Ever since there were search engines and search engine optimization, there were keywords. Even before Google was around, back in the 1990s and the early days of Internet and SEO when Yahoo and AltaVista were the top search engines, keywords were “the thing”.
Of course, the Internet was a bit like the Wild West, with everyone making their own rules, especially regarding SEO. People would use any method they could to get their websites better ranked. They would use keyword stuffing, all kinds of bad linking practices, hidden text and so on. Fortunately, those days are (for the most part) gone and the SEO rules are much clearer now.
In this article, I want to show you why you should stop going all-in on keyword optimization and instead turn your focus to topic optimization. So if your goal is to establish an authority in your niche and crack the puzzle that is user search intent, keep reading.
How Keywords Evolved Through Google’s Updates and New Algorithms
Keywords, in particular, have evolved greatly since those times. Google, which soon took over as the biggest and most influential search engine, started (and is continuing to do so), clearing the field with each consequent update and algorithm change.
First Cassandra cracked down on hidden text and links and on linking from co-owned domains in 2003. Then, in the same year in November, Florida all but nailed the last nail in the coffin for SEO tactics of the 90’s such as keyword stuffing.
Soon after, in February 2004, Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) was introduced with Brandy and Google stopped relying on simple keywords, but instead started to understand and focus on synonyms. This opened a whole new world of keyword analytics and analysis that was unheard of before that.
Perhaps the biggest blow to those that were relying on black hat SEO came on 24th April 2012 and Google’s Penguin update. If you were still using spam tactics and keyword stuffing, this update hit your website hard.
Two years later, another update with a cute name Panda 4.1, went down on those sites and their admins that were using thin content to rank for competitive keywords and lead users to affiliate websites.
Source: Digital Vidya
And those were just a few updates that Google rolled out over the years that changed the game and established the rules. Keywords went from single words, then two or three, then to entire phrases, corresponding to what the user’s search intent is and what he or she wants to find.
The key is in adopting a strategic approach to your content marketing and SEO.
But maybe the clock is ticking for keywords and instead, we need to focus on something else – topics and topical optimization.
How Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence Changed Things
While keywords, especially long-tail keywords (more on them a bit later), do indeed help the user find what he or she has been looking for, they are not the most natural way of satisfying the user’s search intent.
Throughout the years, the shift has been made from keywords that focus on the search engines to keywords and phrases that focus more on the user. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning played a big part in this.
Google takes it as its mission to provide the best and most relevant content depending on the user’s query. That is how they are able to keep millions of their users satisfied.
For instance, if you type in “best keyboards for DJs”, your intent is most likely to buy a keyboard. Or to compare a few options based on different factors. If Google offers you something that is not related to your query, like an article on how to clean your keyboard, your search intent will not be satisfied and you won’t be happy. It’s as simple as that.
Google’s old way of using keywords and links to match the search intent no longer works. I won’t get into the reasons as to why this is since this can take a lot more than this article and requires some analysis, but suffice to say that this often meant that truly quality content would not always rank high on SERP.
This kind of situation was really prevalent until 2013 when Google released another of its algorithm changes – Hummingbird.
Google announced its new search algorithm at a media event on 26th September 2013, although it was in use for about a month already. It was the biggest update to its search algorithm since Caffeine in 2010.
Hummingbird’s focus was on context, meaning, and natural language. This was a radical (and much needed) change that moved away the focus away from individual keywords. For the first time in SEO history, quality content mattered and websites had to stop optimizing for keywords and SEO, but for natural language and their readers.
Topical Optimization vs. Keyword Optimization
Let’s say you own an e-commerce online store and are selling shoes. You will most likely have several products listed on your website, each with their own page. Naturally, you will want to optimize each of those pages for their respective products in order to allow users to better navigate your website and find what they are looking for.
What you would normally do is optimize each category page for its category, from Running Shoes, to Basketball Shoes, to Football Shoes and so on. That way, each specific product can have its search-optimized content.
What if, instead of going through category pages so fast, you focus on optimizing for topics and not keywords?
Here’s the idea. We’ll take running shoes as an example. Optimize for every page, blog post and other types of content related to running shoes before moving on. Yes, it’s more work and your other pages and products could get a little behind, but the result will be a topical authority on running shoes (or whatever topic you pick).
With topical optimization, you can stop trying to rank for dozens or hundreds of keywords and phrases at the same time and instead establish authority on a single topic and eventually your specific niche. That surely beats attempting to rank here and there and zeroes in on the user’s search intent more accurately.
In fact, a research by Backlinko from 2016 says that “topically relevant” content “significantly outperforms content that doesn’t cover the topic in-depth”.
Does This Mean That SEO is Dead?
Reading this, I expect many self-proclaimed SEO experts will jump from their chairs and full of themselves say:
“We knew it all along, SEO is dead!”
Well, no. Sorry to break it to all of those that claim every year or so that “SEO is dead”, but just like the last dozen or so times when you said this, you are wrong in this instance as well. Tough luck for you, I guess.
Keyword research remains as important as ever, if not more important. The only thing that has changed is what we put emphasis on and that is the search intent. We can’t do that with individual keywords, but instead need to group them and organize them into topics.
This does add another step in keyword research. Instead of finding as many keywords as you can that are relevant to your niche and leaving it at that, you now need to include a second step – phrase research. Of course, you can’t move on to step two and phrase research until you are done with the first step.
For example, if you sell sports equipment, your keyword topics will likely include T-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, jackets, shorts, bags, socks and so on. Each of those represents one core term that needs to be researched individually for phrases.
For example, if we take hoodies, we can have men’s hoodies, women hoodies, kid’s hoodies, and zip-up hoodies and so on.
The bottom-line here is that keyword research is still important and I’m not saying you should completely abandon it. The new school of SEO believes that the focus should be broader than keywords and it should be on ideas instead of keywords.
But like Rand Fishkin, former CEO at Moz and founder of SparkToro said in one of his Whiteboard Fridays, some of these folks are taking it too far and robbing themselves of search engine traffic.
So you need to be careful and combine the two schools. Continue researching your keywords and phrases, but start also optimizing for topics and ideas.
Focusing on individual or broad keywords is a tactic you should forget about. Instead, turn your attention and focus on long-tail keywords, where the user’s query and search intent is answered and satisfied.
Focus on topics and optimizing for them in order to establish authority in your niche and brand loyalty from customers and searchers. Topical authority can’t be built overnight and it is probably going to be a lot of trial and error until you finally do it right. Once you achieve topical authority, you will be able to truly dominate your space.
Do you have any questions or comments about topical optimization? Let me know in the comments below.