Tag Archives: SEO

What is the Value of Keywords Today?

The power of search engine keywords is waning. Since the introduction of semantic search with Google’s hummingbird search rewrite, they no longer have a decisive influence in search ranking. At best, they are simply one of dozens of factors involved with semantic search results. Perceptions about keywords have been slow to change for authors and marketers who don’t specialize in SEO, and even for some SEO consultants. Google  throttled the flow of keyword information to content producers, but many people still consider search keywords important or even essential.  Search keywords have become a crutch on which brands and authors rely to try to communicate with audiences.

It’s a challenge to reverse a decade or more of group-think relating to keywords.  For a keyword loyalist, giving up old habits can be hard, even habits that no longer make sense — especially when there are no obvious replacement tactics.  Keywords are more often used unthinkingly than used constructively.  The good news is that although keywords offer limited value to improve SEO, they can improve content quality in selective cases. It’s important to know the difference between the fetish use of keywords in content, and the creative application of keyword insights to improve the quality of content offered to audiences.  The difference between keyword hacks and keyword understanding is methodology.

Search Keywords Shouldn’t Describe Page Titles

The SEO industry has responded to Google’s introduction of semantic search with confusing advice. Although Google doesn’t match exact keywords on a page with keywords used in search queries, numerous SEO consultants still maintain search engine keywords are vital to how Google understands content.  Sure, Google can reinterpret search queries; but they argue if you write natively using the most popular keywords used in search queries, it’s simpler and more effective.  These people suggest that things have changed less than they seem. They note that Google still indexes keywords in search, and still has a keyword planner writers can use.

As Google has altered its behavior over time, SEO has deformed into an incoherent set of tactics.  Many ordinary content producers have lost the ability to understand what these tactics really deliver. They consult Google’s AdWords keyword planner to guide the creation of content, often at the urging of SEO consultants who encourage the practice. The AdWords keyword tool may present forecasts of impressions associated with a search keyword.  But ad impressions are not the same as search impressions (an impression being the existence of an item on a page accessed by a user, not necessarily an indication that the person noticed the item).  The algorithm Google uses to prioritize the display of paid advertising based entirely around keywords is different from the algorithm it uses to prioritize organic search results based on search terms and contextual information. It’s a mistake to use Google’s keyword planner for advertising and assume it will deliver a better search ranking or more qualified audience. But content producers make this assumption all the time, because it is convenient and they lack a conceptually sound process for developing and writing about content.

Significantly, Google’s AdWords encourage the decoupling of search keyword terms from the specific terms used in the content displayed in an ad.  Ad content can be related to the keyword bought without using the actual phrase.  The mandate  that you are supposed to use the exact term in your writing doesn’t even apply to advertising, the one area where Google encourages keyword research. Search engine keywords aren’t magic: they are simply a pricing mechanism for ads.

Search Engine Keywords Mask User Intent

Another common use of search engine keywords is to research popular topics.  SEO consultants and writers believe that search keywords provide them with data-rich market research that will tell them what content they should produce.  But search keywords have never been very solid as data to understand audiences. No matter what tool one uses, the tool won’t illuminate who is seeking information or necessarily why.  Making bold assumptions about people, their motivations, and their likely behavior based on a few search engine keywords is a risky thing to do.

Consider the case of people searching for the phrase “dead Wi-Fi.” This example is fairly typical of search terms: short, inelegant — and ambiguous. Who are the people typing this phrase and what is their intent?  Is the phrase “dead Wi-Fi” more likely to be entered by a 20 year old or a 60 year old? What might the phrase suggest about their level of understanding of wireless routers?  And most importantly, what can we infer about the intentions of the numerous people entering this phrase?  Are they all the same, or do different people have different goals when using the exact same phrase?  Why, when presenting search results matching the exact same search phrase, will different people make different choices about which article titles to click on? Rather than providing answers, the search keyword raises questions.

