What are Keywords, and How Will They Help My SEO?

Once upon a time, circa the year of our Lord, nineteen-hundred and ninety-one, in a paradisiacal land called suburbia, where the living was easy, people laughed unabashedly; “paleo” was the first part of “-ntology”; kids’ questions to “what are we going to do today?” were answered by their biking around the neighborhood to see who was out and ready for adventure, and the day’s news was delivered by kids on those same bicycles. Magazines were bought on newstands, or delivered through the mail, and left colored print on one’s fingers, and stayed on the coffee table for a few weeks until the next one arrived. Back then, “the web” was the work of a spider (and never followed by “inar”), and phrases like “what are keywords, and how will they help my SEO” had to have been a coded hybrid of English and Martian, and writers were paid and valued for their ability to . . . to . . . to write. You know, they could tell an interesting story, come up with an intriguing approach to teach something, relate an anecdotal metaphor to help readers understand a concept.

When an advertising copywriter came up with a clever campaign slogan such as “Where’s the Beef,” along with some accompanying copy, nobody ever looked upon their work and asked “Where’s the Keyword?” More specifically, no client quizzed their agency’s digital manager with, “What are the keywords, and how will they help my SEO? How can I improve my ranking on search engines?”

“And . . . how many clicks are we getting?”

Because, well, back then, what’s a keyword — some sort of code to get a free Slurpee at 7/11? What’s a digital manager — someone who makes sure everybody’s newfangled display watch is in synch? SEO — oh, that’s the leader of a corporation — er, wait, that’s a CEO. And search engine? Is that the motorized part of a search and rescue vehicle? Clicks? Oh, those are what Europeans call their metric-style miles.


But now, it’s 2019, and articles are often called “blogs,” material is called “content,” even the non-rich have phones in their bathrooms (because, you see, everyone has a “smartphone” they carry around everywhere, mesmerized by them), and writers, at least those who get paid at ad agencies, are prized as much for their their skills in attracting digital “clicks” through the deft use of things called keywords and key phrases, as for their pure creative abilities.

So, then, what exactly is a keyword, or a key phrase, how do search engines find and treat them, and how can you benefit by using them?

What Exactly is a Keyword or Key Phrase?

Keywords and key phrases are actually considered interchangeable in the digi-sphere. Even though “phrases” might depict more than one word, a connected group of keywords is typically called a “keyword.” In most cases, keywords are in fact comprised of more than one word. This has evolved because with artificial intelligence (AI), keywords are now more likely to be longer phrases. Even a 15-word question is now considered a keyword by digital professionals.

Scott Paxton has been laboring in the trenches since 2004, and is recognized as a leader in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) research, software development, and technological advancements. He defines a keyword as “any search phrase entered into Google, or any other search engine, by prospective customers or clients who are trying to find your product or service.” Note that this definition, in effect, differs 180° from a typical mindset of digital writers, who tend to place the emphasis on who is coming up with, or creating the keywords. True SEO experts emphasize who is doing the search— that is, who’s is looking for a company’s goods and services. This is an important distinction because one of the tenets of writing good keywords is to reverse engineer, starting with what kinds of questions and specific words a search engine user will type into the search box.

How Keywords Interrelate to SEO

In the early days of search engines, keywords were sprayed around as indiscriminately as fertilizer granules: the more, the merrier, and the lusher the harvest. Any word that could attract a reader, a future customer, was fair game. But in search engines’ quest to be relevant, to depict honest and authoritative results for their users (note that although not one of the original search devices, Google was and is the pioneer in the field of accurate results, a direction that has made them by far the king of search engines), they began to crack down on websites and online articles attempting to manipulate their early algorithms.

According to Technopedia,

The role of keywords was once very central to the function of search engines. Search engines could crawl sites and, if the keywords were accurate, serve those sites up as search results. However, people began abusing the keyword metadata in an attempt to show up higher in searches, and even to rank in completely unrelated searches. For this reason, the importance of keywords in search engine optimization has been greatly reduced. Keywords are arguably still an important factor, but they are not the only factor in SEO [Italics added].

In Paxton’s estimation, good keyword research is still extremely vital to magnetic SEO. He says, “Keywords are part of the SEO recipe.” While too much baking soda will ruin a batch of chocolate chip cookies, a pinch is necessary to keep the cookies from going flat and greasy. Likewise, keywords, used in wise and expertly-tailored moderation, are a catalyst for attracting search engines to rank your websites’ and blogs’ content as delectably desirable, and they play an important role in ranking. In fact, Paxton goes so far as to say, “search engine optimization ultimately means you are working to get a page to rank for a set of keywords.”

