After a Google update, every website owner reassesses and examines their current content and their future strategies. Sometimes this requires a quick audit to ensure your site is still aligned with any major updates. And sometimes it requires a complete overhaul after you see your traffic get cut in half.
However, with the recent updates, many site owners and content creators have gone back to the drawing board – completely rethinking their strategies. It seems that Google is beginning to place more emphasis on expertise and how intent aligns with user experience. In the past, this has always been a focus, but sites have gotten around it. So what’s changed? Has anything changed? Will it?
I won’t attempt to answer these questions here … nor do I have the expertise or authority to do so. Rather, I want to look at one specific factor that might be impacted: keyword research. Particularly, how will keyword research be affected (if at all) by the recent and future Google updates and will keywords still be relevant?
Before continuing, I just want to note that everything shared here are just assumptions I’ve made based on research and working with hundreds of clients over the past few years in the niche website space. I don’t have a magic ball to see into the future, so take everything with a grain of salt.
The Recent Google Update & Future Updates
Over the last 5-6 years, the way in which online content has been written has turned into a formula for ranking – this formula was, essentially, created by Google. They laid out the templates and site owners followed. A question post had to be structured in a way for the snippet to rank; a “best of” article had to have a list of products with pros and cons; a “vs” blog post had to examine all the product features face-to-face and announce a winner.
These are just a few examples, but the structure in which we wrote content was created to please Google, which in turn was made to please the user (or searcher). In other words, Google envisioned that ranking would all be machine-driven based on what they thought would satisfy the user. In theory, a lot of this made sense, but unfortunately it hasn’t worked out as intended. With the massive influx of websites and online content being created, not to mention the growing presence of AI, this has led to the proliferation of SEO-templated content that users actually do not like.
In other words, just because you follow a specific structure or stuff a ton of info into a blog post, it doesn’t mean you can rank for it anymore.
If you think about it, this makes sense … sites attempting to rank for broad topics and keywords using lengthy articles have outranked better written content in the past. This leads to not only a worse user experience, but creates a domino effect as well. A simple search term that could be answered in a 500-word article by an expert is outranked by a longer article on a higher authority site, covering numerous broad topics.
In turn, other sites see this and think “well I guess I have to write a longer article”. Next thing you know, every SERP in the top 20 has 1,500-word articles trying to answer a simple search term, not only making this niche more competitive but skewing the metrics by which a piece of content needs to rank … AND ruining the entire user experience along with it.
Now multiply that by hundreds of thousands of keywords and search terms … over the course of 5-6 years. Everyone’s racing to beat the person ahead of them, but no one’s stopping to think “what are we running toward?”
My point here is, what I think Google will be moving towards (and I believe we’ve already seen a taste of this) is de-emphasizing sites that are trying to rank for broad topic keywords with lengthy articles when the user is seeking an answer to a simple query. Users have identified this as an issue through search terms like “[insert question] REDDIT” where users are going out of their way to find results on other platforms (like Reddit) instead of through Google. In other words, Google seems to be shifting to rewarding sites that provide succinct and user-oriented answers with expertise and value.
But how do you measure expertise or value? In the past it’s been through backlinks and natural language. Now, it seems Google is moving more towards video and user behavior. What do users do after they visit your page? How long do they stay there?
I don’t have the answers as to how this will be measured or what metrics will be used, but providing answers based on an understanding of your audience and your expertise is what Google will be looking for (or at least, I think they will).
How Does This Affect Keyword Research?
So let’s assume that providing a better user experience = offering more succinct and accurate content. In other words, offer more value to the reader through your content and you’ll rank better.
If this is the case, then how important are keywords? Traditionally, keywords have provided content creators and site owners with clusters of topics within a specific category or niche to target when writing an article. But if Google (and users) will place more weight on the “value” of an article, then do you even need to be doing keyword research? Do you need to find clusters of topics within a specific category? Do you need to cover certain terms and phrases in an article to rank? Has all this become null and void? Or will it be in the near future?
