The Evolution of Search: The Dwindling Importance of Keywords
Even just a year or two ago, if you had asked someone to outline their search engine optimisation strategy to you, the term ‘keywords’ would have been heard a fair few times.
Keywords have occupied such a central place in the minds of people concerned with internet marketing and web design for so long, that the idea that they might be losing their stature can be a hard one to take.
But there are indeed deep structural changes underway in terms of the way that search engines help people find the information and content that they are looking for. More and more, people and the search engine companies themselves are beginning to view keywords as a rather blunt and inefficient instrument for effectively establishing what people are actually looking for when they type queries into search engines.
For all the benefits that keywords have given us in terms of lifting the lid on how people define their search queries, they have often proved clunky and obtrusive when trying to deal with context. All the recent changes in the way that search engines process queries all relate to accommodating the natural ways that people in the real world go about looking for information.
So what does the recent history of keyword usage look like, and what direction are we heading?
The Evolution of Keyword Usage
Search engines need to use some form of indicator in order to gauge what kind of information people are looking for, and in the early days individual keyword phrases that linked to pages specifically optimised for those phrases seemed like the best way to go about it.
But the fundamental truth that this method forgot (or was unable) to address was the idea that words and phrases can have multiple meanings and that interpreting short queries based on picking out certain words was not going to lead to accurate results.
We have all been in the frustrating position; where we have been looking for something specific and been presented with a load of completely unrelated information that just so happened to contain some of the words you used in your query. This is the blunt nature of the purely keyword related search results at work.
This approach also led companies and website to design their websites and content in a way that wasn’t necessarily in the interests of users.
The days of keyword stuffing
In the dark old days in the first decade of the new millennium; websites and digital marketers used to make sure that their websites were optimised as much as possible with as many keywords that were considered in any way relevant to what they were doing. The idea behind this was to try and funnel as many people to your website as possible in the hope that a decent amount of them would stick around to buy your product.
The system of matching search queries to pages that match a few words lead to a change in the way that people started to interact with search engines. Sometimes searching for information that could be classified as niche or specialised could become a long and painful game of cat and mouse between the user, the search engine and the web designers and content creators.
Google realised that a change was needed in the way that their search algorithms were interpreting people’s search queries. Slowly but surely, the company began implementing changes that would increasingly take account of the wider context in which keywords are placed.
And so, at the beginning of October 2013, Google released a Hummingbird into the air.
Hummingbird and the search for meaning
The surprise release of the Hummingbird update, described as the most significant change to a Google algorithm in a decade, sent a shudder of panic through the SEO community. That was until people began to realise that the changes would not hugely affect the people that were doing the right things and would potentially enormously increase the relevancy of user searches.
Hummingbird, essentially attempts to place keywords within the larger context from which they gain a large part of their meaning. In technical terms this means moving away from a centralised focus on matching keywords to pages optimised for them, and beginning to look more closely at semantics, intent and how long chains of words interact to from meaning.
Hummingbird forms Googles clearest attempt to merge the explicit meaning of keywords with the implicit meaning generated by the context in which they are used. In this way, it forms an exciting new frontier in the way that people are going to communicate with search engines.
Keywords in a Post-Hummingbird World
Keywords are still an integral part of how search engines deal with user queries, so all of the frenzied chatter that erupted out of some corners of the web about their drop in value is a little premature. Matt Cutts himself has stated that the future of Google is going to be concerned with “things, not strings.” What this means is that content, relevancy and relationships are going to increase in importance, so simply stuffing your content with keywords and hoping for the best is no longer an option.
So, how should you be using keywords in the brave new world of a post-hummingbird future?
Start thinking long tail
The whole point of Hummingbird is to allow the search engine to understand more conversational queries instead of the stunted, keyword heavy searches. So, instead of searching for “falafel recipes” becomes “how to make falafel quickly and easily.”
This example shows us how a focus on keywords alone will not give you the full context of what the user is looking for. The user does not want the fanciest or even most popular falafel recipe, they specifically want the quickest and simplest way to make falafel.
You need to understand that most search queries fall into three major categories. Either people are looking for specific information about something (“who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey?”), to be pointed in the right direction to find general information (“Where can I learn about Dadaist art?”) or they are looking to make a specific transaction (“where is the nearest restaurant?”).
All of the questions listed above would have previously been described as long tail keywords, but now they are the kind of conservational queries that Hummingbird is designed to understand.
Start thinking synonyms
This point goes along with the point made above. There are a variety of different ways that people can ask the same question. “Who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey?” and “is Fifty Shades of Grey written by a woman?” are different questions, but the answer is going to be the same. You are going to need to think about all the different ways that people are going to try and get to the central theme of your site.
Make it obvious what you do
Aside from focusing more on long tail and conversational kinds of keywords and search queries, the other main thing that you can do to take advantage of the Hummingbird is to make completely crystal clear what the purpose of your website and your content is there to do. If your website is there to help you sell ice cream, then you are going to make it so obvious that that is the case.
This goes back to the days of keyword stuffing, where people would fill their sites to the gills with any keyword that was even indirectly related to what they did. With Hummingbird, everything comes down to relevancy; so if the keywords you use aren’t relevant to what you do, you and your site are going to be the ones who suffer.
So, in conclusion, the keyword is not as dead or irrelevant as some would make out, but it is becoming just one part of the way in which companies like Google are interpreting the queries of their users.
Let us know about your experience with search in the light of Google’s evolving algorithms.