Full Service Marketing for Higher Education, Health Care & B2B Marketing


Do Keywords Still Matter? Start Writing for Intent

Mariah Obiedzinski

Mariah Obiedzinski

Share On  

What’s the deal with keywords and SEO? In this Higher Ed Voices podcast, three content experts discuss keywords, writing for events, and the virtuous journey of creating exceptional digital content.

Listen now:


Mariah Obiedzinski: I’m Mariah Obiedzinski, director of content services at Stamats. Joining me today is Sandra Fancher, chief innovation officer, and Joan Benson, associate vice president for digital and creative strategy.

Today, we’re talking about keywords. Every client always asks us for keywords, which got us to thinking, ‘Are keywords even relevant anymore? How have keywords changed? How has the use of them changed in website content and content marketing?’

So, Joan and Sandra, what are your thoughts on the history of keywords? Maybe going about 10 years back?

Joan Benson: Well, keywords used to be where it was at, right? This is what search engines looked for. They couldn’t really process language, so they would scan copy on a website or in something else and look for those hook words, those keywords.

But that is so old school now. It’s not really how the search engines work anymore. In part because, of course, then people who produce content started to stuff keywords into their content to try to game the system.

And the search engines then tried to get ahead of that. But eventually what happened is that the search engines became very good at natural language processing. So, they can understand what the sentences are. So, they don’t have to look for the keywords, which were just sort of these hooks in the content otherwise. They can actually process it.

And this is good both for people who produce content and for those of us who search for content because we can just type in our questions now. That’s how most people are. They’re asking questions of the search engines. And as we were talking the other day, now they’re actually simply asking them out loud.

I said, “type in the questions” and that’s the way I do most of my searching, is I type it in. But people who use Alexa or other voice-activated search devices, they just speak it out loud. They just say the question; they ask the question.

And because the search engine can process that question, they can then look for answers in content. And instead of looking for keywords, now the search engines are looking for answers.

Sandra Fancher: We have always, as humans, thought in questions and had problems, but because the search engines weren’t there, we changed our thought process to work with technology. Actually, like you said, dumbed ourselves down to keywords. And now the search engines have caught up.

There’s the proposals we see still are asking for the keywords. So, we need to jump back up, as humans, to how we use our search engines because they can handle our natural language and our natural thought.

So, when we see proposals that say, “How many keywords do we have,” that’s really not the proper type of question of scope that you want. It’s more around the type of content, the questions, the longtail—what are the problems we’re trying to solve? Not, “Give me a list of 50 keywords.”

Joan: Right. And you can use keywords as this sort of concept for the way people phrase their questions. You can translate this idea from being a specific set of words that we’re trying to get in there to the way people actually phrase their questions, and the words they use for that.

When I work in higher education, I often have to remind them that the 16-year-old searching for a college is not necessarily going to put in “undergraduate programs,” right? They’re going to say, “major, what can I major in?” They’re going to look for “dorms” not “residence halls.”

Sandra: So, you can still look at popularity of words, but more in context to the problem they’re trying to solve, like whether they’re looking to evaluate if there’s a fridge or there’s bathrooms in their individual rooms, or the pricing, or do they have dorms on campus?

Joan: Right. So, the keyword research can be helpful because it shows you what people are actually searching on and maybe what your competitors, what content they’re serving up that is responding to actual searches.

So, I think it’s still helpful to think about keywords as long as you think of that as the words that people are using when they’re searching for the content that you’re trying to deliver to them.

Because ultimately, that’s what you want. You want the content that you’re creating to connect with the users you’re trying to connect with. And so, you want it to work with the search engine.

Mariah: How do you respond, then, to clients who ask you, “Well, what is the search volume of this term? Or what’s our possibility of ranking for this term?” How do you reconcile that with what you just said, Joan, what people are searching for?

Joan: You, of course, do want to appear on the right search pages and you want to appear close enough to the top because nobody has the attention to keep scrolling for you. They’re not looking for you, they’re looking for the content.

My favorite infographic from the web, which is the periodic table of SEO success factors from Search Engine Land, which is a great blog on search factors. But anyway, one of the takeaways of this is that there are many factors that go into actually having search success, which is what you want. You want to show up in searches. And you want to show up near the top of searches.

And a single term is not going to do that. And ranking on a term is not going to do that.

Sandra: And what ranks for you might not rank the same for me because of all the algorithms of my history and your history and where I am sitting location-wise, so I think when I see a client say, “I went from position three to position one,” you might have done that for a specific set of audience, but not across the board.

So, you can’t just take that report as gold like you could in the past and report back. You have to kind of understand the whole universe.

And then also with Google snippets, when we talk about the need to show up, sometimes you’re not even going for the ranking, for the position, you’re going for that Google snippet. You want to be the answer in Google. And again, it comes back to questions. And if you’re only thinking about your ranking, you might be 10 down before it even gets to your first organic result because all the snippet pieces outrank even the Google rankings.

Joan: Right. And so, if you can actually answer their questions, you’re much more likely to be the Google snippet because you’re answering the questions that people come to their search box with.

In this periodic table, the most important single factor is content quality. And but also along there are “Have you looked at the words people are using? Have you done your research on that? And are you answering their questions?”

