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Are keywords still king in online content?


Are keywords still king in online content?

With Google algorithm updates like Penguin and Panda ruthlessly combatting ‘black hat’ SEO, webmasters and content developers have gone from being keyword trigger happy, to being frightened that any text they have on their site might harm its rankings. With many site owners finding themselves on the wrong end of Google penalties more as a result of carelessness and lack of awareness than deliberate deception, how can they be sure that the content on their site is warmly received by humans and search engines alike?

Hit my site, baby, one more time

Back in the late ‘90s and early ’00s, ‘keyword stuffing’ was a crude but reasonably successful technique, and the then teen sensation Britney Spears found herself unwittingly at the apex of it. The American pop star was top trump in a bracket including Nike trainers, Pokémon, the Blair Witch Project and the ‘Y2K’ phenomenon – that bracket being ‘things we talked about in 1999’.

As the millennium approached and the internet entered more and more homes, ‘talked about’ became ‘searched for’, and with search engines not quite being what they are today (Google wasn’t even out of nappies yet), crafty website owners would commonly slip these keywords into their content and benefit from hits. Usually, the lousy websites in question had nothing to do with the fashionable terms they were attempting to jam into their content.

Juno what you’re doing?

Moving on a few years, here’s a good example of this very practice from 2007.

I have to admit, after several reads, I’m still not entirely sure whether this is supposed to be a parody of SEO, or just a very poor attempt at it, but either way it’s a good example of how not to go about it. In case you’re missing the remarkably subtle points at which the review of a children’s book veers off to an allusion to an unconnected film, the blogger has been good enough to embolden and italicise the phrase in question.

Did it work SEO-wise in 2007? Possibly, but what really did it achieve? If it’s a serious attempt at a review, it’s a worthless and ridiculous one that few people will read from start to finish unless they’re doing so with scorn. If somebody was trying advertise the film, they’ve done it in such a vulgar and unimaginative way, it’s an insult to the audience’s intelligence.

The shoe still doesn’t fit

The practice of shoehorning irrelevant keywords into content hasn’t died out, as you’ll probably know if you run a WordPress blog and review the ‘Comments’ section. Here’s a recent one from the Engage Web blog:

comments screenshot

As you can see, this person/robot has decided to comment on one of our articles without even checking what language we’re communicating in, let alone whether we’re at all a suitable place to pretend to promote basketball shoes only for the links to lead to some French site that I’m not even going to dignify with a visit. It shows that this lazy, old-fashioned technique is still very much in use.

But where did this comment go? Spam. Where will it stay? Spam. Both spam filters and search engines are now clever enough to recognise this sort of rubbish for what it is and it never sees the light of day, so quite why anyone persists with it is a bit of a mystery.

So what’s the solution?

SEO is now at a stage where it’s becoming in sync with human desires and interests. It also feeds off social media, meaning that if the internet’s human users find something sharable and interesting, so will search engines.

Keywords are still important, because Google does at least want to know what you’re writing about, but they should occur naturally and relevantly. If you’re writing about content marketing, you’ll probably find that the phrase ‘content marketing’ crops up without you really having to find somewhere to shove it. In fact, I’ve just used it twice in one sentence!

More than ever as we enter 2016, the key to SEO is skilled, imaginative and clear writing that appeals to human interest, so don’t trick your readers. If you are involved in internet services, don’t try to sell your readers sports shoes. If you’re reviewing teen horror, why mention films about teen pregnancy? Respect your reader with your content, and you should find that your site reaps the rewards.

John Murray

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