What’s in a Word?
Search engine results are based on a complex scoring system compiled by a mathematical algorithm. Using growingly-sophisticated and scientifically-based factors (e.g., content quality and backlink authority), a “score” is tallied. Online content with the highest scores are awarded the highest rankings. The site or blog with the highest point total will sit atop Page 1 while the second-highest score will receive position #2, and on down the line.

In summary, an algorithm (or “algo,”) is just a fancy term for a mathematical equation. Paxton reasons, “Understanding how algos work is fairly simple.” However, he warns, “identifying what factors are most important to [a search engine’s] algo is a complicated process that requires vast expertise that comes only with years and years of experience.”

Just like learning to play an instrument such as a ukelele might require only a week or two to learn some simple chords and a couple easy songs, but perhaps a decade or more of constant study, practice, and live performing to begin to master, a virtuosic ability in SEO, what with keywords and other factors, requires the same time, grit, intelligence, and determination.

Even Many Pros Fail

Paxton laments that most tools marketed by SEO professionals to aid more effective keyword research use the wrong data to determine good versus bad keywords:

Since 2004, I’ve used and tested countless keyword research tools. Almost all of them rank how competitive a keyword is based on the wrong criteria. In most cases, the tools will determine keyword difficulty, or competitiveness, by analyzing the number of sites ranking for a term and some variance on keyword scoring such as cost-per-click, and the type of competitors ranking. Most of those tools are decent for brainstorming, but when it comes down to determining how competitive a keyword is, they all fail.

He continues:

Most tools tell you a keyword is good if it has fewer competitors. But their data is based on the number of sites showing up in Google for the keyword. That number has nothing to do with how competitive a keyword is. Regardless of whether there are 1 million sites or 100 sites showing up for that keyword, what actually matters is how difficult it will be to get into top three results. A keyword with 100 sites could be much more difficult to rank than one that has millions of sites. Why? Because what matters is the effort required to rank on Page 1. Just because millions of pages are showing up in Google search doesn’t mean that people are actively trying to rank for the keyword. Thus, most keyword evaluation tools are not providing good data as they are using artificial numbers that really mean nothing.

This failure is caused primarily because even many SEO “professionals” don’t grasp the fact that “[h]ow competitive a keyword is always comes down to what it will take to outrank the top three ranking sites.” Lest you think this a lazy oversight, Paxton concludes that “while that [realization] may sound simple, it’s a complex formula that requires a lot of research and analysis on why and how the keywords are ranking now.” The reason he says “now,” is because Google, for instance, is constantly tweaking and adjusting their algos, to the tune of upwards of 600 times per year. (Yes, you read that right: that equates to more than one per day!) To keep up with such a rigorous schedule, only true professionals with cutting-edge and powerful analysis tools need apply.

What Google “Looks For”: How Keyword Algo Changes Must be Accounted For

Cracking a search engine’s code, especially Google’s (which is the most prized, and guarded, and is probably more difficult than breaking into Fort Knox — and perhaps worth almost as much!) is not a light task. Paxton says, “Google is constantly adjusting and changing their algos for keywords and other factors in hopes to deliver the best site to the user.” Not surprisingly, he cautions would-be amateur sleuths that, “What they are looking at exactly is heavily guarded to prevent manipulation.” In his estimation, SEO jobs in highly-competitive industries, with ultra-competitive keywords, require the services of mega-qualified professionals. He comments that, “SEO experts will be able to analyze patterns and use sophisticated technologies to decipher what factors are the most important for the site they need to rank.”

What factors are the pros looking at? Ranking signals. Paxton says,

Each ranking signal will have a different weight or value. When algos change, they are basically changing the weight of different ranking signals. Sometimes they add new ranking signals or, remove old ones that are obsolete or heavily abused. I’ve noticed that over time Google will devalue one ranking signal and then later, even years later, increase it again. It seems Google is always going back and forth on what signals deliver the best results. These constant changes, and keywords account for a major part of this, are why so many sites see fluctuating traffic. If you’re not able to adapt and adjust to Google’s constant changing algos, you’ll end up having less reliable traffic and growth.

Ranking Keywords: “Not Always What You  Think”

Paxton constantly reminds clients and other SEO firms that, “Keywords come in all shapes and sizes, from virtually non-competitive to ultra-competitive. The number of monthly searches varies from a few searches per year to millions of searches per day. What makes a keyword competitive may not be what you think it is.”

For instance, Paxton mentions a favorite tactic of the pros: Long-tail keywords. When do-it-yourselfers come up with them, it is usually by chance; when pros do it, it is decidedly with great purpose. A long-tail is usually a lower-volume search which consists of several words, “such as, ‘hire an accident attorney in San Diego.’” He indicates long-tail key phrases can be sneaky good:

At face value, they may appear non competitive because of its low search volume, but often, it’s quite effective because it’s a strong buying phrase that many sites are targeting,” he says. What makes such a term competitive actually “comes down to how many sites are actively trying to rank for the term, more than it does about how many searches that keyword has.

