Stop thinking keyword ranking – Focus on topics

Stop thinking keyword ranking – Focus on topics

A balanced understanding of Google’s* objective, and individual Users/Searchers intent, highlights the importance of changing SEO-mindsets towards content – focusing less on keyword(s) ranking, and more on holistic, broader topic recognition.

*For the purpose of this article, “Google” is used to represent search engines in general – after all, they do dominate the market place with over 65% of world market share.

Anybody with half an SEO interest is well aware that the days of keyword dominance in content are well and truly over. In the old days, when Google collected data on a website based solely on keywords presence in content and domains to determine a websites relevance for search results, companies could measure their ‘SEO success’ simply off keyword rankings.

Nowadays, Google’s algorithms are highly advanced formulas that take in to account a massive amount of factors in ranking the quality of a webpage for any given search query, not just keyword ranking. In fact, an expert 2015 Ranking Factor Survey suggests both domain-level and page-level link features have a more significant impact on ranking than any keyword features…

So, where do keywords fit in modern SEO?

Obviously, they still have a very significant role to play in helping Google understand what your website is about – a Mechanic in Perth without words like “Mechanics Perth” or “Car Repairs” on their website are probably never going to rank high in pertinent search results. However, many SEO practitioners and beneficiaries alike need to alter their mindset a little – and stop focusing so much on keyword rankings, and start focusing on ranking well for relevant broader topics.

In order to explain this further, I’m going to have to ask you to try and switch your perspective… twice.

Think Like Google.

What’s Google objective?

To provide the most relevant results for any users query – the best websites to satisfy your search. Right? In order to do so, Google’s algorithms scan websites to ascertain their value to rank for specific searches; taking in to account a range of factors such as:

  • Quantity and quality of sites that link to your page
  • Quality of content – of course including keywords
  • Traffic to site, and average time spent on webpage
  • Users experience – navigation ease, bounce rate, site speed, etc.

And much more… all to ensure that searchers are being directed to the most useful websites for their query.

By their own admission, Google’s algorithms are at constant battle with the hardest problem facing artificial intelligence: “enabling computers to understand language,” but they are getting scarily good at it!

Google Understands Synonyms

Google has cleverly developed the ability to understand synonyms, as they look beyond words themselves, and search for the meaning behind them. Google uses the example:

“An obvious example is that “pictures” and “photos” mean the same thing in most circumstances. If you search for [pictures developed with coffee] to see how to develop photographs using coffee grinds as a developing agent, Google must understand that even if a page says “photos” and not “pictures,” it’s still relevant to the search.”

Google Understands Context

Similarly, Google needs to understand different words or terms have different meanings in different context… as you can see from this example of search results for the phrase “GM”…

Just from these two examples, we can see that Google has a complex understanding of website’s meaning, beyond the particular keywords present.

Tom Anthony from describes this well in his “New Query Model”, which takes in to account both implicit aspects (the words used a search) and explicit aspects (the context of the searcher). Anthony uses this example to explain “from Google’s perspective”:

They want to understand the users intent when they did this search: what the expectation of the user is, what they are looking for, and more specifically, what search results would best help answer their query. Some questions Google might ask about the “London tube stations” query:

  • Is this a schoolchild looking for a history of the tube stations for some homework?
  • Is this someone looking for a list of all the tube station names?
  • Is this someone looking for a tube station?
  • etc.

The keyword(s) here are not the entire query; they are not everything Google has to go on in order to answer this query. It actually looks more like this to Google:

However, Google are using a lot more context signals than that (at least 57 if you aren’t logged in), so we can imagine the implicit aspect of any query probably requires a much deeper analysis.

So, as Google starts to look beyond the actual words for a deeper understanding of users intent, you can start to understand why specific keyword ranking are losing their relevance as indicators of SEO success.

Google’s own research states that up to 70 percent of searches derive meaning from synonyms of keywords back in 2010… If Google is moving beyond a strong focus on the presence of certain words, we definitely should too! SEO conversations should follow suit with Google, and revolve around trying to understand searcher’s intent, and ultimately provide the most useful website for a target audience – trusting Google’s like-minded artificial intelligence to match the two together.

A lot of Google’s advanced understanding of language came in to play with the 2013 Hummingbird Update – which Webfirm reported on here.

Thinking About Searcher’s Intent

Understanding the intent of your websites visitors is an important tool in creating content that Google will recognize as worthy of rank.

Randy from explains this well in his Whiteboard Friday edition: Building SEO-Focused Pages to Serve Topics & People Rather than Keywords & Rankings.

In Randy’s example of a website who’s purpose is “comparing mobile phone plans”, rather than building pages focused on hitting certain keywords, he suggests building pages based on an understanding of users intent, with pages that successfully cover all relevant topics that visitors might be interested in – providers, phone brands, packages, prices, etc.…

You don’t judge the SEO successfulness of this content by how well it ranks for certain keyword phrases like “best phone plans,” “Telstra Vs Optus” and “iPhone or Samsung”, because as we know, Google looks for meaning, not specific words. You could more accurately judge the SEO success on factors like traffic, views, shares and links, which are factors that are complimented by quality, topic-related content, not specific keyword optimization.

