Why focusing on keywords for SEO is hurting your campaign

One of the first things you’ll need to do in any SEO campaign is to research your keywords – at least, that’s what you’ll hear from most SEO experts. For the most part, I tend to agree. The right choice of target keywords can make a huge difference to your campaign’s long-term success.

However, the importance of keywords in the SEO community has been distorted over the years. As a result, some practitioners put keywords as their top priority or focus almost exclusively on keyword optimization, to the detriment of other elements of their campaign.

Is it possible to focus too much on keywords in your search engine strategy?

The short answer is yes. And if you have tunnel vision for keywords, they may do more harm than good.

What are search engine optimization keywords?

Before we can delve into the problem of excessive focus on keywords for SEO, we need to explain the purpose of keywords in the first place. What exactly are keywords, and why are they important?

If you are like most people, you depend on Google for many searches per day. Type a word or phrase in the search bar and hit enter to see the results. Basically, you are typing in a keyword or keyword phrase.

This is important because it gives search optimisers an opportunity to deliberately target a specific audience. For example, do you own a sausage stand? If so, it would be great if your website rank highly for terms like “hotdog” or “hotdog vendor” near me. Optimizing your website and content for specific keywords can make you more likely to rank highly for those terms – but the keyword landscape has changed over the years.

Early in Google’s history, it was practically possible for a website to secure the top position just by submitting the same keyword over and over on its website. Today, Google’s algorithms are becoming more and more complex. They are able to detect unnatural language use, unwanted keywords, and other black hat tactics. In addition, Google explicitly recommends against keyword stuffing, and instead urges webmasters to write natural, high-quality content for their visitors.

However, most optimizers at least do keyword research to help guide the campaign. Knowing the search volume is necessary to assess the popularity of different search terms – and it is crucial to analyze the competition, so you know the most valuable keywords to target.

Recent Keyword Status

The value of search and focus on targeted keywords has eroded somewhat, for several reasons.

  • Semantic search. The biggest reason was the advancement of Google’s semantic search capabilities. Semantic search was introduced in 2013 with the Hummingbird update, and is basically Google’s way of parsing the intent of your search query, rather than just searching the specific words you used. With these capabilities in place, Google does not rely strictly on keywords entered by search users; Instead, it looks at the phrasing, analyzes synonyms and alternative phrases, and tries to figure out what the user is looking for. Accordingly, focusing on a keyword is not as effective as it used to be.
  • Penalties and algorithm changes. Google is also much stricter in its content evaluation and penalty system. If your website is found to be in flagrant violation of Google’s terms and conditions, or if it is clearly providing a poor experience for users, it may face a ranking penalty or even be deleted in extreme cases. For this reason, it is a good idea to place keywords on your site with a certain frequency or volume.
  • Keywords and competition. Keywords, short and popular keywords that are most likely to be used in search, are highly competitive. Big companies that have been around for decades have spent millions of dollars improving their websites to control those terms. Your chances of competing directly with these organizations are slim, which makes intensive keyword optimization (at least for the main keywords) less desirable.

Effects of exclusive focus on keywords for SEO

If you focus too heavily on keywords in your strategy or if you don’t use keywords responsibly, you will be prone to:

  • Excessive time and effort. Keyword research takes a lot of time. You can easily spend dozens of hours searching for the perfect keywords to target – yet you find very few that are worth targeting. If you put a lot of effort into finding the “perfect” keyword balance for your website, you will end up investing more time and effort. And do not forget that spending time and effort is not just an inconvenience – it is also an expense. This can disproportionately increase the cost of your entire campaign, compromising your return on investment (ROI).
  • The quality of the content is poor. Keyword stuffing and related tactics inevitably lead to bad content. All too often, SEO experts are blinded by their keyword targets, shove them into the headline, force them into the body where they don’t belong, and use unnatural wording to get to just the right target. Not only does this fail to provide you with better results, but it also disrupts your readers.
  • Bad selections risk. Let’s say keywords are the primary consideration in SEO. You spend a lot of time and money choosing the best keywords. But, what happens when a competitor outruns you? What happens if the search volume decreases? Yes, you can adapt – but you may also end up wasting a lot of time and money making poor choices.
  • Direct competition. Being highly competitive with your keyword choices and optimization strategy will present you with similarly highly competitive players. Hanging fruit tends to be more accessible and affordable, while notable keyword pros are self-consuming.
  • Bad visitor experiences. Most people who are interested in SEO are not only interested in search traffic. They are also interested in monetizing this search traffic by selling more stuff to visitors (or getting them to watch ads). If you want to convert your visitors, then a strict and consistent keyword optimization strategy will not help you; In fact, it may end up turning people off.
  • Difficult measurements. Don’t forget that Google doesn’t explicitly publish keyword ranking data. You can do the searches yourself to find out your ranking or use a third party tool to better understand your rankings across the board, but there are still limits to what you can achieve this way.
  • Worse results. It’s hard to make an exhaustive statement, but many keyword pessimists who are happy to end up seeing worse results. They rank lower (in general), get less traffic, and as leaders, they end up with reputation issues because of their low-quality content.

Should you abandon the keyword approach?

So does this mean that you should forgo keyword research and keyword optimization altogether?

never. Keywords still perform many important functions, helping you understand your key demographics’ search behavior, allowing you to analyze presence in search of your competitors, and providing overall guidance for your campaign. Also, long-tail keyword phrases are not nearly as competitive as their main keyword counterparts, allowing small businesses and those with small budgets to be more competitive.

Keywords also play a vital role in the following areas:

  • domains.
  • URLs.
  • titles.
  • Page titles and meta descriptions.

And the keywords are still relevant to your content (although your article doesn’t have to convert entirely just to squeeze in specific terms).

Additionally, search engine optimization (SEO) is only one component of your overall digital marketing strategy. Pay-per-click advertising (PPC), email marketing, social media marketing, and other investments will all play a role in determining your overall success.

Keywords SEO is not what it used to be. You can’t count on it to be the only factor that determines if your campaign is a success, and you certainly can’t put it in your website content and hope for the best. If you want to be successful with keywords and your SEO campaign in general, it is essential to understand the modern context of the keywords and lower your expectations.

Image credit: George Morena; Pixels. Thank you!

Timothy Carter

Chief Revenue Officer

Timothy Carter is the chief revenue officer for the digital marketing agency SEO.co, DEV.co, and PPC.co in Seattle. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO and digital marketing leading, building and expanding sales operations, helping companies increase revenue efficiency and drive growth from websites and sales teams. When he’s not working, Tim enjoys playing a few rounds of golf, running, and spending time with his wife and family at the beach – preferably in Hawaii with a cup of Kona coffee. Follow him on Twitter @TimothyCarter

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