I read a post on Google+ recently that mocked another post talking about keyword research, stating it was an old, outdated strategy from 2008 with no relevance to today’s online landscape. While I disagreed with such a quick dismissal of keyword research, it got me thinking.

What actually is the case for keyword research? Is it really still as relevant as it was? What part should it play in today’s content marketing?

Is Keyword Research Dead?

Let’s start by reviewing what’s changed since keyword research was all the rage. Three of the most significant changes in relation to keywords have been as follows:

  • Google encrypted all searches and moved them all over to the secure, dark side … the result was that as a site owner, you could no longer determine what search led a particular visitor to arrive at your site.
  • Google’s Penguin and Panda updates unleashed chaos in the SEO world, sounding the death knell for over-optimized content and unbalanced link profiles, along with many businesses who were dangerously over-dependent on their rankings.
  • Google’s Hummingbird update improved semantic search and meant it was interpreting the meaning of a query, rather than solely focusing on keyword relevance.

While these changes meant it became harder to judge which keywords held the most profit potential, they also meant it was less likely you could get content ranked by keyword optimization alone, and over-doing it could have the opposite effect to the one intended.

Some interpreted this to mean that it was a waste of time optimizing content for any keywords at all … but there’s no evidence this is actually true.

Other factors, such as social media signals, are having an increasing influence on the SERPs … but it doesn’t follow that keyword optimization no longer plays a part.

I suspect those throwing out the baby with the bath water – mainly from the hard-hit SEO brigade, and other similarly-affected businesses – regard keyword (over-)optimization as one of the methods through which they were able to directly manipulate search engine ranking.

By this I mean they were able to get unworthy content ranked above other content that was actually of more value in relation to the query. They then got sore through the decreasing effect (and later, damage) such methods were causing them and their clients.

Google’s continual updates are of course designed to counter such manipulative activities … and ensure they are genuinely delivering content of most value to their users.

It’s a subtle difference, but rather than attempts to get one over on Google, if you instead regard keyword optimization as helping Google (and other SEs, let’s not forget them) understand what a particular web page or piece of content is all about, it opens up a new and more effective approach. It also incurs little risk and will have far longer positive effects for your business than manipulative SEO, which will always be a short-term battle you can never win.

Obviously, the ultimate goal is still to get the content well-ranked, but rather than working against Google, you’re working with them. After all, if it’s you versus several thousand PhDs, who do you think’s gonna win?

Instead of trying to trick them into getting unworthy content ranked for a term it doesn’t deserve a ranking for, it’s about creating quality content in the first place and then helping them to understand what your worthy content is all about so they are better able to rank it accordingly.


And it’s here where keyword research retains an important place.

If you had a choice between writing a post about Keyword A that got 1000 searches a month, and a slightly differently worded Keyword B that got 500 searches a month, you may initially believe Keyword A held stronger potential, and slant your content accordingly.

But then, in completing your research, you determine that Keyword A has over one million competing web pages … whereas Keyword B has under fifty thousand completing web pages. You therefore have far more chance that you will get content ranked for Keyword B than Keyword A, and more traffic potential as a result.

Despite all of Google’s changes, I don’t believe this aspect of keyword research has changed at all. It’s simple supply and demand. You still need to determine what information (or even products and services) your target market is searching for (the demand), research the level of supply that’s currently meeting that need, and from that determine your own approach in capturing a slice of the market.

It applies to the supply of content, as much as products and services.

What has changed is how you then attempt to optimize the content for the keywords in question. That is now as much of an art as it is a science. So rather than ensuring a particular keyword appears X number of times in certain pre-determined places, you’re weaving in semantically-related terms to help Google understand what the content piece as a whole is all about.

In terms of external SEO, you can still build up links to your content, but in a far less keyword-centric fashion than you might have done just two or three years ago. So the keywords you use to link back will vary a lot more, again with semantically-related language, as well as linking back with the actual URL of the content and natural phrases that may bear little or no relation to the actual content (one obvious example, click here).

It’s no longer just about links of course, but again it doesn’t follow to discount them. While they are still effective, other ranking factors such as building up your social media authority, and making your content as shareable as possible to help Google understand the credibility of the information you’re making available and what other people think of it are becoming increasingly important in growing your online visibility.

To conclude, while keyword research remains part of the landscape and should be a factor in your content marketing strategy, it should not be the sole determiner for the content you produce. It can only tell you part of the story in terms of what is going to attract your target market to your content. For example, you also need to become keenly aware of the type of content that resonates well within your niche.

Ultimately it’s important to focus on creating and delivering content for your own readers, and potential or existing prospects and customers for your business. This is the type of content Google wants to deliver to its users, and businesses pursuing that strategy will be the long-term winners in the search engines. Effective keyword research continues to help you attune that content in the most advantageous direction and discover what your market is looking for.