This article originally appeared on SEMrush.
We’re in the age of uncertainty when it comes to keywords. Utilizing them in content is still crucial for search engines to interpret subject matter and relevance, but relying too heavily on sprinkling these buzzwords into your content can land you in serious trouble.
The Google Hummingbird update in 2015 signaled a deepening shift toward semantic search in the race for quality SEO. Google’s algorithms increasingly prioritize natural language patterns over standalone keywords, making keyword-stuffing strategies counterproductive at best. Packing your content with a few particular words or phrases, regardless of context, is not only ineffective, but it’s also capable of actively hurting your chances of ranking favorably in the search results.
With keyword prominence and frequency out of the picture, many marketers are unclear about how this should impact their content strategies. Navigating the new search landscape means more than just finding a new tactic — it means raising the bar on your content and focusing on keyword relevance, not recurrence.
The End of the Black Hat Era
Google categorizes keyword stuffing as a black hat SEO tactic that violates its webmaster guidelines. The search engine will either penalize your site manually as it encounters keyword-saturated content, or your rankings will take a hit with the next Google Panda update.
Panda analyzes websites for quality, so 500-word posts filled with gibberish and a handful of key phrases don’t make the grade. Google uses Panda to drive higher rankings for websites that offer great user experiences, so that’s where you need to invest your resources.
In addition to drawing the ire of Google’s ranking algorithm, overusing keywords also makes your content sound robotic and awkward. Consider this example from Google: “We sell custom cigar humidors. Our custom cigar humidors are handmade. If you’re thinking of buying a custom cigar humidor, please contact our custom cigar humidor specialists at email@example.com.”
As a consumer, you’re probably rolling your eyes because the tactic is so transparent. Keyword stuffing is like the SEO equivalent to a pushy car salesman — the approach is so in-your-face that it makes you lose interest in both the product and brand.
Salvage the Keyword System
But don’t throw out your keyword strategies just yet. Even with Google’s new measures, keywords can still factor positively into your search engine rankings as long as you don’t use them to excess. Incorporate relevant keywords in a way that makes sense to both Google and your end users, combine that with long-form, high-quality useful content, and they’ll push your rankings higher.
Use the following strategies to stay on the good sides of both Google and your audience:
1. Be mindful of keyword intent.
When optimizing web content, focus on the intent behind your keywords. Why are they on the page? Do they flow naturally within the text?
Be sure to use long tail keywords as well. These are phrases of three or more words that allow you to target specific audiences with your content. For example, instead of “dog walking services,” you might use “dog walking services in midtown Manhattan.” Long tail keywords enable Google to return the most relevant results to users, and they generate more qualified traffic for your company as a result. It’s a win all around.
2. Produce high-quality content.
Don’t sacrifice value for the sake of keyword stuffing. Compelling, in-depth content that educates and motivates readers will always win the day. People seek unique ideas, so don’t crank out mindless, generic posts filled with awkwardly placed keywords. Prioritize quality, and the rest will follow.
Content marketing’s recent rise provides a boon to your SEO strategies. When you’re already producing thoughtful, engaging work, the keywords naturally occur throughout the text. This combination helps you pass Google’s standards tests and allows you to get in front of more prospects.
3. Maintain fresh content.
Update your current materials with new stats and anecdotes, and repackage it for different platforms. A whitepaper you released a few months ago could provide a great foundation for a webinar, and a popular blog post might spark an interesting Twitter chat.
Create an editorial calendar for producing new work as well. Search engines reward fresh content because newer posts indicate that your site has accurate, up-to-date information.
4. Review conversion and engagement metrics.
Track your conversion and engagement numbers from your landing pages to ensure that the page title and metadata from the search results align with users’ needs after they click. If you see significant drop-off, rework the content and metadata accordingly.
The role of keywords in SEO may be evolving, but it’s not going away. Clever keyword usage is still a powerful way to reach consumers, but Google’s ever-increasing scrutinizing ways is raising the standard for content on the web — and that’s a good thing. When you’re not worried about keyword stuffing, you can refocus your energy on creating great content that connects you with your audience in a meaningful way.