Keywords are marketing training wheels

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The marketing world hasn’t been too happy about Google’s decision to phase out keyword data and make 100% of searches “not provided.” Keyword data can inform marketing decisions, and help demonstrate ROI. The SEO world has relied on it to justify their existence.

For example, access to keyword data made it easy to distinguish between branded, and non-branded, search traffic, a crucial metric for gauging the success of small business SEO campaigns in particular.

Take away the keyword data, and marketers have to work harder to gauge the success of their efforts. Change always causes uproar. Thought leaders like Rand Fishkin, make a good case for providing keyword data based on public policy. If it were up to me, I would give every SEO a ticket to the keyword buffet for Christmas.

I get it.

But I also understand why the keywords were taken away

Google doesn’t operate based on public policy. They’re a publicly traded mega-business, with a duty to make money for shareholders. Mountain View is smart enough to understand that an excellent user experience is crucial to profit, and necessary to stay on top.

If Google sucked, no one would use it. Whatever you may think about the size of Google, or how it uses some of its user’s data, it provides tremendous value to millions daily. Protecting that is a big responsibility.

Targeting keywords results in sub-par search results and tin-ear marketing

Why do so many get down on SEO as a profession? There is a perception that SEO is nothing more than gaming search engines to give visibility to pages that don’t necessarily deserve it. Anyone who follows the industry knows that this is far from the whole story. There are loads of SEOs doing great work as tech evangelists for businesses that need them. Having said that, there is some truth to every stereotype, and keyword driven SEO was a big part of our industry’s problem.


Because marketing driven exclusively by keywords is lame. Much of what “they” said about it was true. Churning out loads of redundant pages, that don’t add much to the conversation, with the hope of finding enough white space to grab a little long tail traffic?


Exact match anchor text?


<title>attorney San Francisco | lawyer Bay Area | law firm CA</title>


Keyword training wheels

Taking away the keyword training wheels forces SEOs to become marketers. Technical considerations still apply, but helping to help craft, and creatively promote the client’s message becomes more important than finding white space in the SERPs. Good marketing is the opposite of just marking up a page with keywords, and it can be hard for SEOs to admit, but it makes the web better.

On the semantic web, Google understands the meaning behind searches. This has the effect of opening competition between pages that were previously categorized separately based on keyword data.

The system isn’t perfect. There are still loads of low quality pages in the SERPs. However, placing the emphasis more on topics, less on keywords, places an additional premium on quality. There is a greater responsibility associated with creating a page that will represent a topic, than there is creating a page that will rank for a keyword.

Keywords Still Matter – but in a different way

I don’t want to get too carried away. Keywords still matter. Google’s Hummingbird update, and the rise of the semantic web, is about understanding context, and meaning. Language is still the best indicator of user intent. The keywords associated with a web page will still have a big impact on where it appears in search.

Hummingbird doesn’t kill long tail search, as some have claimed. Rather, it de-emphasizes the “literal” long tail. When meaning is factored in, search engines are no longer constricted by the appearance of an exact combination of keywords. They have the option of returning pages for certain searches that were never an option before, because of a meaning, not a keyword match.

Rand Fishkin of Moz, put it very well when he said Hummingbird gives:

“More opportunities for great content that doesn’t do perfect keyword targeting.”

This is the definition of the consolidated long tail. It’s traffic that still comes as the result of more elaborate queries, but that arrives at pages built to address the needs of the user looking for information, not the needs of search engines looking for keywords.

As I wrote in this post, pushing long tail queries into more established, higher volume search silos, would hurt user experience, not help it, because it wouldn’t provide the granular information the user seeks.

Consolidating long tail searches around a smaller number of higher quality results makes the web better, and demands marketers take off the training wheels in order to compete.

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor is the President of JSO Digital, an internet marketing company focused on the legal industry.