Mark Twain and keywords have at least one thing in common: Reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.

That said, the part keywords play has indeed changed. While no longer the be-all and end-all of search engine optimization, they still play a vital supporting role.

The transformation of keyword significance can be attributed to the growing sophistication of search engines and their focus on user intent. The days of black hat SEO being a viable content marketing strategy are long gone. In their place is a renewed focus on quality, relevance, value and serving searcher needs.

“Keywords are still important,” said Brafton Director of Digital Marketing Strategy Jeff Baker. “As long as we have written language, keywords will be important. The way they are treated by [search engines like] Google is going to be different, though. Google is trying to read between the lines.”

Putting purpose first

Search engines have become advanced enough to determine what you’re trying to say even if you cannot. What’s more, they know what you mean, and serve up search results accordingly. It’s essential to keep this in mind when crafting a keyword strategy that serves searcher intent.

“When you’re doing keyword research, it’s not about stuffing or linking back to landing pages like it used to be,” Jeff continued. “It’s about understanding what the intent of the individual searching for that keyword is.”

For instance, Google understands that if someone types the word “pizza” into the search bar, they’re pretty much guaranteed to be looking for somewhere to get a pie nearby. You’re bound to find URLs for various eateries in addition to a Wikipedia entry regarding the history of pizza and blog posts covering its nutritional value.

Google knows what you're looking for even if your query is just a word or two, like 'pizza.'

Now consider the keywords that would be associated with your particular industry, if you’re not in the pizza-making biz. What are people really seeking when they search for these words and phrases? Equally important, is the content you’re producing serving these intentions?

“When you’re writing a page or blog post with a certain keyword in mind, you need to designate how you’re specifically going to solve a problem or answer a question associated with that topic,” Jeff said. “You might not rank for that exact keyword, but as long as you’re addressing the needs of the person searching for it, you’re in good shape.”

Of course, keywords still play a significant role in visibility, meaning there needs to be a push and pull between incorporating them while keeping searcher intent No. 1. That said, the substance of your content marketing should always come first.

“Sometimes articles aren’t created with SEO in mind,” Jeff continued. “Sometimes articles just need to be written. It’s not going to be found, but it’ll go out in a newsletter, or be read by regular blog readers. There is a time and place for articles that aren’t all about ranking.”

This article itself was not written with SEO in mind, for example.

The strength of storytelling

When concentrating on keywords and user intent, it’s easy to forget about the basic human element that should be a part of all content marketing: storytelling.

“The starting and end point of all content marketing is this: Everything needs to provide value to the user’s experience,” Jeff said. “Storytelling does that. It allows you to be strategic in keyword usage and searcher intent, but it also lets you be interesting and engaging for website visitors.”

There’s a reason content marketing provides better return on investment than native advertising on social media. No matter how much time we spend online or how fancy our smartphones get, human beings will always love stories. They grab our attention, entertain us, humanize characters and maximize emotional impact.

Keywords and user intent can help you focus your storytelling and ensure the content you create serves a specific purpose.

“You must always ask yourself: Am I doing this for the business, or on behalf of a visitor?” Jeff said. “If the answer is that you have an ulterior motive other than providing value to a visitor’s experience, if it’s a take instead of a give, you need to reconsider your approach because it doesn’t work anymore.”

Eric Wendt is a writer and editor at Brafton. He discovered his love of words after realizing he was terrible at math. If he's not updating his Tumblr with poetry he's too embarrassed to share, there's a good chance he's out in search of the perfect pale ale.