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Do We Still Need Keywords? (Keyword Targeting VS. Topics)

April 25, 2016 - fifteen

The Hummingbird and RankBrain algorithms have taken focus away from exact match keywords, and encourage webmasters to start concentrating on user experience as one of the primary ranking factors. Now that Google search can identify the subject of a webpage more accurately without the aid of keywords, a lot of SEO’s have turned their attention to a new strategy – topics.

But, is this really the way forward? Should we abandon keyword research and targeting in order to better cater to the needs of our users? There’s definitely pros and cons of both strategies, so we’re going to have a look at them now.

Keyword Targeting

Keyword targeting has been a main staple of SEO strategies pretty much since its birth, because that’s how the Google search algorithms worked. When a user typed in a search query, Google would scour their indexed sites in order to find the keywords being searched for, and return the most relevant results. This meant that if you wanted to show in the results for a certain keyword, you would need to optimise that page to the keywords you desired. Put the keyword in the URL,

title, description, alt text, copy, header tags, etc., and you’re good to go.

This does, however, cause a negative impact on user experience. Rather than a piece of good-quality content specifically designed to help your user, we have a piece of content specifically designed to target a keyword. This is a practice that Google (and of course, other search engines) have been trying to steer further away from.

Let’s create an example. Imagine we’re trying to create some content for a website within the travel industry, highlighting the best/cheapest places to go on holiday. If we were focusing on keyword targeting, we would first need some keywords for our content.

Here are a few examples of keyword phrases you might look at in this case:

Best places to go on holiday

Cheapest holiday destinations

Best countries to visit

Cheap holidays in europe

Now, the keyword targeting method dictates that we would need to set up a new page for each of these keywords in order to start ranking. As long as you optimise the pages properly, ensuring you meet the Google guidelines, you should start ranking for these keywords. We now have four pieces of content on our imaginary travel website, each targeting a different keyword.

What are the risks?

However, we now have four very similar pieces of content, which is not only bad for user experience, but also runs the risk of being penalised by Google’s content algorithms. “Best places to go on holiday” and “best countries to visit” will return very similar results, and that’s only two of the possible keyword phrases. As we add more keywords and more content, the result will be even more very similar content pieces on our fictional website.

In addition to this, the keyword targeting method can be more difficult as it promotes keyword “stuffing”, a big no-no in the eyes of search engines. Putting your keyword everywhere on a webpage will only help you rank if it’s done correctly. Over-optimisation will lead to penalisation of your website, and no rankings whatsoever.

Topic Targeting

This seems to be the latest craze within the SEOsphere. As Google move further and further away from relying on keywords as one of the primary ranking factors, some webmasters have started to ignore them all together.

“That’s crazy!”, we hear you protest, “How can you expect to rank for a particular keyword if you’re not targeting it?!”

It’s quite simple though. Google search algorithms now look at related keywords as well as exact matches, and there has been more and more focus on user experience in recent years. It is now possible to start ranking for keywords without mentioning them everywhere on a page, but requires a lot more work in order to do so.

Let’s take a look at our example again, but from a topic point of view this time. The main difference between keyword targeting and topic targeting is how the process starts. For keyword targeting, we would look at what keywords we want to target, and then create content around them. For topic targeting, we would look at what might be helpful for the user. So, for our imaginary travel agency, we’d focus on creating a single page that tells our user everything they need to know about their favourite holiday destinations.

We could create a page that includes all of the most popular destinations, include in-depth information on prices, weather, activities, and more, and allow the user to sort through and pick their own. This is much better from a user experience point of view, and prevents lots of similar content surfacing on our website. For the sake of this example, we’ll call our page, “The Ultimate Holiday Destination Guide”. It accurately describes what we are trying to achieve with this content, and doesn’t pay much attention to any keywords we might want to rank for.

What are the risks?

It is much, much harder to start ranking for keywords with this approach. Although Google seem to be moving further away from keyword targeting as part of their algorithm, they haven’t dropped it entirely yet. Sure, you can manipulate many of the other Google ranking factors in order to start ranking (there’s over 200 currently), but keywords are still such an integral part of how search engines choose which websites to display in results.

And it’s not just Google you need to consider. Even though they are the most popular search engine, and the one that generates the most traffic, there are hundreds of others out there, which people do use. Whilst Google is stepping away from keywords (well, starting to) other search engines are a little bit behind in that respect. Even if Google decides to ditch keywords entirely, ignoring them will mean you abandon all chances of appearing in any other search engines, which are normally a great place to find more low competition opportunities and top up the number of visitors to your site.


Is this a case of having to choose the lesser of two evils? After all, one sacrifices user experience, and the other sacrifices ranking opportunities in order to give the user what they want. Both user experience and keywords are important ranking factors currently, so how can you possibly choose which is the best option?

It would be a much easier question to answer if Google algorithms had more clarity. Google regularly advise people to put user experience first, with great content, and then wait for the rankings to follow, but keyword targeting is still the most effective strategy in terms of achieving the rankings you want. This is probably because the algorithm has not yet developed to a point where it can actually read a piece of content and understand it. Once Google crawl bots can understand that our piece of content is a great way of showing people the best and cheapest holiday destinations, we will always need to consider keywords to a certain degree.

But, we can combine the two. If we first focus on what the user would actually want/need from a page by doing some research, we can then look at the sort of keywords that may be able fit. The new algorithms make it much easier to rank for multiple keywords with a single page, meaning we would need to put less focus on each keyword, and allowing the content to grow organically.
So, in short, the Google algorithms have not yet reached a point where we can ignore keyword targeting entirely. It definitely looks at user in mind,  though we’re heading that way, but it is enough of a certainty to begin ignoring one of the most important ranking factors. The best option is to keep creating great content, that keeps your user in mind, and optimising that great content to relevant keywords.

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