My answer … No (or at least not for now).
Personally, I find keyword research to still be extremely relevant and here’s why.
1. Keyword Research = Increased User Value
But … you just spent half this article telling us that Google is looking for more “expertise” and “value” rather than content stuffing – so how do keywords provide more value to the user?
Remember: keywords are created by users.
At the core of it, keywords are just popular search terms created by users. That means continuing to do keyword research will still provide value to you as a content creator or site owner – keywords tell us what people are searching for and more importantly, what they want to be answered.
If you can get a better understanding of what your audience wants to learn, then you can in turn provide more value to your readers. Here’s an example.
The keyword “how to shoot a basketball” has approx. 7,400 searches a month. When we dig a little further we see there are thousands of other searches around this term such as “how to shoot better in basketball” and “how to shoot a basketball farther”. This tells us that this topic might need to cover more than just the basics (or maybe the basics + advanced techniques). We can also see that videos are ranking well for this, telling us that tutorials are probably offering more value for this topic.
Some quick keyword research has provided us enough info to know that we’ll have to write an in-depth tutorial on shooting a basketball from beginner to advanced and most likely want to include a video.
2. Keyword Clusters Can Also Increase Value
Similar to my point above, keyword clustering can offer more value to your content and your readers. But, there’s a fine line between clustering to provide more value and keyword stuffing.
Let’s use another example. If we search the term “can dogs eat [xyz]” there are hundreds of potential search terms here with a lot volume. You might see these and think it might be a good idea to rank for multiple “can dogs eat” keywords by covering various topics in the same article. But instead what we see is each of these terms rank well individually – each article in the SERPs (for the most part) offer short, to-the-point answers for each term, rather than trying to cover multiple topics. We can also see that clicks per search are around 40%.
What does this tell us? Most people searching for these terms are looking for an exact answer on “can dogs eat [xyz]” and once they have the answer, they’re moving on. Because the clicks are fairly low, it also tells us that snippets are important here – so you don’t need a long article to offer value to the reader. In other words, the keyword research tells us:
- These search terms are extremely popular
- Searchers are looking for a specific answer around can their dog eat a specific type of food
- Searchers are looking for a clear “yes” or “no” answer + some additional info
So in this case, it’d be a better idea to create multiple articles around as many of these topics as possible, rather than clustering them together into one article.
3. Keyword Research Tells Us What to Target
You can be an expert in your field, but still rank poorly for keywords in your niche. Why? Because you’re not targeting the right keywords.
Keyword research allows site owners to get a better understanding of what search terms are actually being searched – in other words, what are users wanting answered. You need to make sure that the content you’re writing has an audience that will want to read it.
For instance, maybe you’re a golf expert and start site on tips and advice for other golfers. However, the content you create uses too much advanced terminology that most people aren’t searching for and/or don’t understand. Why is this happening? Probably because a lot of the popular golf keywords are focused on simple search terms such as “how to grip a golf club” and “how to swing a golf club”. Does this mean you should give up? Absolutely not! Just change your course of action and focus on providing the best advice you can on simpler techniques (and then adding in advanced tips as well).
There’s a fine line between using keywords to help write your content vs writing content based on keywords. The latter is what Google is trying to move away from – websites that find massive clusters of keywords and attempt to rank for them regardless of whether their sites are focused in that niche. Instead, come up with topics that you want to write about, then find keywords that fit within those categories.
Is Keyword Research Still Relevant?
In my opinion, yes, and I believe it will continue to be. Keyword research is the one tool that gives us insight into how people are searching the web. It allows us to create new and better content that will ultimately provide value to users. When used correctly, it can be a powerful tool for any site owner or content creator. But … keyword research has to be combined with quality content in order to work – keywords can light up the path and show us where to go, but you still have to put one foot in front of the other and choose to walk the path yourself.