"What's in a keyword? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
– William Shakespeare (Famed playwright, poet, actor, and SEO Guru/Expert/Ninja/Wizard)
You might remember analyzing that oft-quoted Romeo & Juliet line in high school English class. And I'm guessing you thought it was actually, "What's in a name?" (Common mistake; I won't hold it against you.)
Contrary to what actual Shakespearean scholars will tell you, this quote is not about arguing that names have no inherent bearing on the true essence or quality of a person or thing (a reference, of course, to the feuding Montague and Capulet families and the strain these names are putting on Romeo and Juliet's budding romance).
Nope. Nothing to do with that.
Actually, in writing this famous line, Shakespeare was obviously making a bold prediction about the future of search engine optimization (SEO).
Will Keywords Not Matter?
The perceived quality of a web page or piece of content isn't based solely upon words. There are a lot of other factors to take into account, like load time, interface design, image quality, formatting, and so on.
Of course, "quality" means different things to different people, but I'd argue that at a basic level, focusing too much on keywords is a bad thing -- it can actually cause quality to suffer.
The goal of creating content shouldn't be to come up with a bunch of great keywords; it should be to come up with great content. Call it whatever you want, but if it's good, it's good -- just like Shakespeare said. The search engines of the future aren't going to punish folks for underusing keywords or failing to have an expertly crafted, keyword-optimized page title ... but they will continue to punish folks for overusing keywords.
Now, let's get one thing straight: I can't see the future. And I'm pretty sure Will Shakespeare couldn't either. (Jury's still out on Nostradamus, though).
But by looking to the past, while simultaneously keeping an eye on emerging search engine trends, we may be able to uncover some concrete signs that the end of days for keywords is fast approaching. (And, if you need more help getting your marketing strategy on track, check out our newly updated resource: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide to Internet Marketing.)
Signs of the Keyword-pocalypse
Panda & Penguin
The years 2011 and 2012 saw Google bring the one-two punch of its now infamous Panda and Penguin updates.
While Panda cracked down on "thin" (aka crappy) content and content farms, Penguin went after link schemes, keyword-stuffing, and other black hat tactics.
Clearly, these two updates brought about some major changes to SEO at large -- and not just to the way we think about keywords. But still, looking back on the history of keyword optimization, we might consider these updates as two warning shots that Google fired right across our bows.
The goal of the new result type was to help high-quality, longer-form content bubble to the surface of search engine queries. Typical in-depth articles (as recognized by Google) have thousands of words and are based around evergreen topics.
The creation of the in-depth article category demonstrates Google's dedication to quality content, as opposed to quality keywords.
Attack of the Hummingbird
Also in August of 2013, Google released a major update called Hummingbird, which affected about 90% of all Google searches. To put it plainly, Hummingbird made Google's search engine more human. While Google used to only identify individual words, with Hummingbird it can now recognize full-sentence queries.
It's not about choosing the right words anymore -- it's about providing context. Google doesn't want to return results anymore; it wants to return answers. So, if you're not doing a good job of answering your prospective customers' questions, it doesn't matter what keywords you choose -- your SEO will suffer.
Keyword Search Encryption
As if to say, "We're serious, everyone -- quit caring so much about keywords," Google announced in September of 2013 that all keyword data would be hidden from Google Analytics. This meant you could no longer see what keywords people were searching before landing on your site.
Google claimed the move was designed to increase security for searchers. But since you can still access keyword data for paid searches, others think it was a play to get more people using Google AdWords.
Whatever the case, this widespread keyword encryption sent the message that keywords really shouldn't be at the forefront of our marketing strategies.
So, what should be?
Search Intent = More Powerful Than Keywords
Google is no longer trying to match the keywords you type into a search engine to the keywords of a web page. Instead, (and as I hinted at above), it's trying to understand the intent behind the keywords you type into search so it can match that intent to relevant, high-quality content.
"Your brand’s website and online presence needs to align around targeted customer intent(s), not traditional keywords-focused optimization," notes Grant Simmons in a 2013 Search Engine Watch post. "Focus toward tactics that will play to Google’s more complex side: Mapping queries to actions, intent research, and aligned content creation."
Keywords Aren't Dead
And, truth be told, they'll never really die.
Until search engines are able to enter our brains and read our thoughts, we'll always need to use written language in order to make search queries. We need to use keywords to communicate.
As a marketer, you should strive to use keywords in a natural way, which means -- in essence -- that you shouldn't have to think about them. If you're writing in-depth on a particular topic, important keywords should arise naturally by virtue of the subject matter: You don't need to force them.
So, as a parting tip for SEO-obsessed marketers: Focus less on keywords, and focus more on what those keywords actually mean to your audience.