What are Keywords in SEO?

What are Keywords?

In search engine optimization, keywords are the words and phrases people use in search engines, also called "search queries".

Keywords also represent the ideas and topics that define what a page’s content is all about.

The more relevant your on-page keywords are to search queries, the better chance someone has of finding your content. So for SEO, you want the keywords you use in your content to be relevant to the keywords people use in Google searches.

Head vs. tail (and long tail) keywords

There are two main types of keywords you can use on your website:

  • Head keywords

  • Tail keywords

Some digital marketers like the further segment their keywords into categories like fat head, chunky middle, elbow, short tail and long tail. These distinctions can be a useful way to categorize campaigns but don’t mean all that much at the end of the day.

What is a tail, or long tail, keyword?

Long tail keywords are longer keywords that people use to find very specific pieces of information on a topic or purchase a product.

So what’s the main difference between head and tail?

  • Head keyword: A very popular keyword with high search volume and an imprecise, or more broad, topical relevance. They get a lot of searches and are highly competitive.

  • Tail keywords: A very precise keyword people use to find a very specific piece of information or product. Tail keywords are longer (3-5 words), have lower search volume and are easier to rank for.

Dinosaur as an example of head and tail keywords

Here’s an example of head and tail keywords for a men’s fashion website:

WooRank Keyword Tool highlighting head keywords

The keywords "shoes" and “mens shoes” generate an estimated 1.22 million and 201,000 searches per month.

On the other hand, our tail keywords "mens shoes to wear with shorts" and “men shoes with best arch support”

Many marketers and website owners find the temptation of head keywords difficult to resist. If you can rank at the top for "shoes", that’s 250,100 visitors to your website each month! Assuming the average CTR for a top Google result.

But do a quick search for just "shoes". In the results you have:

  • The local pack
  • 6PM
  • Zappos
  • Nordstrom Rack
  • JC Penny
  • Macy’s
  • DSW
  • Wikipedia

Searching for "mens shoes" reveals a very similar set of results.

You’re certainly welcome to take on those domains if you want, but you’ll likely struggle to achieve a sustainable ROI.

Now let’s look at the results for "mens shoes to wear with shorts" and “mens shoes with best arch support”.

WooRank Keyword Tool highlighting tail keywords

The estimated monthly search volume is much, much lower. (Note that in Keyword Tool, that doesn’t mean no one is searching for those keywords just that it’s too low for us to accurately estimate.)

So fewer potential website visitors for that keyword.

But do a search for "mens shoes to wear with shorts". A much less competitive SERP, which means easier rankings.

But what’s even more valuable about tail keywords is that they make it much, much easier to attract qualified traffic.

Since tail keywords are much more specific, they allow you to build pages that are much more optimized for conversions and contain content that is much more actionable for users.

Plus, thanks to Hummingbird and RankBrain, content optimized for someone looking for "mens shoes to wear with shorts" is going to be relevant for anyone using any query to answer that question. Targeting “mens shoes to wear with shorts” can also rank for:

  • "Best shoes with shorts for men"

  • "Best sneakers to wear with shorts"

  • "What to wear with shorts men"

  • "Loafer with shorts"

  • "Shoes to wear with shorts and polo"

Are Keywords Still Relevant to SEO?

Harness the power of AI for advanced SEO with our partner WordLift.

Thanks to AI-powered semantic search like RankBrain and Hummingbird, it seems as if keywords are becoming irrelevant. After all, what’s the point in using keywords when Google can rank pages that don’t even use the words in a query?

However, as long as people use words and phrases to search for things online, keywords will be relevant to match queries with content. What’s changing, when it comes to keywords, is the types of keywords you use and how they fit into your overall marketing strategy.

Instead of adding keywords to content in an attempt to rank for specific queries, you can use a keyword’s search intent to attract your target audience to your site and tailor your content to their goal.

Keywords are no longer simply about attracting large amounts of traffic. Keywords have become powerful tools in attracting highly qualified traffic, engaging users and optimizing your site’s conversion rates.

What is a Keyword Strategy?

A keyword strategy is a plan for choosing and targeting relevant keywords that your audience uses when searching for content online. Your keyword strategy should be designed in a way to achieve your business goals.

An ideal keyword strategy includes a mixture of high-volume and highly commercial terms, as well as a mix of keywords used at each stage of the buying cycle. This will allow you to bring in users in all sections of the funnel and move them through to a conversion.

Search volume vs. competition

As we discussed above, it’s important to resist the temptation of chasing volume when it comes to keywords and SEO. You are by far better off using a keyword strategy that balances low-volume and easy keywords with head keywords.

Note that your keyword strategy doesn’t have to be limited to on-page SEO. If you are running a brand awareness campaign for competitive keywords, you can always run a guest blogging or outreach campaign to build links on sites with more ranking power.

If you are able to rank for high-volume head keywords, they can be incredibly valuable for other marketing channels via retargeting campaigns.

Search intent (commercial keywords)

We’ve mentioned a few times that tail keywords represent users that have a high probability of converting.

But how can we know that?

Google provides lots of clues regarding the intent of someone using a keyword to search online. Learn how to spot them with our guide to finding and targeting keyword intent.

Incorporating keywords that are relevant to all 3 types of intent (informational, navigational and transactional) is very important for a successful keyword strategy.

Finding Keywords

The process of finding keywords for your website is known as keyword research. Keyword research is broken up into 3 main steps:

  • Discovery: Find search terms that are relevant to your website, business, industry, topic and niche. Depending on the size of your site, this list can be huge.

  • Refinement: Use volume, competitiveness and intent indicators to remove irrelevant keywords from your list and bucket the remaining.

  • Competitor research: Check out your main competitors to see what keywords they’re using and how. Remember that websites that appear in SERPs for your keywords are also your competitors, so check those sites out as well.

After keyword research, you’ll have a nice list of terms that people use to find content relevant to your website.

Find the right keywords with these free keyword research tools.

Using Keywords

Using keywords for SEO happens in two ways:

  1. On-page optimization

  2. Content planning

On-page keyword optimization

The way you use keywords in your page content is still very relevant today (as we mentioned above), but has undergone significant changes thanks to Google’s Hummingbird and RankBrain algorithms. These algorithms are able to read queries and page content more accurately and return results that are more relevant and helpful to users.

Website owners now must adapt their on-page optimizations to follow. Instead of focusing on how often you use a particular keyword, synonym or phrase, work to create content around your keyword topic that is useful, high quality and serves the user’s intent.

In fact, thanks to RankBrain’s ability to translate keywords into concepts, pages can rank for queries that don’t even appear in their content.

Content planning

Your keyword strategy and content strategy should naturally go hand-in-hand. If your website is brand new, look to your keywords for content ideas. Focusing on creating high-quality and in-depth content that fully covers a keyword’s topic.

You can target multiple related keywords with one page, but avoid keyword cannibalization caused by multiple pages targeting one keyword.

Use these tools to improve your content marketing

If you’ve already got a site with some content, take a minute to map existing content to your keywords. Any existing pages that are relevant to can be optimized to improve rankings.

If you’ve got keywords with no relevant pages, use this as a starting point to plan new content.

Recent guides