Your Misunderstanding and Misuse of Keywords Is Preventing Consistent Page 1 Rankings [Part 2]
Where do you put the keywords...or... what do you do with a keyword? 🤔
“Where do I put the keywords, again?”
You’ve gone through the trouble of curating a list of keywords that you want to target.
They seem like queries that your customers would type into Google to find a company like yours.
In fact, you confirmed they were great keywords after reviewing Part 1 of this newsletter series:
You excitedly open up your CMS. Time to write the copy for that new webpage/blog/article!
Just know this…
You’re not alone if that blank editor or doc that you just opened looks pretty intimidating.
You might be asking yourself the question that this article started with:
“Where do I put the keywords, again?”
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A disclaimer for you, the reader, about the challenge of explaining the use of keywords
If an SEO’s face slightly glazes over with a far-off stare when you ask them a question like this, it’s okay. You broke their brain. They’re processing what you asked vs. what you should be asking.
Then they’ll realize that in order to explain the use of keywords in a way that helps you put their explanation into practice, they’ll also need to contradict many of the best practices in their own answer.
When future you understands the above two paragraphs, you’ll also likely understand why:
Google representatives have a hard time giving practical SEO advice
Many skilled SEOs recommend building your own website and practicing.
It’s a challenging topic to explain/teach.
And all of that is in service to the fact that the advice I’m about to provide is my best attempt at bringing more clarity to this topic.
…But hold on to your hats because it might be a bumpy ride.
Balancing the use of the exact keyword phrases with what they represent (aka intent)
Let’s begin with correcting the course of this conversation a bit. You’ll have an easier time understanding this topic if you start by asking:
“What is the relationship between a keyword, a searcher, and Google’s algorithms?”
When you “use” a keyword, it’s only kinda-sorta about the words. What I mean is that they’re NOT like hashtags often used on social media websites.
Google IS NOT coming up on an exact phrase that you’ve put on a page and saying:
“Ah-ha, we’ve got another article with this phrase in it - let’s put it in the queue to be evaluated to rank for that phrase. Oh, and look, this page has used that phrase more times than anyone else. That definitely means it should be ranked for this keyword.”
NO. NO. NO. STOP.
Keywords are a mixture of words/phrases that when strung together often mean something bigger than their definition.
They’re tied to the concepts, discussions, tools, and people that are related to that topic overall.
Side note: I’m not going to re-hash the larger conversation of identifying intent in this issue. If you’d like to understand more of that, you’ll find what you’re looking for in part 1 which is linked at the top of this issue (images from related parts of that post below):
An example of keyword utilization in the wild
I see your eyes glazing over.
Let’s set up an example:
Your company sells puppy-safe shampoo. You choose to write a helpful article for new puppy owners by targeting the keyword:
“how to give a puppy a bath”
It’s a great longtail phrase with good traffic potential and, most importantly, it’s related to what your customers are doing.
But how are your competitors able to rank for that keyword and what can we learn from them?
Important background info for this explanation: Title tags and headers are generally thought of as being “keyword sensitive” — as places you can put your keywords to help improve rankings.
It’s slightly more nuanced than that, but for practical reasons that we’ll get into later - it’s a good place to start understanding how Google sees your keyword use.
Title tags for the pages ranking for this keyword:
Title tags and H1 headers are heavily weighted in their importance for communicating to both a reader and Google what a post is going to be about.
I do recommend using your target keyword in these places. But as you can see, utilizing the exact phrase for the keyword is not what is required to rank this content.
Instead, it’s using that keyword’s intent in your title tags and headers that will help you rank an article.
Just look at the above title tags. Do you see how despite being different from the EXACT phrase we’re targeting, Google is able to interpret what this post is about?
As you grow increasingly familiar with utilizing keywords in something like a title tag, you’ll begin to explore more of just how flexible your phrases can be so that they prioritize the reader’s experience and less of the bot’s interpretation ability.
For example - the earliest version of myself as an SEO would have written a title tag exactly like the one in position 2:
Our keyword: “how to give a puppy a bath”
Their title tag: “how to give your puppy a bath”
The only difference between the keyword target and the title tag is that we changed the word “a” to “your” when we created the title.
This is a perfectly fine way of crafting a title tag with the proper intent. And it’s a great introduction to the idea that you don’t need to include the exact phrase.
The inclusion of the word “your” allows the writer to speak directly to the reader in a more personalized way without jeopardizing rankings/changing the intent of the piece.
Takeaway: “how to give a puppy a bath” ~= “how to give your puppy a bath”
And we can extrapolate this example out even more if we look at the other title tags. Let’s look at position 1.
This is a great example of how “intent” reigns supreme, and Google can do a good job of interpreting/surfacing relevant content based on the implied meaning of headers.
