One secret to effective SEO campaigns is narrowing your focus to a set of strategic target keywords. Instead of generally trying to rank higher than your competition across the board, you can use keyword research to find specific words and phrases that are seeing respectable traffic volumes, but aren’t being competitively fought for.
Incorporating these words and phrases, specifically, into your onsite content and inbound links has historically been an effective strategy for increasing your rankings for those searches.
One particular strategy along these lines was to choose one keyword or keyword phrase per page of your site to serve as the “target keyword” for that page. You might have the same target keyword for multiple pages, but generally, optimizers didn’t try to focus on multiple keyword phrases on a single page.
But is it still good advice to focus on only one keyword phrase per page?
The theory behind this advice is pretty sound, and it boils down to opting for specialization over generalization.
Let’s say you’re optimizing for three keyword terms: “auto mechanic,” “car repairs,” and “fix broken vehicle.” Each of these keywords is distinct, with no verbatim overlapping terminology, for the sake of the example.
You have three pages on your site, and thus three opportunities to show up in Google search results. You know that the top result in Google gets a disproportionately large share of traffic, compared to other results, and you know that you have a competitor currently in the top spot for all three queries.
Let’s say you’re going to include three keywords per page; in scenario A, you equip each page with three instances of a single keyword, and in scenario B, you equip each page with one of each keyword. In scenario A, you have three pages with “full power,” so to speak, while in scenario B, you have three pages each with one-third “power” for each respective keyword. You might have more pages spread out on more results, but you’ll have fewer opportunities for that number-one position.
This example is extremely oversimplified, but it demonstrates why the one-page-per-keyword might be a good approach.
The Hummingbird Problem
However, things are complicated, in part, by the Hummingbird algorithm, which launched back in 2013.
Hummingbird is an algorithm that introduced semantic search to Google, enabling the search engine to base its results on user intent more than exact keyword matches. Now, rather than seeing a query term like “auto mechanic” and finding pages with the greatest number of instances of the phrase “auto mechanic,” Google might interpret that a user is looking for an auto mechanic, and display pages that seem to be trustworthy auto mechanics in the area, utilizing exact match keywords, synonyms, related words, and related phrases to make that evaluation.
Hummingbird also reinforced Panda’s provision for penalizing sites that use “keyword stuffing,” the unnatural abuse of keywords within a page or site, decreasing the value of spending too much time or effort trying to achieve exact matches.
Accordingly, if you focus on one keyword per page, you might end up unintentionally ranking for some related words and phrases. There’s also no guarantee that you’ll rank for the keyword you intended as a target.
This weakens, but doesn’t destroy the idea that you should only focus on one keyword per page. After all, keyword research and target keywords are still some of the most important pieces of the SEO puzzle.
Hummingbird also brought “long-tail” keywords into the spotlight. Head keywords, like “auto mechanic,” are short, concise phrases that see high search volume (and high competition). Long-tail keywords are phrases, usually somewhat conversational in nature, like “who’s the best auto mechanic in Washington?” They have much lower search volume, but also generally don’t come with much competition to contend with.
Long-tail keywords don’t require as much investment as head keywords because of their low competition, and are therefore easier to rank for — you probably already rank for a handful of long-tail keyword phrases without even realizing it. As long as you’re writing about topics that are relevant to your industry, you’ll likely rank for things your customers are searching for.
You can optimize a page for long-tail keyword phrases easily, but those instances are usually best reserved for blog posts or FAQ pages. In fact, long-tail keyword rankings usually manifest on their own without any conscious effort on your part, as long as you’re creating and publishing high-quality content relevant to your niche.
What to Do?
The balance of your keyword optimization strategy depends on how strongly you feel about your keywords and phrases, the level of competition you’re facing, and what type of results you want to see. If there are one or two head keywords that you’re eager to rank for, make sure each one has a dedicated page, and be sure to use them throughout your site to improve your entire domain’s relevance for those terms. If there are long-tail phrases you specifically want to optimize for, include them within blog posts.
I personally don’t recommend trying to target more than one head keyword at a time on a given page, for two reasons. First, the second keyword target draws power away from the first, and you’ll likely end up ranking naturally for a bevy of related keywords anyway (thanks to Hummingbird).
Second, if you start overthinking the frequency and exact match of the keywords within your site, you might end up looking unnatural or strange to users, which could lower your conversion rates. While I still believe keyword research and targeting are necessary to lead a successful SEO campaign, I think it’s better to write natural content about your subject matter than to try and artificially include exact-match keywords to orchestrate your results.
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