How search engine keyword can result in different audience behavior

Google prioritizes results to show the most popular pages that seem to match what Google interprets the search to be about. To illustrate, let’s suppose the first search result presents an article about Wi-Fi dead zones in your house.  Google presents a specific popular article on reception problems by interpreting dead to mean “dead zones.”  The eighth search result might provide an article on resolving general Wi-Fi problems, perhaps discussing when the Wi-Fi antenna on a phone or computer isn’t functioning. Here Google presents a popular page on fixing malfunctioning Wi-Fi equipment by interpreting the term dead to mean “not working.” The 15th search result might be entitled “Freedom from Dead Wi-Fi.”  This article title exactly matches the search term, but its purpose is not clear.  It is actually a page promoting the sale of new Wi-Fi equipment rather than a help article to fix existing equipment.   It features images and copy describing a futuristic looking box with many antennas that might appeal to the gamer crowd.

The search ranking for the article “Freedom from Dead Wi-Fi” was determined by two factors: people who entered a different phrase but decided to click on the title, and those who entered the exact phrase. Those who entered a different search query may have been attracted to the aspirational, if vague, promise of having a hassle-free experience.  The term “dead” might resonate with gamers in particular, who don’t want to be on the dead side of anything.  Those who entered “dead Wi-Fi” as a search phrase probably clicked on the title because of confirmation bias: it exactly matched what they thought they were looking for.  Confirmation bias is the tendency to identify with things that confirm our preexisting impressions or concepts.  So if you have content that has intrinsic popularity— it ranks highly anyway because it gets many page views — including a popular search keyword in the title may spur some additional page views due to the confirmation bias factor.  On the other hand, a title that merely sounds like it is helpful can run the risk of disappointing the viewer.  Some people viewing the “Freedom From Dead Wi-Fi” page wanted help on their current Wi-Fi problems. Pages viewed are not the same as audience interest in the content.

Without actually looking through numerous results, it’s not possible to infer much from the search keywords.   Viewing the content within the pages, one can find that the search keywords don’t represent a coherent set of user intentions.

Rethinking Keywords from an Audience Perspective

The purpose of any keyword research should be to understand the language of your audience, not to guess what will rank high on search engines.  And it is important to know what specific audience segments matter most to your organization.

Many people have a naive belief that aggregated, unsegmented Google keyword data provides a perfect mirror of their audience. SEO consultants and writers may believe they are promoting audience interests by using search engine keywords, but they are being data-focused rather than audience-centric.  They aggregate activity to create figures to justify content decisions, rather than start with the more granular needs of individuals and then identify common patterns. They put blind faith in often dubious numbers.

The Myth of the Undifferentiated Audience

People in different roles, from marketing to technical writing, want to believe their audience is undifferentiated. They want to believe that “everyone wants the same thing.” It’s simpler to do so. This mentality is common in marketing in particular: some marketing managers believe they need to talk to everyone and that everyone will want to listen to the brand.

There are a few brands that only care about page views, and care less about who the audience is. Advertising-supported publishers don’t care who visits their page: the ad shown will programmatically change according to who the person is.  Businesses that are purely transactional, such as hotel booking sites, similarly don’t care so much about audience segmentation: they want as wide an audience as possible to generate transaction fees.  But most businesses seek to capture value based on targeting specific kinds of customers, and providing products tailored to their needs.  If some of your customers a more profitable than others — because they buy more, pay more, or are cheaper to serve — simply pursuing page views will skew your brand value.

When brands act as if everyone is equally important, it generally signals a problem in business strategy, or poor operational oversight.  They don’t know, or at least don’t communicate internally, who are their most valuable customers and the need to focus on them.   As a consequence, we have situations where SEO consultants dictate editorial choices, or copywriters rely on keywords to write generic copy because they don’t understand precisely who the audience is, and how they think about the topic.

Shifting the Role of Keywords from Discovery to Understanding

Popular keywords that aren’t specific to the audience segment a brand wants to attract, only provide the illusion of data.  To provide value, keywords need indicate information to authors that is better than what they can get relying on available subject expertise.

Brands too often expect keywords to tell them what to say.  They focus on target keywords instead of target audiences.  They get fixated on the circular logic of “discovery”: they hope to discover the right keyword so audiences can discover the right content (theirs).  If keywords exist to promote discovery, they can’t at the same time be the object of discovery.  When this happens, the keyword becomes the end, instead of a means to an end.  The keyword defines the audience, instead of the audience being the party defining appropriate keywords.

