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.

Optimizing for Google Hummingbird

by Alan Eggleston

Google Hummingbird – how do you optimize for it?

Green-breasted Mango hummingbird

Photo by: Kat&Sam on Flickr by Creative Commons License.

First, you need to know what it is. Google Hummingbird is a new search algorithm that seeks to differentiate the nuances of meaning in a search, not just identify a search’s keywords. It is preparing the way for searching by asking coherent questions in the search window instead of just entering keyword strings. (Have you seen the new Google TV ad of the kid prepping for a class speech? It’s all about asking questions.) You will still be able to perform word-string searches, but Hummingbird will maximize the question search.

Second, you need to know how that affects a search. To do that, you need to remember a little history on search. In the early days, you did a search by entering a keyword; you might have looked for “painter” or “artist.” A few years later, the search engines refined searches so that you entered a couple of words; you might have looked for “art painter” or “fine artist” or even “Renaissance artists.” When mobile Web intensified and competition for search results became more critical, the search string got longer; you might have looked for “fine artist in New York” or “Midwest landscape artists.” Today, with Google Hummingbird, the emphasis is on answering questions and figuring out what the searcher is really asking. Did she ask, “Where are the best Midwest painters?” as in where is the quality best or as in where are they most numerous – or what?

Now, you need to know how that affects your site ranking. A site that relied on keyword stuffing and other keyword cheats to get high rankings isn’t going to do well with Hummingbird. Working with a couple of keywords with a little bit of content won’t tell the search indexers much about your site. But a site that has provided a lot of information with a slew of terms and links to authoritative sites that better help define the keywords will garner a lot of nuance and will do great with Hummingbird. Similarly, a site with a lot of pages that contain a lot of content will do well.

Keywords are still important – they are just harder to manipulate a site around. Similarly, links are still important but harder to manipulate for ranking.

Optimizing Tips

So, how do you optimize your site for Hummingbird? Most important, I would make sure my site had a lot of content – and not flimsy, me-too content, but great, quality content. Then I would make sure I built quality links that helped support the concepts I am building in my content. Finally, I would start by asking a series of questions I think searchers might be asking in a search and try to answer them in the content to help build relevancy to that nuance. A page of highly relevant FAQs or Q-and-A’s, for instance, could be helpful, as might be a page with questions as subheads that you answer in the body text – but don’t overdo it (not on all pages, for instance).

One thing is becoming clearer with all the recent changes by Google – not making keywords easy to find, multiple Penguin and Panda updates, the new Hummingbird algorithm – search engines want you to stop focusing on keyword manipulation and focus on creating good, quality content. They want you to stop looking for cheats to the guidelines and focus on optimizing for the guidelines. My own experience is that continuing to do the SEO basics (as provided in the search engine guidelines) provides stellar results. A client who was doing great before Hummingbird was released is doing incredibly well now.

SEO Shapes the Web. Should It?

For me, two of the most valuable aspects of the web are:

  • how accessible it has made mass communication—bringing it within reach for individuals and small, independent businesses
  • how simple it is for communities to develop around shared interests, no matter how small the niche and regardless of geographic boundaries

These are ideals—the promise of what the web can be and occasionally is.

The Web Now

The reality is that the gems are buried in the avalanche of low-quality, spammy, and boring content—the duds. But why is so much of the web piles of duds and so little of it gems? Can we change the ratio?

Setting aside the obvious types of web duds, the spam-like/scam-like and the anonymous and trollish drivel, I think another big category of dud pages are the marketing-driven “templates,” designed to appeal to the masses.

It recently occurred to me that search and SEO play a role in this deluge of duds because bots can do algorithms really well, and lots of them. So we get huge volumes of pages written to formulas, which is great for marketers. They get a lot of data to measure and “templates” for generating standardized content.

The gems online, however, are usually narrow in focus, addressed to smaller audiences, and focused on quality rather than quantity; they need the right readers more than they need a large number of them.

SEO and Content: Two Takes

A memorable talk I went to a few weeks ago got me thinking about the ways search and SEO influence which WWW we have now (mostly duds) and which one we’ll end up with (mostly gems?). Search, SEO and content strategy were the topics at the talk; the speakers were SEOs and the audience was mainly content strategists. The focus was on bridging these two disciplines, often seen as poles apart on debates such as writing for bots vs. writing for people.

The Traditionalist

The first speaker walked us through how to write with SEO in mind:

  • Write headlines that front-load keywords, that are specific, and that answer readers’ questions.
  • Immediately—in the first line of body copy—deliver on the expectations promised by the headline.
  • Use subheads, also with keywords, and white space to break up walls of copy.
  • Include keywords in the prime real estate: titles, SERP description copy, links, etc.
  • Make sure your CTA is above the fold.
  • In fact, try to get everything above the fold.