Another good example comes from an experience Paxton had in 2017. He entered and won a world-wide SEO contest in which all contestants (including many of the other top-ranked SEO agencies in the world) were given a word deemed “not very competitive”: Club Penguin. Paxton recalls:

Prior to the contest, any moderate SEO company could have ranked on Page 1 for the term. But as soon as 100 of the top SEO firms started working on ranking for the phrase, it became one of the most competitive keywords at the time. Competition is always more about who you need to beat rather than the actual keyword itself. While we were able to dominate the competition and take home several top awards, it was tough, and required a lot of skills and resources to pull it off effectively. The most boring keyword could turn into a very competitive keyword if suddenly many sites try to rank for it.  

No matter how effective an SEO is at ranking a keyword, if that keyword is not a buying keyword, the ROI will always be lower, and often, virtually useless. Paxton says, “Before we ever rank for a keyword, we first identify whether or not the keyword is worth ranking. Too much time and money is involved in ranking. So, before you ever start, you really need to know if the keyword is will be effective or not.”

Keyword Algos Come with an Unpublished Expiration Date

Imagine going to the grocery store to buy milk, and instead of seeing an actual expiration date, you read, Expiration Date Subject to Change! Yet, that’s pretty much the long and short of Google’s policy on change. As mentioned previously, Google makes 500+ algo adjustments every year. Most are only minor alterations, but nonetheless, they have their effect. One of the trends affecting keyword technology for SEO is the upward curve for artificial intelligence.

“With the increase in verbal searches, more search phrases are longer than in the past. They are more specific in nature as people tend to be typing less and talking or dictating more,” says Paxton. He adds that, “Search engines are adapting to this new evolution in search, as are SEO firms.” He emphasizes the effect of this direction on keywords:

Keyword research and analysis are much more complex than five to ten years ago. But in many ways this is good for everyone. It requires more understanding about how search engines are adapting to longer search queries and how we can help clients benefit from these changes. Technology continually evolves, and search engines have been on the forefront of these changes for a long time. I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon.  Successful SEO requires much more data science and keyword technology to be effective than it ever has.

The Best SEO Companies Constantly Update

When asked how to rank for the most competitive words, Paxton answers, “There’s not really a list of checkboxes when it comes to ranking for any keyword. Sure, there are some common sense things you can do such as optimizing the onpage elements, but when it comes to ranking a competitive keyword, it’s always about understanding why a keyword is ranking now and what your site is missing.”

Paxton refers to these as “algo gaps.” He cautions that, ”before you can ever rank for a competitive keyword, you must first understand what the algorithm is looking at and how your site is falling short.”  

Sobering Words for Amateurs (and Even Many Pros)

In the case of extremely-vied for keywords, it needs to be handled only by experienced professionals who use the most cutting-edge, sophisticated, and most important, up-to-date analysis tools and techniques.
To the would-be “try-it-yourself” SEO, Paxton tends to douse their enthusiasm. He says, “ranking for competitive keywords requires constant monitoring and analysis of the current algorithms. Even if I were to provide a list of common criteria, those things would likely be obsolete by next month, or certainly by the next algo update.”

Boring to Humans, but Exciting to Machines

The world in general has changed a great deal in the past quarter century, and few areas of change can compete with the technology boom that has led the Information Age. Whereas in the past, interesting headlines were an essential element to grab readers’ attention, thus selling more magazines and newspapers, for internet searches, the opposite is true: the most important attention span is that of search engine algorithms, which are feelingless machines, powered and facilitated by computers and software. Without human emotions, search engines ignore provocative titles and crawl instead for keywords, backlinks, and authority that relates directly to what is being searched. Paxton, and other SEO experts like him know that often, “the more creative the title, the worse it does in Google.”

He points out that, “This is why the highest traffic pages for Mental Floss are actually some of the most boring titles.” Paxton profoundly states, “Where they lack in creativity, they thrive in SEO optimization.”

The importance of keyword technology, which includes keyword discovery and proper utilization, cannot be overemphasized. Says Paxton, “Picking the right keywords is the foundation of any good SEO campaign. Get that wrong, and the whole thing crumbles.”

Scott Paxton
About Author
Scott A Paxton is an award-winning SEO Consultant who specializes in creating smart technology to better understand search algorithms. Since 2006, Scott has been working full-time in search optimization and has helped some of the nation's biggest brands thrive online. He's passionate about SEO, and loves his wife and three kids.
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