So, those are the key things; if you’re doing those things, and there’s so many other factors that go into search results. I think I know that as a user, as a search engine user, that where I am, that I get different results when I’m searching at an airport in New York or some place else, geolocation affects that.

My past searches affect that. When you look at this periodic table, you’ll also see there are a whole bunch of factors that are personal, that are off the page, that are out of your control. So, there are very many things that for ranking on one term…

Sandra: But it still comes back to good content that answers the user’s questions, not the institution’s questions. And we see that a lot. ‘Well, I’m answering this question, or that content is focused on internal users.’ This is not an intranet; this is the internet. But again, if you’re answering the user’s question, that’s really the best way to have an SEO strategy.

And years ago, YouTube started ranking really high. And now, Mariah, we’re seeing podcasts, which obviously we’re on one. Podcast is now a new way to rank high in Google Analytics. So, not only writing good content, but using the format that people want to consume the content.

Joan: Right. And providing content in multiple formats actually raises your ranking as well because they know that people want to consume in different media and in different venues. Sometimes you’ll want to watch the video, sometimes you’ll want to read the story.

Sandra: Right. And having the transcript on the video, because what is it, like 50 percent of the people watch video on Facebook with no sound. So, we have to have that transcript, again, all the different pieces. So, again, it comes down to the basics: good content, answering the question, and delivering it in the format that the user wants to consume it in multiple ways.

Joan: I often think of it as it’s almost a virtuous—it forces a virtuous approach to content. You want to actually serve your users. You create content that serves the users instead of your own institutional, self-serving ends. In the end, you want to serve the institution, absolutely. But you do that by serving the users.

Sandra: Serving the users. But that makes it hard. That means you have fresh content and you have to write content. You can’t necessarily pull over content from several years ago on your site.

Joan: Right. Yes.

Mariah: And I think it’s important, we’ve talked a lot about how to get people to your page, how to get people to the information they’re looking for. I think it’s always important for these content conversations to include a call-to-action strategy too. Because once you get them there, one of the ranking factors is, “How can you get through this page? Is this delivering what I want?”

And a way to tell that is whether they convert in some way. Did they look at the form you wanted them to look at? Did they click on the link? Did they watch the video?

Joan: Did they turn on the sound to watch the video?

Sandra: It’s always good when someone comes to you and says, “I want to put this content up.” Say, “What question would the user have in their mind that would get them to this page”’ And then, “What do you want them do once they get to this page?”

So, if you think of a page as just one step in a journey instead of the piece, that is really key to success of the conversion and SEO.

Joan: And as consumers, we need more content the bigger the question is. Right? So, if you’re trying to buy a pair of socks, you don’t need a lot of content. If you’re buying a car, you need more. If you’re buying a house, you need a whole lot more.

If you’re buying a college education, you need a lot of content. The next conversion is probably not, “Get them to apply and enroll in higher education.” It is to get them to look at the next piece of content.

Sandra: Consume more.

Joan: Consume more. Because that’s how they get to the conversion that you really want to count, is by getting them to consume more content, when you’re talking about complex decisions.

Sandra: Right.

Mariah: So, if you have an organization or if one of your clients is interested in really digging deep and working on their SEO strategy, what should be their next natural step to get some help from you?

Joan: It really depends what their challenges have been up to this point. Do they have trouble producing fresh content? We can help with that. Do they have trouble optimizing? Do they have trouble getting out of institution-speak and getting a voice that really speaks to users? We can help with that as well.

Sandra: Or as the marketing team, they understand where it needs to go, but they have a lot of change management issues, a lot of politics, a lot of pushback.

Sometimes we are that group that helps translate that and kind of takes the burden of telling the story of, “This is not written for you. This is not about your department. This is about the user.” So, we can really help on that, even when it’s change management. By audits, showing them a little bit of a before and after. Sometimes they’re like, “Oh, now I see it. Now I get why this sounds so much better. This would have a better outcome for the user.”

Joan: I’ve found in higher education, again, this is where I do most of my content work, actually doing readability scores on content helps higher education people understand…

Sandra: “But they’re all in higher education, so we should be writing to the 15th grade level.” Just kidding.

Joan: I have assessed copy that was at the 26th grade level and I had to explain, “Now, I know you’re trying to recruit graduate students, but nobody is at the 26th grade level.”

Sandra: Right. And it’s hard…

Joan: It’s hard to read.

Sandra: It just makes it hard. And it’s simple. You wouldn’t talk that way to someone.

Joan: And people don’t use search engines at their highest education level, right? We use search engines, we still use them fairly simply, we ask simple questions, or we ask exactly what we want. “How different is pecorino from parmesan? Can I use them in the same recipe?”

Mariah: “Tacos near me. Also, MBA programs.”

Joan: “MBA programs with good taco trucks.”

Mariah: Well, if you’re interested in getting some help with your content, with your SEO strategy, or with your CTA strategy, you can email Sandra at [email protected]. You can email Joan at [email protected]. And my last name is horrible, so you can email one of them and they can give you to me ([email protected]).

Also, we’ll have those links in our transcript, because that’s good SEO best practices. Thanks for joining us today on the Higher Ed Voices podcast.

Ready to Get Started?

Reach out to us to talk about your strategy and goals.

Email Us