If instead we shift the role of keyword away from “discovery” toward understanding, we get a more realistic goal. Brands need to understand which audience keywords will promote understanding of their content.  Here we assume the brand already knows what they want to say, they just need to know exactly how to phrase it.  The target is a message; the keywords are simply guidelines for presenting the message. The keywords relate to terms used by a specific audience, rather than a magic box of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Understanding Audience Segments Through Language

Audience keywords — the specific terminology used by an audience segment — is not something available from Google search data.  But audience keywords can be derived from various sources, and brands can find it worthwhile to understand linguistic differences.

One outcome of the vast quantities of text data that are now available is a growing understanding of language differences among groups of people.  Social media scholars, for example, notice words and even neologisms being used frequently by people associated with one another, while these same terms aren’t used widely in the general population.  Our language usage seems to be drifting back into distinct linguistic dialects, a consequence of both our online social connectivity and our selectively accessing content (the filter bubble).  Now that the age of mass media is over, we no longer expect everyone to talk about things the same way.

Some writers may object to being concerned with linguistic differences.  For example, advocates of plain language argue that all content should be written in a way that anyone can understand it.  While such a goal is surely admirable for some sectors — government in particular — it is not true that all parties are equally satisfied with plain language descriptions.  I’ve seen scientists frustrated by the quality of writing using plain language to describe a topic that required more specialized words, which were not allowed.  They complain that a discussion is oversimplified or key details are missing.  Similarly, writers may insist they are writing about a topic of narrow interest, so that anyone interested in the topic is likely to talk about it in the same way.  But even for niche topics, there can be novices and experts.  I am not suggesting that the vocabulary of all topics need to be segmented by audience; I am simply noting that it can be presumptuous to act as if no differences in audience needs exist.

Audience keywords involve a different set of tools and data than search engine keywords.  Audience keyword analysis basically involves comparing the frequency of words in a target texts (corpus) of an audience, with the frequency of words used in another set of texts, often representing the general population.   This comparison allows a writer to understand what vocabulary is most unique to the audience, and how they use this vocabulary.  There are commercial SaaS products that provide these capabilities, such as Sketch Engine.  There are also desktop software programs that one can use.  I’ve used the popular Antconc program, for example.  For those wanting to process large sets of data, text analysis libraries in Python and in the R statistical software can be used.

The next task is identifying what content exists that can reveal the vocabulary your audience uses to discuss a topic.  A range of sources offer a rich corpus of content to identify the vocabulary used by your customers:

  1. For audiences who belong to topic focused communities of interest, the texts of publications they read regularly, such as hobby magazines (for understanding keywords of enthusiasts), or specialized trade publications (for understanding the  keywords of a B2B vertical segment)
  2. Transcripts of focus groups of a target audience segment
  3. User comments from audiences in social media, or community forum discussions
  4. Terms used in internal search.

By analyzing such source content, writers identify words with special significance that are used more frequently by an audience segment than by the population as a whole.  They can understand their audience’s preferred terminology, and nuances in how they describe things, especially adjectives.  These can uncover value propositions.

Tribal publications — publications dedicated to distinct tribes such as specific professions or groups of avid fans of an activity — are different from general publications that don’t have such a tight audience focus.  They are more likely to use lingo or jargon, and reflect the internalized language of the audience who read these publications.  They are also likely to be read more loyally, and therefore promote the usage of words in a particular way.

A special comment about using internal search terms (also known as vertical search).  Why are internal search terms are okay, but external search engine terms not?  People using site search are more likely to be your target audience.  They have seen your site, got of sense of who you are, and feel motivated to explore further.  Vertical search was once considered an indication of UX or information architecture failures. Now vertical search is it a key differentiator for brands to guide their customers to find their products.  Search logs from internal searches can provide information about the terminology that people coming to your brand use.

Keywords are Clues, not Facts

Keywords can reveal interesting clues about audiences. Clues suggest something, but they should not dictate it.  A hint in a crossword puzzle is different from the answer.  Internal search keywords, for example, can provide hints about dimensions of topics, and ways to discuss topics, but are not themselves the answer to what you should be writing. Not being clear about this distinction results in the clueless, fatalistic question: “What does the data say we should do?”  Being data driven may be virtuous, but running on autopilot isn’t. Clues aren’t facts.

