Three critical trends in keyword research that you need to adopt – Watch Engine Watch


30-second summary:

  • Accurately matched keywords are useful for exploring patterns and trends, but not so much for optimization purposes
  • When optimizing for keywords, optimize for purpose and solve problems, don’t just link your page to a keyword
  • Brand-driven keywords should be your top priority because you can’t control SERPs, but you can sort the resources that will get people back to your site
  • Instead of focusing on keyword sets, explore your niche entities and find ways to connect your business to these through on-site content and linking efforts.

If you ask an SEO expert to name one of the SEO tactics that has changed the most over the years, he or she will probably confidently answer “link building”. Some will point to “technical tasks,” and few will ever think of “keyword research.”

The truth is that most SEO tasks today look completely different, but few SEO experts have changed the fundamental way of researching keywords and optimizing content for those keywords.

Yes, it looks like we’ve finally left the keyword density (unless Google forces back), but basically nothing has changed: we run keyword tools, find relevant keyword sets, and use them as much as possible on a specific page.

Meanwhile, Google’s understanding and treatment of keywords has changed completely.

1. Exact matching keywords are becoming obsolete

Google has a long history of trying to understand search queries other than matching word strings to search index documents.

And they succeeded.

It began years ago when Hummingbird was first quietly introduced and then officially released in August 2013.

However, only a few SEOs actually understood the update or realized how big a change everything they knew it was.

With Hummingbird, Google has made it clear that they are working to gain a deeper understanding of search journeys and that this would ultimately fix all of their problems. Because they manage to know exactly what the searcher wants, and learn to give it to them, no false signals or algorithm manipulations will affect their search quality.

Hummingbird was the first time Google announced that it wanted to understand “things” instead of matching “a set of words”. In other words, with Hummingbird, exact-matched keyword sets began to become less and less useful.

After the hummingbird came BERT which has helped Google improve its understanding of how people search.

Exact match keywords become obsolete after the Google BERT updateImage source: Google

There is a short but rather instructive one video about the problems and solutions of Google engineers trying to teach the machine to understand the obvious: what do people think when they enter a search query?

This video perfectly explains the development of SEO:

  • Context is important
  • Google is trying, but slowly, to understand “context, tone, and purpose.”
  • Search queries are becoming less and less predictable as more and more people talk to a search engine their way
  • Stop words actually add meaning and are often key to change.

Pickup here: Keyword research tools are still useful. They help you understand patterns: how people tend to design a query when looking for answers and solutions in your niche.

But search volume keywords aren’t always what people use to research your target topic. People search on Google in a variety of often unpredictable ways. According to the allegations Googleon a daily basis, 15% of searches are those that Google has not yet seen.

Google encounters 15% every day. brand new search queries. So are different search behaviors.

Google strives to keep you away from matching keywords complete and useful answers on inquiry. And that’s what your SEO strategy should be about.

Whatever keyword research process the one you used is probably still valid: it helps you understand the demand for certain queries, prioritize your content resources, and structure your site.

That is optimization a step that is completely different today. It is no longer enough to use that word in page title, description in titles.

So when you create an optimization strategy for each keyword you identify:

  • Try to figure out what would satisfy you the purpose of the search for this query: What is the searcher really looking for? The list? Video? Product to buy? A guide to follow? Also small changes to the searchable set of keywords (e.g. plural versus singular) can signal the purpose of the search that you need to be aware of.
  • Search Google for this query and review search snippets: Google is very good at identifying what a search engine needs, so it creates search snippets that can give you a lot of clues.

Note that none of the high-ranking documents contain this exact search query:

Sorting resources for different keywords compared to exact-matched keywordsImage source: Screenshot of the author

2. Branded keywords are your priority

More and more people are using search to navigate a site, and for a number of reasons:

  • Some of the most powerful browsers allow people to search from the address bar (includes Safari on desktop and mobile and obviously Google Chrome)
  • People get used to voice search, so they just say brand names to do the search.

Branding by keyword to target your audience

Image source: Screenshot of the author

In other words, your customers who probably know your brand and may be ready to buy – these hard-earned customers are forced to look for your brand name or search for your brand.

And what will they see?

It’s amazing how many companies have no idea what happens when they search for a brand, or how many customers they lose due to poorly managed (or more often non-existent) reputation management in the SERP.

There are three key things you need to know about branding:

  • These are mostly high-end queries: these searchers enter your brand name and intend to buy from you
  • These are often your existing returning customers who buy more than those who return for the first time
  • Due to both of the above factors, these are your top priorities.

However, you have no control over what people see when they search for your brand. In fact, monitoring and optimizing for these brand-based queries is not a one-time task. It is there as long as your brand exists.

  • Treat your brand name as a keyword: expand it, optimize it, monitor the ranking of your site
  • Identify issues at a deeper level for your brand-driven customer search patterns: What can you improve to address the issues behind these queries?

Identifying customer pain points for keyword researchImage source: Screenshot of the author

Your branded search queries should become part of your sales stream – from About the site to product pages in lead magnets should capture these brand-driven opportunities.

In many cases, when you see a large number of brand-based keywords, you may need a higher-level approach, such as setting independent knowledge base.

3. Entities are key

Entities are Google’s way of understanding this world.

Entities are all proper names out there: places, people, brands, and so on.

Google has a map of entities – called the Knowledge Graph – that makes up Google’s understanding of the world.

Entities help Google understand the context and purpose of a search.

Use of entities and semantic searchImage search: A Beginner’s Guide to Semantic Search

Being a Google subject means appearing on searches where you were imagined but never mentioned:

Use Google entities to research keywordsImage source: Screenshot of the author

Through the links of entities, Google knows what the search is about.

Entities should be at the core of your keyword research process: What are known entities, is your niche, and how do you associate your brand with those entities?


Search engine optimization is evolving rapidly, so brands need an agile strategy. If you research keywords the old-fashioned way, your business is about 10 years behind!

Ann Smarty is the founder of Viral Content Bee, Head of Brands and Communities at Internet Marketing Ninjas. You can find her on Twitter @seosmarty.

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