Are we speaking your language? That’s no accident. We choose our industries with intent—because no competitive advantage rivals experience.
I wanted to tackle a super nerdy question today that gets into some of the nitty-gritty dilemmas at the heart of SEO. Namely: how many keywords should you use on a page?
Keyword research is a complicated subject. Finding good target keywords, and then incorporating them intelligently in to your copy, is a fine balance between natural writing that is pleasant to read, and some awkward restrictions imposed by the limitations of Google’s search algorithm.
One classic example of this balance is the number of keywords you target on a page. It’s often difficult for SEOs to know the extent to which small variances in a keyword or key phrase (such as pluralization or word order) affect the search optimization of a post. As a result, there’s a debate about whether to optimize pages based on one specific word or phrase, or to include multiple variations. Making the right choice can give you an advantage when it comes to page rankings. But knowing what the right choice is can be a challenge.
Fortunately, as search engines improve, these decisions become less consequential. Looking at this question within the context of recent developments can help you find the best keyword strategy for your business.
Back in the early days of SEO, Google (and every other search engine) based their results on exact matches between search phrases and the words used in body copy on websites. If you searched for “leather shoes,” and Google found the words “leather shoes” a number of times on a page, then presumably that page was a good match for your search.
The problem with this approach is that it resulted in “keyword stuffing,” or jamming a bunch of the same phrase on a webpage to help it rank. Later updates of Google’s algorithm accounted for this practice, and it’s now considered a black hat SEO tactic. If Google catches you stuffing a page with key phrases while providing low quality content, it will penalize you in the search rankings.
Google’s Hummingbird update went even farther. Instead of focusing on the exact phrasing of a keyword or phrase, it looks at the intent of the search query. With a better understanding of language, it’s able to account for small changes and match a search phrase with a relevant result, even when the wording isn’t exactly the same. (Eg. “How can I improve my SEO?” and “How you can improve your SEO” share ranking power.)
The focus on intent has significant ramifications for on-page optimization. While in the past using different keywords on different pages might have helped boost your rankings for each individual page, these days Google is more likely to spot the similarities. Unless the subject and the focus of the copy on these various pages is significantly different, it’s likely they’ll be competing for the same search traffic.
Obviously, this isn’t an optimal SEO strategy. But that doesn’t make using a ton of different keywords on the same page a good strategy either. The best strategy will depend on the page itself, and the goal you’re hoping to achieve. Before anything else, it should focus on intent.
Let’s say you have two similar keywords but the intent behind them is almost assuredly the same. We’ll take the examples “sushi restaurant” and “Japanese food.”
Hang on, we’re about to talk a lot about sushi.
Now, let’s say you’re running a local food blog, and you want to cover the various options for Japanese restaurants in the area. Do you treat these as two separate keywords, or as interchangeable terms?
In this example, it would be somewhat backwards to write one post that’s optimized for “sushi restaurant” and other than focuses on “Japanese food.”
For one thing, imagine this from an end user perspective. If the same person reads both pages, will they learn anything new? And won’t they be confused if you talk exclusively about “Japanese food” on the one and “sushi restaurants” on the other?
As readers, we don’t like too much repetition. While consistency is helpful when writing technical documents, when it comes to prose, most of us need a variety of words to retain interest. It boring to see the words “sushi restaurant” repeated twenty times in one post. This is why good writers intuitively switch in synonymous terms like “Japanese food” and “Japanese restaurant.”
So, if you’re so focused on a single keyword that your writing becomes repetitive, you’re doing yourself more harm than good. And if you write two separate posts to target different keywords without covering different material, you’re not providing value to your readers.
At the same time, talking about too many things in one post can lose sight of the topic. Someone searching for information about Japanese restaurants doesn’t want to also hear about Chinese buffets or the Korean grill down the street. While these might make for great topics on their own, they’re not likely to make for satisfactory reading if they’re all in a single blog post.
Again, going back to searcher intent, your goal should be to provide the best response to the query. If your keywords are all over the place, Google is going to have a harder time knowing what your page is about.
In other words, targeting multiple keywords on a page makes sense if those keywords are interchangeable, or if they both significantly relate to the subject at hand. Putting together a lot of unrelated keywords—or phrases that focus on a different subject—won’t provide the targeted answer your readers need.
The number of keywords a given page should have comes down to intent and hierarchy. If you have an umbrella page that addresses the subject generally, targeting multiple keywords makes sense. However, the more specific your topic becomes, the more focused your keywords should be. And because Google is becoming better at matching synonyms and accounting for the syntax behind search terms, I’m less worried about intentionally incorporating key phrases into my copy if they are semantically interchangeable with each other.
However, I should care about times when my keywords don’t match searcher intent. Going back to our previous examples, while many people talk about Japanese/sushi restaurants interchangeably, it is quite possible that some people want to find the best sushi, while others care about the larger umbrella encompassing Japanese food.
I might write a cornerstone post on the choices for Japanese food in the area and their relative benefits. Later, I could give a further breakdown of the culinary options available to lovers of Japanese cuisine. I could give reviews of where to get the best ramen for the lowest price, what restaurant serves the highest quality sashimi, and what to try if you’re tired of sushi and want to venture into other parts of the menu. My cornerstone post would target the subject generally, and include more keywords. But my subsequent posts would become increasingly targeted.
The bottom line is, the better Google understands searcher intent, the less synonymous keyword variations will matter. So, if you’re hyper-focused on optimizing for exact phrase matches, you’re thinking about keywords the wrong way.
What you should be concerned about isn’t how many keywords you use, but the subject matter and positioning of your content. If you write multiple posts that cover the same material but use slightly different keywords, it might help you in the short run. But, once Google notices these pages are equally relevant for the same query, they will begin to compete for traffic.
So, don’t cover too many topics in one post just to load a page with a variety of keywords. But don’t silo your keywords so rigidly that you lose sight of searcher intent.
And to close with a dose of humility, it’s good to remember that as SEOs we’re only so powerful. Again: we don’t tell Google what our keywords are. Google looks at our content and decides based on the language we use.
I wrote this post to target the phrase “multiple keywords.”
However, Google could easily look at it and decide it’s actually about “searcher intent.” (Or “sushi.” You never know.) I can’t tell Google otherwise.
All of this comes back to the golden rule of content marketing. If you want your content to rank well, write good content. This will stand the test of time (and any future Google updates) better than any short-term tactical strategy will.
Can you still do a few things to optimize your posts and work within the system? Absolutely.
But never at the expense of your content.