14 Jan 2021 Strategy

Are keywords important for SEO in 2021?

hands typing on a keyboard

In 2021, keywords are still important and useful in SEO, but they aren’t the most important factor. This is because SEO is far more complex than putting keywords on a page. Also, because SEO is always changing with search engines continuously updating algorithms, marketers need to change how they are using keywords.

There’s the short answer to the question, lets now go into a bit more detail on the subject.

Keywords – a highly debated SEO topic…

The very question “Are keywords important for SEO in 2021?” seems to divide digital marketers.

Note* – when I talk about keywords I am referring to ‘exact match’ keywords that tend to be short tail and transactional, for example red summer dresses, men’s white T-shirts etc.

On one side you will have the marketers who swear by keywords and will say “Well of course they are important!”

Marketers on the other side will say “Don’t get hung up on them,” as there are far better things to focus on. This begs the question, who is right? Who should we be listening to?

screenshot of a twitter post about keywords
another screenshot of a twitter post about keywords

How does Google work?

To know which group of marketers are right, we first need to understand how Google works.

This isn’t easy as Google is as mysterious as a dancing unicorn… No one knows exactly how Google works. Do they even know themselves?


What we do know is that Google uses over 200 ranking factors in their algorithm. Backlinko have put together a list, some are proven, some are hunches, whereas others are more controversial.

Another thing we know is that SEO changes fast as search engines like Google are always making tweaks to their algorithm and how they rank pages.

If you are monitoring keywords (which is always a good thing to do) and you see that you start ranking, unfortunately there’s no guarantee you’ll stay there.

Obviously you will want to do everything you can to remain ranking but where do you put in your efforts? Should you prioritise keywords or should you also be looking at other factors such as high-quality content, page speed/experience, UX, links etc.


SEO back in the day

In the early days of SEO I would have definitely recommend prioritising keywords, but a lot has changed since then.

SEO back in the day was arguably easier than it is now. If you had a website in 2008, all you had to worry about was getting as many keywords as you could in the content, title tag and meta description and you ranked. Yes, it really was as easy as that.

Some people did take this too far and would try to deceive search engines, eg stuff a page full of keywords but make the text the same colour as the website background. Result? Google would see these keywords, but the website user would see a blank screen. Sneaky right?

SEO these days

These days Google is a lot smarter, which I think is a good thing. Google is focused on quality and user experience rather than showing a page in results because it mentions a specific keyword the most times.

Focusing on using a specific keyword or keywords as many times as possible on a page used to be a common technique whereas nowadays it is a big NO NO. It just doesn’t work.

I would recommend writing for humans and then optimise for Google – just don’t go overboard. Only use a keyword in the text if it makes sense to.

screenshot of a twitter post about keywords

Google is always evolving and learning. It is learning how to understand human language (not keywords) and interpret it. This means we can (and should) be more natural when producing content for websites.

Google algorithm updates

So we have briefly mentioned about Google updating their algorithm but how does this affect keywords?

Well, over the years there have been substantial changes that have affected the way Google handles keywords.

timeline of google algorithm updates affecting keywords
timeline of google algorithm updates affecting keywords

Let’s look at these updates in more detail:

  • Panda – Panda was introduced February 2011 and was the first sign that Google wanted us to care about the quality of content we were producing and not just keywords. Panda focused on tackling websites that had pages with thin, short or duplicate content.
  • Penguin – Penguin came onto the scene a year later in 2012. This update punished websites that were involved in link schemes and keyword stuffing.
  • Hummingbird – this was described as a complete overhaul of the core algorithm. This was released in 2013 and showed that Google was really committed to understand the intent behind a search query. With this update Google was bridging the gap between old, spammy practices and modern SEO, which is all about natural language that readers use.
  • RankBrain – Google say that RankBrain is one of the most powerful ranking signals in the algorithm. It is a machine learning artificial intelligence system that helps with processing and sorting search results. It has two jobs:
    • Understand keywords
    • Measure user satisfaction

As you can see, it’s getting harder and harder to deceive Google with simple and controversial optimising tricks. It’s a lot more than just keywords.

With Google ranking factors do keywords matter?

So, we know that there are over 200 Google ranking factors, the question is where do keywords come in?

It just so happens SEMrush conducted a study which looked at over 600, 000 keywords and analysed the 17 most prominent factors for pages that were ranking.

graph from semrush report showing importance of google ranking factors
graph from SEMrush report showing importance of google ranking factors

As you can see from the image above behavioural factors (time spent on page, bounce rate etc) are much more prominent and therefore important than keywords alone.

