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Keywords are dead! Keywords are irrelevant! I’m the only one with the answer!

Did that sensationalist title grab your attention? Sorry. Had to do it. You obviously fall for clickbait titles, which worked out for you this time because I’m about to lay out some reasonable commentary on the “keywords are dead” debate. Well, it’s not a debate… just sensationalism from SEOs who can’t cut it in the current state of search, and since they can’t get sites to rank, keywords are therefore “dead”. Allow me a moment to elaborate about keywords based on 20 years of experience as an SEO.

I was recently asked to check out an article titled “Your Google rank doesn’t matter anymore” and I thought “Ha! Tell that to someone on page two!” The sensationalist title was pure clickbait, and probably misinformed a lot of people who didn’t bother to read the article. In the end, the author summed up his article to say “… the data that you’re looking at related to keywords is not 100% accurate. As a result, this should never be your primary performance metric.” No kidding. Pretty reasonable conclusion to a sensationalist article.

Keywords are the core of search. The way searchers use keywords to interact with the algorithm is constantly evolving. Keywords are not falling by the wayside or becoming irrelevant. It’s quite the contrary actually; keywords have significantly increased in sophistication because of the ability of search engines to understand more complex queries.

The way searchers query search engines has evolved constantly over my 20 year career. Keywords started out as very basic queries like “brown pants” (you couldn’t include “for sale” because you’d get tons of irrelevant results on all kinds of “sales”) and have evolved to more spoken queries used now, such as “what color shoes go with a pair of brown pants?” The complexity of a user’s query is constantly changing and driven by the abilities of the mechanism that interprets the query for the algorithm. If that mechanism was still dumb, people would still have to search “brown pants”. There have been enormous strides in the ability of a machine to interpret a user’s query, and users have responded with more and more complicated queries. Today it’s possible to get pretty good results using “natural language” queries on your phones and in the search box, but the way you search doesn’t diminish the core intent of your query: finding a site relevant to what you want. No matter how complex your query, the computer distills it down to a set of keywords (using superlatives from spoken language as modifiers sometimes) and then goes about matching those keywords to the content in its databases. The goal of companies like Google is to be so transparent and intuitive that you don’t even know they’re there. That drives their desire to understand and interpret what you want of them, but doesn’t diminish the keyword.

When you shop for shoes in real life, and ask an attendant for a specific shoe in a specific color and size, whether you realize it or not, you just gave that person a keyword-based query. When they went back to check the stock they are looking through their inventory (database) for a shoe (content) that specifically matches your request. They may be forced to promote a certain brand (PPC), but in the end they will provide you with what you asked for if they have it. Yes, ladies and gents, even human interactions are driven by keywords.what is google hummingbird?

The ability to interpret complex queries in spoken-language lexicon was the whole reason behind Google’s Hummingbird update in 2013. Guess when Google killed keyword reporting in Analytics? Yep – right when they were rolling out their Hummingbird update. In fact, Hummingbird was live for a month before anyone knew it. It’s release date is speculated to have been the day they killed keyword reporting under the guise of protecting user privacy. I think there was a bit of both intents there, but Analytics already did a good job of anonymizing traffic. They were trying to kill the folks that were pulling the keyword from the interstitial URL at the time. I suspect the death of keyword data was 60% for the long-term benefit of Hummingbird and the internet as a whole, and 40% privacy.

I believe Google killed keyword reporting in analytics for a couple of reasons, and one of those was to kill keyword spam methods by taking away information about exactly what people searched. Google wanted the internet to evolve to suit a “spoken language” query world. That intent was shown fully by Hummingbird and the death of keyword reporting.

Another interesting note was brought up in the article about personalized search and how it makes it difficult to determine “true” ranking. It’s important to use a rank tracker that distills ranking down to non-personalized results so you can see how your site ranks for high-intent users who are just searching something for the first time. Strong titles and descriptions are a must to help combat personalized search where a searcher ends up in a bubble of sites they’ve already visited. Keep in mind that just because a user visited a site doesn’t mean that they had the experience they sought, so they are fairly likely to skip sites they are already familiar with. When I need a part for one of my Land Rovers or BMWs, I don’t search, I go right to the sites I’ve used before and skip Google entirely. The only reason I search for a part is if my regular trusted seller doesn’t have it, and then personalized search doesn’t matter one bit because I skip the sites I know.

When measuring the success of your website, other metrics like time on site, time on page, pages per visit and conversions don’t matter if they are all ZERO because your site doesn’t rank. Keywords are absolutely important. Skilled SEOs know it and can still consistently rank sites for targeted keywords that drive traffic.

Keywords are not dead. Your Google ranking absolutely matters. Don’t fall for the hype and clickbait.