7 ways the keyword-focused SEO culture has changed this year

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We're already halfway through 2014, and this year's presented monumental shifts in keyword usage, search engine optimization and content marketing best practices.

SEO changed irrevocably in the fall of 2013 when Hummingbird was launched and keyword data was taken away. This was about the time when Google removed keyword data from Analytics reports. In the year since, a lot has changed when it comes to content marketing.

Let’s clarify one thing upfront: Yes, keywords still matter.

Your web content strategy should encompass a keyword strategy. Keywords are still a vital way to indicate what a page is about to search engines AND searchers. But the reason I say keywords belong within a content strategy because the context they provide is more important than ever. Here at Brafton, we have in-depth keyword policies to ensure our writing makes effective use of keywords – emphasis on effective.

Your web content strategy should encompass a keyword strategy … I say keywords belong within a content strategy because the context they provide is more important than ever. 

Some solid practices include having keywords present in headlines, metadescriptions or excerpts, and – whenever possible – using them to flag subhead topics within a longer written piece. But at the end of the day (and at the end of the article), your keywords must support the context of the piece overall.

Here are seven updates, trends and insights from the past year that signal the old keyword-focused mindset has given way to something more holistic and content-oriented.

1. SEOs have gotten used to life without keywords

It used to be much easier to track an SEO campaign. The job basically involved optimizing for keywords, checking your rank and calling it a day. 

Actually, the process was a bit more complicated, but the number of moving parts any webmaster had to deal with was far fewer. This year, we lost an important measurement sense, but others (such as engagement and question mapping) became sharper. Speaking of questions…

2. Marketers and SEOs think about providing answers, not matching queries

Old SEO habits involved using exact-match search terms in content strictly for SEO value, sometimes at the expense of readability and editorial quality. But we’re slowly realizing this doesn’t make any sense. If someone wants information, they’re not necessarily going to use the exact same stiff terms to look up information every time.

3. Content has replaced keywords as the most important asset

Ownership of the top result for relevant keywords used to be the most important search win possible. Now, there’s a bigger focus on getting visibility for results that map to your business goals with targeted high-quality content. Keywords are important, but they aren’t the end-all be-all of SEO – they’re just a good way to make sure content is organized around the right concepts.

4. We look at more metrics for SEO results

Keyword rank used to provide a pretty good picture of a site’s SEO health, but it’s no longer viable as keyword ‘not-provided’ data topped 70 percent and higher. Marketers have started to look at other kinds of metrics, including click-through rates, year-over-year traffic, inbound links and domain authority to get a sense of the success or failure of their websites’ content.

5. Shortcuts don’t really exist anymore

Keyword stuffing, metatag manipulation and guest blogging all used to be valid ways to quickly increase traffic and visibility. Today, the best marketers understand there’s no quick route to success. To reach people, SEOs have to produce genuinely interesting and useful content with a particular audience’s needs and wants in mind.

6. Semantic search has taken clicks out of traditional SERPs

Part of the reason keywords used to be so important was because Google didn’t yet have a better way to organize the internet’s billions of pages. Nowadays, the search engine has gotten a lot better at offering complex results and rich media to give users a better experience. So while it’s great to show up at the top of traditional search results, it can be just as valuable to see content appear in a local carousel or Knowledge Graph rich snippet.

7. SEO is only one part of a holistic strategy

Some companies may still be writing keyword-centric content and seeing results, but they’re among a dying breed of SEOs. Web marketing culture is as much about creating a holistic web presence through social media, custom content and other kinds of outreach to connect with customers. The way people interact with brands online is changing, and most person-to-business relationships take place on many different channels at once.

Fortunately, SEOs who haven’t already overhauled their strategies can take a lot of what they used to know and update it for the current age. Instead of packing content with keywords, it should be stuffed with interesting and actionable information. Rather than looking obsessively at keyword ranking data, webmasters should learn to use Google Analytics to get more nuanced traffic snapshots. And instead of focusing only on what customers see on Google SERPs, brands should hone in on the channels where their customers are active and dominate there.

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Alex ButzbachAlex Butzbach is a Marketing Writer at Brafton. He studied Communications at Boston College, and after a brief stint teaching English in Japan, he entered the world of content marketing. When he isn't writing and researching, he can be found on a bike somewhere in Metro Boston.
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