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What is a Keyword?

Keywords.

You’ve heard of them. You know you should use them. But what in the world are they?

To some, they are this mystical digital mojo that is closer to Luke Skywalker’s use of the force than a real, applicable marketing term. Place them in the right hands, and the online universe is at your fingertips; use them for evil, and the dark underworld of the internet succumbs to the dark side.

Ok, so maybe that was all a little melodramatic, but you get the picture. Keywords are powerful, so it’s in your best interest to learn what they are and how to use them.

What are Keywords?

Break that term down into its basic structure – “key” and “word” – and you can start to get a grasp for what it means very quickly. “Words” are simply text that appears on your website, while “key” indicates its importance. “Keywords,” then, are the most important words on your website. These are the keystones of your digital structure, the beams that your site rests upon.

Why are Keywords Important?

No matter the search engine, people will enter words or phrases into a box to search the vast expanse of the world wide web for the information that is most relevant to them. If their word or series of words (called “long-tail keywords”) are found on your site, you win! It’s that easy.

Or is it?

In the early days of the internet, people used to simply spam their keywords all over their page in hopes of attracting traffic. It worked, for the most part, until Google very quickly caught on and put an end to that. Over time, Google has released a series of updates, each one designed to make the search process more relevant for the end-user. In 2012, they released one of their more sweeping updates called Penguin, which attempted to eliminate nefarious schemes to manipulate search engine rankings.

“Relevance” is the key word (see what I did there?) that you have to remember. No matter what update Google or any other search engine throws out, their main goal will always be to connect the searcher with the most relevant content, period. That means if you want to rank, you need to be relevant. If you’re a church, it will do you little good to try and rank for the term “window washing services.” Even if you were to rank for that term on your site (unlikely), you’ll find that a ton of people leave your page very quickly, which could hurt your site’s overall efforts.

Some you’ll rank for organically, some you’ll rank for intentionally; indeed, a key part of every online marketing effort is keyword research. That’s where you find a high-traffic keyword and write content that supports it. If you want to rank, however, your post has to be high quality and deal with the topic thoroughly. Searchers want the best post on a specific subject, so if that’s your content, you should rank high in results.

What are Long-Tail Keywords?

As mentioned above, “long-tail keywords” are search terms made up of multiple words rather than one single term. They’re super valuable because they are generally harder to find, which means if you rank for one, you should be able to hold on to your ranking for a while.

Individual keywords have exponentially higher search volume than long-tail keywords, which makes them tempting for most marketers. Unfortunately, they can also be incredibly vague. Someone who searches for a term “baptism,” for instance, may be after “water baptism,” “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” or “baptism of fire”; if you were to rank for “baptism,” your content may not be what the searcher is after, which means they would “bounce” off your page sooner rather than later. The term “baptism” has more queries than “water baptism” (110,000 searches per month vs. 2,400), but the quality of traffic is better with the more specific term.

None of this is meant to imply that you should only focus on long-tail keywords, just that you should include them in your overall marketing plan alongside single-word search terms.

How Do I Use Keywords?

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Write your content for the reader, not for Google. Include your keywords organically throughout a piece of content, and make sure you’re not just throwing them in there in a spam-filled effort to rank it in Google.

Besides that, there are a few places that you should focus your efforts. If at all possible, include your keyword in your title; in fact, I would argue that you should use your target keyword to write your piece of content in the first place. If a word is getting hundreds or even thousands of searches per month, that shows that people are interested in it. Write content around it!

Next, try to include your keyword in the first paragraph of your content (or the first 100 words) and/or in the subheadings on your page. Try to put it in the tags for your images and for any anchor text for hyperlinks.

Keywords are important and should form a foundational part of your marketing efforts,  but they’re not the be-all and end-all of search. Use them alongside other factors, and it’ll help your site get to, and stay, at the top.