By Carrie-ann | Dec 11, 2013 | SEO

Why we should focus on topics and not keywords

If you’re still optimising your web content for keywords you’re out of date.  While for the most part the practice of SEO has evolved, with adjustments here and there, the launch of Google’s Hummingbird represents a revolution in Google’s search capability. Yes, Panda and Penguin and their reiterations changed the direction of SEO, but Hummingbird renders keywords redundant (almost). And for many, keywords were SEO, more or less. So now keywords are out, and topics are in, because its search queries that will bring Google visitors to your site.
Consider, for a moment, that the number of webpages being produced is growing all the time. Google’s overriding mantra has always been to improve the user experience. But with so many pages to index and rank, Google needs to refine the way it identifies the best results for any given search. Keywords alone can’t achieve this and over the last year Google has reduced the amount of keyword information available to webmasters. Therefore it’s perhaps not surprising Hummingbird was launched when it was.

The Impact of Hummingbird

In essence you should now be thinking about topics that will help a user answer a search query. I like to call this ‘embedded’ content because content now has to have real meaning and relevance for your visitors. Hummingbird is better able to understand the meaning of search phrases and therefore user intent e.g.  Is the searcher looking for information or buy or make something today?
Keywords were always artificial. Just think back to the old days when it was common to find web content that didn’t make sense because webmasters were determined to shoe-horn keywords into copy. Webmasters felt those phrases had to be included for them to stand any chance of ranking.
Keywords were only ever an abstraction; A form of short hand.  Hummingbird moves Google beyond matching keywords to understanding what a combination of words – the search string – means. In essence, Google now has a much more human-like understanding of the words that the user types into the Google search box.
Rankings will now partly depend on whether your content answers specific search queries.  By writing around topics you will naturally include what we think of today as variations of a keyword. Think about it for a moment. In the past, webmasters may have assumed that the only search terms that counted were the words provided by the Google keyword tool. In contrast, what people actually type into Google is virtually endlessly varied. Keywords alone don’t convey intent. Very few people type ‘pizza’ into Google.  They are much more likely to type ‘where can I buy a pizza in Grantham’ or ‘recipe for pizza’.

Optimisation Post Hummingbird

Above all else you must write for your visitors / customers. This is what Google wants you to do.
Others aspects of optimisation continue to be important including page load times and optimisation across different platforms. Hummingbird has revolutionised how we think of content.  Google has always wanted you to write near professional quality copy. But now to get found by visitors you must address your customers’ needs directly in your content.
I must also mention the fact that Google can now handle semantic search doesn’t mean you should be including search phrases in your copy. That’s the old keyword-bound way of thinking.  Your copy should answer search queries.

Getting Traffic post-Hummingbird

The SEO community has to a greater or lesser extent been focused on keyword rankings as a measure of success. As Google’s algorithm has becomes more complex and subtle it’s become harder to determine why any 1 page ranks higher than other.   But one thing is certain at the time of writing, page authority is still the most important ranking factor.
Going forwards, everyone needs to change their mind set. Rather than focus on keyword ranking objectives, as measures of success, the way forward is to measure success according to visitor actions. This is a huge change in direction. Keywords won’t go away overnight, but measurement will be increasingly about traffic and conversions and topic driven content will play a very significant role. Content will also have to be engineered correct to include calls to action and the like.
Keywords were easy to manipulate, if you were inclined to do so.  On page optimisation still accounts for an important chunk of SEO ‘juice’.  However your mind set has to change from using keywords as search engine ‘bait’, to finding ways to bring traffic to your site using great topic based content.
This fits in nicely with what I have been saying for years – you must reduce your dependency on Google.  Social media is a great way to maximise the impact of your content and to bring people to your site. How visitors react to your content also influences Google rankings. You just can’t rely on Google directly for most of your traffic.