Is keyword research still important after Hummingbird?

Posted by Mal Darwen on 30 Jan, 2014
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Mal Darwen discusses the importance of keyword research after Google's Hummingbird update

Old school SEO was pretty straightforward. Choose some keywords (maybe even just dream them up), chuck them in your title tags and meta keyword tags (remember them?), repeat them over your content, hammer in some easy-to-acquire links, and watch your page start to climb the search rankings.

So what about Hummingbird?

In a post-Hummingbird world, the idea of using keyword research as part of your strategy has been played down by some people, but Jim Yu and Stoney deGeyter at Search Engine Land both sensibly recognise that this is erroneous. Hummingbird doesn’t negate the need for keywords, it just recognises the intent of your search query more clearly and may re-word it on the way to the index servers so that your question can be best answered (in Google’s eyes, at least). Stoney puts it well:

In fact, the only thing that Hummingbird changed was how the actual search query was processed. In short, Google rewrites your search query. [What's a good place to get Chinese food?] might be rewritten as [chinese food canton ohio]. If you’re already ranked for the latter phrase, Hummingbird is your friend. If you ranked for the first phrase… Well, you probably didn’t, unless you were optimizing for the word [place].

So it’s still important to know what kind of language your potential customers are using, even if that language gets mushed up a bit by Google’s servers. Adding in language in your copy that’s semantically related to the keywords your research exposes will also help you. Synonyms and related terms (which should be a part of your natural copy style anyway) will increase your chances of being seen as relevant by search engines - and it makes your copy nicer to read, as well.

So is keyword research still important?

Absolutely, yes. Hummingbird is all about Google trying to find the searcher's intent behind a search. That doesn't mean that the language in the search is now irrelevant, and while intent is a good thing to be aiming for in interpreting search, the original text query is the biggest clue for Google to what the searcher wants. Remember, Hummingbird was released for a month before it was announced, and nobody noticed. You still need to research what's going on in your market so that you can properly engage it, and enter the conversations around your niche confidently and authoritatively.

So what should be different about my research?

The short answer to this, after Hummingbird, is not much, really - but once you've found your keywords (more on that below) and established your architecture, going a bit deeper. Taking language that you find as your main framework, and building out from that language using related words (and being clear about any modifiers you may need, for example if you're targeting a particular geographic region) will extend the reach of the copy on your page. Try using the Related tool in Wordtracker to get other ideas on how to express your themes, or even take to a thesaurus to find good synonyms.

Dedicate pages to individual aspects of what you provide - in the crochet example below, it's clear after some research that there are hundreds of questions people are asking about crochet - so you can try researching questions specifically, using the wildcard. I entered:

  • why * crochet
  • what * crochet
  • where * crochet
  • who * crochet
  • how * crochet

and got over 7,000 keywords that were either direct questions or searches for 'how to'. Answer these questions in the best way on your pages, and you're continuing the conversation your visitor has started with their initial search - congratulations, you've engaged your audience!

You'll also have the kind of site that people want to not only visit but share and link to - which means that when people search for terms related to your site, you have a better chance of ranking - particularly when you've used your customers' language. In this example, doing a bit of research on competitors' sites (I'm using Scout for this) tells me that they're also talking about the specific styles and materials used in this craft - the leaders in this niche are ranking because they're using the right language, and have established themselves as authorities in this space.

Why use keywords anyway?

At Wordtracker we've spoken a lot over the years about how it's important to challenge your preconceived ideas about how your customers speak, and about the fact that it's vital to speak in their language so that they find you (and when they find you, they identify with you strongly). It’s the language you use on your product and content pages (and, of course your social media) that starts the relationship with a potential customer - and the best way to find that language is by doing comprehensive keyword research.

So how do I start?

Say you have a product or service dealing with crochet (it’s more fashionable than you think…). You could just chuck up some pages and say to whichever part of the world happens to be listening (be it human or robot) ‘yeah, crochet, it’s over here’, without using the words that people are searching on. But that just leads to a world of low traffic and low conversions

Start by researching your initial term and building out from there. There are lots more interesting and engaging things you can say to hook in (pun intended) your target audience. I don’t mean these specific phrases verbatim, but it’s good use appropriate keywords to let people know:

  • We’re about crochet.
  • We’re also about crochet patterns
  • We have easy crochet patterns
  • We have free crochet patterns
  • We also have crochet instructions
  • We talk about needlecraft and wool, which are really relevant to crochet
  • We have competitions!
  • We also have a print magazine!
  • We talk about accessories, inspiration, crafts, fashion, yarn...

Using appropriate (and researched) language in your content, and using that content to build your authority in your niche, means you’ll get more links from people in your market space that read and share that content. As your body of work grows, so will your link profile and your perceived influence (in the eyes of the search engines and in the eyes of the people who are looking for what you provide).

