Keyword rankings have been on the decline for years. There once was a time when holding the top position for a target keyword was the pinnacle of success in the world of search marketing, but today, keyword rankings simply aren’t as meaningful as more important factors like organic traffic and the behavior patterns of your web visitors.
Now that the Pigeon update has taken root, the relevance of keyword rankings has been all but destroyed.
It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact moment when keyword rankings started to become less significant in the world of online search, but the Panda update of 2011 is a good place to start. Before the Panda update, SEO was a mathematical, somewhat fine-tuned process. Websites wanted traffic. In order to get that traffic, you had to have a high rank. In order to get that rank, you had to include X pieces of content with X number of keywords, then post X number of links on external sites for a period of X months until you got the rank you wanted.
Then Panda hit. With the Panda update, factors for ranking became much more complex. Google started scrutinizing the quality of your content more than the quantity or keyword makeup of your content, and looking at other factors like bounce rates and site loading speeds to influence its search results. Ranking was still important, but keywords began to diminish in importance, since Google’s search algorithm no longer paid much attention to how many keywords were used in a given site. Instead, it started using contextual clues to qualify the significance of each site (and individual page).
The Penguin update was next to follow. While the Panda update was intended to clean up the irrelevant content on the web, the Penguin update was intended to clean up irrelevant links. External links anchored by repetitive keywords started yielding penalties instead of ranking boosts, and the source and number of external links built started to matter. As such, external link building could essentially no longer focus on specific keywords. Instead, they had to focus on topics and categories.
The Hummingbird update made things even more complicated in 2013. It formally introduced a system of “semantic search,” which started looking at contextual clues in users’ search queries rather than the individual keywords and keyword phrases. For example, if a user searched for “cemeteries in Hoboken NJ,” older versions of Google’s algorithm would dissect that phrase into keywords, searching for pieces of content with the phrases “cemeteries” and “Hoboken NJ” near each other. “Hoboken NJ” is not a natural phrase in most forms of written content, so search marketers would have to wedge the phrase into their content unnaturally to rank for it.
The post-Hummingbird search algorithm looks at the phrase “cemeteries in Hoboken NJ” and analyzes it as a conversational phrase, looking for websites that appear to represent cemeteries (not necessarily scouting for the keyword phrase), with a given location of Hoboken (again, not searching for the appearance of the keyword phrase). It was a thick nail in the coffin of keyword relevance, but there were still opportunities for keyword optimization until the Pigeon update came along and destroyed the last remnants of keyword relevance.
The Pigeon update was not officially named by Google, but it came on to the scene in July of 2014. Targeting mostly local search results, the Pigeon update changed much of the way Google populated results pages for individuals looking for a local business or organization.
So what, exactly, did Pigeon change?
First, it decreased the distance used to calculate what constitutes as “local.” For example, before the Pigeon update, Google might give you results based on your city or based on your ZIP code. After the update, it might use your specific neighborhood or even your street based on your geographic location. This is especially helpful for mobile users who share their location with Google. It leads to more specific results and fewer generation errors.
Second, it started increasing favoritism for online review sites and local directories. For example, local restaurants with a large number of highly rated reviews started ranking higher than local restaurants with little to no reviews. In some cases, individual profile pages on services like Yelp started ranking higher than the official websites for those businesses.
Consider this change for a moment. Offsite optimization can still improve your authority, and structural onsite optimization (such as offering easy site navigation and properly structured meta data) can also improve your authority. However, user reviews on local directories still matter more, and that’s something you cannot directly control. All you can do is ensure your local profiles are claimed and accurate, and encourage your users to post positive reviews whenever they can.
Combine this idea with the current state of semantic search. Essentially, instead of looking at your search queries in terms of keywords and matching those keywords to content found on the web, Google is now analyzing the intention of your search query, and is logically finding the best answer. If your establishment is defined as a burger restaurant, Google will logically find your online presence for any queries that seem like they’re intended to find burger restaurants—regardless of keywords.
Instead of containing the keywords you think your potential customers are using, you need to make sure there’s enough information on the web for Google to understand the nature of your business. When you were young, you were told the best way to make friends is to simply be yourself, instead of pretending to be who you thought people wanted as a friend. This is the same principle.
Even though keyword rankings and keyword searches are no longer relevant for most companies, it’s still possible to increase your visibility. Obviously, increasing your perceived relevance and authority can lead to generally higher ranks, but you can’t focus on ranking for a specific keyword or keyword phrase.
Claim your local profiles
Make sure you’ve claimed and verified your information on all available and relevant local directories. Nab whatever social media profiles you can, and start closing the gap on local review sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and UrbanSpoon (if relevant). Here, you’ll be able to verify all your information, taking great care that your name, address, and phone number (NAP) are present, accurate, and in the exact same format throughout the web. This is the information Google cares about, and the information that will make Google understand who you are.
Encourage more reviews
Engage with your customers by prompting them to post reviews about their experiences. You cannot buy or force people to write reviews (because that can get you flagged and penalized), but the more positive reviews you have, the more Google will see you as an authority.
Traditional best practices
And of course, best practices for modern SEO still apply—you just no longer have to worry about specific keywords and keyword phrases. Build high-quality backlinks on external sites that are relevant to your location or relevant to your industry, and regularly update your site with high-quality, relevant, interesting content. Complement those strategies with a strong social media presence, and stay consistent.
Just because keyword rankings are no longer relevant for consideration doesn’t mean SEO is dead—far from it, in fact. Feel liberated. Now, the tedious mechanics of keyword research and keyword frequency are all but gone, and you can instead focus on the more valuable elements of your business: promoting solid branding, creating value, and engaging with your audience.