Keywords aren’t as useful as they were in 2012.

That’s been true for a while now—ever since the Google Hummingbird algorithm went into effect back in 2013, and especially with the advent of RankBrain.

Because of this, more and more SEOs are talking about the shift from specific keywords to broader topics when it comes to content strategy.

Brian Dean said in January 2018 that long-tail keywords are dead. And even HubSpot overhauled their keyword-first blog strategy in 2017 to focus more on topics (and boosted traffic by about 107%).

It’s easy to read about keywords and topic clusters and wonder just what’s going on.

There are two basic reasons keywords’ role in SEO is changing:

  1. Google is getting smarter at guessing what you want when you search.
  2. People are getting used to Google getting smarter, so we’re searching in different ways.

But as long as we’re using words to search Google, keywords will be important to SEO.

To explain why, let’s use a less technical example.

Example: Google as a librarian

Let’s pretend you want to start a tropical aquarium in your home.

You’re a responsible person. So you go to the library to check out a book on tropical fish care.

You tell the librarian you’re thinking of starting a home aquarium. You ask him if he has any books about tropical fish. The librarian’s eager to help, and comes back with a stack of ten books he thinks you’ll love.

Some of those books are helpful:

  • Caring for Your Tropical Fish
  • Tropical Fish: a Beginner’s Guide
  • How to Feed Your Tropical Fish
  • Choosing the Right Tropical Fish for Your First Aquarium

Some of them are not so helpful:

  • On the Reef: Photography of Australia’s Tropical Fish
  • My Life as a Tropical Fish: a Poetry Anthology

You ask the librarian why he grabbed those other books for you—they’re clearly not going to help you take care of tropical fish.

“Well,” he responds. “They all say ‘tropical fish’ in the title!”

That’s a bit like how Google treated keywords back in 2012.

If you wanted Google to serve up a page in the search results, you needed to get that keyword in the title. You needed to mention that keyword in anchor text, headings, and maybe even some sleek formatting.

I’m not talking about keyword stuffing.

You already know that’s not OK.

I’m talking about honestly trying to optimize a page for a very specific keyword.

And I can tell you from experience, it worked.

I tried it out. Back in 2012, I wrote this awful, stupid blog post.

And it used to rank on page 1 for the search term, “Wizards of Middle Earth.”


Yep. A hundred words, maybe half of which are even about the subject. And it ranked right up there with

Google was like that spacey librarian. Eager to please, but fetching some really dumb content just because it was “optimized” for a certain keyword.

Now … what would a smarter librarian do?

Let’s go back to our librarian analogy. It’s the same setup. You ask the librarian if he can recommend any books on tropical fish.

Again, he returns with ten books. But this time, they’re all on tropical fish care. In fact, each book was checked out and renewed by people who own tropical aquariums.

Plus, this librarian has read each one to make sure it’s not just a picture book. He knows each book is going to help you take care of tropical fish.

But some of them don’t have “tropical fish” anywhere in the title:

  • How to Take Care of Your Tropical Aquarium
  • How to Choose the Perfect Fish Tank
  • The Beginner’s Guide to Saltwater Fish Care

Are you upset? No way.

You just got a bunch of books that are going to help you do what you came to the library to do: learn about tropical fish.

The only person who’s upset is the author of that poetry anthology. Aspiring fish caretakers used to check her book out all the time—now they don’t. So of course, she tells her author friends that “libraries are dead.”

Google’s smarter now, too.

Google isn’t just looking for keywords. It’s looking at the concepts behind the keywords. It’s getting better and better at determining the question behind the search—not just taking searches at face value. Google uses an AI program to recognize search intent called RankBrain.

It’s more important that Google turn around results that match your intent than it is that it only serve up results that match the words you typed in.

This makes searchers happy—and old-school SEOs very unhappy.

Just like the fish poet in our example told her friends that libraries are dead, a lot of people who got used to the old way of doing SEO are saying keywords are dead.

Takeaway: Relevance is bigger than keywords

So keywords are becoming less important in SEO. But don’t let that fool you.

You still can’t do SEO without keywords.

Until Google starts reading minds, you’ll be using keywords to do your SEO planning.

But it’s different now.

Today, you can’t afford to be super specific with your keywords anymore. It’s far more important that your content demonstrates to Google that you’re meeting the searchers’ general intent.

That means that if you’re going to rank for “tropical fish care,” you’d better be writing about everything that goes into caring for tropical fish: tanks, filters, food, temperature, sunlight, compatible species, etc.

Those are all “keywords” that you’ll want to include in your content—and they’re phrases that would naturally show up in an epic post about tropical fish care.

Do the broad research.

Solve the bigger problems that people are searching for.

Do it well, build links, grow traffic, and you’ll start ranking for all those relevant search queries—not just the one specific keyword you had in mind.

Which means if you do it right, you’ll get even more traffic from your optimized content.