How to use keywords in your content and actually rank

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There’s a serious epidemic in SEO right now.

Chances are, you’ve come across it or may even have fallen victim to it.

I’m talking about setting a focus keyword for your content. 

Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with centering a piece of content around a keyword. Over-indexing on that keyword though, that’s a recipe for content no one wants to read. 

Once you’ve done the hard work of finding a bunch of keywords, mapping out the search journey for your customers, and coming up with a rock-solid foundation for your SEO and content strategy, how do you actually rank for those keywords?

In this post I am going to show you how to use those keywords in your content, how Google has changed in the past few decades, and how to adjust your approach to land your site on page 1 of Google rather than page 10.

The old way of targeting keywords with content

We all know the old way of targeting keywords. 

For many, it’s the current way (especially if you rely on tools like Yoast). Here’s how to target a keyword with content circa 2005:

  • Choose a focus keyword
  • Put that keyword in the title tag
  • Put the keyword in the first 100 words of the page
  • Sprinkle it in throughout like salt on a dish

And that’s it! Except it doesn’t really work anymore. 

For one, everyone is doing the exact same thing so copying this method will result in content that fails to stand out and is doomed to page 3 or below on Google. Secondly, Google changed a lot in the past 30 years and we need to adapt.

It’s not 2005, as of writing this we’re at the end of 2022 and coming up on 2023. So what is the modern way of using keywords in content, how does Google evaluate content?

How Google Hummingbird changed the way we need to approach content

Back in 2013 along came a hummingbird. 

Not just any old hummingbird though, this was the Google Hummingbird algorithm change. Google hummingbird was a revolutionary algorithm change. What it really boils down to is that Google went away from exact match to matching content to the intent behind the keyword.

This was a huge step forward for search engines. And just in terms of how search engines work, it's set the standard for how search engines should work. Google has always had really good market share, but this is where they excel because Google is really good at understanding. Not just, hey, here's a three word keyword that someone's typing in, but what's the question behind the keyword.

The new way to approach targeting keywords with your content

We need to rethink our approach to keywords and content, and that's what I'm going to walk you through. 

There are a series of steps you can take when targeting keywords with your content, we’ll examine them one by one:

  • Define the question behind the keyword
  • Brainstorm related questions and synonyms
  • Use the keyword strategically 

What is the question behind the keyword

Most keywords are 1-3 words, however there's probably a 10-word question behind that. 

Before blindly including a 3-word phrase several times in a page, stop and think about the question (or search intent) behind the keyword. The motivation to ask “how to get more traffic from Google” is very different than “cheap SEO tool”. The other way of thinking about this is how the keyword maps to the buyer’s journey. 

I like to call this the keyword funnel:

The keyword funnel forces you to think about that buyer's journey your customer takes, and the reasons that they ask those questions on Google. 

For example, for SaaS companies there are usually 3 types of questions people ask on Google:

  1. How do I do my job better
  2. I need a tool to do my job
  3. I need an alternative to my current solution

See how already this gets so much more nuanced (and interesting!)? Doing this will lead you to make some pretty critical content decisions, as well as lead to a richer understanding of what your customer is looking for and how you can serve them better.

And that’s a recipe for better content. By this point you’ve got a decent head start, but to really level up your keyword targeting you need to do a bit more research into the related questions and synonyms that your target customer might be searching.

Brainstorm related questions and synonyms

You’ve identified the core question and funnel stage for your target keyword, now let’s go one step further to come up with related questions that you should address.

Why related questions?

Google has gotten so far beyond just checking for one keyword in a piece of content; now Google can understand what a piece of content is about holistically. That means you need to cover your core keyword from all angles to ensure you’ve covered it as comprehensively as possible.

Note: comprehensive does not mean super long, just make sure you’ve got your related topics in order.

Brainstorming related questions is one of my favorite things to do before I write any piece of content. So how do you find these related questions? A keyword research tool (like Centori’s!) is great, but I also like looking at Google Auto Suggest and Google’s People also Ask for this too.

Google has a ridiculously frightening amount of data on how people use Google, and they show that to you for free. All you need to do is pay a little attention to what Google shows you in search results. Google heavily curates the experience for its users on search, through autosuggest you can see what your audience is probably also searching for, or what they’d search for next.

This gives you a goldmine to pull from when it comes to identifying related or tangential questions your customers are asking. And that’s a recipe for comprehensive content that will rank.

Use these keywords strategically in your content

You’ve got a core question and corresponding funnel stage, along with a set of related questions to address as well, now let’s use them in your content. 

There are 2 areas I tend to focus on using the keywords in my content:

  1. The title
  2. The headings

But probably not for the reasons you’d think.

Conventional SEO wisdom says to jam the keywords in to game the Google algorithm in hopes you’ll rank, instead weave the keywords in so that:

  • The page jumps out in search results
  • The page is easy to scan
  • The page leads the reader a logical conclusion in your content

It’s not about using the keyword just to use the keyword. It’s about taking care to mirror the core question with your title and h1, and use informative and helpful headings to guide the reader through the content. 

It just so happens that Google appreciates this too.

I see a lot of headings using very generic wording like “introduction”, “conclusion”, or only a couple words. I don't like doing that. I actually like phrasing the headings as questions/queries that people might be typing into Google because it stands out to the reader and Google keys off of it. All this is to say the headings are important to Google, so wording them to align to the questions your customers are asking is a great way to structure your content.

Do I need to use the exact keyword in order to rank?

As many SEOs say, it depends. 

Google is pretty darn smart. Google cares more about content quality, authority, and relevance than whether you used the exact keywords a specific number of times in your content. 

But keyword usage can matter. 

Take a client of ours, Colony Hills Capital. Colony Hills Capital is in the real estate business, they buy multifamily properties by pooling finances from their investors. While building an SEO strategy, Colony Hills Capital realized there is a distinct difference on Google between the terms ‘multifamily investing’ and ‘apartment building investing’. 

In this case, the keyword we optimized around mattered because Google clearly does not see them as the same thing. It’s good to be aware of the terms your customers are most likely to use, as well as how well you fit in with the search results for that term. But aside from that, I try to not worry too much about exact keyword match in my content.

Here’s an example of how to research and structure your content

This is all a bit theoretical, so let’s make this a bit more practical.

Here’s a quick video to show you our exact process for choosing a keyword, determining the question behind the keyword, and brainstorming a content piece to target it. Follow these steps and you’ll end up with high-quality content that answers your readers’ questions and ranks.

Remember that above all, Google is looking for content that is helpful. 

The best thing that we can do is think about the core question and related follow up questions behind that keyword and then give them a next step that they can take. Hopefully that step is to download something, or make a purchase!

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