Now and then: The evolution of keyword research for content marketers since 2011
When we first opened for business in Australia in early 2011 keywords played a very different role in content creation and promotion than they do today.
The evolution of keywords might feel like a nerdy topic that your SEO agency should be worrying about, but in reality keywords are still an important consideration for content marketers.
Even if you’ve diversified beyond organic search and use other channels to promote your content, such as paid social, email and sponsored posts, Google is still likely to be providing a big chunk of your traffic. On average it’s around 65 per cent.
So, if keywords still matter, what’s changed since 2011?
The days of keyword and landing page tables
In the early days of content marketing, when nobody in this part of the world even called it content marketing (see the Google Trends graph below for “content marketing” in Australia since 2004), search was the only show in town for most of our clients. The idea of having their own blog or news section supported by new landing pages was a bit of a novelty. Something that seemed worth a share of the SEO budget if it helped win more traffic.
With search the sole consideration when building the content strategy and showing return on investment to clients, mapping keyword groups to landing pages was an essential part of the set-up process. We would then divvy up the available articles each month between the keyword groups and use an auto-linking tool to point the keywords through to the relevant landing page.
In an era when most websites in this market weren’t growing significantly month-to-month this was a reliable way to get a kick in search traffic. Keyword data was a lot easier to get hold of, so a lot of the conversations we were having with clients was about the movement of particular keywords.
Nowadays, it’s more difficult to see which individual keywords have sent you a visitor. Google Analytics suppresses most of this information and while there are plenty of third party tools that have stepped in to breach, keywords – at least the priority, short-tail keywords – have become less relevant.
Personalisation, localisation and the growing importance of mobile in determining search results means where your site ranks can vary significantly depending on who’s running the search, where they are and what device they’re using. At the same time, keyword diversity has increased dramatically, with the average length of search terms expanding and more and more activity moving to the long-tail. Around 15 per cent of the 3.5 billion queries Google handles every day are unique, first-time searches. And Google clearly expects this to be a growth area, having deployed RankBrain, which uses artificial intelligence to handle search queries, at this potentially tricky segment.
The Hummingbird effect
Perhaps the most significant change Google has made when it comes to keywords was the launch of its Hummingbird algorithm in 2013. Hummingbird and the rhetoric that surrounded its launch prompted a change in how content marketers used keywords.
Post-Hummingbird, Google said it would be interrogating the meaning behind search queries in an effort to serve up better results for users. This would weaken the link between the words in a query and the words on a page. Google also said it would be using all the words a user typed in or spoke into their phone to help work out what they were after.
Partly because of voice search and also a growing faith in what search engines were capable of, users were phrasing more searches as questions. Content marketers jumped on the opportunity to create lots and lots of question-and-answer style content, particularly on their blogs, in the hope that Hummingbird would swoop in and send them loads of additional traffic.
While that tactic was no guarantee of success the wider point about content that provides more specific, in-depth information about a given topic had important implications for the role keyword research plays in building content strategies.
Now, rather than creating lots of content containing a small number of priority, short-tail keywords, content marketers use keywords to set the broader direction for their content. The particular topics they choose and phrases they link are more natural. You can see from this second Google Trends graph that while content marketing has been on the rise, interest in keyword tools – once a core requirement of any self-respecting content marketer – has been heading steadily in the opposite direction.
When quantity came first
Content marketing has always required a bit of a balancing act when it comes to quantity and quality. With limitless resources you could produce as much content as you wanted and spend as much time as you wanted tweaking and improving it.
In reality, your content marketing ambitions will always be limited by budget, resources and practical hurdles. And while you could always do more and do it better, there is no doubt the sweet spot has shifted towards doing more with less in the last 5 years.
Back in 2011, there was a real difference between writing for search and writing for humans. Decent but quite formulaic content created primarily for mentioning keywords would always move the search dial if it was done at scale. The value of each individual piece of content was very low, but combined with 40 or 50 more pieces of content every month the cumulative impact on organic search traffic was consistent and positive. Quantity was king.
But as content marketing has moved from the periphery of search to the centre-piece of overall marketing budgets every piece of content has to pass much closer scrutiny. At the same time, the void between the preferences of search engines and those of humans has narrowed considerably.
Of the 5 major Google updates tracked last year by MOZ, a well-regarded inbound marketing firm, 3 specifically targeted quality. Google has made it clear that it will continue to look for new signals that can help it measure the value of individual pages to users, meaning the correlation between quality and good search rankings will only get stronger.
These two trends have led to a noticeable shift in the strategies content marketers are adopting. Higher standards from brands and search engines have meant the high-volume tactics of yesteryear are much more difficult to realise and less likely to deliver results.
And with everyone doing content marketing it’s now much more important to do it well rather than to simply do it. Five years ago that would have been enough to give you the edge on the competition, but not today. Today standing out from the crowd and being heard above the noise is much more difficult.