Why Key Phrases, not Keywords, Are Important in SEO

Keywords are on the way out.

No, I’m not saying search engine optimization (SEO) is no longer relevant. As long as search engines exist, SEO must remain a fixture in your brand’s digital marketing strategy. What I am saying is that the relevance of single-word search terms is fading fast.

There are multiple reasons for this change, but they all ultimately trace back to one thing. Today’s search engines are more concerned with determining a user’s intent than they are about exact-match keywords. They want to serve relevant content that people want to find rather than simply belching out whichever pages have the best technical SEO. 

That level of relevance is extremely difficult to maintain if you’re still focused on single-serving keywords. Individual words generally don’t give any clues as to a user’s intent. They lack the necessary context from both a content creation and an SEO perspective. 

Long-tail keywords or key phrases, on the other hand, provide a great starting point. For example, let’s look at the keyword “microwave.” Someone who types in a phrase including that word could be looking for a wide range of things: 

  • Microwave repair services
  • To purchase a new microwave
  • To read about the history of microwaves
  • To look up reviews on microwaves
  • To look at a comparison between several different microwaves

You get the idea. Context is everything, and individual keywords don’t offer context. That isn’t the only reason key phrases and topics have become so prominent, though.

As digital assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home become more popular, so too is conversational search. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. As defined by Techpedia

“The principle behind conversational search is that a user can speak a sentence into a device, and that device can respond with a full sentence. This principle is also applied to searches: where traditional searches mostly analyzed individual keywords, a conversational search looks at the whole string of words, to return human-like responses.”

At this point, we’ve hammered home that individual keywords should no longer be your focus. That means you should target long-tail keywords and key-phrases, right? Sort of – they come with their own problems. 

“Every article is (ideally) going to rank for hundreds of long-tail keywords,” reads a post on Authority Hacker, an online marketing education firm. “You can’t write specifically for them all … the best course of action is to find good keywords and tackle those topics and tightly-related topics thoroughly in one article.”

Put another way, the key to modern SEO success isn’t solely tied to keywords. Instead, it’s about figuring out which topics your audience wants to read about, and targeting a few related search terms and phrases. It’s about understanding your users and generating content that will resonate with them.

In other words, it’s about offering the right content to the right people at the right time. Keywords and phrases exist as a mechanism for content discovery more than anything else.

Author: Terry Cane

Terry Cane is a technical writer for SEOHost.net, a reliable and supportive SEO hosting partner.