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One of the first things you’ll need to do for any search engine optimization campaign is keyword research — at least, that’s what you’ll hear from most SEO experts. For the most part, I’m inclined to agree. Having the proper selection of target keywords can make a massive difference in the long-term success of your campaign.
However, the importance of keywords has been distorted in the SEO community over the years. As a result, some practitioners put keywords as their highest priority or focus almost exclusively on optimizing for keywords, at the expense of other elements of their campaign.
Is it possible to focus too much on keywords in your search engine strategy?
The short answer is yes. And if you have tunnel vision for keywords, it could actually do more harm than good.
What Are SEO Keywords?
Before we can dig into the problem with excessive focus on SEO keywords, we need to explain the purpose of keywords in the first place. What are keywords exactly, and why are they important?
If you’re like most people, you rely on Google for many searches a day. You type a word or phrase into the search bar and hit enter to see results. Essentially, you’re typing in a keyword or a keyword phrase.
This is important because it allows search optimizers a chance to deliberately target a specific audience. For example, do you own a hotdog stand? If so, it would be nice if your website ranked highly for terms like “hotdog” or “hotdog vendor near me.” Optimizing your website and your content for specific keywords can increase your likelihood of ranking highly for those terms – but the keyword landscape has changed over the years.
Early in Google’s history, it was possible for a website to practically guarantee rank one just by spamming the same keyword over and over on their website. Today, Google’s algorithms are much more sophisticated. They’re capable of detecting unnatural language use, keyword spam, and other black hat tactics. In addition, Google explicitly recommends against keyword stuffing, instead urging webmasters to write natural, high-quality content for their visitors.
Nevertheless, most optimizers at least do keyword research to help direct the campaign. It’s essential to figure out search volume to evaluate the popularity of various search phrases – and it’s crucial to analyze the competition, so you know which keywords will be most valuable to target.
The State of Modern Keywords
The value of researching and focusing on target keywords has eroded somewhat, for several reasons.
- Semantic search. The biggest culprit has been the advancement of Google’s semantic search capabilities. Introduced around 2013 with the Hummingbird update, semantic search is basically Google’s way of analyzing the intent behind your search query, rather than only looking at the specific words you used. With these capabilities in place, Google isn’t strictly reliant on the entered keywords of search users; instead, it looks at the phrasing, analyzes synonyms and alternative phrases, and attempts to figure out what the user is searching for. Accordingly, focusing on a keyword isn’t as effective as it used to be.
- Penalties and algorithm changes. Google is also stricter with its content evaluation and its penalization system. If your website is found to egregiously violate Google’s terms and conditions, or if it clearly provides a poor experience for users, it could face a ranking penalty or even be delisted in extreme cases. Because of this, it’s a bad idea to stuff keywords into your site at a specific frequency or volume.
- Head keywords and competition. Head keywords, the short and common keywords most likely to be used in search, are highly competitive. Big companies that have been around for decades have spent millions of dollars optimizing their websites to dominate those terms. Your chances of competing directly with these organizations are slim, making intensely focused keyword optimization (at least for head keywords) less desirable.
The Effects of Exclusively Focusing on SEO Keywords
If you focus too heavily on keywords in your strategy or if you don’t use keywords responsibly, you’ll be at risk of the following:
- Excessive time and effort. Keyword research takes a lot of time. You could easily spend dozens of hours hunting for the perfect keywords to target – and yet find very few worth targeting. If you spend significant effort finding the “perfect” balance of keywords for your website, you’ll end up investing even more time and effort. And don’t forget, spending time and effort isn’t just an inconvenience — it’s also an expense. This can drive up the cost of your entire campaign disproportionately, threatening your return on investment (ROI).
- Bad content quality. Keyword stuffing and related tactics almost inevitably lead to bad content. Too often, SEO experts get blinded by their keyword targets, shoving them into the headline, forcing them into the body where they don’t belong, and using unnatural phrasing to hit just the right target. Not only does this fail to provide you with better results, but it also is disruptive for your readers.
- Risks with bad selections. Let’s say keywords are your primary consideration in SEO. You spend lots of time and money choosing the best keywords. But, what happens when a competitor overtakes you? What happens if the search volume drops off? Yes, you can adapt – but you could also end up wasting a lot of time and money with your bad selections.
- Direct competition. Being highly competitive with your keyword selections and optimization strategy will introduce you to similarly highly competitive players. Low-hanging fruit tends to be more accessible and affordable, while high-profile keyword purists exhaust themselves.
- Poor visitor experiences. Most people interested in SEO aren’t only interested in search traffic. They’re also interested in monetizing that search traffic by selling more things to visitors (or making them watch ads). If you want to convert your visitors, a stringent and unyielding keyword optimization strategy isn’t going to help you; in fact, it might end up putting people off.
- Difficult measurements. Don’t forget that Google doesn’t explicitly publish keyword ranking data. You can run searches yourself to see how you’re ranking or use a third-party tool to understand your rankings across the board better, but there are still limits to what you can accomplish this way.
- Worse results. It’s hard to make a blanket statement, but many keyword-happy purists end up seeing worse results. They rank lower (overall), they get less traffic, and as a kicker, they end up with reputation issues because of their low-quality content.
Should You Abandon the Keyword Approach?
So does that mean you should abandon keyword research and keyword optimization entirely?
Not at all. Keywords still serve several important functions, helping you understand the search behavior of your primary demographics, allowing you to analyze the search presence of your competition, and providing overall direction for your campaign. Also, long-tail keyword phrases aren’t nearly as competitive as their head keyword counterparts, allowing small businesses and those with small budgets to be more competitive.
Keywords also serve a vital role in the following areas:
- Page titles and meta descriptions.
And keywords are still relevant to your content (though your article shouldn’t shift entirely just to squeeze in specific terms).
Additionally, SEO is just one element of your overall digital marketing strategy. Your PPC ads, email marketing, social media marketing, and other investments will all play a role in determining your overall success.
SEO keywords aren’t what they used to be. You can’t rely on them to be the sole determining factor in whether your campaign is a success, and you certainly can’t stuff them into your website content and hope for the best. If you want to be successful with keywords and your SEO campaign overall, it’s essential to understand the modern context for keywords and temper your expectations.