Content marketing, Editing, Publishing, SEO, Writing

Do keywords still matter?

Woman mimicking a pair of glasses with her fingers.

By Sharon Lapkin

For a long time we’ve been told that well-researched keywords are essential, but is this still true?

In a recent study on ranking factors, SEMrush found keywords were some of the least important factors. In fact, 11 other ranking factors were more important than keywords.

Ranking factors analysed
Graph showing results of Results of SEMrush ranking factor study.

Source: Ranking factors: SEMrush study 2.0,, 02/11/2017.

Content length is ranked more important. So is the clickable text in hyperlinks, and also website security (HTTPS).

Out of the 17 ranking factors only a video on the page was less important than keywords.

Keyword density and keywords in the body, title, meta and anchors occupied positions 12–16 in the SEMrush ranking study.

So why do we devote so much time and energy researching and inserting keywords when it appears that Google ‘s real affections lie elsewhere?

The most important ranking factors are outside our direct and immediate control. Instead, they’re the culmination of more than a dozen other factors.

The number one ranking factor ‘direct website visits’ is the total sum of all our efforts to build a highly ranked website. It doesn’t rest on any single characteristic, but on multiple strategic components.

It’s the same story with other highly ranked factors—the time readers spend on your site, how many pages they read per session and the bounce rate. These factors work optimally when we employ multiple strategies, not just keyword placement.

What does Google say about keywords?

In mid-2017 Google released its Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. These provide a list of the factors it considers most important for an ‘overall Page Quality rating’.

These factors are:

  • expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (also called E-A-T)
  • main content quality and amount—based on landing page of the task URL
  • website information regarding who is responsible for it and links to help
  • website reputation

High-quality pages and websites, according to the Google guidelines, ‘need enough expertise to be authoritative and trustworthy on their topic’. Topics written by writers with subject matter expertise are rated more highly than writers with little expertise in the area.

Keywords are mentioned only once throughout the report and that is in regard to ‘keyword stuffing’, which is described as pages ‘created to lure search engines and users by repeating keywords over and over again’.

Overusing keywords inspires Google’s ire and is not recommended. Pages with excess keywords, Google states, ‘should be rated lowest’.

Do keywords still matter?

Writing on the Kissmetrics blog, Alp Mimaroglu said that ‘no matter what SEO marketers tell you, SEO is not as important as it used to be’.

He goes on to explain that while page ranking is still alive, authoritative content demonstrating your ‘worthiness as a thought leader’ is of more importance to Google.

Go back to the SEMrush ranking study and you’ll see what Mimaroglu means.

It’s those top-ranking factors that measure your authority, and this is what Google prefers to use for this metric, rather than keywords.

It’s all about keyword placement not keyword frequency

So how exactly are keywords important in our content?

The SEMrush study found that long-tail keywords in the anchor, body, title and meta all ranked equally important. So these are the keywords you need to focus on.

It sounds like placement over frequency doesn’t it? Indeed it is.

Don’t disregard keyword placement in your main content all together because it’s still a ranking factor. Instead do it moderately and never at the expense of clear, well-contructed writing. Know your keywords and use them in the body of your text when they’re a natural fit—especially in headings and subheadings.

Let’s go through the different places Google wants to see keywords.


Anchor text is the visible characters and words displayed by a hyperlink when linking to another site.

<a href=”“>Textshop</a>

                            Target link                    Anchor text

While it’s sometimes unavoidable to use the same text in both your target link and your anchor text, it is best practice to use natural descriptive text in your anchor text.

<a href=”“>our informative website</a>

                                Target link                          Anchor text

Body of the text

We now know not to overuse keywords in the body of the text. So how many is too many?

It’s a world of non-commitment trying to find the optimal percentage of keyword density. Opinions range from 1–2% to 5%.

To calculate your keyword density, count how many times you used the keyword and divide it by the number of words in the post and multiply the result by 100.

So your working formula would be:

(number of keywords divided by total number of words) x 100

Keyword in page title

Page titles appear in other places on the web, as well as your own website, and a keyword in your title is one of Google’s top 17 ranking factors.

They tell search engines what the page is about and whether it correlates to the searcher’s query. Page titles also appear in the SERPs and in users’ browser tabs.

As your page titles appear in a few prominent places you should check there are no typos or erros, and ensure they accurately describe the pages’ content.

Screen clip of a Google search results page for chocolate cake.

Insert keywords into page title names and check for typos and errors because they appear in prominent areas such as SERPs and tab bars.

Keywords in meta

The text in meta tags describes the page’s content. It doesn’t appear on the page, but in the code that describes it. It doesn’t sound important? Think again.

The meta text tells Google what your page is about. If your text contains a keyword, then Google likes it even better.

Source code showing title and description meta.

Part of source code in page meta showing title and description of ‘Top 10 chocolate cake recipes’. For page ranking both the title and the meta should contain a keyword.

Understanding keywords

There are two types of keywords—short-head keywords and long-tail keywords.

Short-head keywords are single words or short phrases that apply to a wide audience or industry.

Long-tail keywords are groups of words—such as phrases or questions—that are more specific about a topic and attract users more likely to become customers.

Keywords strategically placed throughout content make it easier for people to find your site via search engines—but only if those keywords correspond to what people type into search engines.

To use keywords as an effective tool, you need to locate the same words people are using when they search for topic-related content.

This is the trickiest part of the keywording process because it’s a global exercise with limited currency. For your keywords to remain effective you need to revisit them every year or so, and review and update them as language usage changes and evolves.

Google’s semantic search

In 2013, Google rolled out a new algorithm called Hummingbird. It changed the way people thought about keywording—including recognising long-tail keywords—and revolutionalised the way searches were interpreted.

Hummingbird also introduced semantic search, which is still evolving today. It is likely to become more prominent in future iterations of its algorithm and some believe there’s a good chance it will make SEO redundant within a decade.

Semantic search looks at more than words. It endeavours to understand the context of the search and the searcher’s intent.

Many industry watchers believe semantic search has increased the accuracy of results across all search engines since its introduction.

To demonstrate what semantic search is, look at the following screen clips.

First, I typed ‘Meghan Markle’ into my search bar. Because my term was broad Google provided a wide range of options to choose from.

Next, I typed in ‘Who is she engaged to’. Notice I wrote she not Megan Markle? Google knew that I meant Meghan Markle and responded accordingly.

This is an example of semantic search. The search engine understood my question because it analysed the context and looked at the meaning behind the words.

Examples of semantic search showing a search for ‘Meghan Markle’ followed by the question ‘Who is she engaged to’. Google was able to understand the meaning of the second search enquiry because it analysed the context and meaning behind the words.

Remember Google’s mission is to locate and rank quality content highly. So it makes a lot of sense that factors—such as direct website visits and the time users spend on a site—have become more accurate measures of quality than keywords.

Users need keywords to identify and locate the content they want to read, so don’t underestimate the role they play. Place them throughout content in thoughtful and meaningful ways, and make sure they are in the anchor, body, title and meta—and never ever overuse them.

You may also like