Too Big to Fail: The Death of the Keyword [Infographic]

Keywords are everything in PPC advertising. Hell, keywords are the lifeblood of search engine marketing entirely. We rely on keywords to target consumers. They give us the best understanding of what the user wants to get from their search. Without keywords, what would we do?

We better figure it out soon, because the keyword is dying.

We’re all in denial about it, but look at the signs. Google has been transitioning away from the keyword for years, in both organic and paid search. The fact is, keywords are archaic, they’re flawed. As marketing evolves, as technology evolves, we have more exact ways of measuring consumer intent.

We’re already seeing keywords be displaced. Take a look at how the landscape is changing, in regards to both SEO and PPC.

In the year 2000, Google processed a little over 9 billion search queries. In 2010, they reported a yearly total of 1 trillion search queries. Over the course of 10 years, the search behemoth increased its search volume by 11,011%. Yes, that’s eleven thousand percent over a decade. And that growth hasn’t stopped.

When Google Adwords started in 2000, keywords were an accurate measure of what users were searching for. Since then, searches have grown a bit more complicated. Out of every 1,000 searches:

While we usually find ways around some of these phenomena (like capturing common misspellings of some keywords), they still show that human intent is simply not captured by keywords and search queries alone.

Google’s not stupid. Google sees this. That’s why, especially since the release of Google Penguin in 2012, we’ve seen the search engine move away from keywords. Instead, Google shifted focus to a more user-centric model based on context and intent.

A Shift in SEO Techniques

In the early days of SEO, marketers would manipulate search algorithms to appear high in the organic results. SEO algorithms were more predictable, and there were easy (and shady) workarounds that allowed people to hurtle their way to the top.

These workarounds (including keyword stuffing, automated content, and sneaky redirects) were often referred to as black hat SEO. They focused on the search engine rather than the searcher. And they resulted in poor content and search results for the user.

Black hat SEO was successful because search algorithms almost relied solely on keywords to match results to searchers. For example, if you were to search for custom cigar humidors, this would pop up in your results, even though its content offers very little to the reader:

Example of Keyword Stuffing
Source: Google

Search engines have since altered their algorithms to focus on content and context instead. After all, content is king. Now you can’t get away with overloading a page with the same keyword over and over, just for the sake of ranking.

If you look at SEO today, you see that black hat practices have been nearly completely replaced by white hat SEO (which is, essentially, the exact opposite of black hat). To rank high in search engines now means to cater your site to the user.

While keywords are still important in search rankings, search engines place a much heavier emphasis on a site’s content, and how it relates to the individual user’s search intent. This is why Google’s SEO guide talks a bit about keywords and a lot about optimization for the user.

New Methods of PPC Advertising

Keywords are the foundation of a successful PPC campaign. You can use exact match or long-tail keywords to target very specific niches, or use negative keywords to be sure you don’t target certain segments. So when I say that the keyword is dying, you must be thinking: there’s no way in hell.

And yet, Google took away exact and phrase match keywords in late 2014. And this is only the beginning. Look at some of the newest breakthroughs in PPC advertising. Keyword-based targeting simply isn’t the most efficient and profitable means of PPC anymore.

Advertisers have recently discovered the huge payoffs of retargeting, or remarketing. Use tracking cookies, viewing history, and abandoned carts to target your consumers. Many marketers have found that this method is more accurate at determining the user’s search intent.

You can also try contextual advertising to display content that matches the content already on the page. After all, if a user is reading up on the drinking scene in Philadelphia, they’ll probably be more interested in your beer advertisement.

Example of Contextual PPC Ad

These are just two examples. The industry is changing, it’s evolving. Relying solely on keywords in your PPC campaign is old-fashioned and faulty. As we find new ways to understand the consumer, new means of targeting become much more accurate.

Understanding User Search Intent

With all this talk of search intent, I’m sure you’re skeptical of the industry’s ability to actually track behavior and predict this measurement. But technology has evolved so much in the past few decades, it’s simply scary. And the big advertising networks have more than enough information to predict what you’re actually searching for, without keywords.

The newest technologies in the arena are making the most headway so far. Take virtual assistants, such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Google Now. As you ask questions, as you ‘speak’ with the technology, it learns more about your behaviors and preferences. This information is filed, and helps define you as a consumer. This makes marketing to you much easier.

This same thing is happening with internet browsing. Tabs are being kept on your browser, on your searches, and on your IP address. If you visit a hiking website, then make a search for “shoes,” it’s easy to predict that you’re looking for hiking shoes. If the advertiser knows you’re a male in his late 20s by your IP address, it can show you ads for adult male hiking shoes. This is much more accurate than showing ads tailored to the keyword shoes alone.

Local advertising is another means of targeting beyond keywords. If I search for “Honda,” I’m going to be shown results for the nearest Honda dealer.

With all this in mind, remember: keywords are still important. Don’t stop using them altogether. But at the same time, diversify your marketing efforts and try new means of targeting. Don’t rely on keywords. And don’t be surprised when they eventually go away for good.

Death of the Keyword Infographic