It’s 2018. We Need To Talk About ‘Keyword Optimization’

Anyone who reads anything I write related to SEO already knows how I feel about keywords.

It’s even in the logo of this blog and the reason why we have the founding fathers giving you the side eye.

If you don’t know or if this is your first time here, I’ll spell it out:



I hate everything about it.

I can’t stand how that’s the first thing people think of when they hear ‘SEO’. I hate how people who call themselves SEOs or digital marketers in 2018 still think this is a thing. I hate how every platform that claims it has SEO tools thinks that keywords (along with equally as useless ‘metadata’) are the end all and be all of what an SEO does.

If you’re trying to get on my bad side real quick and make me immediately write off almost anything else you say about SEO, just tell me you’re all about ‘keyword optimization’.

You’ve heard my epic rants about keywords before? Yes, this is true. However, I never really go into detail about why I can’t stand them so this is what this week’s post is all about: why I hate keywords – or at least keywords in the traditional sense – and why you should too.




Note: This post is purely about SEO, not SEM/PPC. If you’re a PPC guy and you need to bid on search terms and keywords, you keep right on doing that, slugger, this post is not for you.


It Makes You Focus On The Wrong Things And Makes You Lazy

Let’s get this out of the way first: if your goals for your SEO campaigns begin and end with ‘Rank real high for XYZ’, you’ve already failed.

SEO is not about ‘ranking real high’ on search engine results pages – shocking, I know. Contrary to popular belief, that is not what SEO is for. If that’s all you want, you can literally just do PPC and be ahead of even the best SEO campaigns because ads are always in the top slots. Furthermore, as we discussed before, you will never rank number one on Google for every single searcher because there’s far too much personalization in search these days and even if it did, ranking first in the SERP just doesn’t matter these days.

Wake up. It’s 2018. Being first on Google for a keyword doesn’t do what you think it does and even if it did, you can’t do it anymore. Personalization, device and location of the searcher destroyed that years ago.

Again, SEO is not about making you ‘rank real high’ and that’s the only goal you can achieve when you blindly focus on keywords. They are not helpful and optimizing a page to rank for a certain word is what lazy people do when they don’t want to make useful content.

What I’m getting at is that keyword optimization is the tactic of the lazy, the relic and the confused guy who read like two articles and said ‘that’s enough! I know what I’m doing!’

“Don’t know what to write content about? Just grab some keywords and make some synonyms on the page and repeat yourself fifty times!”

“Don’t want to write content? Don’t! Just grab some keywords and write some synonyms on the page and repeat yourself fifty times!”

It’s trash work. Rankbrain hates it, Panda hates it and Google’s core algorithm hates it.

That being said, ‘keywords’ can be a great jumping off point to help you get ideas about what you want to write about (and even for that there are far better tools) but if you’re still using them like you did in 2000, you’ve failed at everything.


Over-optimizing Keywords Can Hurt Your Traffic

Over-optimization is a thing. It can get your site penalized. Real bad.

Bet you didn’t know that did you?

I also bet you didn’t know that most people who are so focused on ‘ranking real high’ on Google with their keywords didn’t even consider this. One of the things they take into account is keyword density.

Yes, its a thing in 2018 and NOT a good thing like you might have thought back in the day.

Also, creating so-called content where you just jam a bunch of keywords in paragraph form on a page is a problem that will get you dinged as well.

This is yet another way keyword optimization will do you a lot more harm than good.

Just make useful, quality content that actually helps people. That’s all there is to it.


It Doesn’t Help Your Site

I mentioned a bit ago that keyword optimization basically only has one real purpose: to make you rank real high. Even though we talked about why that doesn’t work these days, let’s talk about what would happen to your site if it did and why you don’t really want that. To do this, let’s take a trip back to my old ‘client work’ days.