Research well, and write well!

Good content is crucial, and while no-one here is going to invite you to count the number of times someone should use the word ‘crochet’ on a page, the words and language you use in that (beautifully crafted, original, unique) content need to be not only natural but also to match the intent of your potential customers’ searches. How do you find that? Keyword research, of course!!

Not only are well-researched keywords important for single pages, they're also helpful in terms of building out niches from your homepage or category pages. Good site architecture depends on keywords and themes. Which of these basic architectures do you think visitors (and search engine robots) would prefer? (hint: look to the right...)

It's vital that your page structure (or ‘site architecture’) makes sense - search engines (and Google in particular) have got really quite good at understanding language, synonyms, and the relationships between words, so SEOs and content publishers really need to have the same (or better) understanding of language. Building your site clearly and logically, including using keywords in your anchor text for your internal navigation will send signals to human and robot traffic that you have authority in your market - you understand their needs (because you did your keyword research and found out what they’re looking for) and you can answer their questions in language they understand (because you did your keyword research and found out how they’re looking).

Keyword research in action

Let’s take a look at how this can work. I did an initial search for ‘crochet’ in Wordtracker. A few seconds and 10,000 keywords later, I can see some strong themes at the top of the list:

Wordtracker keyword tool

People are always going to want free stuff, but it’s clear that people are really looking for patterns - and specifically patterns for baby items. Blankets and hats are going to be relatively easy things to start off with for a beginner and there are also plenty of ‘how to crochet’ searches. So, if I’m deciding which categories to start to build, I can research each of those keywords. Using the ‘search’ link next to each keyword and then choosing ‘search & save’, I can quickly build up some keyword niches and then look at what might be a good way to move forward.

Wordtracker Keyword tool search and save

Here’s what my crochet project looks like after less than two minutes spent using search & save to create lists in the background, using keywords from my original ‘crochet’ list as the seeds:

Wordtracker tool projects

We can validate some of this with the SEMrush data that's also available in the tool (though you will find some differences there) but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. These lists are hundreds, thousands of keywords long and digging deeply into them can give us some appreciation of exactly what people are looking for. It’s clear that ‘crochet pattern’ and ‘how to crochet’ are the two more heavily searched niches around ‘crochet’ so that could be a good place to prioritize your optmization. Moving on from there, your other site categories could be ‘crochet scarf’, ‘crochet baby blankets’, ‘crochet dress patterns’ - and you’ll find plenty of specific keywords in each of those niches to start to build up enough pages to constitute a strong body of content. Write it well, keep it original, focus your language on what you find in the lists. Then you’ll have something that’s worth spending your time promoting via display networks or in social media.

A new world order

SEO’s all a bit different in recent times. Panda made us all provide better content to our visitors if we wanted to continue to rank well in the SERPs. Penguin ensured that sites with spammy link profiles wouldn’t do well in the rankings, and (not provided) has become the bane of the SEO’s life.

The consequence of (not provided) is: Analytics data has become harder to get keyword data from. It's therefore harder to validate the work involved in keyword research, although you can get some of that data from Webmaster Tools. The temptation for some is to say 'well, if I can't validate it, it's not worth doing'.

Actually, there are ways of dealing with this, but that’s another story.

You need keywords for your site because:

If your page is optimized for ‘hooked needlework’ Google may well recognise that you’re engaged with crafts involving needles and show your page in the SERPs for ‘needle crafts’, for example, but if your customer clicks through and you’re using jargon on the page, how well will you engage that visitor? They’ll probably hit the ‘back’ button (which Google will notice and record), and find a friendlier page to serve their needs.

Avoid the temptation to respond to Google’s growing skill in recognizing semantic language pattens with the attitude of “well, it doesn’t matter what words I use if they’re going to ignore them”. That can lead you down the path to lower conversions.

If it’s crochet, talk about crochet. If you’re dealing with a very technical or dry subject (say, grey cardigans or medium soft pencils) then talk about the problems your product or service solves (‘ways to stay warm’’ - “sketching techniques”?)

So in summary...

  • Keyword research is as important (if not even more so) than before Hummingbird.
  • Keywords and related terms aren't going away. While Google is more about looking for intent than matching text strings these days, the keywords still matter - those little text strings are still the big clues for Google - and they're always going to matter.
  • Welcome your visitors in their own language
  • Keep individual pages for individual topics - if you find yourself diverging from your main topic, consider using a different page for that different direction
  • Use clear architecture so that search robots understand your site and are able to index it to your best advantage
  • if you're not using the language of your potential audience, they won't find you in the first place!

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