Stephen Logan

Do Keywords Still Have a Role to Play in Content?

24th Dec 2012 Content Marketing Blog 5 minutes to read

bigstock-Seo--Vector-Search-Engine-Opt-7050075I’m a Content Marketer, that’s what it says on my email signature. This means that I spend a reasonable percentage of my working day writing words. Then of course I have to spend the rest of my time ensuring those same words get found by the right people. It’s a constant flow of Concept > Creation > Distribution > Promotion.

This isn’t a post denigrating my profession, nor am I here to demand radical changes in tried and trusted processes. No, my beef is with keywords.

If you’ve ever read any of my ramblings on here in the past, you’ll know that I’ve been kicking around Content Marketing (and its various rebranding exercises – SEO Writer, SEO Copywriter, Copywriter…) for a fair few years. I tend to look back on my earliest days with a mixture of shame and general discomfort. Remember, if you were a writer in 2003, keyword density was king. Indeed, quality was probably only third or fourth on a long list of optimised factors. Those were not days to remember with any fondness.

Fast forward nine years and, mercifully, things are starting to change. Content needs to be shareable  engaging and stand out from the dirge. Quality is the first consideration and, even more surprisingly, people now take online writers seriously. However, some old techniques have a John McClane quality to them – in so far as they refuse to die. I’m looking at you keywords.

At this point, I feel I should lay my cards on the table: I don’t like keywords. To me, they’re illogical; a relic of a bygone age of optimisation and hopefully not a major part of its future. Google want everyone to have their own personalised results, factoring in past searches, their location and apparent trends – it’s supposed to be a fluid process based on semantics and individuality. So by relying on keywords, they’re almost admitting an incurable weakness.

Within content, keywords become even more of a nuisance. For me, a term that is repeated in every paragraph, as well as featuring in most headings and Meta description, sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s as impossible to ignore as an elephant in a tutu walking down a busy high street. They have a place, don’t get me wrong, but a little subtlety and decorum wouldn’t go amiss.

How should keywords be used?

As mentioned earlier, the fact that keywords are still used is purely a failing on all search engines. Nobody has been able to fathom a more effective method of categorising content. Consequently users are all preconditioned to typing in illogical queries like “cheap flights Heathrow”. Effectively our language has adapted to meet the short comings of Google, not the other way around.

Now I don’t blame keywords per se. That would probably be like blaming Samuel Johnson for defining language in the first English dictionary. The real issue is found within the misinterpretation of what they are and how they should be used.

Let’s rewind again to a time when keywords were king. You would write an article with a keyword density of 15% and think nothing of it. In fact, as a writer, you’d probably be under strict instructions to ensure those levels of repetition were maintained. For anyone that is brand new to SEO, this probably sounds as ludicrous as it undoubtedly was. After all, why on earth would you want to have a single phrase repeated at least once in every sentence?

But for all of the implied ridiculousness of this hilariously overt form of search engine gaming, some remain entrenched in this outdated ideology. After all, if it worked then, surely it would still have some impact these days? Right? Well, no, not really.

Firstly, your keywords need to be logical. Shoehorning a place name in and around your product or service; prefacing various titles and sentences with “Delhi SEO Agency” in any given piece of content just doesn’t look right and it should guarantee that most visitors turn tail and run.

Context, Context, Context

Content needs to serve a purpose. It should be informative, thought-provoking or at the very least, entertaining. As soon as your attention is deflected towards keywords and away from these basic standards, the copy will suffer. You become too focussed on the wrong things. This kind of self-awareness isn’t healthy for a writer.

Keyword usage is often too literal. In instances where it is three words or more, this can become jarring – particular when repeated, verbatim, constantly. So why not include it in the title and then use the body copy to build context? Synonyms and related phrasing, including locations if absolutely necessary, can be weaved in to any content narrative. Again, don’t become hoodwinked by this process, just write with natural verve and watch as the words spill out.

Writers have been optimising their work for centuries; certainly if building context with words is anything to go by. Dickens described the seedy underbelly of life in London, Shakespeare transported audiences to Italy, Egypt and Denmark, while every advertiser, journalist and novelist has looked to follow suit. Why, therefore, should Content Marketers or Copywriters be any different?

Building a Narrative, not Writing for SEO

Readers like a natural narrative, so why allow anything to distract you from providing one? There will always be a place for keywords as long as the search engines are reliant on them for rankings purposes – nobody can dispute that. However, whether that place is within the content that is designed to inspire and inform ought to be questioned. Will repeating a phrase a dozen times really mean that a page will have more context or earn a better ranking than another that only has a couple?

Google can’t measure quality by reading the text, but it can use social signals, bounce rates and time spent on a page as indicators. Now, whether it does, and to what extent, is a known unknown. That’s why the logical approach, for many years now in fact, has been to write for your audience first. But despite all of this, everything that has been mentioned above and in countless other blogs, keywords live on. Maybe their time is coming to an end, or perhaps they’ll outlast me and all other active Content Marketers. However, when the search engines do finally get their act together, I very much doubt anybody would be remotely saddened by their ultimate demise.

Maybe the knowledge graph, authorship, localisation and personalisation will all one day develop to an extent where keywords can be forgotten about. But now would certainly be a good time to stop spoiling perfectly decent copy with entirely unnecessary phrases.

Image Sources:

SEO Keywords from Bigstock

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