Just what is it that makes keywords so important?

Posted by Owen Powis on 21 Feb, 2019
View comments Keyword Research
Keywords are arguably the single most powerful tool in SEO and have been for the past 20 years. If you’re not using them you’re not doing SEO. So just what keeps keywords so relevant?

Sometimes we take for granted the core technilogy which drives the web. Keywords could be considered to form as foundational a part of that as servers and browsers. There are the fundamental process by which all search engines connect the searcher with the content which they are looking for. Be it Google, a website's internal search or Alexa. You use a search term (keyword) and the search engine connects the searcher to the content it feels is most relevant to that term.

Google has been doing this since its very beginning and is still doing the exact same thing. You go to a webpage, enter a search term and you are shown a selection of content to choose from. These search results are 20 years old and check out the same results 20 years later:

Google in 1998 and Google in 2018... you can search for 'google in 1998' in Chrome to see the results as they were.

Search engines can also be thought of as connection engines, they connect the user’s search to the content they have indexed which will best fulfil the search. This is what the broadest meaning of keywords is: words used to search. This has formed a big part of all of our understanding of the web. We know how to use them instinctively and how to nuance the words we use depending on the device we are searching from.

Keywords have evolved over time

Although the mechanisms we use to search have remained by and large the same, some things have changed. For example the number of keywords used or the form of the search query, as the devices we use to search have also changed.


Google Home, Desktop & Mobile

Results are displayed differently, adapting to new mediums and rich content such as video. The way in which keywords trigger connections to content has also changed significantly over the years. For example intent is included by Google in keywords. Meaning that Google is not only matching keywords to content based on their literal meaning but also what it thinks the intent of the searcher was in using those keywords.

Voice search keyword optimisation has become increasingly important as the number of smart devices in the home increases and we become more and more used to talking to our devices. Voice searches are more conversational and so are the keywords which we need to optimize content for. This benefits content created around specific questions, voice searches being posed as questions… ‘OK Google how far away is the moon?’.

There are already smart home devices that have screens such as the Echo Dot and Echo Show. This is because, as the rise of Google Shopping and fall of text ads shows us, is because visual works best when it comes to selling products. As these visual devices become more prevalent the landscape of voice search keywords will change to reflect this. It will no longer be focussed purely around keyword questions.

So as we see more advances in the devices we use and the technology which drives search engines, keywords will continue to evolve. However the way in which search engines connect content to searches has remained the exact same, through the words we use.

Keyword intent

So what makes a keyword a keyword is a pretty broad set of criteria. But it’s essentially it’s a string of words that are used in a single query to request specific information. At it’s very broadest, so requesting the widest scope of information.

This does change depending on the term used and the device. Google want to understand and match on intent as much as possible. So even a single word will have nuanced results depending on what Google determines you want to do in that moment. For instance searching for ‘restaurant’ on mobile will return results for restaurants close to where you are. Google is reading more from the search than just the keyword by itself.

However this only affects the broadest of terms where intent is not clear within the search. The length of search terms has increased over time and with voice search leaning towards conversational queries this is not set to change. So although intent does affect results, it mostly affects those which are arguably the least commercial or worth competing for. For many intent driven searches mobile optimisation and ratings will be bigger drivers than SEO optimization.

Within SEO keywords have enourmous scope and this doesn't look set to change even with new formats and devices. Within Paid search Google seems determined to remove the advertisers fine control over thier campaigns and this includes removing some of the control keywords and match types gave. So match types have become further diluted and this is something the majority of advertisers don't seem to want. Because keywords are powerful and they are still the best way of matching searchers to relevant content.

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