SEO: Why I Have Moved Beyond Keywords (And You Should Too)

Keyword, keyword rankings, keyword density. Sounds familiar? If you have to do anything with SEO, and you have not been living under a rock for the last decade, you are sure to know these terms. Now you may ask – ‘Hey Adi? What’s wrong with this? Why did you take the time to write a post against such an established convention?‘. And I will politely say – ‘Well Sir, it is 2016, and I thought I would give you a wake-up call just in case you have been napping still.

To understand where I am coming from, you got to go back in time. The year is 20008. Ranking for keywords is downright comfortable and not that complicated. The idea of ranking is as simple as 1-2-3 – (1) research a “keyword” that you think is relevant to your business; (2) write website content with proper “keyword density”; and (3) start blasting links using the selected “keyword” as your anchor text. As is evident, 2008 required a “keyword-centric SEO approach”.

This keyword-centric approach no longer works. Fixating on ‘keyword’ is not a good approach in SEO these days and here is why –

WYSINWOS And Unpredictability

Focusing on keyword-centric SEO isn’t a good idea for two specific reasons – (1.) Search engine results are highly personalized and (2.) Search results fluctuate a lot – several times a day. This means that if you SEO for a keyword and then track the keyword ranking to measure your success (or failure), you will be interpreting all the wrong kind of data. You will be far from where you should be – the results.

Search results vary based on your location, your search history, your account settings, and your search behavior. It means that you and I will see different search results for the same keyword, based on our personalization settings and search behavior. The aforementioned is what we call WYSINWOS – What You See Is Not What Others See.

Another important aspect of keyword ranking, which I think many newbies don’t realize, is that rankings fluctuate … a lot. I would often get an email from one of my new clients complaining that their keyword dropped a few points and here is what I tell them – ‘Relax, it is natural ????‘. A keyword could fluctuate across multiple data centers several times a day. If you pay attention to MozCast, you will see that it is almost always hot. This indicates that rankings fluctuate a lot, every day. So just tracking a keyword will give you no clue as to whether your SEO efforts are translating into results or not.

What you need to focus on is results – the organic traffic that you are getting, the quality of the traffic (look for bounce rate, time on site, etc.) and conversion ratios.

Bye-Bye Keyword Density!

Fast forward to 2013 when Google released Hummingbird update, and things changed. Google realized that metrics such as ‘keyword density’ could surely be gamed to propel websites with utterly garbage content to the top spot. To combat this and provide better search results, Google started incorporating machine learning algorithms to their ranking factors. Now the search engine was smart enough to understand what the searcher was searching for and what would be appropriate content for it.

This led to a rise in semantic search results that were driven by user intent. Keyword density in content has become ‘kind of’ obsolete nowadays. The focus shifted from ‘how many times the keyword is used’ to ‘how the content can help the searcher’. People who used to focus on 3-5% keyword density were utterly disappointed. Those who focused on helping the searchers were pleased. Now search engines rank pages with almost 0% keyword density to the top spot if they feel the content is valuable and will help the user. Search for something like – ‘Who is the father of computers?’ and you will see that the search engine returns an answer. The search engine has moved beyond returning pages that have the keyword ‘who is the father of computers’. It understands what a user is searching for and tries to return the solution that works for the searcher. Based on the same pattern, you will see that when I will Google for ‘washing car battery’, the top result is a page on WikiHow titled ‘How to Clean Corroded Car Battery Terminals’. The page has 0% keyword density for ‘washing car battery’. Heck, it has no occurrence of the word ‘washing’ on the entire page.

Correlation research has shown that conventional use of the ‘keyword’ in the on-site SEO (as in Title, H1 tag, meta description, etc.) is not directly proportional to top rankings. See this search result for ‘Italian style thin crust pizza recipe’ –

As seen above, the second listing has better keyword usage than the first listing. But Google can identify that the first listing is more comprehensive and relevant; hence, it is at the top.

Instead of trying to shove your keywords in the content unnecessarily, focus on creating content that is valuable to readers. It might not rank for the keyword you were hoping for, but it will surely rank for a lot of different relevant keywords that will drive traffic.

Just Links

Remember the good old days (taking you back to pre-2010) when you can use software like Xrumer and blast links using your keyword(s) as anchor text(s)? Oh, those days were good and comfortable. Unfortunately (rather, fortunately), you need to put in a lot more work to get the links you need. Outreaching to webmasters and bloggers for links is a crucial part of link building now. You may request them to link using a particular keyword phrase but you surely cannot dictate how they link to your website. These bloggers and webmasters will usually link to you in a way that doesn’t compromise their content quality and provides a natural experience for their users. This is to say that they will link to you with your brand name (as a reference of some sort) or by using a natural term from within the content (that is relevant to your website); without blatantly inserting your target keyword. Given that the webmaster has full authority on content being published on their website, you cannot effectively control your anchor text percentage and ensure that your keywords are being used as anchor text all the time. Further, using the keyword as anchor text all the time is highly unnatural. A well-performing website will have a natural anchor text ratio where the top anchor texts will be naked URLs or brand keywords. See the top anchors for below –

Instead of trying to secure keyword-oriented links, try and get links from relevant authority websites. No matter what the anchor text, as long as the link comes from the contextually-relevant source; it will help. Do note that you should try to get keyword-oriented anchor texts when you can but you should not expect your SEO or yourself to achieve a fixed anchor text distribution all the time.

In Conclusion:

Focus on things that matter – results. Move beyond keywords and design your SEO campaigns to be successful in terms that matter, the real results. Don’t be stuck with keyword rankings. Measure results by – growth in terms of organic traffic, sales, website reach, user engagement, social actions, and bounce rate.

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