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SEO in 2020: What Role Do Keywords Play?

  • By Sergei Kosiachenko
  • February 14, 2020
  • Comment

It’s 2020, and SEO professionals who’ve been at it for a while will know just how much has changed in the past decade.

In 2010, we still hadn’t been hit with Panda or Hummingbird or RankBrain or BERT, and many of us still thought “SEO content” was a matter of:

  • Adding our target keyword and its close variants in the content X times.
  • Making sure to add that keyword to all the magic places like your title tag, meta description, H1, etc.
  • Writing at least X words because that’s the magic length for rankings.

But Google’s algorithm has matured.

We know now (or we should) that getting our content ranked isn’t a matter of tricking Google by stuffing keywords in all the right places. It’s about providing an exceptional experience to searchers.

So how exactly should we be using keywords?

To answer that, we’ll need to take a step back and address what it really means to write content for search.

What Is SEO Content?

SEO content is content written for the purpose of ranking in search engines. That term, however, has fallen out of favor with many SEO professionals.

That’s because “SEO content” implies content written for search engines rather than humans, and that’s not good.


Because Google’s algorithm is a programmatic representation of the searcher.

If the algorithm is trying to model what a human visitor would pick as the best result, the answer to “how to rank” is to do what’s best for searchers.

So if that’s the kind of content Google wants to rank, then the way to write “SEO content” is just to write in a way that people will enjoy – right?

Not quite. There’s a bit more to it than that.

How Do I Make Content SEO Friendly?

SEO-friendly content is content that answers the intent of the searcher’s question clearly and comprehensively, and has a high degree of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.

Let’s break that down.

Content That Answers the Intent of the Searcher’s Question

“SEO friendly” content is content that, first and foremost, answers a searcher’s question.

This means that the topic of the page itself will be dictated by the questions your audience is asking.

This also means that not all content is relevant for a search audience. Some content is written for thought leadership or to break news (new ideas = no existing search demand). Other content is written to attract social engagement.

We write content for many different purposes, so we shouldn’t expect every single one of our pages to rank well in search engines.

That means adding search audience-focused topics to your editorial calendar, rather than attempting to sprinkle keywords onto all your pages, many of which weren’t written for a search audience in the first place.

Content That’s Clear & Comprehensive

When you ask a question, do you prefer getting an answer that’s convoluted, vague, and clunky? Or direct, specific, and straightforward?

It’s a no-brainer, right? Google thinks so too.

But it isn’t as shiny and exciting to talk about grammar and diction. I think most SEO professionals would rather talk about topics like natural language processing.

But even the most meticulously researched brief can be ruined by content that doesn’t read well, so this stuff matters.

Don’t underestimate the power of tools like Microsoft Word’s “Grammar & Refinements” settings that can help you:

  • Replace complex words with simpler ones.
  • Swap wordiness for conciseness.
  • Go from passive to active voice.

…and much more.

Google also values content that’s comprehensive. Just take a look at what they say in their quality rater guidelines:

The Highest rating may be justified for pages with a satisfying or comprehensive amount of very high-quality main content.

Or on their Webmasters Blog:

Q: What counts as a high-quality site?

A: You can answer “yes” to “Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?”

Be thorough and be clear when you’re answering your search audience’s questions.

High E-A-T Content

Expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness is a topic that certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of attention in the SEO industry.

With that in mind, I’ll leave you with two great articles if you’re interested in diving into this topic further:

There you have it. SEO-friendly content is content that answers the intent of the searcher’s question clearly and comprehensively, and has a high degree of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.

“But you didn’t mention keywords!”

I’m glad you noticed! Because it’s time to address the elephant in the room.

Are Keywords Important for SEO?

If the way to get organic search traffic to our content is to answer questions clearly and with a high degree of expertise, where do keywords come into play?

How should we be using them, if at all?

Keywords: Input vs. Output

Remember those circa-2010 SEO content rules I opened this article with?

We all did it at the time, right?

It’s easy to look back at examples of that and laugh, but sometimes our search writing today isn’t much better.

This happens when we give our writers a keyword and tell them to “optimize for X.” Their emphasis is going to be on “How can I jam this keyword into the content” (which will probably make them want to cry) rather than on “How do I provide the answer that the searcher of this query probably wants?”

We need to remember that keywords are the input.

When writing for search, we are creating the output.

So instead of asking “How can I include this keyword?” we need to start our content creation by asking “How can I answer this query?”

Which brings me to my next point.

A Shift From ‘Keywords’ to ‘Queries’

Imagine we shifted away from the word “keywords” and referred to them more often as “queries” or “searches.”

Don’t you think we’d be much more likely to think of them as something we need to answer rather than something we need to stuff in our copy?

I think so!

Referring to them as “keywords” can also have other unintended consequences:

  • It fixates us on head terms, causing us to neglect valuable long-tail keywords.
  • It implies a single word. In reality, keywords are anything someone types or speaks into a search barIt could be two words or 20 words.
  • It can cause us (or our clients and bosses) to obsess over a few vanity keywords while neglecting the hundreds or thousands of other queries that could be driving impressions and traffic to your site.

Keywords aren’t evil, but the way we talk about them does have implications.

BERT & Google’s History with Keywords

BERT was the latest in a long line of Google updates aimed at better understanding human language.

Although an artificial intelligence system that helps Google understand even the most complex queries is impressive, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

In 2011, Google announced Panda. Panda was Google’s algorithm update focusing on promoting high-quality sites and pages and demoting those that offered little real value (AKA the fluffy stuff with keywords sprinkled in).

With Hummingbird in 2013, Google was rewriting their algorithm to better understand the meaning behind the words in queries, rather than ranking content that just matched those words.

Again we see Google wanting web content creators to go beyond keyword inclusion and instead answer the question. Not just repeat it in our content.

In 2015, Google announced RankBrain, a new machine learning component to their search algorithm that improved Google’s ability to serve relevant results to confusing or never-before-seen queries.

Now we have BERT, which Google says they hope helps searchers “let go of some of [their] keyword-ese and search in a way that feels natural.”

Google has always wanted to surface content that thoroughly answers our questions. They’re just better at it than they used to be.

I think that likely means that we’ll start seeing more variety in the words our audiences are using to search. Consequently, we’ll need to keep a close eye on our queries in Google Search Console, and use that to inform our search content.

Keeping Your Goal & Your Medium in Mind

Once we know the ways our audience is searching, we should write our answers naturally, as Google’s John Mueller recently said. And it’s often natural to include all or part of the query in our answer.

How many apple varieties are there?

There are 7,500 varieties of apples grown throughout the world.

(This is true, by the way!)

This isn’t keyword stuffing. It’s answering people’s queries naturally.

We often pit “writing for search” and “writing for people” against each other. In reality, it’s not an either/or.

The audience is the goal. The search engine is the medium. Write accordingly.

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