Keywords Aren’t Market Data

Keywords may provide clues to audience interests, but don’t provide direct data.  One can’t infer directly from keywords who is using them.  You need other forms of data to tie the reader to the keyword.  So if you find an odd kind of search query showing up on your internal search logs, it does not automatically indicate that you should be producing content using that keyword.  Search keywords are reliable indications of interest only when the search keywords match the keywords of the audience that you want to attract. Perhaps a number of people who aren’t your target audience mistakenly came to your content and are trying to find something you don’t offer, or care to offer. Your own internal analytics data will probably provide a better indication of what content you should produce than relying on internal search logs. There can be a role for  search terms to gauge potential interest on topics about which you have not written previously, but your internal content usage analytics will in most cases be a better indication of what resonates with the audiences you attract.

Relying On Keywords Can Distort Meaning

Algorithmic assessments should never be a substitute for judgment in writing.  Two terms that seem similar, but have different frequencies, are not necessarily identical in meaning.  Related and similar-sounding words can have subtly different meanings, or different connotations.  One shouldn’t use the most popular term simply because it’s the most popular.  Make sure the term chosen is exactly equivalent to the term not chosen.

Sometimes more formal (and less popular) terms carry more precise meanings.  The best way to connect a term that’s popular with your audience with a more precise term that you need to use in your content, is through cross referencing.

Keywords Can Help Brands Develop a Preferred Terminology for Topics and Audiences

If you routinely write about a certain topic, it may be worth your effort to analyze audience discussion relating to the topic.  Text analysis programs can help brands determine the audience-preferred terminology relating to a particular domain.  While this is obviously entails cost and effort, it may pay dividends.

Ideally all writers will have sufficient subject domain expertise internalized to know the preferred vocabulary for an audience segment.  But writers often need to write about varied topics, and writing is often outsourced to others. Having a list of audience-preferred terminology with associated definitions can enable any author to write appropriately on a given topic.  Text analysis can even support development of a style guide.  For fields such as health and wellness, where words have precise meaning, a preferred domain terminology is helpful if some writers are not deep subject experts.

In the not too distant future, I can imagine commercial firms will offer tailored keyword products.  Brands will be able to get a list of “keywords of 18 – 24 year old skateboarders” or “vacation-related keywords of upper income 50 – 60 year olds.”  For now, content strategists will need to do the legwork themselves.

— Michael Andrews

Adaptive headlines: the right genre for the right context

In a world of too much information, headlines signal if content is worth considering.  Headlines determine if content is viewed, shared, and discussed.  Writers and marketing experts offer much advice on crafting headlines.  However, one shouldn’t apply one approach to all headlines.  As the content landscape changes and evolves, different channels, and different audience experiences, require different kinds of headlines.  To realize greatest impact, headlines must anticipate the intent of their audiences.

Headlines can be optimized for six kinds of goals:

  • to aid the scanning of content
  • to facilitate discovery of enjoyable content
  • to get the audience to want something
  • to provide a summary of content
  • to indicate the nature of advice available
  • to aid in the finding and retrieval of content

The importance of context

Whether we call them headlines, page titles or message headers, their purposes are the same:

  • to attract audience attention
  • to describe the content, and set expectations
  • to motivate the audience to view

The context and goals of the audience shape their attention, expectations, and motivation.  The audience may pursue a “lean forward” experience, using a desktop to research intensively a topic, or a “lean back” experience on a tablet, casually browsing content.  Different genres of headlines have arisen to suit different content genres and channels.  As content is delivered through a wider array of channels (mobile, social media, personalized magazine aggregation apps), the rules of what headlines will work best become more complex.

Different audience behaviors imply specific aspects of headlines to prioritize.  While it is possible to combine several of these aspects together, it is difficult to address all of them with one style of headline.  To know which characteristics to prioritize, brands must be able to anticipate the context and goals of their audience.

