Copywriting, Keywords and SEO: Is Keyword Research Dead?

If you’ve invested in website keyword research strategy, recent changes made by Google might feel like a direct hit.   Search engines fluctuate over time and yet strategies for learning how to write using keywords for SEO have been popular and effective for getting organic traffic.   The recent Google change in search engine algorithms  is no small fluctuation.

2013 Google Algo Changes: Panda, Penguins and now Hummingbirds…oh MY! Is this the death of keyword research?  This article has been updated over time to be consistent with Google search engine changes.
During the summer of 2013 Google initiated a smaller impact change when they replaced their free keyword research tool with a newer version called Google Keyword Planner (more on that below).

A much more drastic change in 2013 happened when Google changed their algorithms to actually encrypt or hide keyword data!  This so-called ‘Hummingbird’ algorithm change results in a ‘not provided’ phrase in results. Algorithms work like traffic cops, equations programmed into huge web systems that direct the flow of web traffic.  Google has upset the ‘normal’ flow of web traffic with gusto lately in changes given names like Panda and Penguin.

Volumes have been published about the Panda and Penguin changes.  In general they were aimed at websites containing very little (or no) unique content.  Sometimes called “link farms” these sites no longer rank nor receive traffic after the changes.

No black and white animal name has been coined for this more recent change, this one named Hummingbird certainly is a game changer of HUGE proportions.  Many publishers of integrity weren’t hurt much by the Panda and Penguin changes.  They were already making it their business to publish unique content and avoid ‘black hat strategies, yet many did rely on keyword research to attract organic traffic.

Why the Changes that Kill Keyword Research?

Publishers are aghast at finding their keyword searches have been ‘encrypted’!  The phrase ‘not provided’ is showing up in Google Analytics for keyword research data.  So online publishers and SEO experts are up in arms and wondering…why?

Speculation about reasons for these changes runs wildly.  Google claims to have been making efforts to protect privacy.  Some even claim that the NSA made them do it.  My editorial:  Respect for privacy?  Ridiculous!  Keyword research data only reveals the number of searches, NOT the identity of the searcher.   There’s no ‘privacy’  issue involved.

Another popular theory is that Google made this change out of greed.  Some say to get people to purchase more AdWords ads.  Others speculate that Google will eventually offer a premium version of Google Analytics that allows access to this data, for a price. Google very well might motivated by power and greed, while as a business they are also trying to keep up with the explosive growth and competition in cyberspace.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google offer access to this data again in the future – carrying a Google price tag.

Copyblogger gives some good reasons why we should not freak out over the ‘not provided’ phrase from Google on keyword research.

Jenny Halasz, SEO Consultant at Archology was also quoted in a helpful article at Search Engine Land:

“It’s becoming less and less about the keyword and more about the intention behind it. We see that with all the recent changes, but especially with Hummingbird…There’s no doubt that not having keywords provided will make it a little harder to discover customer intent, but there are a lot of other ways to get clues about that, including actively engaging with your customers on social media and such.”

Alternatives to Traditional Keyword Research:

Looking for free methods of attracting organic traffic online without this data?  
1) Use Google Trends and the Google AdWords tool, which are both free.  You do need to open a Google Adwords account (if you haven’t already) to use their new Keyword Planner Tool. Here’s a helpful video to learn how to use the new Google Keyword Planner tool.
2) Rely on stats from non-Google Traffic (Bing) – try searching at Soovle to get a wider range of results including Bing, YouTube, amazon, etc.
3) The google search dropdown box (yes watch what phrases appear when entering a keyword).
4) Similar to the google search dropdown tool, gives you even more keyword ideas to find a term not listed in google trends and gives you more insight.
5) Yahoo Clues is very underestimated as a keyword research tool. Results include which TYPE of people are searching and consuming your content. Data such as age group of these consumers may be helpful. Yahoo Clues might be described as a combination of Google Trends + Google Keyword research tool + Alexa stats all in a single window.
6) Social Mention is a free tool searches social media for any term, giving results in real time! A very helpful tool to discover what phrases are getting attention and what’s trending now.

Keyword Strategy Basics

Focus on ONE topic and stay there.  Avoid the tendency to ramble away from the original topic. Instead write a separate article or blog post and link to it somewhere within the article.
Focus on reader needs… What specific problem might your article or blog post solve? Give the reader something to take away.  The more you are able to respond in a natural and conversational way directly to these keyword searches, the more you will reach your target market.  You want to solve problems or answer questions in a conversational way with your own unique voice.

When writing copy, strive to please the reader first.  A common question in learning how to write using keywords and SEO has been this:  ‘Should I write to make search engines happy or to please my reader?’

The best answer here has always been to please the reader first.  Make it real and from the heart.   Write your blog post or article as though you are sitting across the table from a friend in a coffee shop.   Write the words NOT as though you are giving a speech to a room full of people, but as a personal conversation with ONE person.  Offer value  in the form of a tutorial or maybe an explanation about how you dealt with a difficult issue.

The above stands true now more than ever while Google makes massive changes.  Stay focused on ONE topic and deliver that message in a genuine way.  We may not have access to the specific data we once did, yet keywords DO still matter.

Adding Keywords Effectively

Prominent places for keywords include titles and subtitles. This will dramatically increase chances that your blog post or article actually gets ranked and found.  Include a keyword or phrase in the title and first sentence or two, then sprinkled another time or two throughout the article. However…

Avoid over-doing it!  Never load copy with key words repeated over and over.   The search engines see this as ‘keyword stuffing’ and will zap it.   More important, over-stuffing keywords will not sound natural in the least to your readers and you will appear foolish.

Keyword strategy and search engines work like the modern day form of the yellow pages. Yellow pages promised to ‘let your fingers do the walking.’  When you apply keywords, your goal is simply to BE there (on google) when they do that search (and preferably on the first page).  The yellow pages got published once a year and never changed.  In contrast, Google drops major change bombs regularly.  Ouch!

More keyword research options are considered in the articles below.

10 Ways to Get Organic Search Engine Data despite the recent changes.

This resource includes several sources compiled about how to get the ‘not provided’ data.

How do you approach keyword research strategy?  Have these changes felt like bombs dropping on you?  Does it feel like the death of keyword research?  Have you used a favorite strategy for focus on keyword research for getting organic traffic to your website?   Please shout out in the comments below.


Carolan Ross

CFO(Chief Fun Officer) at SoloSpark
Freelance writer, creative soul, solopreneur and former teacher who networks with rebels, visionaries, artists and other square pegs in round holes. I support solopreneurs with copywriting and juggling life and business to SHINE ONLINE!


    • says

      Yes that google search box is important, Anne. Guessing what people might type in there is not recommended. Better to use a good keyword research tool, this can make a huge difference.

  1. says

    I love this advice: Write your blog post or article as though you are sitting across the table from a friend in a coffee shop. The best articles, IMO, are when you feel like you’re connected to the author.

    I also like the idea of writing your article first then going back and adding in keywords. That way you’ve got the best of both worlds: pleasing your readers and helping your SEO.

    Glad we met via UBC. Cheers!

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