What Are Keywords and Why Do They Matter?

What are keywords? In short, keywords are relevant words or phrases that define the purpose of a web page. Optimizing content with well-researched keywords helps increase a page’s search ranking and drive traffic from the right audience. 

We’ve written a brief explainer on what keywords are and why keywords matter for SEO.

What Are Keywords?

Say you’re in the middle of an intense work session when someone drops a multi-page document on your desk. You do not have time to read the whole thing, but you’d better find out what the paper’s about and whether it’s important.

So what do you do? You’ll probably look at the title first, then the headings, and quickly scan the body text to see if any words or phrases jump out at you.

Search engines work much in the same way.

When someone searches for something, Google aims to deliver results that are both useful and relevant to the user’s search query. Simply put, it tries to find a page that actually answers the person’s question or provides the content they were looking for.

To do this, Google’s search algorithm digs through its mountainous search index and pulls results that best relate to the word or phrase the user searched for.

When a keyword or phrase appears repeatedly throughout a page — in its title, main heading, and body text — it helps the search engine crawlers determine what the page is about, and increases the chance the page will rank when someone searches using that word or phrase. These are keywords.

Why Keywords are Important for SEO

Keywords define what a piece of content is about. They help search engines understand the purpose of a page and decide where and when it should show up in the search engine results.

When a page contains relevant keywords, and its content reflects what people are looking for when they search for that keyword, its ranking will increase.

Keywords also help human visitors (as opposed to Google’s crawlers) understand what a page is about. Think back to the above example. People often scan a page for keywords to decide if it’s worth their time. Relevant keywords improve a page’s readability, increasing the chance users will stick around and scoring more points for SEO.

Types of Keywords: Head, Body, and Long Tail

In the realm of SEO, we typically think about keywords in terms of specificity (how broad or specific a keyword is) and competition (how difficult it is to rank for a keyword).

Search volume refers to the number of people who search for a specific keyword over a period of time. The more people searching, the higher the search volume, and the more potential traffic the keyword can draw.

Highly specific keywords tend to have a lower search volume, but less competition; broad keywords with a very high search volume are much more competitive.

Based on these criteria, we can fit keywords into one of three categories:

  1. Head keywords: Short, generic words or phrases with a high search volume.
    Example of head keywords:

    1. Women’s clothing
    2. Dogs
    3. Camping
  2. Body keywords: Longer and more specific than body keywords, but still broad and competitive.
    Example of body keywords:

    1. Bridesmaid dress trends
    2. Organic dog food
    3. Back country camping
  3. Long tail keywords: Long, specific phrases containing a head or body keyword, with clearer intent and a lower search volume.
    Example of long tail keywords:

    1. Fall 2017 bridesmaid dress trends
    2. Best organic dog food for poodles
    3. Back country camping near Toronto

Although head and body keywords have a higher search volume, their competitiveness makes it extremely difficult (and expensive) to rank for them. That’s why long tail keywords are important for SEO, especially when it comes to new or unoptimized sites yet to earn a solid place in the rankings.

Why Target Long Tail Keywords?

Long tail keywords are great for building a strong SEO foundation and driving traffic to new and smaller websites. They yield greater returns on investment in the short term while building the power to rank for more competitive keywords in the future.

Shorter head and body keywords encompass a broad range of search queries, while long tail keywords capture users with a specific intent. Long tail keywords bring in targeted traffic at a later stage in buyer’s journey — users who are more likely to make a purchase or inquiry. Using long tail keywords can result in more conversions.

Over time, ranking for long tail keywords can help a page rank for the head keyword contained within. For example, a page drawing traffic for “best family photography in Waterloo” can start to build power for “family photography” and “photography in Waterloo” as well.


See How We Can Help Your Keyword Strategy


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