The Truth About Keywords, SEO and Your WordPress Blog

The Truth About Keywords, SEO and Your WordPress Blog

Do keywords really matter to your WordPress SEO? Are you doomed to failure if you don’t target the right search terms and build your content around them?

How important are keywords to SEO?

You’ll find an enormous amount of misinformation out there regarding the importance of keyword usage in optimizing your content for search engines.

There are countless dodgy operators in the murky SEO world who would have us believe that keywords are the be all, end all of online publishing.

Their argument goes like this: there is a precise, scientific method to optimizing your blog with the right search phrases. You need to pay close attention to every keyword variable: density, frequency, prominence, proximity and so on and so forth. There’s an intricate art to placing the right words in the right places, and if you get it wrong your blog will never see the light of day.

Is keyword optimization a science?
Keyword optimization is often portrayed as an exact science

These people make it sound as if keyword optimization is an absolute, do-or-die exercise. If you follow the magic keyword formula, your content will skyrocket in the search rankings. And if you neglect a single aspect of this complex keyword optimization regime, your site will languish on page 15 of Google for all eternity.

Sounds ominous, no?

Well, we can let you in on a little industry secret right here. 90% of that stuff is complete and utter B.S.

Exaggeration reigns supreme in the world of SEO

More often than not, the importance of keywords is hideously overstated, usually by SEO “experts” chasing a quick buck with their software or consulting services.

These people promote the idea that keyword optimization is the shining path to success, and that every aspect of your blogging should be subordinate to finding good keywords and using them properly in your content.

Not only is this line of thinking totally inaccurate, it’s also highly detrimental to the real purpose of writing a good blog.

Keywords are one small slice of a much larger pie

If you think that pulling great volumes of organic search traffic to your WordPress blog is a simple matter of lacing your content with the right keywords, you’re wide of the bullseye.

Sadly, SEO just ain’t that simple. In fact, it’s nowhere near that simple.

This is a pie chart representation of the main factors that affect your website’s search rankings, as of 2011. It’s produced by SEOmoz, a Seattle-based firm who are well-regarded as leading authorities on Search Engine Optimization. The data in this chart is compiled from exhaustive research and interviews with 132 of the top thinkers in the SEO industry. Check it out:

Importance of keywords for WordPress SEO

See the violet-colored slice at the bottom of the pie chart? That represents the significance of on-page keyword usage in the overall ranking algorithm used by the search engines.

Your use of keywords in a piece of blog content will only contribute around 15% to your total search ranking .

What this chart tells us is that on-page keywords, while they are relevant to a certain extent, are clearly not the most important consideration when optimizing your WordPress blog for search engines.

Even if you wrote a strategically-optimized blog post, and followed every known keyword strategy with scientific precision, your efforts would amount to very little if your site wasn’t performing in the other core areas of SEO.

Writing keyword-optimized blog content doesn’t automatically mean that it will get found in Google when people search for those terms.

How ‘keyword fever’ can really destroy your blog

It’s all too easy for bloggers to get caught up in this keyword madness, especially in the early days while they’re struggling to build an audience. There’s a great temptation to write content that you think people will search for and find.

Overuse of keywords is bad for SEO
This blogger has a terminal case of Keyword Fever

The problem is that people become consumed by ‘keyword fever’ – they stop writing what they’re interested in or passionate about, and start writing what they think will garner the most traffic and publicity.

Using the right keywords and search phrases becomes the central focus of writing the blog. Quality and originality take a backseat to optimization. This is dangerous for two reasons:

REASON ONE: Search ranking factors are changing

The ranking algorithms used by Google and other search engines are constantly being tweaked and revised. The artificial intelligence gets more intelligent all the time.

The latest major update to Google’s ranking algorithm – codenamed ‘Panda’ – was introduced earlier this year. Panda sought to differentiate between 1.) high quality, original content and 2.) keyword-heavy content without any intrinsic value, used primarily to bring in search traffic rather than provide real information.

Since the Panda update took effect, websites in the former category now rank better in Google, while those in the latter have been heavily penalized.

Google Panda update and SEO
Keyword-stuffed content makes the Panda angry

The bottom line: Heavy and unnatural keyword usage is rapidly becoming an SEO killer – which is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.

REASON TWO: You don’t make friends with keywords

This is the real danger of succumbing to keyword fever: it lowers the quality of your writing. If you want people to link to your blog, visit regularly and share your content with others, you need to write well.

Build your blog's authority with quality content
If you want to draw the cheering crowds, focus on quality, not keywords

Like it or not, blogging is the ultimate popularity contest. You’re not going to impress anyone with robotic, keyword-heavy content that doesn’t read naturally.

Keeping keywords in perspective

None of this is to suggest that you should forget about keyword optimization altogether. The intelligent and moderate use of keywords still has a legitimate place in your overall SEO strategy. But a good blogger must understand the extent to which keywords are beneficial, and not use them any further than that.

Keywords: The DOs

  • DO: At least some basic research to see what kind of search numbers different keywords and phrases are getting. If you choose to target particular search terms, it’s important to gauge the size of your audience and your competition first.
  • DO: Ideally, place you targeted word or phrase in the following places: your title tag, h1 tag, the URL, and the alt attribute for pictures. But only if your keywords and phrases are relevant to the content and fit naturally in these locations. If not, you’ll do more harm than good.
  • DO: Use your main keywords a few times (three is plenty) throughout the body of your content. (This is an absolute no-brainer though. If you wrote a newspaper article about the new Mercedes E-Class, for example, of course you’re going to mention the phrase ‘Mercedes E-Class’ two or three times throughout the text). You should never have to alter the natural flow of your prose to accommodate keywords.

Keywords: The DO NOTs

  • DO NOT: Worry about your ‘keyword density‘, which refers to the percentage ratio of certain words in your content. It’s all lies. Aiming for a particular density figure like 4% is a complete waste of time.
  • That goes for similar terms like ‘keyword frequency‘ and ‘keyword prominence‘ too. Most of these variables mean nothing at all to your SEO.
  • DO NOT: Stuff all your H tags with keywords. It’s usually worthwhile including a targeted phrase in your h1 tag, but h2, h3, h4 etc. carry no real SEO value – contrary to what a lot of people will tell you. Use these tags for better readability and categorization of your content, not for SEO.
  • DO NOT: Degrade the quality of your writing for the sake of a keyword. A minuscule SEO benefit means nothing if you lose even a single reader due to sub-standard writing.

Think of keywords as the icing on your SEO cake

Keywords and SEO strategy
Keywords can sweeten your SEO strategy, but only if the rest of it is working properly

The fundamental point here is that you need to already have a well-optimized WordPress site for your choice of keywords to be effective. Unless your blog is already performing well on all the important optimization metrics, Google doesn’t give two hoots about your use of keywords.

What really boosts your SEO is authority: lots of unique content on your site, and lots of links to your content from elsewhere on the web.

You aren’t going to achieve this by publishing mangled, keyword-stuffed content that a chimpanzee could have written.

No, you build your blog’s authority by writing regular, high-quality posts that people want to read and feel compelled to share.

Get educated

If you want to learn more about Search Engine Optimization and how it relates to running a WordPress blog, these are a few resources to get your started. Articles from the WPMU archives that cover different aspects of WordPress SEO can be found here, here and here.

SEOmoz also have a tonne of free resources on their website for learning about optimization in general. Check them out.

Many thanks to Stephanie Kilgast, Alvez, Ucumari, Derrick T, Dave & Bry and Martin for the photos.