Why Keywords Still Matter

by Alan Eggleston

“Keywords are dead,” scream the headlines. If you believe the screamers, keywords went the way of the buggy whip and the BetaMax. Not so, and I’ll tell you why.

Photo: Phillip Stewart, creative commons license.

Photo: Phillip Stewart on Flickr, Creative Commons license.

At the heart of every search is a keyword. Or a couple of keywords. Or a string of keywords. But even at the heart of a keyword string is still a keyword. Every search begins with a kernel concept of what the searcher is looking for – the keyword, even if someone searches in the form of a question or asks by voice instead of by keyboard. “Restaurant.” “Chevrolet.” “Tacos.” “Book.” The search widens as the topic narrows to “a” restaurant or “a model” of Chevrolet or “a kind of” taco, so the keyword string better defines the search. It may be a universal search or the string may localize.

As a content provider, you still need to decide the overarching keyword and keyword string that defines your content. Then you need to optimize your page for it so – whether as a couple of keywords or a string or a question – a searcher can find your page. That should form the basis of your page title, meta description, H1 headline, some anchor text for links, and so on. More on meta tags in a moment…

Google would say, you write the content and we will decide the keyword string and where you place in any particular search in meeting that searcher’s needs. Content providers have been so concerned with making a top ranking, they have kept trying to rig the system to rank instead of trying to provide great content. The result is Google Hummingbird. Today, Hummingbird simplifies the search by looking at your content and finding nuance for the keyword string. But even with that nuance added in, you still need to begin with the keyword and keyword string. Working diligently with keywords gives you control of your content – not working with them gives the control over to your competitors.

What Do I Mean, “Optimize” for the Keyword?

What does it mean to optimize the page for your keyword? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t mean repeating the same keyword over and over again – keyword stuffing. That doesn’t work anymore. It means creating content that better defines what you mean when you write about that keyword. It means varying the words you use in your content to establish the nuance that supports the meaning behind your keyword. It means building links and anchor text that also add nuance through connecting to meaningful content – on your site and off-site.

So, what is different for keywords since the introduction of Hummingbird? Not much, it turns out. It is much harder to simply stuff a page with keywords, especially since Google killed off its free keyword tool and keyword reporting program. However, it hasn’t reduced your need as a publisher, editor, or writer to know your audience and reader and vary your keyword vocabulary. Google does offer the keyword planning tool as part of its AdWords program, and it allows you to use it free even if you don’t advertise (it says). And there are keyword tools on Bing and Yahoo, which are just as useful for defining keyword use. Furthermore, there are other “free” keyword tools (also this one and this one), meaning you get to use them free for a limited time – so use them wisely and use them sparingly.

How to Plan for Keywords

How would I plan for keywords today in the Hummingbird era? I would still plan pages around a keyword as before, but instead of amping up one keyword I would create nuance for it building quality content and quality links with useful synonymous keyword derivatives. For instance, if my site was about Chevrolets, I’d build in content about the Chevy, the Malibu, the Cavalier, the Impala, the sedan, the SUV, the car, the automobile, and so on. I would have a content-rich site that included not just sell copy about what’s on my lot and the service department, but also about the dealership, the company, GM, and the history of the brand. I’d also link to Chevy enthusiast groups and have a blog and keyword-rich social media links. Finally, I would have an FAQ page that addressed questions people might ask online trying to find my site.

How to Use Keywords in Anchor Text

A few words about keywords in link anchor text: Google has said it will penalize for using only keywords in links. They want you to vary the anchor text for links. For example, instead of always using “Google” as the anchor text for a link to the Google site, they’d like you to use more generalized words like “search engine” or “leader in search” or “did a search on such and such” or whatever words would fit the context of the link. The same would go for your site – also for link URLs. Don’t always use the home page of a site – go deeper into the site. Instead of www.google.com, go for www.google.com/about for instance, depending on the context.

How to Use Keywords in Meta Tags

I’ve heard suggestions that to optimize for Hummingbird you should write page titles as statements. I’m not sold on that. A page title functions much as a subject heading in your local library book catalog. The page title is where the keyword is very important and that the root keyword needs to stick out. Everything else has to build the nuance around it. Furthermore, search engines limit the number of words/characters you can have in a page title, so you shouldn’t waste those limited elements on useless statement words. I would focus on the keyword in the page title, then work with some nuanced keywords in the meta description, headlines, and especially in the body text and links. The meta description needs to be a statement but also has a word or character limit (I have found success with a 150 character and spaces limit) – again, be efficient with keywords and nuance-building words.

So, do keywords still matter? They sure do!

Are they harder to work with? Most likely, but even so you’re going to get more bang for your search if you don’t panic and optimize efficiently.

Will Google change the game again? Of course! But that’s what makes our work so interesting.


The Hyphenator: Always and Every Time

By Cathy Hodson

“An editor edits above all to communicate to readers, and least of all to address the sensibilities of editorial colleagues….But self-serving, retentive, fastidious, fetishistic, and even some aesthetic and ethical types of compulsiveness have no place in mass communications under deadlines; they must be purged from new staff members for the sake of the staff’s longevity in the field.”