Screenshot of headlines from Mail Online
genre bending headlines from the Mail Online (screenshot)

Audience goal: scanning content for relevance

Audiences scan content when they aren’t sure what is relevant or interesting to them.  Scanning is different from leisurely browsing, in that it is more goal oriented.  Audiences often check content sources they’ve found useful in the past, and scan lists of article titles or message titles.  As more content is delivered through feeds, this behavior is becoming more important.  Many tweets are article titles with links to the full article, for example.  Audiences need to both comprehend these, and keep up with the volume of titles they receive.  Eye tracking indicates that people only look at the first two or three words (10 or 12 characters) before moving on to the next item, unless these words seem to match their interests.  They make a snap judgment.

Headlines for scanning prioritizes the significance of the first couple of words.  In some social media contexts, audiences look for a relevant hashtags, especially if the viewing app highlights this in a different color.

Audience goal: enjoyment and discovery

In their personal lives, audiences seek and use content largely for enjoyment rather than necessity.  They often aren’t seeking anything particular: they hope to discover content that promises to be interesting and worth their effort to read.  Headlines play an important role in promoting discovery of recreational content.

Of the many kinds of recreational content, two types are noteworthy.  The first is the traditional feature, often a heartfelt story.  The headline needs to draw readers in. It will often preview something exciting contained in the story.  Headlines may use strong verbs, or use a label that captures a key moment of the story.

Conversational content is the second significant type of recreational content.  Content is optimized to promote sharing and discussion, so headlines play an important role.  Such content is typically distributed through social media.  The best known example of this kind of content is Upworthy, which has spawned many imitators.  Upworthy uses Facebook to distribute its content.  It frames the content with headlines employing a technique they call a “curiosity gap.”  Headlines are a teaser for the content: they violate the journalistic convention that headlines should never tempt without informing.  Upworthy decides the headline should not “give it away,” but should set an expectation that you don’t realize what you’ve been missing: what you think you currently know is incomplete or even wrong, or something extraordinary happened to someone seemingly ordinary.  Upworthy rigorously tests alternative headlines to determine which one generates the most interest as demonstrated by clicks and shares.

Headlines for recreational content prioritize attention over informational completeness.  Sometimes they are even vague, when such an approach enhances the perceived desirability of the content.

Brand goal: get the audience to want something

Persuasive content needs to work harder than any other content type to get attention.  It uses a call-to-action headline to get you to notice and learn more.  In the pre-digital era, it was a slogan used in print ads and direct marketing.  Today, email subject lines, or message notifications in mobile apps, urge you to do something.  Audiences think to themselves: I didn’t ask for this, so why should I look at it?

The discipline of copywriting developed to figure out how to get our attention.   Copywriting can be divided into creative-based, and practice-based.   Practice-based copywriting may rely on common wisdom developed from tried and true experience. Or it may use real-time feedback from A/B testing and analytics to iterate headline copy.  When using the common wisdom approach, copywriters commonly recommend “proven” stock formulas for headlines, such as “You can [benefit of product] Even if [objection]”, and suggest using certain trigger words in headlines, such as “free” or “now.”

Ultimately, the effectiveness of a call-to-action headline depends on how successful it is at getting attention, and encouraging action.  One person’s genius simplicity is another’s cliché.  It can be dangerous to presume what will work.  It’s more prudent to experiment, and test your success.

Audience goal: get a summary of content

The classic headline summarizes the content.  That’s different from summarizing the theme of the content.  A good headline summary gives the audience enough information to know the most important information, without having to read the content.

Summary headlines, though used less frequently these days, still have a role.  Bloomberg news is renowned for their headlines.  Around 300,000 people across the globe use Bloomberg terminals to access financial news.  They read headlines on these terminals, and on many occasions don’t have time to read a full article.  They need to act on news instantly.   Bloomberg prioritizes certain details in their headlines: the names of people in the story (if big, market moving names), what’s the key surprise, and any key facts and figures in the article.

Audience goal: help and advice

Brands provide product support information.  Various specialized publishers offer “how to” content addressing health and household concerns. The field of technical communications is dedicated to this area.  Help and advice content is an important category of user generated content.  People post questions on forums, and post video tutorials and reviews on YouTube.

