Ten years ago, it was common practice to pack pages with keywords for website SEO. Sites with the right keywords ranked higher on search engine results pages.

But are keywords still important for website SEO today? The short answer is yes, but not nearly as much as you might think. In this article I’ll explain why.

First, let’s clarify that the only search engine we’re talking about here is Google. There’s a good reason for that, as it accounts for the vast majority of internet searches.

In the last decade, Google has become a lot better at discerning your intent when you search. It now presents you with what it thinks is the most relevant and informative page it can find, while penalising sites stuffed with keywords.

So if you want your site to be “on the first page of Google”, as many people do, you need to understand how Google decides what to put there.

Here are five trends that have changed the relative importance of keywords:

1. Localisation

Let’s say I search for ‘print services’. Google knows I’m in Bristol because I’ve opted in to location-based services in the past. Of the organic (non-paid for) results, all but one are local print companies. There’s even a handy map showing where they are.

In contrast, the same search using DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t use location, displays big US companies like FedEx, UPS and Staples.

So for a certain kind of search, Google will favour local businesses. Nobody will then see the same “first page of Google”.

2. Personalisation

It’s frustrating to see your competitors ranked above you on a search engine results page. But if you often look at your competitor’s site, as diligent business leaders do, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

That’s because Google tries to interpret your searches to give you what you want. It will push your competitor’s site higher up the rankings because your browser history shows you’ve visited it multiple times.

Everyone’s “first page of Google” is therefore different. To see the “true” rankings, you’ll need to use your browser’s Private/Incognito function, although the location-based results will still apply.

3. Natural language

The old days of SEO meant that if you repeated the same word again and again, your page would rank higher in Google. Those days are thankfully long gone.

Google now rewards content that reads like it was written for humans rather than computers. It knows that a synonym of a keyword has the same meaning as the keyword itself.

What this means is that Google works out the overall meaning of any given page by taking a lot more information into account than keywords alone.

4. Voice search

One in five Google searches are now made by voice, with users talking into their phones or speakers. The data from voice searches reveals that people tend to phrase questions similarly to how they’d ask a human being the same thing.

The upshot is that a voice search will prioritise pages containing a direct reply to that query, as well as being structured in easy-to- read sections.

5. Featured snippets

Even if your SEO strategy does put you on the first page, you may lose click-throughs if Google takes a featured snippet from one of the other top results.

Featured snippets are those boxes that come up in response to a question. Often, but not always, they’re taken from Wikipedia.

If a featured snippet comes up in response to your search, it may well answer your question without you even having to leave the results page.

This is another way in which Google attempts to make life as convenient as possible for its users.

Keywords that do work for website SEO

The use of keywords for website SEO is far from dead, however. As far as organic (non-paid) search is concerned, long tail keywords are where it’s at.

A typical keyword might be ‘leather handbag’, a short phrase that thousands of sites will have.

Long tail keywords typically have four or more words, such as ‘green leather handbag with pink stripes and silver clasp’. If your page has this keyword, you have a much greater chance of ranking highly for it.

Another advantage of long tail keywords is simple psychology. If someone has searched for something as specific as ‘green handbag with pink stripes and silver clasp’, it’s likely they’re looking to buy one. Consequently, they’ll be easy to convert once they land on your page.

There’s much more to SEO than keywords

There’s plenty more that Google looks at before deciding how highly to rank a page. Many factors are technical aspects of websites, including:

There’s a whole lot more to website SEO than just keywords.

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