This means that Google cares what people do once they are on your website meaning it is your job to nail searcher intent. Do people get the information they are after or do they have to go elsewhere?

What is also interesting in this survey is that Ahrefs found that almost 75% of pages that rank in Google’s top 10 don’t even mention an ‘exact match’ keyword in their content. Shocking right?

Well no not really seeing as Google has already admitted that synonyms (a word or a phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase) affect 70% of user searches across the 100+ languages Google supports.

What does this means? Google cares about the topic and content more than how many times a keyword is repeated in a piece of content. It’s all about being natural folks. Your focus should be on creating user centric content that answers intent.

definition of user centric content from google
definition of user centric content from Google

Does this mean we should ignore keywords?

So should we just ignore keywords altogether then and just focus on the quality of the content we are writing?

Yes quality is important but I am not saying ignore keywords altogether. The question “are keywords important for SEO” is just not that easy to answer.

Rather than giving you a yes or no answer I would say its more of a balancing act.

What do I mean by a balancing act?

What I mean is that you can’t pick to either focus or ignore keywords when writing content.

Lets say you ignore keywords (because you understand that Google is smart and doesn’t just count ‘exact match’ keywords) and focus on writing for the end user, throwing caution to the wind and letting creative juices flow. You need to entice the user to stay right? Doing this you run the risk of Google not having a clue of what your content is about. At the end of the day Google is a machine. It needs some guidance. Result? Your nowhere to be found for relevant keywords.

On the other hand if you just focus on keywords and neglect intent and the quality of the content, Google will soon cotton on to the fact that people aren’t sticking around on your page or website. They are going elsewhere as the content isn’t easy to read or makes sense. It’s the same result as before, you’re not going to rank either.

This is why it’s a balancing act between keywords and quality of content/user experience.

What is the solution?

What is the solution then, I hear you cry?

Well, what do search engines like Google want to do? They want to provide the most relevant content that is valuable for its users.

They are also pretty damn good at identifying and shutting down opportunities for people to manipulate search results by dodgy, underhanded tactics.

What do I mean when I say dodgy, underhanded tactics? Well, tactics that don’t provide any value for the end user but are purely done to deceive a search engine and manipulate where you show in results.

Therefore the solution is clear, write quality content that clearly answers users intent but also have Google in mind. Ask yourself is it obvious to a machine what this content is about? 

This takes time, experience and a little bit of experimenting. On the one and you don’t want to end up including keywords for the sake of it but then you need to help Google understand what your content is about.

Some examples…

What I always recommend is using keywords in the main page title and <h1>, then if it makes sense try and is natural use them and synonyms in other subheadings. Tell Google what the content is about rather than leaving it up to them to figure it out. Then in the actual body of the text make sure you are answering the user’s intent and thinking about their experience when they are on the page e.g. use images to break up text, use bullet points, use of subheadings to break up text etc.

Another thing I would recommend is using the keyword in meta descriptions, yes the content needs to be written to entice clicks, but Google does highlight keywords that the person has searched on in the results. If someone has searched for a particular term they are going to want to see this replicated in the results, which they are more likely going to click on,

Yes to keywords then?

Are keywords important for SEO in 2021? Yes, keywords are important and can be helpful as long as you don’t get too hung up and end up doing stuff to your website which will have a negative impact.

Keyword FAQs

What are keywords?

Keywords are what define what your content is about. In SEO, keywords are the words and phrases that people search in search engines such as Google, also known as search queries.

The goal is to make sure that the keywords on your page are relevant to what people are searching for, this increases the chances of them stumbling across your content.

If you want to learn more about keywords, Moz have written a pretty awesome detailed blog on the subject.

How many keywords should you use in SEO?

This depends on how many pages you have on your website, as each page should have a focus keyword and then natural use of related keywords and phrases. Don’t over optimise. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start with 5 – 10 keywords and then add more to your basket as time goes on.

How can I improve my keywords?

Use a tool to find out what your competitors are ranking for and driving website traffic. Find out where there are ranking in SERPs and see how you can better the content. Can you steal there spot?

How do I find keywords for SEO?

  • Step 1 – list out important and relevant topics based on what you know about your business
  • Step 2 – brainstorm keyword ideas based on the topics (what people are likely to be searching for on Google)
  • Step 3 – use Google to find related search terms (which appear at the bottom of the page)
  • Step 4 – use Google autosuggest to find more keywords (when you type into Google and it gives you options)
  • Step 5 – make sure you have a mix of short and long tail keywords e.g. painting, what paint to use in the bathroom
  • Step 6 – use a tool use as Google Keyword Planner, Keywords Everywhere, Ubersuggest etc to whittle down your keywords.

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