brand leadership. However, the intent of a user is blurred with short head terms (does someone want to know what a mountain bike is? The difference between mountain bikes and road bikes? The cost of a mountain bike? Etc). As you can see, almost every short tail keyword term has mixed intent, so you must go deeper.

We also have the long tail derivatives of a primary short head term keyword. This is where the rubber meets the road and your conversion metrics can soar if done properly.  

A long tail keyword answers all of those specific questions someone has (what is a mountain bike? The difference between mountain bikes and road bikes? The cost of a mountain bike? Etc). Within your keyword research it is important to correlate all of the individual keyword data that are long tails. These will be used to drive theme and sub theme categorization within a content silo.  

Rank through Relevancy

Thus, ranking strategies for a short head term are achieved from a bottom up strategy.  This requires content relevancy on long tail keyword phrases and derivatives that roll up into a themed category, then there are multiple categories with similar structures that roll up into a content silo.  At this point you will have a strong amount of related relevancy in a market that matches variations of the short head term. This provides a strong user experience because it answers so many of the questions about a short head term. As you establish authority and rank for the bottom levels you will gain the rank for the short head term.

The keywords that we research represent customer demand (monthly search volume) within a particular topical space. Advancing this theory beyond “ranking for keywords” lends itself nicely into driving content marketing plans and gap analysis. From a strategic front, I view keywords as the topical families they represent, not an individual effort to rank one keyword.  

The keyword data, once grouped into themes and sub-themes will reveal opportunities within each stage of the funnel.  Ideally you would want to create content silos that are grouped together so that relevancy is all contained accordingly.  It is much like organizing a file drawer cabinet with hanging folders versus opening the drawer and throwing all the papers in.  One way is superior, making it easier to find what you are looking for–Google happens to think so as well.

Proper keyword targeting can solve one of the toughest challenges brands face today: content.  What content do you write? Will the content be impactful?  A strong content marketing plan should always be supported by quantifiable keyword data.

Beyond content, keywords also drive architecture, taxonomy, and URL naming schemes.  As you overlay your content themes and sub-themes they will be grouped into an architecture that is nicely organized with topical relevance.  If you isolate the primary keyword driver and utilize that for the URL naming scheme, you are able to communicate to Google what this page is primarily about, which topical family it belongs to, and gain sound relevancy signals. 

Targeting Your Keywords

So how do we find the best keywords to use? Start from the top down. You want to view your own organic footprint along with your competitors’ footprints.  Look for those short head terms that would indicate the top of a content pyramid. After you sort and correlate the data you want to use a keyword research tool like SEMrush to do keyword research. You start with the short head terms with the high volume and you start looking for partial phrase matches and related matches. What you are looking for is different intents of keyword matches.  In our example of mountain bikes we can define queries such as mountain bikes for trails, or racing mountain bikes etc. As you can see, these two queries are both about mountain bikes but they have very different intents that even cater to two different audience segments. You would want to find all the supporting keywords for both category themes and then put a content strategy together that matches both individually. 

A good rule of thumb is that for a page to rank for a keyword or series of keywords, the content on that page has to be similar in intent, along with the proper authority signals.

All in all, a strong keyword strategy is still a foundational pillar within any search campaign (organic or paid). The way we view keywords today is different, as they become directional beacons to drive content gaps and relevancy, rather than the literal sense of placing a keyword.