All well and good.

The Heretic

The next speaker got up, and right off the bat we knew it would be different.

She complimented the other speaker’s presentation, and then said her take on the topic was completely different. “I’m a heretic,” she said.

The heresy? Write whatever you want, however you want.

  • Write long. People will scroll.
  • Write in your natural voice. Your tribe will find you.
  • Write well, and write for real and living readers. The search bots will catch up; they are already quite savvy and improving at an astonishing pace.

Refreshing, even exciting.

The Web to Come

Until the heretic gave her speech, I hadn’t realized just how uninspiring the traditional methods are. But on further thought, it makes sense that traditional methods will wear thin quickly because those methods are tuned to the ways robots (web crawlers) can quantify what humans read and respond to. It needs to be formulaic, algorithmic, and appeal to the masses—bots can rank those things.

On the other hand, if we can write for people—if the robots are now sophisticated enough to accurately index human writing for other humans who search for it—we may just end up with a web with a lot more gems.

Comments welcome.

Links: An Editor’s Look at How Many Is Too Many

By Alan Eggleston

How many links are too many? We are told we need outbound links, inbound links, internal links, but does anyone say how to tell when enough is enough?

Actually, there are articles on the Web, and probably the most important ones are by Google’s Matt Cutts and the Google Webcentral. Both say 100 links on a page should be a limit, although not necessary the limit. Let me explain.

It’s All About the User

To a search engine – any search engine – the user experience is the most important thing. That’s true whether you’re gauging the experience conducting a search or reading a page. So when a Google or Bing or Alta Vista index your website, they consider the experience you’re giving your user or reader. That’s true for any part of their indexing algorithm. It’s also true of gauging your links.

The Trouble with Excessive Linking

So what variables might search engines consider in the user or reader’s experience when looking at the number of links on your page?

How about the number of words? If you have few words but lots of links, your page begins to look like you’re “link spamming” (or spamdexing)

How about your anchor text? If you continually use the same anchor text for links on a page, with lots of links, your page begins to look like you’re “keyword stuffing.”

What about small or average amount of words, but most of your links are in lists or involve one source or one type of site, such as an affiliate marketing site? Then it can be perceived that you aren’t serving your reader as much as yourself and, so again, link spamming.

And let’s be sensible: Unless your reader is doing in-depth research on something, it’s very unlikely they will follow 200 links, let alone 100. So giving your reader 100 or fewer solid, quality links is way more important than 150-200 flimsy, low-quality links. And the search engines can tell the difference.

What Happens if You Overdo it?

The dangers of having too many links are many. An appearance of keyword stuffing may give your site the appearance of low-substance content and trigger the Google Panda filter. An appearance of spamdexing may give your site the appearance of spamming in general and trigger the Google Penguin algorithm. Too many structured links may make your site look like a “doorway page,” resulting in a penalty. Finally, there’s the whole design element: a page full of links looks less inviting and can be harder to read that one with fewer links.

A Goldilocks List of Link Criteria

What’s the “Goldilock’s Number” of links then? There isn’t a number, but there is that maximum of 100. And there is using links sensibly to serve your reader. You just can’t go wrong serving your reader. So here is what I would make sure I included in those 100:

  • At least one high quality link for each keyword early on the page with a second one at the end if possible. These are probably external links.
  • A high quality link for other important concept words on your page – these may not be keywords but may be words your readers want to know more about. These are probably external links, but if you have a site glossary they could also be internal links.
  • Additional links for keywords to separate quality external sites using different anchor text and that serves the reader understanding or interest – simply adding different links to the same anchor text can be seen as link spamming.

Example: Mulptiple articles about neutron stars using their titles or publication titles as the anchor text. Same keyword (neutron stars), different sources (various publications)

  • Make sure you link to internal pages within your site as well and include those in your numbers. They may be for major keywords or important concept words.
  • Internal links for each hypergraphic and hypertext in your main navigation, top and bottom.
  • Internal links for site subnavigation and external links to outside entities.

Example: Association sites, awards sites, universities, companies you are associated with, etc.

  • Links in sidebars or secondary articles that may be internal or external which may include keywords for this page or for the overall site such as in universal inclusions.
  • Links for headlines or article titles elsewhere on the site, often under the subhead “Also of interest.”

Count any link as a separate link, including advertising links and those double underlined links that used to be for definitions but have turned into advertising links. Those aren’t counted in your ranking, but they do contribute to site litter.

A note about design: A page to be readable needs white space punctuated by dark notes. The more dark notes (words) and blotches (lines) the eye sees, the more disorganized it is and the harder it is to read. So use bold, italic, and underline (links) wisely and sparingly. That may be the most useful guide to building links. If you have a page full of links, you may have an unreadable page.

Which looks more readable:

A page more like this with only some words highlighted and punctuated by bold, italic, and underline?

