Three critical keyword research trends you need to embrace

30 second summary:

  • Exact match keywords are useful for researching patterns and trends, but not so much for optimization purposes
  • When optimizing for keywords, optimizing for intent, and troubleshooting, not just matching the page to the keyword
  • Brand-based keywords should be your top priority because you can’t control the SERPs but you can rank the assets that will bring people back to your site
  • Instead of focusing on keyword strings, research your niche entities and find ways to associate your business with those through onsite content and PR / link building efforts.

If you ask an SEO expert to name an SEO tactic that has changed the most over the years, they are likely to answer “link building” with confidence. Some will indicate “technical tasks” and very few will ever think of “keyword research”.

The truth is, most SEO businesses look completely different nowadays, but few SEO experts have changed the fundamental way they do keyword research and optimize content for those keywords.

Yes, it looks like we’ve finally put keyword density behind (unless Google Strength back) but basically nothing has changed: we run keyword tools, find relevant keyword strings and use them as much as possible on a dedicated page.

Meanwhile, Google’s understanding and treatment of keywords has completely changed.

1. Exact match keywords are becoming obsolete

Google has a long history of trying to understand search queries in addition to matching the word strings in them to documents in the search index.

And they succeeded.

It started years ago with Hummingbird which was first silently introduced and then officially announced in August 2013.

However, few SEOs actually figured out the update or realized how much everything they knew it had changed.

With Hummingbird Google made it clear that they were struggling for a deeper understanding of search travel and that they would eventually solve all their problems. Because they know exactly what a researcher wants and learn how to give it to him, no fake signals or algorithm manipulation will affect the quality of the search.

Hummingbird was the first time that Google announced it wanted to understand “things” instead of matching “strings of words”. In other words, with Hummingbird, exact match keyword strings started to get less and less useful.

Then, after Colibrì arrived BERT which helped Google improve its understanding of how people search.

Exact match keywords become obsolete after Google BERT updateImage source: Google

There is a brief but rather illuminating one video about the difficulties and solutions of Google engineers trying to teach the machine to understand the obvious: What do people mean when they type in a search query?

That video perfectly explains the evolution of SEO:

  • Context is what matters
  • Google is struggling, but slowly figuring out “context, tone and intention”
  • Search queries are becoming less predictable as more and more people speak to a search engine the way they think
  • Stop words actually add meaning and are often crucial in changing it.

Take away here: Keyword research tools are still useful. They help you understand the patterns: how people tend to formulate a question when looking for answers and solutions in your niche.

But those search volume keywords aren’t always what people use to research your target topic. According to Google, people search in different, often unpredictable ways. According to Googleon a daily basis 15% of searches are those that Google has never seen before.

Every day Google meets 15% of completely new search queries. Here’s how search behaviors are different.

By moving away from keyword matching, Google strives to give complete and actionable answers to the question. And that’s what your SEO strategy should aim to do as well.

Whatever keyword research process you’re using is probably still valid – it helps you understand the demand for certain queries, prioritize your content assets, and structure your site.

And the optimization step which is completely different these days. It is no longer enough to use that word in the page title, description And headers.

So when you create an optimization strategy for each keyword you identify:

  • Try to figure out what the research intent behind that question: what is that researcher really looking for? A list? A video? A product to buy? A guide to follow? Even minor changes in a searchable keyword string (eg plural vs singular) may signal a search intent you need to be aware of.
  • Google that query and look at the search snippets – Google is very good at identifying what a researcher needs, so it generates search snippets that can give you a lot of clues.

Notice how none of the top-level documents include that exact search query:

Asset classification for different keywords versus exact match keywordsImage source: screenshot taken by the author

2. Brand keywords are your priority

More and more people are using search to navigate a website and there are several reasons for this:

  • Some more powerful browsers allow people to search from the address bar (including Safari on both desktop and mobile and, of course, Google Chrome)
  • People are getting used to voice search, so they just say brand names to perform a search.

Rank by branded keywords to funnel your target audience to resources

Image source: screenshot taken by the author

In other words, your customers who probably know your brand and are likely ready to make a purchase – those hard earned customers are forced to search for your brand name or your brand query.

And what will they see?

It’s astounding how many companies have no idea what their brand research comes up with or how many customers they lose to poorly managed (or more often than not nonexistent) in-SERP reputation management.

There are three crucial things to know about brand-based research:

  • These are mostly high-intent queries – these searchers are typing in your brand name with the intention of buying from you
  • These are often your existing and returning customers who tend to buy more than new customers
  • Both of the above factors make these brands of yours the top priority.

Still, you don’t have control over what people see when they search for your brand. In fact, tracking and optimizing for those brand-based queries isn’t a one-time activity. It’s there as long as your brand exists.

  • Treat your brand like a keyword: expand it, optimize it for it, monitor your site rankings
  • Identify the deeper-level issues behind your customers’ brand-based search patterns – what can you improve on to solve the issues behind these queries?

Identification of customer pain points for keyword researchImage source: screenshot taken by the author

Your branded search queries should become part of your sales funnel, everything from About the page to product pages And lead magnets should seize those brand-driven opportunities.

In many cases, when you see a large amount of brand-based keywords, you may need a higher level approach, such as setting up a autonomous knowledge base.

3. Entities are fundamental

Entities are Google’s way of understanding this world.

Entities are all proper names out there: places, people, brands, etc.

Google has a map of entities – called the Knowledge Graph – which constitutes Google’s understanding of the world.

Entities help Google understand search context and intent.

Use of entities and semantic searchImage search: The beginner’s guide to semantic search

Being the Google entity means appearing in searches where you were implied but never mentioned:

Use of Google entities for keyword researchImage source: screenshot taken by the author

Through entity associations, Google knows what any search is about.

Entities should be the centerpiece of your keyword research process – what are known entities and your niche and how do you associate your brand with those entities?


Search engine optimization is evolving rapidly, so an agile strategy is needed to allow brands to keep up. If you’re doing keyword research the old-fashioned, exact match, your business is about 10 years behind!

Ann Smarty is the founder of Viral Content Bee, Brand and Community manager of Internet Marketing Ninjas. It can be found on Twitter @seosmarty.

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