Randy’s point: “SEO has gotten more complex. It’s gotten harder. There’s a little bit of disassociation away from just the keyword and the ranking. But this process still really works and it’s still very powerful… We just have to have a switch in our mentality.”

Thinking Topics not Keywords

 From trying to gain some insight in to how Google matches queries to content, and a consideration of searcher’s intent, we see that a focus on building webpages that service topics of interests – over satisfying keyword usage, is the common theme of modern SEO.

Where a keyword focus can create poor-quality, ‘keyword stuffed’ content, a topic focus does the opposite. It promotes quality content that answers the questions and targets the interests of your websites target audience.

This Pizza Shop example adapted from a comment by Gianluca Fiorello from explains this well:

If you’re business is a small pizza chain in Melbourne…

One you would be focusing on ranking for “Pizza in Melbourne” for the home page; and then maybe “Pizzas in St Kilda,” “Pizzas in Richmond,” and “Pizzas in Brunswick” for internal pages… creating pages optimized just for these words. Your content might sound like this: “Melbourne’s Best Pizzas! Our pizzaeria in Melbourne is open 24/7. If you are in Melbourne come and enjoy one of our pizzas from our pizza store in Melbourne”… sigh.

Now, lets focus on some of the broader topic entities for your business:

  1. Pizza substance – and all the ingredients related to Pizza
  2. Melbourne – the areas these pizzerias are located
  3. Melbournians – the people who visit these pizzerias
  4. Story of Pizza – Italy, Australian immigration/introduction, etc.
  5. Types of Pizza – Pizza Rossa, Pizza Bianca, Thin crust, Calzone, etc.

And the list goes on to include any topics related to the How, When, What, Why of pizza in Melbourne.

A website created around these topics (rather than a page with an address, a menu, a phone number and some awkwardly repetitive ‘keyword optimized’ content) can be a hub with snippets of interesting information about:

  • The history of Pizza in Melbourne
  • Events in Melbourne relating to Pizza
  • The interesting people who operate/attend youe Melbourne stores
  • The authentic pizza ingredients that you import in to Melbourne
  • The most popular types of pizzas you sell in Melbourne

Now you’ve got a page that is not only useful and interesting to its users, but also subsequently more relevant to Google for “Pizza in Melbourne,” and all the stemmed related keywords – without focusing on this in your approach.

Don’t Give-up on Keywords Altogether

As is so often the case, Randy from has described the necessary fusion between traditional keyword inclusion, and modern topic-focused content practices aimed to satisfy searcher intent, in his Whiteboard Friday episode titled: Can SEOs Stop Worrying About Keywords and Just Focus on Topics?

Randy explains that whilst a focus on topic satisfying content that encompasses the interests of any searchers who may be directed to a travel webpage revolving around “best times to fly”.

A comprehensive concept and topic-modeling technique can be employed to come up with great topics like:

  • Best days of the week to fly
  • Best times of year to fly
  • Best times to fly to different countries/areas
  • Best airline prices at different times

Etc. etc.

However, if you title the home page as “The Ultimate Guide to Smart Flight Planning,” even if its great and people are sharing, linking and talking about it under that title – you’re not going to pick up the bulk of related traffic who are searching ‘best times to fly.’ It’s not the fact that Google can never map this back to those keywords with high traffic, but you’re just making that process unnecessarily hard, and taking the risk if not connecting.

An encompassing title like “Best Days, Weeks & Months to Fly in 2016,” with subheadings like “Best Days of the Week to Fly,” helps Google index exactly what information your page is offering – and then the quality topic-focused content should take care of the rest.

Keyword Placement – placing the main keywords you want to rank for in your titles and headings is just as affective as old-school methods of stuffing it in your content as much as possible, and doesn’t irritate readers with poorly written prose.

For a popular example of this, just look at LinkedIn, and how they secure their high-ranking place on the competitive ‘name’ query space:

Figure 1 – Example picture taken from –

There is no question what this page is about – Marshall Simmonds – and Google can clearly understand that from informative headings, without needing to awkwardly thrash the name throughout the content.


We need to flick the SEO mind-switch. As Google becomes further advanced in the ability to look for meaning and context, not just keywords, reporting on keyword ranking is no longer the most productive measure of SEO success. The focus should be on creating informative, useful concept and topic-focused content that takes in to consideration user intent, and aims to satisfy their interests. This is ultimately what Google is trying to match with search queries.

Having said that, a certain understanding of how Google operates dictates the benefit of still including main keywords, but focusing more on keyword placement than quantity.


Google Blog – “Helping Computers Understand Language”

Randy – Whiteboard Friday – “Can SEOs Stop Worrying About Keywords and Just Focus on Topics?”

Randy – Whiteboard Friday – “Building SEO-Focused Pages to Service Topics and People Rather than Keywords and Ranking”

Kate Morris – Blog – “Stop Thinking Keywords, Think Topics”

Tom Anthony – Blog – “From Keywords to Contexts: the New Query Model”

AJ Kohn – Blind Five Year Old – “Keywords Still Matter”

Andrew Hocking

About Andrew Hocking

Andrew is the Social Media Manager and SEO specialist at Webfirm. Developing and delivering digital marketing strategies is his bread and butter.

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