For example: “how to” is often associated with “step-by-step” instructions. And “bathing your puppy” is essentially the same phrase as “give a puppy a bath.”
Takeaway: “how to give a puppy a bath” ~= “bathing your puppy: a step-by-step guide”
The beauty of mastering this level of keyword understanding is that the title tag in position 1, in my opinion, is more inviting than the generic title tag that closely matches the keyword in position 2.
The reader is being directly told that the writer has crafted a step-by-step process that will (hopefully) be easy to follow.
The last bit of analysis that is worth doing as an SEO as you’re learning to craft your own non-exact match keyword titles and headers is to evaluate the common words used across all the title tags on page 1.
As you can see, the words puppy, bath, and bathing appear to be important in capturing keyword intent.
Try crafting other title tags that have the same intent.
My 2 attempts:
A How-to Manual on Bathing a Puppy for New Owners (+ Tips and Product Recommendations)
Giving Your Puppy a Bath: Steps and Tips for a Cleaner Pup
See how we’re able to utilize the important words from the target phrase but can utilize them in a more flexible way.
Pro-Tip and Yoast Warning: When using a tool like the famous Yoast plug-in for WordPress websites (and now Shopify) - remember that it is a tool. It is a very simple, yet constantly improving guide rail system.
When it says something like “use the target keyword 5 times in your headers” — it’s being overly simplistic. You can (should) ignore this type of checklist system that incidently promotes keyword stuffing.
Your clients need to know this and so do you.
Or you’ll end up writing an article with awkward headers that look like:
Title tag: How to give a puppy a bath
-H1 How to give a puppy a bath
-H2 Reasons knowing how to give a puppy a bath is important
-H2. Benefits of knowing how to give a puppy a bath
-H2. Steps that tell you how to give a puppy a bath
-H3 How to give a puppy a bath step 1)
-H3 How to give a puppy a bath step 2)
-H3 How to give a puppy a bath step 3)
The point of this longwinded introduction
The point of this entire introduction section is to say:
“Using” a keyword requires understanding that a keyword is BOTH the words to be placed in “keyword sensitive” locations AND that the phrases used impact rankings largely due to the contextual intent associated with them.
The exact phrases listed in a keyword research tool are showing you what people commonly type into a search engine to generate the results. They are not the words that they want to see in the article, necessarily.
A keyword is about utilizing the words that Google understands are related to your overall topic and the user’s objective.
You can use the exact keyword phrase when it makes sense to do so, but it’s what those words mean that allows you to rank and NOT that those words are spelled out onto the page.
The contradiction that makes explaining this challenging is that you can’t separate the actual words on the page from their intent. If you use exact keyword phrases in your article, you might very well rank for them.
But you’re not getting those rankings because you put a 3-word phrase into an article “x” number of times.
You’re succeeding because those words represent the “intent” behind what a searcher wants. That’s why you will see keyword-stuffed articles sometimes rank (along with other external SEO factors like backlinks).
THE GOOD STUFF: where you put these abstracted keyword phrases in order to improve your rankings
Now for the main course (the actionable parts of this post). What parts of a website/page can be optimized with keyword-related phrases?
To answer this, we’re going to discuss the places that are often referred to as “keyword sensitive.”
If something is referred to as keyword sensitive, it means:
✅ SEOs believe they have enough correlative data behind a practice of placing keywords in that space to assume that it is a ranking factor/ has a weighted impact within Google’s ranking systems
✅ We are using our knowledge of keywords from the above section to impact these keyword sensitive components of a page
✅ This does not mean we know that it is a true ranking factor (unless Google explicitly tells us)
✅ This does not necessarily mean we know exactly how it works, even if it is impacting rankings — rather that we believe it is impactful as a practitioner.
1) Using keywords in headers and title tags
As mentioned above, headers and your title tags are known for being some of the most heavily weighted places to use your keywords.
Why? Google tends to use these elements to understand what an article is about just like your readers will do.
That doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually figure out how to understand an article that doesn’t use headers, but your job is to optimize in a way that helps Google.
We already looked at the title tags above, but let’s take a look at the headers in the top-ranking articles to see how they utilized their keywords throughout the piece.
Reminder: the keyword target we’re evaluating is “how to give a puppy a bath”
We’re going to start with the article in position 2: How to Give Your Puppy a Bath. The reason we’re starting here is that they clearly had an SEO working on their website and it illustrates our earlier points.
Here are the headers on the page:
This H1 contains almost the exact match keyword and is the same as the title tag. It’s a best practice to have similar H1s and title tags. This ensures that the intent is the same and can even help prevent Google from rewriting your title tags.
You can see the obvious keyword placement in practice above with the “give a puppy a bath?”
They’re using parts of the keyword with different introductions to let both the search engine and readers know that they’re still on topic.
The other words like “When can you” help to add the context of what a reader can find under that heading related to puppy bathing knowledge.
