Keywords vs. Topics: Optimizing for Google Search
"Content is king" is an old adage among SEO experts. But until a few years ago, an equally appropriate mantra could have been "keywords are king."
For more than a decade, keywords were the guiding stars by which Google connected websites with search queries. The methodology was efficient; people using laptops and desktops kept their searches short and sweet: "Honda dealership Seattle." "Fix leaky faucet." "Allergy symptoms." Most queries were keywords, thus Google made its algorithms use keywords to judge relevance.
Today, that's no longer the case — and a more fitting adage might be "topics are king."
Don't get me wrong; the proper usage of your best keywords is still a core component of good webpage SEO. However, Google's algorithm was completely changed in 2013 to judge website relevance from a more human perspective. Now, rather than hunt for keywords, Google can derive the contextual meaning of websites to deliver higher-quality search results.
Why the big change? And how should you think about topics vs. keywords when optimizing Web content for Google Search? Read on for answers to both of those pressing questions.
Hummingbird: The Game Changer
The rising tide of smartphones with voice-recognition technology changed how people interact with search engines. More people are speaking their queries into their phones, resulting in more conversational search terms: "Where is the closest Honda dealership?" "How do I fix a leaky bathroom faucet?" "What are the symptoms of allergies?" Suddenly, old-school keyword terms weren't doing justice to mobile phone users.
The Hummingbird Update was Google's answer. Earlier updates to Google's search algorithm were simple adjustments, but Hummingbird was a complete overhaul. Released in August 2013, the new algorithm considers more than 200 factors when determining search rankings. Gone are the days when keyword density was the primary goal of webpage content. Now, simply focusing on quality content that delivers what your audience wants is at least just as important.
The Moz Study
To analyze the importance of keywords vs. topics, the marketing firm Moz studied the similarities and differences between traditional and conversational keywords from 10 different topics. The firm put 10 keywords from each topic through a rank-tracking tool, then analyzed the search engine results pages (SERP) for each keyword grouping.
Turns out, the study reached a split decision. Moz found no concrete evidence showing whether keywords or topics are more important for content optimization. Exact-match keywords appeared to be more impactful with some searches, while conversational and related terms worked better with others.
Technology is certainly trending toward topics and conversational queries, and more people nowadays search the Web using mobile devices than desktops or laptops. Expect topics to edge out keywords in coming years.
Optimizing Content in a Hummingbird World
So how do you write your content in a way that emphasizes topics more than keywords? The answer is by taking a more organic approach. Put yourself in your visitors' shoes and write what you feel they'd find most valuable. Do that, and you'll be right in line with what the Hummingbird algorithm looks for. Here are four tips to get you started:
1. Make geographic references
Before the Hummingbird update, if you wanted to rank high when local customers were searching, then you would include location-oriented keywords such as "Portland Subaru dealership" or "Dallas roof repair." Now, you can also make more organic references to your city and local neighborhood. Write about where your customers live, prominent local clients or high-profile projects you've worked on. Not only will Google's algorithm derive your location, but you'll also score better rankings when people search for nearby businesses from their smartphones.
2. Quality over quantity
Previous updates to Google's algorithm cracked down on "thin" websites that offered subpar user experiences, and Hummingbird took it a step further by emphasizing quality content. If you recently launched a blog or a website, you might be tempted to crank out updates in hopes of getting people's attention. Don't do it! You're much better off post-Hummingbird writing longer, more comprehensive content that will help Google better understand each of your webpages.
Focusing on comprehensive content also increases your likelihood of using LSI (latent semantic indexing) keywords that can further boost your SEO. These keywords are the related terms and synonyms that would naturally be paired with specific topics. If you do a good job with your content, then you won't need to go out of your way to hunt down LSI keywords - they'll be there. If you do want to research LSI keywords, just go to Google and type your primary keywords into the search box. The terms that auto-fill are examples of LSI keywords.
3. Write for customers' needs
Why are your customers visiting your website? Are they looking to make purchases, are they researching products, or are they seeking information or advice? This is crucial to consider given the rising popularity of conversational Web searches. Understand the audiences for your various digital marketing campaigns and make sure your content is appropriate for their needs.
4. Consider landing page design
Are you writing blog posts, a product comparison, a FAQ page or a description of your services? Each requires a different style of layout for the content to really shine. If Google doesn't already consider design signals when deriving webpage relevance, then it's only a matter of time before it does.
Keywords Still Matter
Topics appear to be supplanting keywords in the pecking order of optimizing for Google, but it's way too soon to stop caring about keyword usage. As the Moz study showed, including your best exact-match keywords in your content is a safe bet for helping your SEO.
Also, you still want to use your top keywords in the nuts and bolts of your webpages. Make sure your primary keyword appears in your meta title, meta description and <h1> header tag. This use of keywords will always be important even as contextual meaning takes over in content.
It's better to be prepared than be behind. If Google never released another algorithm update, then you might be fine writing content around a few of your top-paying keywords. That said, everyone knows more updates are coming, and the trend line favors topics. Your best bet is to write comprehensive, high-quality, carefully planned content.
Write for people, not for keywords. That's the future of optimizing for Google.
Phil is Founder and COO of Main Street ROI. Phil leads the company’s operations and is primary creator of Main Street ROI’s marketing training programs. He is an expert in search engine marketing, website analytics, and sales funnel optimization. Phil’s marketing thought leadership has been published on Forbes.com, Inc.com, MSN.com, and many other major business media outlets.
Phil earned his Master of Engineering Management degree from Thayer School of Engineering and Tuck School of Business and his Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Engineering degrees from Dartmouth College. While attending Dartmouth, Phil started every game on the varsity football team as the defensive safety.