As Google becomes smarter at interpreting search queries, the role of keywords continues to change. Now that the search giant can better understand context, keyword variations and conversational speech, do individual search terms even matter any more?

There’s also the question of personalisation. Each user’s location, search and browser histories impact how Google interprets the context of their queries and the relevance of results. All of which dilutes the influence of specific keywords you may be trying to rank for or bidding on.

So what role do keywords actually play in modern search marketing?


The ‘death’ of keywords & SEO

Back in 2013, when Google first rolled out its Hummingbird update, many called it the death of SEO. For some reason, a Google that could understand the difference between apple fruits and computers scared the hell out of marketers.

To make matters worse, we had RankBrain unleashed earlier this year – making Google even smarter at switching keywords and understanding human language.

So what about all that keyword research we spent so many years doing? Well, the good news is it won’t go to waste – but you may need to change how you think about keywords.


It all comes down to user intent

The reason Google invests millions into its algorithm is because words are ambiguous; they’re limited. To connect with people who are ready to do business now (or further down the buying process) you need to know what they’re trying to do.

This is called user intent: the goal people have in mind when they turn to a search engine. Which means your content and ads not only need to target certain keywords, they also need to solve the problem users have when they click the search button.

For example, the exact keyword “leather sofa” isn’t much good to you these days. It’s way too generic for ads and the organic listings are dominated by big brands.


You have to do better than that; something like “leather sofas on sale in Manchester”.


For this query, you know users are actively looking to buy a sofa and where they want to get it from. Which makes this a highly valuable, less competitive and cheaper keyword (in the case of paid ads) for you to target.

Of course, not everyone interested in leather sofas is looking to buy right now. This is why understanding the intent behind search queries is so important. Consider the following query:


There are a number of different reasons someone could type this kind of query:


  • They’re looking to buy a leather sofa but they want to know how to protect it
  • They’re weighing up different types of sofa and they know sun damage can be an issue with leather
  • They already have a sofa and they want to prevent further damage
  • They’ve just had their sofa repaired and they want to keep it from getting damaged again


There are a few different types of lead in those four different scenarios. One user is looking to buy a leather sofa in the near future. Another is in the market for a sofa but they’re concerned about the risk of sun damage to leather. While the final two aren’t looking for sofas at all but may be in the market for products to protect their existing furniture.

Either way, none of these users are ready to buy now. They’re looking for information to solve a problem and help them make buying decisions. So by understanding the intent behind each query you can target their keywords, provide the right information and turn them into a more valuable lead.


Think keyword placement, not density in your content

Keyword density is all but irrelevant in modern SEO but placement is still vital. It goes without saying Google should prioritise content entitled “How to prevent sun damage to leather sofas” when that’s precisely what a user type in.

So, guess what – having your keyword/phrase in the title is pretty damn important. Not only from a search ranking perspective, but also telling people your content provides the answer they need.

Next on your placement list are sub headings. This is where keywords groups come in handy, because Google is smart enough now to understand these variations are relevant. So you can naturally work keyword variations into your subheadings without fear of getting penalised for stuffing them in.

Also remember to include keywords or variations in any relevant internal links. Once again, you don’t need to include your primary keyword every time. A variety of anchor text keyword types is healthy for you internal linking so use plenty of variations in your keyword silos.


If you’re a regular AdWords user, then hopefully the idea of targeting user intent will be nothing new to you. What many brands seem to be falling behind on is adapting their keyword research habits for SEO. It’s fine targeting long-tail keywords and variations (both in AdWords and organic search) but without the right user intent behind them, you won’t get to see the benefits.