Let’s revisit a few ridiculous ‘keyword optimization’ requests that I’ve personally gotten or I’ve seen a colleague get – and I promise I’m not making any of these up:

  • A lighting store that specialized in lighting for weddings and parties but didn’t want to rank for the term ‘wedding lights’ but instead wanted to rank for ‘industrial lighting’…which they barely sold and was totally off brand for their business name.
  • An international clothing giant that wanted to rank for ‘restaurant’ – in New York City – just because a few stores had a cafe inside.
  • An apartment complex that thought I could literally make their no-name complex rank number one for the word ‘apartment’ – also in New York City.
  • A mom and pop clicks & bricks T-Shirt company that wanted to outrank Amazon for the word ‘T-Shirt’ across the entire USA – within two months, no less.
  • A place that specialized in clothing for auto mechanics that wanted to rank for ‘chef’s hats’ while that actual product selection on the site was limited to literally three chef hats.




These are just a few examples of this type of keyword ridiculousness. Do you see why you probably should rethink this whole ‘keyword’ thing now? Still no? Ok, fine. I’ll elaborate.

Let’s completely ignore the ‘just do the impossible!’ requests (like outranking Amazon and making you number one in NYC for ‘apartments’) because ‘LOL, no.’ and stick to the ones that are actually able to happen in this lifetime and I could have actually done, like Chef Hat Charlie, there.

Imagine if I did what they told me to do and made these businesses rank for these off-brand, bait-and-switch, this-has-nothing-to-do-with-anything search terms. What would happen?

That’s right!

People would click on the link, see they’ve been misled and immediately bounce off the page. This would, in turn, increase your bounce rate and lower your engagement rate. This, in turn, would send signals to Google that your page is next to useless which would cause Rankbrain to go “You know, maybe we shouldn’t return these results next time.” and then you’re back to where you started before I wasted all that time ‘optimizing keywords’.

Moreover, let’s say Rankbrain didn’t do that and all you had was a bunch of annoyed searchers. Ok, so no rank drop but, realistically, what did we just do? We just sent a whole bunch of people who were looking for X, Y and Z to a site that sells C, D and E.

What good is that? How is that not a waste of time, money (because I don’t work cheap!) and energy?

SEO is not about just getting random people to your site. It’s about getting qualified traffic to your site.

“Just pick good keywords!”, you say?

Well, I’m pretty sure all those people didn’t wake up one morning and go, “Just for fun, I want my auto parts site to rank for TV dinners! That’s the way to run a business!”

Everybody thinks their keywords are the good ones. You can go so wrong with ‘keywords’ but it’s hard to go wrong with concepts and context.

How do I know? Imagine if the aforementioned clothing giant decided to sit and write quality content about food. At some point, unless the content writer is completely oblivious, they’re going to go, ‘Wait a minute…why am I writing this nonsense?’, realize that this won’t help anyone and just stop.

Which leads me to the next fact…


It Doesn’t Help Searchers

Let me give you an example of why your keyword optimized content nonsense isn’t helpful to anyone:

“Best Red Widget Store has the best crimson widgets for everyone who loves carmine widgets! Best Red Widget Store has a huge selection of scarlet widgets for amateurs and professionals at the best prices around! Get your cardinal widgets now from Best Red Widget Store and save big!”

How does that help? If you were a searcher and you saw this mess on somebody’s page, what would you do?

That’s right! You’d leave. Hooray for low on-page engagement and high bounce rates!

People, this isn’t 2001. You don’t need to write this junk anymore. Don’t be an SEO stereotype. This just isn’t how search works.

Long-tail keywords are dead.

LSI keywords are dead.

Even Hubspot abandoned their keywords tool because of how search has changed.

If you’re writing garbage to rank for a keyword, you’re most likely not writing useful content for your visitors. If you’re more obsessed with your search results ranking than helping your potential customers, you will quickly have no customers.


It Belittles All SEOs Everywhere

Let’s get to the main reason the whole ‘keywords’ thing enrages me: it reduces everyone in my industry to just a pack of idiots with access to a thesaurus.

You see, just like people who think, “SEO? Yeah, I already wrote my metadata, I’m good.”, this focus on keywords completely ignores what actually entails quality search engine optimization.

