Are Keywords Old School?

This is a loaded question in the field of SEO.  In my opinion, keywords do still matter – just not the same way they once did.

Encrypted Search

Today we live in a world of encrypted search by Google which means a huge percentage of search query data is reported as “not provided” in our analytics.  While there are some workarounds to getting keyword data – the ability for webmasters to tie a specific organic search query to a website conversion has become nearly impossible.


We also live in a world where “Hummingbird” (Google’s latest and greatest algorithm) has become the next step for Google in regard to adopting semantic Web technology.  This started with “Knowledge Graph”, followed by “Voice Search” and “Google Now” and now we have “Hummingbird”. Semantic technology is focused on intent rather than search terms.  In essence, Google wants to understand the answers we need, not just the question we are asking.  There are several examples of how this works floating around – here is just one.  With Google Now, it is possible to ask “who is the President of the United States?” and you will be provided the answer “Barack Obama”.  You can next ask “how tall is he?” and it will respond “six feet one inch tall”.  Just as in a conversation with a human, Google understands that “he” is Barack Obama.

Once you get the answer of how tall Barack Obama is, you will also get search results as usual.  If you select one of those results to learn more about Barack Obama and his height (maybe as it relates to his basketball skills) the search query that would be recorded (if Google didn’t encrypt all searches) would be “how tall is he?”  This wouldn’t be the keyword phrase the page was optimized for and rightly so. The fact that this data will now end up as “not provided” is actually not that big of a deal if this is the sort of search query data webmasters would receive anyway because it is not all that useful.

Entity Search for the Semantic Web

The SEO industry should now be thinking about “Entity Search” and less about keywords as the end-all, be-all of SEO.  Entity Search connects a person/place/thing to other people/places/things in the world just like connecting dots.  It allows search engines to understand intent by following those lines that connect dots. The Semantic web is responsible for a lot of those connected dots by labeling each piece of information as an “entity” – this also known as structured data.  By organizing information in one structured format across the Web everyone basically begins to speak the same language. What does this mean with regard to keywords? In my opinion, SEO becomes less about a specific keyword or phrase and more about themes.  Many keywords can make up a topical theme.  Understanding the group of keywords or phrases that fit into a topical theme allows for optimization of a page for that topic.  With the addition of structured data, the page’s content is easily understood by search engines in a way that when someone searches with the intent to find information on that topical theme, it is clear that the optimized page is a good fit.  (I’m not saying that this is all that you need to do to rank well.  There are still MANY other factors that weigh into how search engines “rank” pages in their results.)

It’s All About Relationships

When you couple encrypted search and Hummingbird, keywords are no longer what they used to be.  We can’t get keyword data by visit in analytics and even if we could, that data may not hold the same value as it once did if it was one query in a string of refined searches performed by an individual.  The present environment is one that requires that SEO consider how to define the website as a group of entities. Who, What, Where, When and what is the relationship between each of the entities (and with entities outside of the website).  Keywords are not the future of SEO; instead it is the relationship between words and entities that will inform intent for the search engines.

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