Here we can very clearly identify that best practice again with the inclusion of “bathe a puppy?” You can essentially see and feel the writer trying to manage relevance for both the writer and the bot system.
You can imagine an article in which the writer makes the H1 about the intent and doesn’t assume that the reader has forgotten about the fact that this article is about bathing a puppy.
Such an article might then replace the above header with something as concise as just “Frequency.”
The use of longer headers allows the writer to give further detail/context to a reader that hopefully doesn’t feel robotic or overly repetitive while also giving enough context clues to Google’s bot system.
Then, right near the end, they use an exact match of the entire keyword phrase “how to give a puppy a bath” — which is a obvious attempt at placing their keyword in the header but also a perfectly fine UX/navigation clue for where a reader will uncover the directions that they likely came for.
Side note: This article utilizes H3s where it should have utilized H2s. The creators likely did this because they preferred the size and styling of their H3 font. It also illustrates that optimization best practices aren’t always required for a piece of content to rank!
Not all articles need your headers to contain keyword information
Now I want to direct your attention back to article 1 because it represents another level of keyword mastery typically associated with experienced SEOs.
As we discussed initially the title tag and H1 imply intent without exactly or even that closely matching the exact target keyword phrase.
Similar to the article in position 2, the H1 is almost identical to the title tag. Again, this provides a good intent match between the H1 and title tag.
Here is where things get particularly interesting with this piece and contradict some of my earlier points.
Not every header needs to have some part of your keyword injected into it. The SEO who created this understands that this article needs to broadly show someone “how to give a puppy a bath” — nothing more.
The only word shared between the H1 and this H2 is the word “puppy’s” and that isn’t even an exact match either.
So what’s going on here?
A lot of the time, when you’re working with lists — it could be a list of the best tools or it could be a list of steps like in this article — the actual words used to describe or name those list items aren’t directly related to what is making the page rank.
They should be useful list items and relevant to the topic you’re covering — but they don’t need keywords jammed into them.
And that trend continues with Step 3 all the way through the remaining steps of this article.
Pro Tip: If you want to quickly pull your competitors’ headers and identify their header structures on a page, you can do so with a free Chrome extension like SEO Minion.
Simply open the extension when you’re on the page you wish to analyze. And then select “Analyze On-Page SEO.”
Side Note: It’s not believed that meta descriptions are keyword sensitive like their title tag partners. If someone suggests otherwise, they’re likely being conspiratorial.
2) Natural use of keywords in paragraph text
You don’t need to use your keywords a given number of times throughout your paragraph text. Again, they’re not hashtags and there is no such thing as “keyword density.”
In fact, if your headers are descriptive and match intent thoroughly, your writer will naturally fill in your narrative with the semantic cues and “secondary keywords.”
Meaning that the writer can’t help but use the words that are most relevant to stay centered on:
how to bathe a puppy
ways to approach puppy bathtime
when it’s safe and how often
tips that make puppy bathtime go more smoothly
Try a writing tool to help you understand the important semantic phrases from related articles and maintain keyword intent
If you’re new to writing SEO content, or even if you’re experienced, I recommend giving yourself a tool like Clearscope.
It helps make sure you’re covering the related topics and using the relevant language associated with competitive, related articles from page 1 of Google (this is not an ad or an affiliate link).
Our team at Ten Speed uses this tool to help our writers and SEO specialists create the most optimized content.
3) Putting keywords in your image alt-text
You can place keywords inside of the alt-text for any images to help that image get pulled into the overall image search or into Image Packs/Carrousels on the SERP.
Our actual keyword target produces an Image Pack in the bottom position of page 1 which tells us that searches like to see images (videos are even more highly recommended based on their position on Page 1).
Let’s take a look at some of the images in that SERP feature and what their alt-text for those images are:
You can see by reviewing the HTML via the Chrome inspect tool what the alt text of an image is.
For this image (below), you can see that they utilized the file name when filling in the alt text. And it includes a version of the keyword phrase/intent.
It’s not smooth or pretty, but it’s why their image is being generated on the SERP for the keyword target.
Alt-text: “images of puppies”
I’m using the second image here to illustrate another way to generate your images on a SERP. The alt-text here isn’t utilizing the target keyword or any descriptors related to bathing. It, instead, is being pulled in because it is an image of a puppy (which is relevant) and it lives on an article that is about giving a puppy a bath.
All of the words, images, videos, and links around an article are being leveraged by the search engine algorithms to help create an understanding of relativity and understanding.
Don’t abuse your alt-text use, please
My last note on alt-text is that you can certainly manipulate image search rankings by plugging in keyword phrases.
However, for the sake of the internet and people who are visually impaired — make alt-text useful. The alt-text is what screenreaders utilize in order to describe what an image is for someone who might be unable to see it or see it well.
