BACK TO BASICS: What Are Keywords, and Why Do They Matter?

by Chelsea Adams, May 23, 2013

Audience: Optimizers and content creators

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes


  • Keywords are selected based on research and are intended to help your Web content communicate in a way that resonates with humans as well as Google search spiders.
  • Keywords help improve SERP rank, but can also be used to shape inventory and content strategy.

Sometimes knowing why you’re doing something can make all the difference. This article gets back to basics to discuss what keywords are, what they are not, and why search marketing specialists spend so much time thinking about them.

What Are Keywords?

Keywords are single words or, more commonly, short phrases that represent the content of a webpage and how people ask for web content. Keywords are strategically selected by optimizers and are intended to help your web content communicate in a way that resonates with humans and Google search spiders.

Because they represent what a page is about, keywords should be incorporated into body text and meta information in a way that is natural and subtle. If you’re doing a good job, the reader should consume your keyword phrases with ease along with the other words in your content. If they are stumbling over your keyword phrases, or your keywords are assaulting your reader like tiny, misplaced sales pitches, then you’re not doing it right.

What Keywords Are Not

Keywords should never be used to try to trick or mislead human beings or Google spiders. You don’t want to target keywords that do not exactly describe the contents of your page.

Repeating a keyword over and over in a way that is not natural (known as keyword stuffing) or using any other black hat SEO tactics (like keywords in a white font on a white background) are all off limits.

Google is very serious about indexing and returning webpages that contain high-quality content. The search engine does not respond well to keyword abuse. To be rewarded, your site’s SEO needs to stay “white hat” only.

Why Do SEOs Use Keyword Phrases?

Keyword research helps marketers understand how their target markets describe their products and ask for more information. Then, armed with this information, marketers are able to use words straight from the horse’s mouth (minimize the number of times you call your target demographic horses please) to describe their page content to humans and Google alike.

This does two things.

First, keyword research improves your SERP rank. By using the exact words that your target market is typing into the search query in your Meta information and body copy you communicate to Google that you are an exact match for this query — not a “kind of close” or “sort of related” match, but an exact match. Since Google likes to return results that most accurately fulfill the searchers’ needs, your webpage — as an exact match — ends up at the top of the SERPs and people end up clicking to visit your page rather than your competitors.

Second, taking time to research the language your target demographic is using to search the Web tells you more about your target’s personality, interests and needs. This information can then be used to shape inventory and create content that better serves your consumer.

For instance, in researching the keyword phrase “organic bread”, you may find that there are very few searches being performed for the term “organic bread,” but many searches being performed for the phrases “gluten-free bread,” “healthy bread,” “how to eat healthy” and “what is processed food.”

With 14,800 people searching for “gluten-free bread” per month — and accordingly an expressed demand for the product — your company might consider adding a gluten-free product to your line. Or, if you already have gluten-free bread, consider increasing the number of people who stumble upon your product as a solution by describing your product in a more specific way that reflects consumer demand (i.e., “gluten-free bread”).

On the content marketing side, a query like “how to eat healthy” tells you, in their exact words, the needs of your target market and what they want to know more about. This puts you in an excellent position to create crawlable HTML content that helps your community, establishes your brand as an industry authority, strengthens your brand-consumer relationship, and (preferably subtly) suggests your product as a solution to their problem.

What Are Long-Tail Keywords?

Long-tail keywords string together three to five words to create a keyword phrase that is specific and niche-targeted. Searchers often use long-tail keywords to narrow down what it is they are looking for and marketers often use long-tail keywords to get the most relevant information in front of the most qualified lead.

For example, if a searcher is looking for a gluten-free banana bread recipe, he or she may search for “bread recipe,” then after seeing results for “Amish white bread,” “quick bread,” and “easy bread” on page one, but no “banana bread,” they may refine their search to say “banana bread recipe.” When they see a list of banana bread recipes but none that are specifically “gluten-free” they may refine their search again to search for “gluten-free banana bread recipe.”

 If you have optimized for this long-tail keyword phrase by putting “gluten-free banana bread recipe” in your Meta Title, Description, and body copy there is a great chance your recipe page will end up on page one of the SERPs for this search query, which will put you in just the right place at the right time to attract a click from a lead that is looking for exactly what you have to offer.

In a nut shell, long-tail keywords allow you to be specific, and being specific helps you get the right content in front of the right people at the right time.

Seven Quick Takeaways

Keywords should:

  • Never try to mislead or trick humans or Google spiders
  • Help you identify and speak the language of your target markets
  • Improve SERP rank by helping Google more speficially understand page content
  • Drive more qualified traffic to appropriate web pages
  • Increase time on site by directing more qualified traffic to Web pages
  • Increase conversions by helping consumers find you rather than your competitors
  • Help you get your content in front of the right people at the right time

See our follow-up article How to Do Keyword Research: A 6-Point Checklist that shows you how to get started researching and selecting keyword phrases.

For help with keyword research or other SEO services, please contact us for a free quote.

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