Back in the day (OK, maybe 2012 wasn’t that long ago), SEO was all about keywords. Think of a keyword like a shortcut that sums up the content of your page. It can be a short-tail keyword (fitness), or a long-tail keyword (book personal training lesson online). If you didn’t have your exact keyword repeated in every sentence on your page, you weren’t trying. Let’s say you ran a fitness centre in Ottawa. If you listened to a well-meaning SEO, you might end up with a page like this:
Suffice it to say that looks like a nightmare now. Don’t get me wrong – keywords are still important. But Google’s bots have moved well beyond that kind of rigid exact-match keyword placement, and you should too. Even if we haven’t quite reached the stage of artificial intelligence where we can call Google bots “smart” (sorry RankBrain), the genius engineers and programmers behind them certainly are. They understand that humans just don’t search in obvious and predictable ways, and they’ve made huge strides in the last few years in order to aapt to the way humans really search.
There are really complex technical explanations, but the big takeaway for small businesses is to understand that the days of trying to optimize for bots are over. Optimizing for humans will yield the best results in every case.
Search results in a nutshell
\Let’s take a very simplified view of the way search engines used to work, for demonstration purposes. You do a search for the ultimate pancake recipe. Google returns some decent recipes, but nothing that quite reaches the standards you were expecting. Meanwhile, most amazing, earth-shattering, jaw-dropping recipe sits unseen because it refers to pancakes with a synonym, flapjacks. That’s a simplification, but the point stands: search engine intelligence has always been a work in progress. (Plus it’s a great excuse to post this picture).
Now let’s talk about your content itself. In order to optimize for search engines, the general belief was that you had to have your keywords present in a very specific order, with a very specific density, for best search engine performance. You had to repeat your targeted keyword in the title, in the opening paragraph, and maybe repeat it in the subheaders and body as appropriate. It was definitely possible to do this tactfully and subtly, but sometimes you get bashed over the head with the keyword (see the example above). No one liked writing this way, no one liked reading this way, but it felt like it had to be done if you wanted to rank.
Fortunately, Google got better, and SEOs started to wise up too. Through years of development and refinement, search engines are now capable of understanding the relationship between words. They understand that if you search for cars, results with autos and vehicles will be relevant – and so will the 2006 Disney/Pixar movie. They understand that if you query for Barack’s wife, you’re looking for Michelle Obama (even though neither word is present in your query).
Your own worst enemy
With your own business, you know your own terminology a little too well, and sometimes you need some distance. For example, in real estate agents are known as Sales Representatives, they work for a Brokerage, and they help clients buy/sell Properties. However, just because those are the official terms, it doesn’t mean people will be searching them to find you. Instead, they might Google “real estate company” or “homes for sale.”
You need to step away and realize that optimizing your website and web presence around a very precise set of industry-specific keywords may not be in your best interest. After all, you could rank first for waste management and disposal technician, but if no one sees the page because they’re searching garbage man, you’re out of luck.
Consider this picture. What would you type if you were searching for this? Red car? Race car? Sports car? Supercar? Fast vehicle? Ferrari? All of these are perfectly legitimate, but if as the owner of the website you only optimized for “Italian luxury automobile,” you’re missing on huge traffic (and thus conversion/sales) opportunities.
Now of course, search engines are getting smarter, and they understand synonyms and context more and more as the days go by. As the days go by, this means that focusing on an ultra-narrow set of keywords is a waste of time, especially if it results in content that reads as awkward to site visitors.
Moving beyond keywords
So in terms of website content, there are two interesting things to consider. One, search engines are smart and getting smarter by the day. Two, when we try to zero in on the perfect keywords to optimize for, it’s easy to miss the point altogether. Fortunately, the solution to this two-fold dilemma is shockingly simple. Write for humans. Use natural language! Don’t worry about how often you repeat your keyword. Write naturally with no fear that you’re ruining your ranking potential. You don’t need to repeat your location thirty times in a 400-word article. Use synonyms, alter the word order, and do whatever you need to do to write the most readable, interesting, valuable, and insightful copy possible.
How this helps your business
Now you can optimize for your readers instead of search engine bots. When you optimize for your target audience – the people who will be buying your product or service – you can ultimately deliver a better experience and convert more leads into sales. Now, your web presence is actually helpful and representative of your service and values, not an ugly jumble filler words with a precise ratio of targeted keywords.