It used to be impossible to manage any kind of SEO campaign without keyword research backing up your strategy.
By figuring out which queries were most popularly searched for, how competitive they were to rank for, and how closely they related to your brand, you could select a handful of crucial targets, optimize for them, and clean house with your resulting rankings.
Today, the Hummingbird algorithm and Google’s commitment to "semantic search" capabilities have rendered old keyword-based ranking systems nearly obsolete; you can no longer rank for a keyword just by stuffing it into your content or building links to a page using exact-match anchor text for that keyword. In fact, these tactics can get you penalized if you aren’t careful.
So is keyword research just a remnant of a dead strategy, or is there something more to it?
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of conducting keyword research in 2016 as an integral part of your SEO campaign:
These are the advantages you can hope to gain:
Niche and Competitive Targeting
Taking a look at keyword information in various niches will help you find key areas to target. For example, let’s say you’re a defense attorney and you notice that one of your competitors has monopolized terms related to DUI-related offenses, but terms related to theft are pretty much untouched. This gives you a generalized insight into what target phrases will yield to more efficient results. It can also help you figure out what niche terms and LSI keywords are worth pursuing, based on search volume data.
Search Behavior Insights
Researching keyword trends can also help you figure out behavioral insights of online users. For example, using Google Trends can help you identify major fluctuations in certain keyword search volume. This can help you identify the rising or falling popularity of various subjects related to your industry, and may help you plan for long-term positions.
Topic cultivation is my personal favorite - what I feel is the greatest advantage of keyword research in 2016, and the past few years in general. Modern SEO still requires consideration of keywords, but with content being such an integral part of SEO success and semantic search dictating the majority of results, your choice of topics is even more important. Keyword research, if used as a means of probing user intent and identifying good topics to write about, can help direct your campaign in a direction that resonates with users (and rank high in search engines at the same time).
Assumption and Bias Correction
If you rely solely on your own instincts in an SEO campaign, you’re destined to fail. Assuming that a certain keyword phrase is popular based on conversations you’ve had with others in the industry, or trying to cover all your bases by including a wide berth of keywords, will ultimately put you into unfamiliar territory. It’s much better to back those assumptions up (or overwrite them) with data you can pull from your keyword research.
These are the drawbacks to watch out for:
Increased Risk of Keyword Stuffing
If you aren’t careful, it’s easy for your keyword research to get into your head and start dictating the type of content you produce. Once you learn that “Podiatrists in Denver” is a highly popular search phrase with little competition, you might find yourself trying to slip it in everywhere you can. Done sparingly, this will give you a helpful edge, but it doesn’t take much to put you over that line. And remember, a ranking penalty isn’t the only downside of keyword stuffing - it also puts your users off too.
Favoring Search Engines Over Users
Along these lines, relying on keyword research to inform your strategies can lead you to start writing, designing, and optimizing only for search engines. Do this inflexibly, and you’ll end up with a site that theoretically ranks very well - but doesn’t offer much in the way of user experience. User experience should be a bigger priority, as it relates directly to conversion and retention rates, so take whatever insights you glean from your keyword data and apply them in ways that are meaningful for your visitors.
Limited Ranking Data and Insights
Keyword research will arm you with information related to current keyword ranking standings, and search volume. However, your rankings will vary wildly depending on how users are accessing Google search (e.g., via mobile devices, specific browsers, or specific geographic locations). Accordingly, even with top-notch keyword data, it’s hard to track your ranking progress in precise line with your targets. Instead, use keyword ranking data as a way to measure the progress of your SEO or content marketing campaign.
Tunnel Vision in Keyword Research
Another weakness of keyword research in 2016 is that it holds rankings as the only - or at least most important - element of SEO. What about organic traffic, quality of your traffic, overall visibility, or all the other methods for evaluating SEO campaign progress? Keyword research can give you tunnel vision if you rely on it as an exclusive means of strategic direction.
The Bottom Line
Keyword research is still a powerful tool you can rely on for your SEO campaign, providing you with competitive insights, content targets, and information about your key demographics you can use in other marketing areas. However, if you conduct it, you must take these insights with a grain of salt; over reliance on keyword research can leave you vulnerable to the dangers of keyword stuffing, and may skew your perspective to optimize for search engines rather than users.
To put it simply, keyword research can be a powerful tool - but you have to use it responsibly.
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.
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