That means that a good alt text for the above image might be:
“A sud-covered puppy being bathed in a small pail”
That will get you your search intent and it will help those who need it.
4) Making URL slugs based on your keywords
Plenty of URLs rank without their slug being an exact match of the keyword.
We’ve all been on results in which the URL slug is actually just a sequence of numbers (🤢🤮).
But anecdotally and from valid sources, URLs are thought to simply add to the myriad of context clues that Google’s systems use when ranking pages — even if it’s very minimally weighted.
My personal take is that perhaps most importantly, making your URL slug a match for your keyword is not a negative.
Let me explain.
If it turns out that this is truly a ranking factor, then great, you’re getting credit for that. But also there are benefits outside of ranking to include your keyword as your URL slug.
Keeps your URL slug short and concise
Gives you and anyone else who is optimizing the website an idea of what your target keyword was when building the webpage
Allows you to quickly pull up analytics from your tools when segmenting by URLs
Will keep you from putting numbers that might change into your URLs which will save you from running excessive numbers of 301 redirects when updating content.
Side note on the last point: A lot of people lazily make their slugs whatever they title their piece.
Title = 11 best dog shampoos of 2022
URL = www.dogbaths.com/11-best-dog-shampoos-of-2022
The problem here is that if you ever want to expand your list to more than 11 shampoos and if you keep that post in 2023 - you’ll need to provide a 301 redirect to a new URL.
Instead, a better keyword-based URL slug would be:
But, let’s see what the top pages for “how to give a puppy a bath” are doing with their URLs:
PupBox went ahead and put in a shortened version of the keyword that utilizes some of the primary words that are a part of the target keyword.
And AKC went for the exact title match. There aren’t any numbers here so that’s fine. It also means that the URL contains all of the words associated with the intent of the piece.
Additionally, it would be perfectly fine to make your URL:
5) Including keywords in anchor text for descriptive linking
Another popular place to include intent and therefore associated keyword phrases are in anchor text.
Anchor text, of course, refers to the words included in the hyperlink to another page.
The idea here is two-fold — we want to communicate to a reader/user that is on one of our web pages what they can expect to find if they click a link to another page.
Additionally, that text is thought to be used by Google’s own systems to help it better understand which topics are being connected together. That means helping Google understand which keywords might be appropriate for the page a link is directing a user to.
Below is an example in which PupBox linked out to an AKC article about using positive reinforcement for training. They simply linked to that page with the phrase “positive reinforcement." A reader can expect to find an article about positive reinforcement on the other side of that link.
An example of an anchor text with keyword intent for the target query, “how to give a puppy a bath,” can be found in AKC’s article about washing dog’s feet (screenshot below).
You can see they used the anchor text: “cleaner than a bath” to link to their own post about bathing a puppy. It’s a pretty natural anchor text phrasing that is coming from another article about cleaning a dog’s paws.
Both are related to grooming/cleaning dogs which means that it makes sense that these two URLs might be connected to one another.
And Google should feel comfortable rewarding them for creating depth and breadth related to a broader topic of petcare (giving them more authority in the space).
A few important pieces of advice for utilizing anchor text and keywords well
If you want to link to another one of your articles on your website from another one, make sure the anchor text used describes that page. You can try using the keyword that you want your other page to rank for (or that it already ranks for) in your anchor text.
Too many exact-match keywords as your anchor text for a page might come across as spammy and manipulative. Try varying the phrases and utilizing more natural ways of describing what’s on the other side.
Don’t use the keyword that you want your current page to rank for in the anchor text of a link to another page (esp. a competitor). You don’t want to give them the link equity and the keyword intent association. It’s okay to link to a competitor when it’s appropriate, just try linking using their brand name as the anchor text, instead of a keyword.
Try Exact-Title Matching Anchor Text
One of my favorite ways to pass keyword intent via anchor text, but also get people to click links to relevant pages is to intentionally place exact-match titles to articles via inline CTAs.
Below is an example of one that I am / would use for this exact newsletter section.
Recommended Reading: An Anchor Text Guide: What It Is, SEO Best Practices, and Strategic Uses
The reason that I like creating links like this is that I know I’m giving the reader a very accurate and enticing description of what they’ll find on the other side of that link (which means that I’ll receive the keyword intent that I want).
But I also feel like it forces a reader to trip over the link a little more and to actually look at it.
Remember that the first priority of a link is that someone will use it as a highway to other pieces of content or parts of your website that they want to go to.
***If I’m honest with myself, I don’t tend to click natural, inline links nearly as often as I am likely to click a recommended reading CTA.
If you use this newsletter issue + the other concepts and practices from the articles listed below — you’re well on your way to ranking content for your own site or getting an introductory level job in SEO.
Derek works for an agency that specializes in SEO and content marketing for growing SaaS brands called Ten Speed. Interested in learning more about their work?
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