The death of the keyword: Is it finally that time?

Google is putting less emphasis on what you’re saying and more emphasis on what people think of what you have to say.

When I first started my SEO career, everything was about keywords. When should we change our keywords? What should we change them to? How can we get more keywords on our page? Copywriters and designers hated me. They’d design something cool, or write something clever and I’d ruin it. “Google can’t see images. This copy doesn’t have our keywords in it.”


In 2013, Google launched one of the biggest updates to its algorithm, called Hummingbird, which allows Google to judge context through what is now called "semantic search." This lets it understand a person's intent, giving Google a better idea of what a user is looking for.


Since this update, SEOs have started to feel that content has been taking precedence over keywords. We’ve seen unique, original content continue to rise to the top of results. While content has been taking precedence, there is still an importance put on keywords. There’s still a need for them in the content and the metadata of websites, especially for pictures: Google can’t see pictures; it can only read data. And after all, we have to send some signals to Google about what the content is about, right? According to Amy Webb, not necessarily.


During the morning keynote at the MIMA marketing conference last week, strategist, entrepreneur and author Amy Webb discussed how machines are not only beginning to recognize explicit objects, but their context and meaning as well.


She demonstrated this with a simple search: “Jim McKelvey Glass.”


Jim McKelvey is the founder of Square (and was the second keynote speaker of the day). Apparently he is also a professional glass blower, which shows up in Google image search when you look up his name. Not incredibly surprising until Amy dug a little deeper into why that picture is ranking in search results.


Nowhere in the content of the article or in the metadata of the picture were her keywords.


So how does Google find this image? Largely by learning from us. Google looks at what we search for and then keeps watching to understand what we click on when we search something. This means it’s more important than ever to create content people like. Don’t publish content or optimize your site for keywords if you don’t have anything unique or valuable to say. It’s no longer enough to just have content on a topic. Your content has to be something people care about and want to read.


So, does this truly mean the death of keywords?


Probably not. It’s always going to be important to send Google signals, especially because this technology is far from perfect. Amy showed many examples of Google searches surfacing far-from-accurate image results, and you certainly don’t want to be a part of that problem. So it’s still going to be important to do the due diligence of implementing metadata, but that now takes a back seat to quality content.


Google is putting less emphasis on what you’re saying and more emphasis on what people think of what you have to say. No longer will great design and clever copy be destroyed with keywords. If your website is following technical best practices, and users engage with your website and are reading your content, Google will start to credit you with the rankings you deserve.