Google search page with keywords displayed. Photo by Nathana Rebou├žas on Unsplash

What is an SEO keyword and how to use it: a Primer

Keywords are the foundation of today’s web. There is so much information available that it’s almost impossible for anyone to know where to locate everything they need.

That’s why search engines were created, and with search engines came to the use of keywords.

An SEO keyword is a word or multiple words that identify what a searcher is trying to find. For example, “dieting,” “programming,” and “geo-localization” are all keywords. “Database design,” “night photography,” and “scuba diving” are all keywords too.

Keywords can also be full sentences such as: “what is a database key,” “how to boost a dead battery,” or “is there a coronavirus vaccine.”

Some keywords can be overly broad (for example, “writing”), while others are extremely specific, such as “how are global parameters specified in Java?”

How do you use keywords on your site pages?

While keywords are significant and must appear on your pages, too much of a good thing will leave a bad taste for your readers.

Keywords are like salt. If you don’t put enough, the food is tasteless, but if you put too much, it’s inedible. To get the best flavor, you have to put just enough salt.

If you put too many keywords in your webpages (a concept called “keyword stuffing”), your content becomes so difficult to read that nobody wants to. And ironically, this leads to the opposite result that you were trying to achieve.

In the bad old days of the Internet, keyword stuffing was used to trick search engines into thinking that a page had more and better information than another. By inserting the keywords everywhere (even in places that the reader never saw), a Google search would rate those pages better than a very well written piece that did not abuse this loophole.

Now, Google’s algorithm is more sophisticated and does natural language processing analysis on the page. If the page is poorly written or seems like a robot created it, it will garner a lower ranking.

But if the search engine finds that your content has met all of the SEO requirements and is well written, it gets you a step closer to page one. That’s the goal.

To be efficient, keywords should appear in specific locations on a page, because Google and Bing use those locations to calculate the page’s score and allow them to be indexed.

At a minimum, the keyword must appear in the title of your content, in the headline, and in some of the subheads. Once again, this must look natural, not like you are twisting things around just to fit a keyword. The primary target is the reader.

If you put pictures (and you really should), you can put a keyword in the “alt” tag that accompanies the image. Just to be clear, though: “alt” tags describe the image. If the image is not related to your keyword, then don’t put the keyword there. It’s bad manners, and if you do it too often, Google will punish you for it.

Bad writer. Bad!

What keyword should you use?

Keywords are a representation of what is called “searcher intent.” It is the reason searchers are using them. It may also indicate what type of content they expect. For example, if their keyword contains “recipe,” they probably expect a list of ingredients and instructions to put them together.

When searchers do not know exactly what they’re looking for, they begin with a broad search then tighten it up to get closer to what they need. Let’s take a generic term like “programming” as an example.

A Google search on the word “programming” yields around 840 million results.

A search for “programming courses” generates 520 million results.

The phrase “online programming classes” gives 375 million results.

“French online programming classes” is a mere 50 million. Searching in French for “cours de programmation en ligne” generates about 54 million results.

As you can tell, the more specific the request, the fewer results are found. That is one of the key indicators for the right keyword.

The best keyword is one that is specific enough that you will not face overwhelming competition to be on page one. It is also sufficiently popular that you have a reasonable expectation that a searcher will look for it.

If a keyword is too specific, you won’t have much competition, but you also won’t have too many clients to choose from. How many people are interested in the “cohabitation of white rabbits and Siamese cats in a downtown apartment?” (It turns out that no page exists with all this information. But there are 102,000 pages that deal with Siamese cats and white rabbits.)

Finding the right balance between popular keywords and stiff competition requires some effort. You can get an idea by doing a Google search and refining your keywords. However, that can be long, tedious, and–let’s face it–mind-numbing.

You are better off using tools such as Ubersuggest, Google Keyword Planner, Wordtracker, or Using these tools, you can see which keywords generate the most searches, which ones have more competition, and even get suggestions for terms that you may not have thought about.

Keywords are just the beginning

Identifying the best keywords to use is only part of your content marketing strategy. To rank higher in a search, there could be more than 200 factors that play a role.

There is no point in trying to meet all 200 factors. You only need to focus on a few to begin and add to your arsenal as you add more content.

Start with producing regular, high-quality content. As you produce more, people will refer to you more and add more links to your web site. This phenomenon (called backlinking) increases your ranking since Google’s algorithm tends to look favorably on sites that are linked repeatedly from other sites.

SEO keywords are a great tool to use when you want to increase your visibility through Google searches. They are not the be-all-end-all that will propel you to the first page of search results, but they certainly are a great foundation.

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