I’ve been suspicious for years now. Just from paying attention to the sites that come up in the search engine results pages (SERPs), I’ve seen differences. What I was finding was that the top sites didn’t always have the exact keyphrase multiple times in their copy. It appeared that (with all of Google’s updates over time) we’ve moved away from needing to use the keyphrase as-is and more toward using the individual words within the keyphrases as we write.

While I was suspicious, what I was able to confirm (during an email conversation with Google’s Matt Cutts) didn’t take me by surprise. As a matter of fact, this is what I’ve been teaching for at least 10 years now because it makes sense. Google has always preached “natural” and “relevant.” After they started incorporating synonyms several years ago, changing the way they recognized keywords seemed like a logical course for them to follow as far as copywriting goes.

As-Is vs. Individual Keywords

In the beginning (as the saying goes) were keywords (that grew into keyPHRASES). And from early on, those who were paying attention found that Google (and other engines) ranked pages that mention the keyphrases multiple times throughout a page.

The headlines, subheads, Alt tags, copy, and other pieces of text were all prime candidates for keyword insertion. That’s because Google was only able to do exact or partial matches.

But since Google has gotten more synonym-savvy over the last couple of years, there’s no need to cram keyphrases everywhere you possibly can. In fact, you may be surprised at what Matt Cutts has to say about this point.

So, instead of always using “blue suede shoes” as-is (the entire, original keyphrase together), you can also use just “blue” and just “suede” and just “shoes” within the copy. This is precisely the SEO copywriting technique I’ve included in many of my books and seminar sessions for years.

I’m going to paste the conversation between Matt and me below so you can read exactly what was said.

In Google’s Own Words

KARON: I’ve been noticing a trend over the last couple of years (maybe longer) as far as SEO copywriting goes. It seems the pages that are ranking well are not always using the keyphrases as-is, but are using the individual words within the keyphrases separately. For instance, instead of always using “blue suede shoes,” the page will also use “blue” and “suede” and “shoes” individually.

Can you confirm and/or comment on whether keyphrases always need to be used in their original form and if it helps or hurts to also use the words within the phrase?

MATT: Keyphrases don’t have to be in their original form. We do a lot of synonym work so that we can find good pages that don’t happen to use the same words as the user typed.

In general, though, if the words are on the web page (not in a spammy way, of course), that makes our job easier because we don’t have to rely on synonym matches to find good documents.

KARON: Has proximity of the keywords on the page also gone by the wayside? And, while we’re on the topic, is it still best practice to include keywords in certain locations on the page?
For instance:

1. Headline
2. Subheads
3. Alt tags
4. Anchor text link

MATT: People can overdo it to the point that we consider it keyword stuffing, and it hurts. I would just make sure you do it in natural ways where regular people aren’t going to find it stiff or artificial. That tends to be what works best.

KARON: So, then, you’re saying perhaps put the original keyphrase on the page once or twice (to help Google out), and then just use the individual words within the phrase throughout the rest of the copy? If so, that’s what I’ve been suggesting for years.

In light of all the recent changes with Google, would using the keyphrase numerous times (which is what everybody has gotten used to doing over time) hurt the page’s ability to rank? I’m not talking about the infamous keyword density. For years most people have been taught that you do keyword research to find what people are searching for, and then you use those phrases (provided they are relevant) within your copy, within anchor text links, etc., etc. Still true or…?

MATT: Correct, as long as it’s done naturally, not artificially or in a spammy way.

As I’ve always said, “Never sacrifice the quality of your copy for the sake of the search engines.” It’s just not necessary. The next time you write a new page of copy, test this approach to writing for the engines and see if you get as good (or better) results than before. I’m betting you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

By Karon Thackston (c) 2012