Keyword research has long been a staple ingredient of the search marketer’s arsenal; providing new ideas for keywords, data on volume and competition, and of course, bottom-line feasibility.
Ten years ago, any effective SEO campaign started with a strong set of keyword research (KWR) to guide the strategy. You’d pull the data straight from Google, pick out a few dozen target keywords that seemed easy to obtain with decent traffic figures, and inject those keywords into as much content as you could.
Today, KWR is a totally different animal. Over the course of the past 10 years, the state of “keywords” in SEO has radically transformed, so if you use the same techniques you did 10 years ago, you might accidentally reduce your campaign’s potential for success.
To illustrate, consider these five major ways KWR has evolved in the past decade:
1. Google likes to obfuscate data.
Google used to be so good to us. Through Analytics and AdWords, it used to give us pretty much anything we wanted in terms of keywords. It would tell us how much search volume and how many impressions certain keywords would get, as well as our sites’ rankings for those keywords and what percentage of our traffic was coming from each of those queries. In October 2011, Google shut off access to this data.
Through AdWords, it’s still possible to wrangle up some keyword information, including total search volume and impressions, but don’t treat these figures as absolute – they’re rounded estimates, and can’t tell you much about the users searching for them. All other data on ranking and inbound traffic has been pulled (though you can still find external tools that allow you to estimate these figures).
2. Hummingbird has made one-to-one keyword matches obsolete.
When Hummingbird was released back in 2013, it was a game-changer for the old-school keyword search structures on which Google used to rely. Previously, search results were the product of taking precise keyword phrases in a user query and seeing where those phrases appeared on the web. After Hummingbird, which introduced the idea of “semantic search,” Google gained the ability to decipher the intent behind a user’s query and find web entries that serve the user’s need.
As a result, the entire keyword structure has become somewhat irrelevant. Including a keyword phrase many times isn’t going to help you out as much as writing on a topic that is analyzed to be a good fit to address a user query. Accordingly, even with the best keyword research, it’s hard to force any of your content to rank for a certain keyword.
3. Dedicated keyword pages don’t make as much sense.
Thanks to Hummingbird and a handful of other quality updates, the “dedicated page” approach to keyword optimization is becoming less relevant. Ten years ago, it was more than just common – it was considered necessary – to include at least one page of your website optimized for each keyword you wanted to rank for. KWR was the best way to find these terms, serving as “anchors” for your strategy.
Today, these “anchors” aren’t as important; KWR shouldn’t be a means of finding a handful of specialized targets so much as a general research strategy to cover wide ground.
4. Topic research is a separate game.
Over time, some elements of KWR have evolved into a separate strategy, which I call “topic research.” This is a form of research to uncover user search trends, social behaviors, and content popularity to help you find new topics to cover with your own brand. Good topic research will help you write more desired, valuable material in your content marketing strategy, which will then get you ranked higher for more queries.
Depending on how you use it, topic research can be considered an offshoot of KWR. However, there are still some advantages to KWR on its own; for example, topic research can give you general ideas for subjects to cover, but only KWR can guide you in the specific phrasing you should use.
5. Competition is notoriously hard to measure.
Back when Google provided ranking and competitive information, it was easy to tell how hard a keyword would be to rank for. Now, the process is ridiculously complicated. Not only are you dealing with the withholding of information, you’re fighting against the subjectivity of modern search thanks to geographic indicators and personalized results.
Some companies have produced analytical tools that purport to evaluate an objective score for a keyword’s overall “competition,” but these are estimates at best. The competitive content landscape and modern search capacities, including the rollout of RankBrain, are too sophisticated to be easily reduced.
The Best Way to Research Keywords in 2016
None of this is to say that KWR is irrelevant – in fact, without KWR, your SEO strategy amounts to little more than glorified guesswork. Instead of abandoning KWR altogether, you simply have to use it in new ways; don’t rely on any one system to give you perfectly accurate keyword data, don’t stuff keywords into your content like you used to ten years ago, be careful of measuring “competition” for a keyword phrase, and be sure to favor topic research for your content strategy as well.
Do these things and your strategic SEO choices will be far better informed, leading you to better results and a higher rate of long-term growth. Just don’t be surprised if KWR evolves just as radically in the next 10 years!
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Caphyon, its staff, or its partners.