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Few marketing strategies have undergone as much evolution and development as search engine optimization (SEO). It’s been around for about as long as search engines have, but the modern approach is radically different than what people were doing in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Back then, the SEO game was all about keywords. Choose the right keywords for your strategy, stuff them into every nook and cranny of your website, and eventually, you’d probably rank decently for queries matching those keywords.

Today? Ranking for target keywords isn’t nearly as straightforward or easy. So should target keywords disappear from your campaign altogether?

Absolute SEO basics

In case you aren’t familiar with SEO, here’s a basic rundown. Search engine optimization (SEO) is all about increasing your website’s rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs) for queries relevant to your business. With a good strategy, you’ll rank higher, eventually getting more visibility and earning more traffic.

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You’ll need to do several things to accomplish this, such as improving the technical structure of your site, writing lots of onsite content and earning backlinks. But historically, one of the most important pieces of the puzzle was choosing “target keywords” for your strategy — specific queries you think your audience is going to use to find businesses like yours. Keywords with lots of traffic and minimal competition were low-hanging fruit. With a sufficiently targeted approach, you could dominate the rankings for that term and earn tons of traffic.

Keyword stuffing combat and the semantic search apocalypse

Why the hate for keywords?

It’s not really hate. Just a renewed perspective. See, in the 2000s, businesses all over the world were practicing a tactic known as “keyword stuffing.” They would load keywords into every piece of content their site produced, regardless of whether it made sense. Entire pages were devoted to spamming the same word or phrase over and over — and sometimes, people would “hide” keywords in the background of a page.

Why? Because if you spammed a keyword enough, you could probably rank for it.

That soon changed, however, as Google rolled out a number of updates that worked to penalize keyword spammers and reward pages with high-quality written content. Bit by bit, keyword stuffers realized their tactics were no longer effective, and they began to update their strategies accordingly.

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In this era, the dominant strategy was optimizing for “keyword density.” It was a clever way to game the system. Writers knew that if a keyword appeared too many times, it would trigger a red flag with Google, but if it didn’t appear at all, it’d be tough to rank for. So they calculated that if the word appeared a certain number of times, perfectly proportional to the remaining content, it would optimize the content for that keyword without being flagged as spam.

The Hummingbird update of 2013 made things even more complicated by introducing “semantic search” capabilities to Google, which have been further refined over the years. Essentially, Google began looking not just at verbatim words and phrases, but at the context of all written content. It began evaluating user queries based on intent and subjective meaning, rather than parsing queries as exact words, and began evaluating onsite content in a similar way.

Because of this change, it’s hypothetically possible to rank for a keyword that never once appears on your site. If your site has a high domain authority and writes content that’s related to a certain topic, even if you only use synonyms and descriptive text to cover that topic, you could easily find success.

So does that mean that you should abandon target keywords entirely?

The modern relevance of keywords

In today’s SEO, the functional role of keywords hasn’t disappeared; instead, it’s evolved. Keywords were once a tool you could shoehorn into your content to achieve a certain result. Today, they’re more like a guiding force for your strategy.

It’s important to do keyword research so you better understand your competition, your user intent and even the flow of web searches and web traffic. Once you understand the keywords and phrases your users are searching for and the rankings of your competitors, you can choose your targets and build your strategy around them.

The big difference is that today, it doesn’t really pay to practice consistent keyword density optimization — and keyword stuffing is a definite no-go. In fact, your target keywords should only appear a handful of times in the content you’re optimizing for them. Instead, your focus should be on producing the best-quality content you can and writing in a way that’s both informative and natural. With better content and higher user appeal (combined with a link building and content outreach strategy), you should have no trouble ranking for the target queries you want — and avoiding Google penalties simultaneously.

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