From their earliest incarnations decades ago, the one constant theme of search engines is change. Indeed, today’s Google, Yahoo and others barely resemble their clunky ancestors who returned sloppy and often meaningless listings for even simple searches. But then, with the advent of Search Engine Optimized tools, quality returns suddenly became the norm and relevant results were widely expected.
Much of this evolution centers around the use of keywords, those vital bits of information upon which search engines depend. And for websites to thrive, keywords were everything: Google once collected data about a site based solely on the keywords that were present on its pages and in corresponding links, and everyone from multinational corporations to mom-and-pop e-tail sites could easily track how they ranked among all similar sites out there.
Unfortunately, the heavy reliance on keywords led to some disagreeable situations such as keyword stuffing—packing a site and links so full of search-friendly words and phrases that you were almost guaranteed to get favorable results no matter the quality of your content.
As such, today a debate rages as to whether or not keywords even matter any more. Many web marketers still hold that they’re invaluable for gauging the health of your site’s rankings; others point to the fact there are now so many other optimization elements employed by search engines that keywords have become useless and should be consigned to the dustbin of Internet history.
For those confused about whether to stress the use of keywords in their online campaigns and web design strategies, consider these points.
Placement Over Frequency
Google still requires some sort of text to parse the content of your site, so in this sense keywords still matter. However they’re now a minor part of the search engine’s analysis, a sort of “foot-in-the-door” element rather than the be-all-end-all for strong rankings. Therefore, it’s most important to focus on where keywords exist rather than how often they are used: title tags and headers take top priority, and putting the keyword in each of these once is ample. Body copy, sidebars and footers take last priority, so repeating it over and over in these areas in a waste of time.
Focus on Meaning
When Google scans a site it no longer pulls out keyword phrases to pair with queries—instead it interprets the data contained on your site and arrives at an algorithmic conclusion of what’s there and if it’s relevant to a search query. Therefore, it’s wiser to optimize a site based on specific meanings, themes that you repeat on different pages and which search engines combine into one category.
The Semantic Search
Some web experts believe that the “semantic search” walks a fine line between anonymous queries and an unsettling intimacy of a searcher’s desires. Nevertheless, semantics are having a major impact on searches. For instance, if a user were to search for “cheap bars in San Francisco” in the past, a search engine would return results based on the keywords “cheap,” “bars” and “San Francisco, likely returning a litany of results that would inundate the searcher. Today, Google’s engine derives the meaning behind the search, ignoring keywords completely in favor of a site’s content and whether that content seems like a good fit. And it does so without your site even needing to contain the whole phrase “cheap bars in San Francisco.”
Although a solid conclusion to the keyword debate is still difficult to form it would seem that, at least for the time being, keywords are still valuable tools for website rankings in search engine results. However, having a quality site structure based on consistent themes is certainly the direction in which designers should be moving. Google is rewarding sites that are easy to navigate—those with appropriate title pages, header bars that aid in useability and interlinks between internal content—by giving them higher rankings. So don’t throw keywords out completely, but focus on creating the sort of accurate and relevant content that makes today’s search engines happy.