Or a page like this with most words bolded, italicized, and underlined in an effort to give importance to every single word?

Point made?

Next Up – How to Handle Trolls

Troubled by trolls? What bridge or blog or news comments section is without them? Next time I’ll take a break from optimization to take a swing at handling trolls. Join me!

Body Text: Optimizing Content Without Keyword Stuffing

By Alan Eggleston

Optimized body text is as important to higher search rankings as optimized headlines, meta tags, and linking. They all work together. Together, they are critical to someone finding your website in a search.

To hear some tell it, you need to sprinkle your text with keywords and use your keywords a certain percentage of your total text. Not quite. What you need is for your keywords to appear naturally in your text, and you can add them strategically for clarity without tripping the “keyword stuffing” tripwire. Here’s how.

Keyword Stuffing: Loading a Web page with keywords to improve its search engine ranking. Keyword stuffing defined by Google itself…

Keyword Rules for Body Text

Rule one: The more often a keyword or keyword phrase appears on a Web page, the higher that page should rank in search engines for that keyword or keyword phrase.

Rule two: To be effective a keyword or keyword phrase should be used a number of times on the page, but don’t worry about trying to match a certain “keyword density” or percentage. For best results, go for quality over quantity.

Rule three: Write keywords early into your content, then write them at the end of your content. The most important keyword should be at the beginning of the first paragraph.

Rule four: Highlight keywords by making them bold or italic (first use), using them as anchor text for links (first use), and using them in subheads and alt tags.

Rule five: Write naturally. It shouldn’t be apparent to your reader (and, thus, the search engine) that you are optimizing your page. Write for the reader.

Rule six: You may use variations on the keyword, such as various verb forms, since the search engine will recognize them. Use different spellings only if your audience will use them in doing a search or will expect to see them in use.

Rule seven: Use keywords to help you write more clearly, replacing nouns you might be tempted to use otherwise which might confuse readers. However, do not simply use keywords to add keywords.

An Example

Let’s go back to the Lone Ranger and Tonto example we used for writing SEO headlines. For this exercise, we assumed that instead of working together until they can ride off into the sunset, the Lone Ranger and Tonto decide to split early and go their separate ways. Here’s a possible article, the text first unoptimized then rewritten to be optimized:

Masked Man and His Faithful Sidekick Split
Silver and Scout never saw it coming. One day they were helping the Lone Ranger and Tonto chase outlaws, the next day they were all going their separate ways. The foursome made the split after a news conference announcing irreconcilable differences and an even division of the loot they had compiled from turning in bank robbers, stage coach bandits, and petty thieves. Marshall Matt Dillon accepted their resignation with reluctance but said it was understandable given the group’s tumultuous relationship. They will hand in their outfits and turn in their six shooters before riding out of town tomorrow, although the masked man is expected to keep his hand poured silver bullets.


Lone Ranger and Tonto Go Their Separate Ways
The Lone Ranger
and Tonto are going their separate ways. The famous Masked Man and his Faithful Sidekick, with their fleet-footed steeds, Silver and Scout, announced the split at a news conference citing irreconcilable differences. The Lone Ranger and Tonto will leave with considerable loot, which they compiled from catching bank robbers, stage coach bandits, and petty thieves. Marshall Matt Dillon accepted their resignation with reluctance but said it was understandable given the heroic duo’s troublesome relationship. Tonto said that he and Kemosabe will hand in their outfits and turn in their six shooters before riding out of town at high noon, although the Masked Man is expected to keep his signature silver bullets. We bid the Lone Ranger and Tonto a hearty “High-oh, Silver, away!”

What I did in the last paragraph was replace common nouns like he or they or them with the keywords The Lone Ranger, Tonto, Masked Man, Faithful Sidekick, Kemosabe, Silver, Scout, and so on. It’s easy to use the common nouns when referring to the subjects of the article, so it’s also easy to replace them – when it will read naturally – with the actual keywords. What you will find is that in attempting to optimize the text you will actually be clarifying it as well. In longer articles, you can also add subheads, quote boxes, and other devices that also contain the keywords. After you work with the copy, read it over and make sure it reads naturally – if it doesn’t, you may have tripped the keyword stuffing tripwire and you may be penalized.

Next Up – An Editor’s Look at Links

How many links are too many? We are told we need outbound links, inbound links, internal links, but no one says how to tell when enough is enough. We’ll have a discussion next time – join me!

Using Google’s Free Keyword Research Tool

Trying to figure out keywords for your website? Try a recent article by Search Engine Land, the recognized non-commercial leaders in SEO. They explain in detail how to use Google’s free Keyword Research Tool to find the most relevant keywords for your site. And they explain why, despite what you might hear from some wayward SEO “experts,” keywords aren’t dead but very much still important in planning websites.