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That tool we turned to time and again to dictate the content of our editorial calendars, to tell us how to position each article we posted, and to indicate the interest level of our audience — yeah, people are saying it’s time has passed. It’s no longer relevant.
But here’s the thing…I’m not so sure I agree with them.
As a content trainer, it’s my job to teach my clients how to structure their content and use all the tools they can to rank high in search.
True, keyword research used to be the workhorse when it came to high search engine result page (SERP) rankings, but, like anything we quickly come to love, our fascination with and how we depend on these things evolve over time.
In 2012, I lived and died by buyer personas. Today, I know there’s more to relating to a buyer than knowing what their background is.
Last year, I was sure I’d spend all my time in the Amazon Go store because it made me feel like I was living in the future. Today, I shop there without even thinking about it.
Sometimes a feature has a fixed lifecycle and something new comes along to replace it. Other times the novelty wears off but it still serves a purpose.
The latter is exactly what’s happening to keyword research.
Is keyword research dead? No.
It’s just surrendered its crown to become one piece of the SEO strategy puzzle.
Keyword research back in the day
When we talk about “keyword research,” what do we mean?
Keyword research came from the still-powerful notion that the way to attract customers is to give them what they want.
By writing about the topics prospects care about, you’ll pull them to your content and brand.
Back in the day, we’d determine this by researching and making lists of long-tail keywords related to our industry, looking at how “strong” these keywords were based on search volume, and writing blog articles that captured those with the highest number.
Emphasis on keywords was so strong, in fact, that HubSpot’s website featured keyword research as the primary tool on its SEO feature page back in 2014.
This strategy drove traffic and pulled in leads, but it created standalone articles that were targeted to the keyword, not an overall concept.
While related articles might have been linked to one another, marketers (and even Google at the time) didn’t know the value of this so they weren’t optimized or weighted as they should have been.
Take a look at the suggestions in the image above. HubSpot suggests adding a CTA, creating a landing page, and increasing inbound links. There’s no mention of setting up an internal linking structure at all.
The keyword-based, loosely related blog posts of the past largely existed in a vacuum because they didn’t need to do much more.
That was then…
Now, it’s the internal linking structure that provides an architecture search engines use to derive context from what we’re writing. They then use that context to pair it with the intent of what searchers are looking for.
In other words, Google wants to see content that gives people what they want. It’s pairing intent (the questions — the intentions — people have when they search) with context (the answers we provide in our content).
The content with the more context that matches a user’s intention gets ranked higher.
This is, in fact, directly in line with what Google set out to do. It’s mission, “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” is being fulfilled by the growing wisdom of its search engine.
Google’s robots are becoming more human. (I’d say this is terrifying, but I don’t want to upset them…and I know they’re reading this.)
Search engines are rewarding content that understands human needs and behaviors.
That’s also the reason intent research has lasting power well beyond its newfound attention.
The search engines are evolving. They are not going to regress and become less human.
Remember the old-school keyword research with the disconnected articles?
The robots have moved beyond that. They want to bring users to sites that are authorities on the subject at hand; not individuals who just wrote a one-off piece on a keyword then went on to other things. Consistently writing on a topic shows greater knowledge and importance; you’re a dedicated expert. That’s why Google won’t reward standalone articles anymore.
Here’s how keywords and search engines have evolved in the past few years:
Topic clusters and pillars
Another sign that search engines are paying deeper attention to what we’re writing about is the growth of topic clusters.
Topic clusters are groups of topics focused on a specific piece of information, otherwise known as a content pillar.
The linking architecture notifies search engines that the site is an authority on that topic and, therefore, is a prime source of information.
If the search engines are considering intent when someone searches (which they are), and linking architecture tips off the search engines that you have a lot of information about a certain topic (which it does), then wouldn’t it be worth your time to optimize for intent and develop a pillar strategy?
“Sure,” you’re probably saying, “all I need to do is write a pillar on whatever topic I want to rank for. I had 16 extra hours in my day anyway.”
It’s true that a well-thought-out, well-written pillar strategy will serve you well with the SEO gods. However, you don’t necessarily need to scope a pillar in order to reap the rewards of topic clusters.
Though they’ve evolved, the search engines still don’t fully understand the content we write. So we can use schema to let the search engines know what we believe to be important, and they then can tag our content in the “right” way.
Schema gives them a clear picture of what we’re writing about and how to categorize it.
Performing intent research as part of your SEO strategy requires you to go to Google and start learning. Plug in a keyword and answer these questions:
What content is currently ranking high? Are the top results from companies like mine or that offer a similar product or service?
What format/structure is the content in? Are the results leading to product pages, informational blog posts, how-to guides, etc.? This can help guide the strategy on what type of content you can create.
What search intent category does the keyword fall into? Understanding this will help you determine if the keyword aligns with what you can offer. If it’s a transactional or navigational search for something that you don’t offer, find other keywords.
When planning the content you’ll create, go beyond just using keywords, keyword volume, and content type.
Is keyword research dead?
Keyword research has become one part of an overall SEO strategy that puts our readers at the forefront of our content strategy.
It’s certainly not the same as it was a few years ago and it no longer can solely support a content strategy that ranks well by the search engines.
Digital marketers should still pack keyword research into their bags of tools, but it’s now the start of the SEO strategy process.
Along with intent research, topic clusters, SEO best practices, and schema markup, keyword research lives another day to help our content get found and help educate our customers.
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