Though it might make for a catchy, clickbait title, keywords are not dead.

93% of online experiences begin with a search, and a search begins with words. As long as people use words to communicate with search engines, keywords will never die. How we use them in an SEO strategy, however, is always evolving.

The first step to a modern keyword strategy is understanding the user intent behind target keywords. Then, you need to expand your thinking to long-tail keywords and natural language search in order to keep up with modern search engines and user behavior.

Keywords Rely on “User Intent”

Understanding the user intent behind keywords is critical, but many companies don’t know about this strategy or don’t know how to properly focus content around user intent. 2017 will be about marketers understanding how to work with search engines to deliver the content users really want.

When users conduct a search, they have questions or pain points that need answers. For example, if a user types in “3rd party logistics,” does that person want to learn about the logistics industry? Does he want to hire a 3PL service? Does he want a definition? The unspecified question behind the keyword is what we refer to as “user intent.”

User intent is typically to “inform” (get more information on something) or “purchase” (buy something). Google is heavily invested in understanding and delivering on that intent—their ability to do so is what keeps them on top of the search market (and their position at the top of the search market makes their ad space more valuable—which is where most of their revenue still comes from).

To answer the user intent question about 3rd party logistics, then, we need look no further than search results.

keyword user intent example

Three of the top five results are not only providing information about third party logistics, but specifically providing definitions and very basic, beginner-level information. A 3PL brand might assume that someone searching “3rd party logistics” knows what the term means and wants to hire a logistics partner, but Google has discovered that people actually want information—so much so that the featured snippet pulls a definition statement for the top of the search results page.

What does that mean for your SEO strategy if you’re a 3PL service? If a logistics brand wants to rank well for the term, they need to provide high-quality content defining the term and explaining their industry and business. There are also a couple of branded results that would indicate a less prominent purchase intent. While it would definitely be a secondary consideration, it wouldn’t hurt for the brand targeting “3rd party logistics” to create both a sales page and an educational resource page based on the term.

Long-Tail Keywords are Vital to a Sound SEO Strategy

A long-tail keyword is a search term that is four or more words. Interestingly enough, 51% of all search queries contain four or more words, which means long-tail keywords are enormously important for SEO keyword strategies.

What’s fascinating is that many long-tail keywords don’t match up to search results quite yet. For example, what if a user searches for a tutorial of how to use marketing automation software, making it easier to implement? A simple search of “marketing automation software with tutorial” does not produce much in the way of results.

long tail keyword example

This means that essentially no brand has claimed this space, since the results give definitions of email marketing and marketing automation. But what if no one has claimed that space because no one is really using that long-tail keyword? You need to find terms that are actually being used.

Marketers with little or no budget for keyword research tools can find some more limited, free tools online:

  • Keyword Finder: Enter a basic keyword and the tool will suggest long-tail terms and provide some search volume information. A free account is only allowed a small number of daily searches.
  • This tool will also return a list of suggested long-tail terms for a head term you enter, but it does not provide search volume data. This one also limits the number of daily uses without an account.

However, I recommend signing up for a premium keyword research tool for the best results. For example, a Moz Pro account gives you access to their Keyword Explorer. Start by searching a basic, core keyword.

Moz Keyword Research

Clicking “See all suggestions” on the next page produces a whole list of keyword suggestions that can be ranked by relevancy and approximate search volume:

Moz Keyword Suggestions

Scroll down the list and make note of long-tail keyword phrases. You can also click the search icon next to any specific, long-tail keyword for a new list of suggestions based on that term. That secondary list will often include more long-tail keywords than the initial list.

Google’s Voice and Natural Language Search

Google’s voice search capabilities and natural language processing advancements are changing keyword strategies as well. 20% of mobile queries are voice searches, and the trend toward natural language search has driven Google to produce answer boxes and Knowledge Graph panels.

Natural language, spoken or typed, is taking over search queries. Where users would once type, “email automation,” they are now asking, “What is email automation?” Instead of typing, “logistics company,” they are asking, “Is there a logistics company near me?”

Those questions essentially become more long-tail keywords for your SEO content marketing strategy. Use them strategically as you plan and craft content:

  • Gather the FAQs for your industry, product, and brand. Compare the list to your existing content. If you have pages that answer those questions, make sure the questions themselves are stated naturally and completely, and are given some emphasis on the page.
  • Create FAQ pages for questions that can be answered in one or two paragraphs. Wrap the questions in <h2> header tags to give them some emphasis for search engines, and make sure you provide clear, concise answers.
  • Create long-form, useful content for questions, or categories of questions, that lend themselves to more in-depth answers. Use the questions to guide the conversation down the page—from “What?” to “Why?” to “How?”—and format each one as a subheading so users and search engines can easily decipher the content at a glance.

Update Your SEO Keyword Strategy for 2017

Feel free to roll your eyes at headlines declaring the death of keywords for SEO as you get your strategy updated for 2017. An understanding of user intent and a collection of good long-tail/natural language terms will help hone your focus for the new year. So start plugging your core keywords into Google and studying the results for user intent. Once you know what your audience really wants, you can work out the best ways to communicate it to them.

How will you be updating your SEO strategy for the coming year? I’d love to hear your thoughts!