How Has Keyword Technology Evolved?

by Ben Austin Absolute Digital Media

Ben Austin, Managing Director at Absolute Digital Media, explains the impact of new keyword technology on content creation. 

With keyword technology at the height of sophistication, content creation for search engine optimisation (SEO) has come under much scrutiny, particularly how we integrate search terms within content. With Google revolutionising its search algorithms to understand the contextual meaning of search queries, there is currently a level of debate surrounding the issue of just how crucial keyword density is when crafting copy for SEO purposes.

Webmasters the world over have admired the extent to which search engines have developed, transforming the way they determine the relevance of any given text. A decade ago the use of an exact keyword phrase was crucial because algorithms didn’t have the depth of understanding to allow for variations. Ten years later SEO is very different. Through extensive industry research, SEO software developer SEOmoz estimates that Google updates its algorithm a staggering 500-600 times a year. Whilst it is true that the majority of these changes are barely noticeable, when combined with more substantial overhauls, such as the recent Penguin and Panda updates, they can be held partly responsible for the more advanced system we see today.

Arguably the largest contributor to these changes came earlier in the year with the introduction of the concept of semantic search. Leading to one of the most significant impacts we have seen within SEO, semantic search radicalised the way we use keywords and the extent to which we use them.

Designed to mimic human understanding through considering the various elements behind a query such as context, location, intent, variation of words, synonyms and generalisation, semantic search works by matching queries with a vast database of people, places and objects. It also helps to improve search accuracy by distinguishing between different definitions of a word, providing users with a set of possible options.

These developments have contributed to a more relaxed attitude towards the way we integrate search terms into content. Now that there is less emphasis on the need to use exact phrase keywords, it’s natural that people should turn to similar phrases in order to make their content more appealing, confident their text will still be picked up by the search engines.

Generally, the broader the keyword matching option, the more traffic that search term is likely to attract. Whereas broad match allows your text to show for search queries which contain your keyword(s) in any order, using phrase match allows your content to show for searches using your exact keyword with additional words before and after, as well as singular or plural variations and misspellings. Exact match, on the other hand, means that your text will only be displayed for your exact keywords. It does however mean that your keywords are targeted more precisely than with broad or phrase match. Even simple alterations such as adding conjunctives or punctuation within the keyword phrase have assisted copywriters and web-owners alike in striking the all-important balance between writing for search engines and writing for human users. Ultimately, attracting visitors to your site is only half the battle. It is just as important to create engaging and well written text in order to convince them to stay.

Nevertheless, some argue that it is still essential to use exact phrase keywords within your content to achieve good search positions. While most would agree that this practice is not essential, it is true that search engines are still programmed to favour exact match keywords to some degree. Therefore adopting this approach would be particularly advisable for those sitting within a competitive market field, as every opportunity to rank for your search terms is valuable. When establishing just how beneficial it could be to use exact or phrase match keywords in any given incident, the Google Keyword Tool arises as a particular useful device. Users can switch from exact to phrase match volume, determining which example would be more suitable. If, when using the tool, the findings display that the exact match volume is significantly higher than the phrase match, it would be advisable to use this method to give your site the best chance of acquiring higher rankings for search terms which are more likely to generate higher levels of traffic. If the volumes are fairly similar however, it might grant more profit to be less strict with your wording.

For those who fall into the latter category, adding sub-niche keywords can have the further benefit of not only making your copy more interesting, but also helping your site gain more web exposure. Through targeting a more precise sub-section of your market, you are pursuing keywords with less competition but with more widespread interest behind them, helping you gain traffic from a variety of sources.With Google incorporating more aspects into its search, the chances of these search terms being picked up can be deceptively high.

In addition to how we use keywords, the more pressing topic of late has been how often we use them, a subject amassing a high level of discussion. In previous times, algorithms have shown preference towards content with a high keyword density, leading to the practice of ‘keyword stuffing’ and inevitably to a set of algorithm updates penalising such activity.

Generally, it used to be agreed that adensity level of up to five per cent was an agreeable volume, but now a maximum of three per cent is more advisable in order to gain the right balance between exposure and avoiding penalties. In keeping with this trend of moving away from strict keyword density practices, experts have begun suggesting that where these search terms appear is actually more important than how many times they are repeated. Those experienced in the SEO arena have suggested it might be more beneficial to mention your keywords just a couple of times near the beginning of your text rather than a number of times throughout.

At the turn of the year, Google announced a change to its algorithm to favour sites that include more relevant content in the top section of their sites, or above the scrolling fold to be more specific. In order to make the search experience more effective for users, Google suggested that web-owners ensured the search terms they wished to be targeted for were present within their opening paragraphs, and while there seemed to be an initial rush to adapt sites to these new recommendations, these actions appeared somewhat unfounded when Google software engineer Matt Cutts revealed that the new algorithm in fact targeted less than one per cent of all global searches.

Whilst the update might not have generated quite such far-reaching effects as first anticipated however, it does still appear to have had a fairly significant impact on the structure of content across a variety of industry sectors.

Another popular way of building your keyword density whilst maintaining natural sounding content is to include your search terms within your metadata and headings. Vital to the art of successful SEO, metadata provides search engine’s bots with the correct information to be able to catalogue your site properly, helping potential customers to find your firm’s site.

Placing your search terms here should see them avoid having a negative impact for your readers, whilst still ensuring your site is highly visible for the search engines. Despite being such a straightforward route to first page results, many underestimate the importance of spending the necessary time to make sure they carry out the best metadata practices.

In the late 1990s, when algorithms depended significantly upon metadata to classify and rank websites, online marketers began to really capitalise on its impact, leading to a whole sea of sites packed with optimised metadata. This practice prompted Google to evolve its algorithm to include other influences within its ranking classifications. Despite this progression, metadata is just as important today as it ever has been – the difference now lies in how we are required to be more clever with our approach.

With a different set of obstacles to overcome, the two main areas of metadata to concentrate on optimising for SEO purposes are the title and meta-description. The key here is to be concise and take care not to exceed your word limit as any text after the designated limit will not be shown, preventing potentially important information from being seen by your audience. This concept should be at the forefront of your considerations when creating your title tag in particular, where it really is wise to include your most crucial keyword as early as possible, a method proven time and time again to help improve your rankings.

Your content could make your site the envy of copywriters across the country, but if you are relying principally on an increase in traffic, the whole process will be in vain if you don’t spend the necessary time focusing on your meta-description. Whilst the meta-description is not used directly for ranking, the decision upon which listing to click on for many users can hinge on the few lines you include here. It is important to include your keywords in a clear and concise snippet that best sells your company to its target audience. For those who need further convincing of the importance of meta-data, SEOmoz conducted a survey into search engine ranking factors, which found that 35 out of 37 thought-leaders in the SEO industry believed that keyword usage in the meta-data was the most effective way to achieve high ranking.

So it appears that keyword inclusion is just as pivotal to successful content as it ever has been, but now, presented with a new set of challenges, SEO specialists and copywriters have evolved their techniques to find more innovative ways to involve their search terms this so as not to disrupt the flow of their copy. Keyword density volumes, while not as high as they once were, are also just as significant as ever, because of the need to gain the right poise between optimisation and penalisation.