Headlines for task-focused content are utilitarian, even boring.   Typically they read: “how to [action] [subject].”  Because people are motivated to find useful content, the goal of the headline is to show them where the most appropriate content is.  The most effective headlines contain a precise description of the product or topic.  Headlines generally contain a key action verb, such as install, replace, or fix.  The headline is more challenging to write when the user doesn’t know what they need to do.  In such cases, a symptom may be used in the headline, such as “what to do if your [product] [symptom].”  Frequently, users cite the symptom when posting a question on a forum.   Other times headlines aim to be instructional, conveying “what you need to know about your [product]”.

Audience goal: find and retrieve content

Search remains the most common way people discover content, even though its dominance is being challenged by social media and subscription services that rely on feeds.  Headlines matter vitally to search.  Headlines need to match the expectations of the searcher, and also reflect the “about-ness” of an article.

Writers have criticized the practice of SEO-optimized headlines as writing for Google, where creativity is quashed to serve the humorless needs of the search engine.  According to a quip: “Google doesn’t laugh.”  A BBC editor explains how headlines simultaneously must serve the needs of Google, and the needs of humans: “The text still needs to compel a search engine user enough to click on the story, but if it never appears in a search result then it is wasted effort.”

SEO is largely about using the same exact terms as the audience uses, so-called keywords.  Keywords in SEO are the specific search terms used by the searcher.  The audience uses search terms to describe what they seek.  The search terms are often a product name or category, and may include an attribute, such as durable, big, or easy.

How search engineers think about keywords is different from how linguists do.  Linguists, who invented the concept of keywords, look for words and combinations of words that are used more frequently than would be expected.  The keyword may be comparatively rare, but its use in a specific context is prominent compared with its use in general contexts.  SEO keywords in contrast tend to look at the most common words used for search in a general context, not a specific one.   Google uses many other signals besides keywords, so it checks if the keywords of the search match the keywords of the title and article, together with a couple hundred other factors such as page rank, to determine the ordering of search results.

Named entities are often good words to search in headlines because they yield precise retrieval of results.  The BBC recommends using proper nouns in headlines, because people tend to search on items they know well (even though that limits the audience size who know the item by that specific name).

Keyword literalism is supposedly going away.  Much has been made of Google’s shift to semantic search, and its knowledge graph.  Google now discourages doing research to find popular keywords, and promises to be able to locate content based on the intent of the searcher, not just what they literally specify.  In many respects this is a positive development: it would free the headline writer from using only the most popular keywords in headlines.  The search could contain a proper noun such as a location, but the title shown in the search results doesn’t have to contain that term.  The topic matching works fine when the searcher is looking for named entities, and the content is primarily about named entities.  However, when the search or the content is about something more general or difficult to describe, the situation is more complicated.  The knowledge graph only maps a handful of (admittedly) common entities such as products, events, and people, but doesn’t cover harder-to-model attributes such as “what is the most romantic activity to do while on your honeymoon?”

I predict keywords will remain an important aspect of headlines for the foreseeable future.  Google and other search engines  (including internal site search) will need to rely on them to infer of the intent of content, and users will rely on headlines because they will remain the most succinct description of what the content is about.

Moving forward: adaptive headlines

Headlines can have many different roles, and must work effectively in different channels.  There is more to headlines than making them SEO-optimized.  In fact, in some contexts, an SEO-optimized headline may attract less audience attention.  Generally, SEO-optimized headlines are neither curiosity invoking, persuasive, nor have informational value on their own.

Screen size is also an important consideration.  Common SEO advice suggests restricting headlines to 65 characters, because Google truncates longer headlines.  That’s a line of text in most browsers, but on mobile screens, a line is far shorter, and headlines need to be as well.  When looking at headlines for wearable devices, headlines may need to summarize content, not just indicate what an article is about, because there is no space for details.

These differences suggest that headlines for content need to adapt to the different channels and platforms in which they will appear.  The concept of adaptive content, championed by content strategist Karen McGrane, considers how content needs to adapt to different devices and channels.  Content creators will need to create variations for the headline to address the different contexts in which it will be seen.  Content management tools will need to support headline variations in their feature set.

A single headline shouldn’t try to do everything. Channel-specific headlines optimized for different audience goals will make headline compromises a thing of the past.

— Michael Andrews