I cannot begin to tell you how much relief I felt after reading the above paragraph in Arthur Plotnik’s The Elements of Editing, A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists. I first read it in the mid-1990s, when I had just left the employ of a most fastidious and retentive editor. He was The Hyphenator. Happily, nay, gleefully, commanding his staff of editors that they must use a hyphen at every turn. Anywhere it was possible to use a hyphen, hyphenate we must.

He wasn’t a bad guy, he was actually a good friend and a terrific person. He also wasn’t some old cranky guy who had formed persnickety ideas about grammar and usage after centuries of editing. He was young (we were both in our early 30s), but he had definite ideas of what he liked and didn’t like in editorial content. Hyphens he liked.

So much so that I told him when I left his staff, that the best part of leaving was I would never have to hyphenate something ever again if I didn’t want to. I was positive that no one else in the world could be quite as attached to the hyphen as my boss was. So far this has held true.

While The Hyphenator believed that the hyphen fostered communication (and sometimes it does), I believe that too much of a good thing can be counterproductive. As Arthur Plotnik says above, the editor edits to communicate to readers, to facilitate the ideas and thoughts being conveyed, and not to appease an editor’s punctuation fetish.

Grudgingly I must admit that I learned a great deal from this editor. Not only about the placement of hyphens, but so many other things important to being an editor. Sadly, although only six months older than me, he left this world about 10 years or so ago after a valiant fight with a most debilitating disease. And while I miss his friendship and I am grateful for all he taught me, I still do not miss injecting hyphens everywhere they must go.

Editors all, we have our favorite things to look for during proofreading. Is it the hyphen? Is it the comma? Is it a split infinitive? A dangling modifier? What are your editorial pet peeves?

Web Journalism Is Alive and Well in the Christian Science Monitor

Where is journalism headed and is there life for it online? There seems to be an answer.

The Christian Science Monitor marks its third anniversary of “Web-first journalism” with a statement of steady growth and progress. John Yemma, editor, said May 1 on his blog that growth is five-fold since the shift to the Web and that ad revenue is growing, the fiscal year that just ended being the best since 1963. This is all good news for online journalism, which is still trying to sort itself out after print’s near-death experience.

There are lots of models for journalism attempting to move from the dying print world to online: The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel, the Los Angeles Times, just to name a few of the top titles. Papers and magazines both large and small have made the move, some successfully and some still struggling. The prognosis is still murky.

Editors and their staffs battle to make the transition to the Web as well. Roles, functions, and processes have morphed to fit the new model. From it, the rising new profession of the web editor has emerged.

The success of the Christian Science Monitor and the growth of jobs for web editors bring new hope to a troubled industry. What is your experience? Do you see continued growth and are you hopeful for the future?

Introducing — Us!

Welcome to the Web Editors blog!

Beginning today, a group of very talented writers and editors, who are responsible for a great deal of the content across some of the web’s most influential sites, will introduce themselves and begin to educate and inform both the public and our colleagues of just what a web editor does, can do, should do and might consider doing, all based on our experiences within this profession.

The writers you will encounter are all currently from the Web Editors group on LinkedIn. Someone posted within one of the many discussions that there was not really a good blog resource available for the profession of web editors (Thank you Jonathan Reid!), and the idea to begin a Web Editors blog was afoot.

So over the next few weeks you will meet us, and learn how we came into this fine profession, and then a little bit about what each of us will be writing in our next post.

Web Editor: Cathy Hodson
As for me, I am Cathy Hodson. I began my career as an English teacher in a small town’s high school, then went back to suburbia to work in publishing as a writer and editor of engineering and manufacturing trade magazines for a little over a dozen years.

I was happily working as a writer and editor on an environmental engineering magazine, when the young woman who had been our web editor left the company. I had been feeding her product releases to add to our website, and as someone who had always drooled over technology and the latest gizmos, I threw my hat in the ring for her job. How hard could it be?

Still, I was surprised I got the job, having no experience as a web person at all. I didn’t know a stitch of HTML, what an authoring program was, or how the information that needed to get up on the website got there. I found out quickly that it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, but it was terribly intriguing and what I learned that first year from some very patient colleagues has made my job exciting, thrilling and incredibly fun to this day.

Part of the thrill comes from the immediacy of the Internet. While a print article can take anywhere from 3-6 months to see publication, you can write something today and it will be on the Internet within a matter of seconds. Some say that’s also the problem with the Internet, but I prefer to think that the work of a professional and someone who cares a great deal for quality content, still rises to the top.

We hope you will continue to check back as our blog continues to grow. Some of us will be writing monthly, others semi-monthly, but hopefully over time you will get to know us and what we are passionate about.

My next post will be in mid-March, and I will be writing about managing a large website. In the meantime, tomorrow you will hear from Web Editor Alan Eggleston about how much of a geek you need to be to join the Web Editor profession. Stay tuned, and welcome!