Why keywords are no longer relevant to SEO

Posted by Dave CollinsSEO

SEOs have to take their fingers out of their collective rears. Apologies for the vulgarity (this was the toned-down version) but being an SEO in 2015 means you have to duck and weave with Google, fight web designers, combat the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality, and, depressingly, fight the never-ending wave of ignorance within the SEO industry.

I’ll take a deep breath. Let me explain. The reasons for my anger lie at the bottom of this post. But the more important, potentially life-changing idea (terms and conditions may apply) is more relevant. So here goes.

The age of keywords is more or less over.

Pointing fingers and accusing Google is pointless. Keyword data has gone and won’t be coming back any time soon.

There are still strategies to gain insight into your organic keyword data, but these are time consuming and inexact. And with time they’re likely to get less precise and more abstract. It’s time to look at a new approach.

The old model:

Step 1 – User went to Google and entered their search term.

Step 2 – Google displayed pages optimised for these terms.

Step 3 – Website owners were able to see how many people arrived at their website for those terms. Also which pages they landed on, how much time they spent, bounce rates, conversion rates etc.

We never realised how good we had it at the time. Until, that is, it was taken away from us.

The new model:

Step 1 – User goes to Google and enters their search terms.

Step 2 – Google interpret the intent behind the search.

Step 3 – Google display pages they think are relevant to their perception of the visitor’s intent.

Step 4 – Website owners have no real idea how many searches for the keyword came to their website, and no way at all to link this hazy data to performance, bounce rates, conversions etc.

In other words, Google don’t provide results for what the user has searched for, they provide results for what they think the user meant by what they searched for. And the results delivered aren’t based on what the content creator claims their page is about, but on Google’s interpretation of what they consider the subject of the page to be.

It’s not about evil, it’s about evolution:

Google aren’t taking keyword data away from us because they’re evil, and I don’t believe that privacy protection is the main reason either.

They’re taking away keyword data because the delivery of results has now moved far beyond the words on a page.

Also bear in mind the see-saw effect of complexity going on at the same time:

Proficient users of Google have become adept at entering our search terms. We strip out unnecessary words, and keep our searches as focused yet detailed as possible. So we don’t search for “how do I get from Brockenhurst to London“, instead we search for “travel directions Brockenhurst to London” and know that the first result will likely answer our search query.

This age is over. Our dinosaur skills are no longer required.

Our old style of search gets us an old style of results:

Travel directions Brockenhurt to London

The new way of searching, using simple conversational language gets us a far easier to understand set of results:

How do I get from Brockenhurst to London?

If you think of this as dumbing down, then you’re missing the point. Google have now adapted their interpretative technology to the point that keywords are only one single factor signalling intent. Hence the see-saw effect: search terms are becoming simpler and more varied; search results are becoming more complex and laser-focused.

The question is no longer how we find our keywords, but rather how we adapt to the new intent-based model.

The answer is surprisingly simple. Watch this space for next week’s post. You’ll like it.

Background on the reason for the angry intro:

In February 2014 (when this was originally written) I attended SES London conference with a view to keeping myself up to date and learning new skills. Like many SEO conferences, the quality balance was around 60% awful, 20% good and 20% incredible.

One of the sessions that I attended had two professionals who spent in the region of 5-10 minutes debating the importance and relevance of (not provided), and why it actually matters. The whole (not provided) issue was announced by Google almost two and a half years earlier, and SEOs with any real understanding of their profession soon realised what lay ahead.

To listen to SEO professionals debate the loss of keyword data in February 2014 was incredible. To hear over-used and insubstantial solutions such as “look at your paid traffic keywords” is jaw-dropping.

As an industry we have to do far better.