Here’s a totally incomplete list:

  • The wireframing of a new site
  • Migrating an existing site without breaking everything and having a special on 404s
  • 301 redirects while avoiding redirect chains
  • Canonicals
  • Accurate NAP information for brick & mortar and clicks & bricks stores
  • Link building
  • Broken link recovery (internal and external)
  • Disavowing bad links
  • Digging your way out of Google penalties left by previously failed SEO attempts
  • Cleaning up messes left by previously failed SEO attempts
  • Cleaning up messes by horrible web developers ruining your page speed
  • Cleaning up messes left by horrible UX designers ruining your page engagement
  • Creating quality original on-page content
  • Recreating quality on-page content because Panda thinks it went ‘stale’
  • Page speed work
  • Schema/JSON-LD markup
  • Citation cleaning and claiming
  • Google My Business work
  • Site reviews
  • Image optimization and compression
  • Code minimization and compression
  • The never-ending monitoring and adapting SEOs have to do to stay competitive
  • Screaming at the fact that as soon as you do all this, there’s an algorithm change

This is why SEOs exist and this is why SEO is not and never will be dead unless websites go away. This is why people pay and charge what they do for SEO. This is why we have jobs – so you don’t have to do all that.

If you are sitting there thinking that ‘Yeah, I can do SEO, let me just make up some keywords and write metadata and be done with it!’ you are fooling yourself. The sooner you accept that fact, the better off your site and business will be.




Look, if you think all SEOs need to do is write up keywords or research keywords or anything else, that’s like thinking all doctors in 2018 need to do is just apply leeches and do a little bloodletting to get your ‘bad humours’ out.

All construction workers need to build your house is a hammer and like six nails, right?

Why does your car need an engine to work? I mean, you’ve got four tires and a seat right? Just hang on and let gravity do the rest!

If your SEO is basically just a keyword optimizer, that is not an SEO. That’s a relic of a bygone era. That person probably doesn’t know how to do real, technical SEO so they just focus on the stuff that they know is the ‘little bit of information’ that is common knowledge to make themselves look good and make you think they’re doing actual work.

They are just after your money.

Also, if you found your SEO on Fiverr or Craigslist for like 200 bucks or so you might as well just stop because nobody who knows what they’re doing will do proper SEO for two hundred bucks. It costs more than that just for the tools to work with let alone the labor.

Imagine if you went to a restaurant in 2018 and someone was selling sandwiches for ten cents. Great deal, yes, but you eventually have to wonder what kind of meat is in there.


The Bottom Line

Keywords are dead.

Dead. Dead. Dead.

I don’t care who tells you what. They aren’t a thing that will help you.

Think about it. If keywords were still a thing, everyone would only focus on keywords and then no one would be even a little better than where they started. Everyone would be back to where they started – on equal footing.

A good SEO or SEO service doesn’t bother with keywords – at least not in the way you might think. The limit to ‘keywords research’ these days is basically asking you ‘what does your business do?’ or ‘what do you want to focus on?’ and then they take it from there.

They’re going to use what you tell them as a starting point to figure out what concepts to build good things around. They’re going to actually help you write quality, helpful content and mark it up properly.




What they’re not going to do is start writing that synonym-stuffed nonsense that got SEO a horrible reputation in the first place. That just doesn’t work and don’t believe anyone who tells you that it does for the long term.

Yes, it will work in the short term, until Google notices you – and then you get penalized. If you don’t care about that, then you still don’t need to bother with keywords. Just go buy a bunch of backlinks for a few bucks and ‘skyrocket your site!’ or some other black/grey hat nonsense like that until Google catches and penalizes you. That would be a lot less work for the same results.

At the end of the day, good SEO is about getting qualified traffic to your site from search engines. It isn’t about gaming the system. It isn’t about ‘just rank real high!’. It’s about getting your site in front of the right audience at the right time for the right search queries and just blindly focusing on keyword optimization isn’t going to do that.


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