Are keywords dead?

4 min read


You just started a new marketing job at a SaaS company and it's time to show off. You have the SEO skill and you're well-versed in the inbound methodology, so you immediately go to applying your knowledge and decide your SaaS company is going to rank #1 for the term "project management software."

You find the most recent blog post on the companies site advocating the use of your project management software and it looks something like this:

are keywords dead?

The keyword is in the title, has an h2, is placed within the first couple of paragraphs, and let's not forget the meta description! A few backlinks later and a couple social shares later, you're on your way to ranking #1, right?

This is the typical process we see a lot of businesses/marketers go through. They start checking off the best practices and then are frustrated when their desired keyword doesn't move up in ranking.

And we're here to tell you keyword rankings don't matter — at least in the way that you're already thinking of them.

are keywords dead?

Google and the Change of Keyword Rankings

Keywords have long been the backbone of SEO. We stuffed our content with the relevant terms and fought for backlinks to climb to the top of "query mountain," hoping to hit that magical #1 spot on Google. 

And as we fought for those #1 spots, Google has changed, evolved, and grown smarter as a search engine. Long gone are the days of PageRank and the gaming of the search engine machine — Google knows whether your content is relevant and is only displaying the best of the best. So, do keywords still matter? 

This push to show more relevant content is a movement toward topic-driven search, or lexical search. Just as we [marketers] shifted our focus from root keyword rankings to long-tails or related search, we must now focus on lexical search.

The Basics of Lexical Search (Latent Semantic Indexing/Analysis)

Lexical search isn't anything new, but it is now quickly becoming a focus in Google's search algorithm. Google is straying away from mono-keyword to poly-keyword focus (this means that we don’t need to use each specific keyword but build to accommodate for root keywords, or topics).

This happens by the crawlers using co-occurence and co-citations as signals to what you’re actually talking about.

This topic-driven search allows Google to read into the real meaning behind a piece. Are you just stuffing a keyword into a blog or are you providing an in-depth example to my query?

Let's take an example from our friends over at Long Tail Pro:

Google “omega 3” and click on the first article. You’ll notice that the word “omega 3” is used quite a bit, but so are words like “health,” “fatty acids,” “fish oil,” and “krill oil” — these other words are examples of latent terms. They don't explicitly say "omega 3," but they implicitly do.

By using keywords outside of just "omega 3,” Google can effectively crawl your page. And, your search results probably won’t contain anything having to do with the omega nebula, omega watches, or the omega constant.


Because the terms other than "omega 3" helped Google gauge the topic and provide the best answer to the query.

So how do I Implement Latent Terms into my Content?

First off, you're going to need some help finding the right keywords.

Here are some of our favorite tools:

  • Hubspot's Keyword Tool - great for uploading and tracking keywords in bulk over time
  • Google Keyword Planner - helps us find new keywords and suggested long-tails
  • Google Trends - tell us the frequency in which a keyword is searched
  • Google Suggest - helps find related searches to our root keyword
  • SERPstat - easy way to see related searches, ad targeted keywords related to your root keyword, and trends
  • Google Search Console - gives insight into current queries that are already leading to your website

Once you've found the tool cocktail that's right for your business, it's time to start the process.

Now let's say I want to rank for the term "inbound marketing."

While best practices tell me to use the term inbound marketing throughout my content, it’s not necessary to plug the term into the meta title, h1s, meta description, and every other paragraph.

Instead we can break down the term, "inbound marketing."

At SparkReaction, we like to do this by thinking of a spider web.

At the center of the spider web sits the term “inbound marketing.” Now after a little keyword research, we start to build upon our web.

implement latent terms

Terms like “hubspot methodology,” “best blogging practices for marketers,” “marketing funnel stages,” or “customer lifecycle stages” all start to branch off of "inbound marketing."

While these terms don’t explicitly ask about “inbound marketing,” they are all implicit queries for it, and if you’re searching for one of them you’re probably looking for inbound marketing — you just don't know it. 

Something to keep in mind: you should still include the term you want to rank for in your blog post/content — just don't pepper them into every paragraph. Doing so is the new-age equivalent to keyword stuffing.

The addition of these terms fill our our content organically — with relevant topic-driven keywords.

So, Why are Keywords Dead?

I know, I know, quite the bold statement to make, and realistically, rankings still matter and keywords are important.

But it's our mindset around them that needs to change. When we focus on ranking for one keyword, we're leaving behind all of the other search terms that lead back to that keyword and show the relevancy of our content.

Creating great content that gives value to the user and naturally addresses a topic is the key to ranking in the future. You need to start thinking about ranking for a topic, not just a keyword — that's where search is moving, and if that's where 'search' is moving, then that is where you need to be moving.

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