Since the beginning of search engine optimization, keywords have been at the center of any content strategy. But with the increasing complexity of SEO, the ability to rank high on Google now expands much wider beyond keywords.
As search engines evolve, our approach to content should evolve as well. But for organizations who are less experienced in SEO, exploring an updated strategy can feel intimidating when unfamiliar with how modern search engines work.
In what might seem unexpected, search engines today are actually making it easier for you to get more eyes on your social mission. In this article, we’ll explore more into why that’s the case and how you can use SEO to build a meaningful connection with your target audience.
How has SEO changed?
First, it’s important to understand the history of SEO to help debunk the outdated strategies that may still exist in your mindset.
If you were doing SEO in the early 2000s, SEO strategy generally revolved around making sure your keyword showed up on a website as often as possible. This is also known as keyword stuffing. This strategy led to choppy writing, poor readability, and content that lacked value. While many may still believe keyword-stuffing is the best way to be seen online, optimizing for search engines has evolved substantially from that point and actually tend to reward content that’s written for readability.
Today, Google is the dominating search engine, accounting for 88% of all web searches. As it’s the leader in SEO and its evolution, it’s critical to understand how Google operates and to build your strategies around its algorithms.
Search engine optimization’s modern advances are a result of recent Google algorithm updates. There are three Google updates that have changed the landscape for how we use keywords:
Hummingbird: The Google Hummingbird update happened in 2013. It was the first big update where Google began to understand language as “strings to things”: instead of Google seeing a meaningless order of words, it now understands these words in the context of topics, people, places, and organizations–in other words, actual entities. For instance, when you type “charities near me” in your search bar, Google is not going to find you a web page with those exact words. Instead, it contextually understands that you’re looking for a charity in your area, providing a list of organization websites within your location. When a search is made, Google pulls from its search of entities, trying to find the most relevant answer to that query.
RankBrain: In 2015, the Google RankBrain update was released to evolve this concept of “contextual searches” through machine learning. Machine learning refers to the process of computers, AI, or algorithms teaching themselves in order to improve, rather than needing humans to manually update them. The RankBrain update allowed Google to learn from its daily 8.5 billion searches to improve its understanding of language and present better search results.
BERT: The Google BERT update in 2019 focused on Natural Language Processing (NLP). NLP is how computers understand language, which in the past has been “not that great”. In response, researchers have developed different models to help machines better understand components of language: classification, sentiment analysis, and entity recognition. BERT brings these components together to better understand the nuances and complexities of natural language. For example, in past SEO, “stop words” (on, a, the, etc.) were ignored, but now Google understands the important role that these words play in adding nuance to the meaning of a sentence. Even with the human habit of speaking erroneously or with poor grammar, BERT helped Google’s search engine interpret our conversational language much more accurately.
The takeaway here is that modern SEO is built on entities, not keywords. Google now understands content as a dynamic topic, rather than providing word-for-word search results. It’s understanding what needs to be provided at the end of your intended search, rather than the words of the search itself.
What does this mean for your organization? It means that it’s not enough to simply pick a popular keyword and insert it in your website as many times as possible. Instead, consistent creation of relevant and valuable content (about the topics within your expertise) will be the best way for your target audience to find you on Google.
What is search intent and why is it important to SEO?
Search intent is the ultimate goal of a user’s search; the reason they went to Google in the first place. Because of the Google algorithm updates, it’s become even more important to understand search intent.
A user’s search intent ultimately boils down to four classifications:
- Navigational – The user’s intent is to go somewhere specific. Example: David Suzuki Foundation
- Transactional – The user’s intent is to do something specific. Example: donate to cancer research
- Investigational – The user’s intent is to learn more about a topic in order to ultimately do something. Example: Top charities to support in Toronto
- Informational – The user’s intent is to learn something. Example: how does affordable housing address racial inequity
Depending on what a user is typing in the search bar, the content provided in the Google results will look very different.
When knowing what your target audience will search for, you can strategically craft content that will match their search intent. Ask yourself: What does your audience want to know more about? How can you be there for them? This helps create the content journey you want your user to experience.
Focus on topics, not keywords.
One of the ways we can respond to the increased sophistication of Google is not to be so focused on ranking for a keyword, but really building your authority around your core topics with topic clusters. What are topic clusters? Topic clusters are groups of subtopics organized around a core topic.
Topic clusters create a structure for your content strategy: You get to share your organization’s cause and expertise by building a network of blog posts that link together.
This framework not only leads your intended audience through a strategic content journey, but it also signals to Google that you are a go-to website for providing accurate, reliable, and valuable information on the topics that you are creating content about.
Are keywords still relevant in SEO?
While topic clusters will drive your content journey, your keyword strategy will provide important insight into what your audience is searching for.
A single search can tell you about both implicit and explicit data. For example, if someone were to search “sustainable food sourcing solutions in Africa”, we can pull a lot of valuable information from that user’s search intent.
Explicitly, we know that this user is searching for informational content on sustainable food sourcing in a specific region.
Implicitly, we can infer that this user has a fairly advanced understanding of the issue since “food sourcing solutions” is not everyday language. They’re also using the plural “solutions” as opposed to the “best solution”. This tells us that they want to learn about a variety of different solutions and would be relatively comfortable with a more technical description or analysis.
And voilà, we’ve mapped out your blog post! By analyzing your keywords, you now can write a piece of informational content to this specific user, providing them with the specific type of answers they’re searching for.
How to use keyword research:
What are keywords?
Keywords are questions that people have that they will search for using their favourite search engine. Keyword research then is the process of uncovering those searches and then providing the answers.
Keyword research helps you see your topic from your audience’s perspective by identifying the questions they most frequently ask. This practice ensures that when your target audience goes to Google to type in their questions, you can show up for them as a trustworthy resource in their search results.
Referring to our previous example, let’s say this is what our keyword list looks like:
- What is sustainable food sourcing
- Why is sustainable food sourcing essential
- How sustainable food sourcing increases food safety
- Global food sourcing solutions
You can optimize your blog-post by using these keywords (or phrases) as headers throughout your content, guiding the reader to their exact answer. When searchers see their questions repeated back to them, they are more likely to trust that you are the resource that they need.
The goal here is to use keywords as a tool to build out the content that your target audience is in search of. By doing this, not only will Google start seeing you as a valuable resource for your core topics, but it also provides the opportunity to cultivate a relationship with the users who land on your site.
Google may be more complex, but your mindset doesn’t have to be.
The increased sophistication of search engines has simplified things for SEO beginners. Now you can focus on what you do best: creating consistent content on topics that serve your community within your expertise.
Teliyadu's Senior Developer, Flimon Shferaw, says his biggest advice is this:
The content that you create will build trust, reliability, and grow a meaningful relationship with your audience. If you do that well and consistently, you will see organic traffic increase to your website.