The state and impact of keyword research in 2020

Keyword Search 2020

Keywords have always been an integral aspect of search engine optimisation (SEO). We can’t talk about SEO without mentioning keywords – and the different ways to implement and optimise them.

However, the role of keywords appears to be somewhat changing in recent times. Search engines, such as Google, have been evolving and getting better at natural language processing (NLP), artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning.

With new additions to their core algorithm, such as Google Hummingbird and Google BERT, search engines apparently do not have to rely on keywords as much as they used to do before.

In that case, do keywords still have a crucial role to play in 2020 and beyond? Are they still valuable and should be one of the first things SEO professionals should look into when optimising a web page or crafting a content marketing strategy?

Different industry experts seem to vary in their opinions about this.

Let’s explore both sides and try to guess the state and impact of keywords in 2020.

Keywords in 2020: Different opinions and predictions

According to Frédéric Dubut, Senior Program Manager Lead at Bing, SEO professionals need to switch [from keyword research] to intent research as a practice. He believes that keyword research is going to become slowly obsolete and lose its importance, starting from this year.

He shared these thoughts in a short video shot during SMX East last year.

Here is what he said:

“If you look at 2018, 2019, there’s lots of evolution in the field of deep learning [and] natural language processing. Google announced recently they integrated their BERT language model in search results. And what that means for everyone is search engines are shifting from keywords to intent at an accelerating pace.” 

He further added, “What we’re looking forward to in 2020 is that search engines are going to be primarily intent-based, so we’ll understand the core intent better. We’ll understand what the documents mean better, and we’ll be able to do better matches.”

While what he says does make a lot of sense, not everyone agrees with Frédéric Dubut. For instance, Google’s John Mueller was asked a similar question, but he shared a different opinion.

According to John, keywords still have their importance.

“There’s probably always gonna be a little bit of room for keyword research because you’re kind of providing those words to users. And even if [the] search engines are trying to understand more than just those words, showing specific words to users can make it a little bit easier for them to understand what your pages are about and can sometimes drive a little bit of that conversion process,” said John Mueller.

What should SEO professionals and content marketers focus on?

Apparently, the role of keywords and keyword optimisation in the search engine world is going through an evolutionary phase. Search engines are getting smarter, and they no longer need to rely on a particular keyword or keyword phrases to trigger a certain web page in the SERPs.

Search engines are now perfectly capable of evaluating a web page — whether or not the page has specific keywords — and displaying it to search engine users in the SERPs.

Here is an example:

Keyword Search

As you can see, the page ranked on the top does not contain the keyword ‘infant’ in it even once. But it is still ranked on the top of the first result page. On the other hand, web pages that use that keyword multiple 18 times and 10 times are ranked on #4 and #5 spots, respectively.

This shows that keyword density no longer matters as much as matching the user intent. However, as John Mueller said, if you want to give your web pages the best possible chance of ranking for a certain query, you should ignore keywords altogether.

Make it easier for the search engines to identify your web page — by including the primary and LSI keywords in a natural way. However, instead of focusing on maintaining a certain keyword density, e.g., 3%, focus on these three things:

Apart from these tips, make sure you are also following Google’s webmaster quality guidelines.

All these factors are now more valuable than stuffing keywords on a web page and maintaining a certain keyword density at the cost of providing valuable and informative content to your readers that don’t match their search intent.