Opinion: Keywords no longer make the marketing world go round
Search evolves quickly, and that’s made evident by the coronavirus’ effect on queries. People are looking for critical information that answers highly specific questions, such as “How can oil prices go negative?” and “Where’s my stimulus check?”
Thankfully, Google’s October 2019 search advancement, BERT—for bidirectional encoder representations from transformers—adeptly interprets search queries posed as questions and delivers applicable results. The technique uses natural language processing to help machines better understand meaning and context.
Humans don’t speak in keywords, despite the “keyword-ese” we sometimes use in hopes that our computers will find the information we need. Now, advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning allow us to search naturally via voice recognition software such as Siri and Alexa.
Recent trends and Google’s latest algorithm prove that searching is about the user, not the keywords. The same applies to marketing. When marketers double down on keywordbased methods and practices, they lose sight of the consumer. It’s time we consider a new approach.
Why keyword practice is outdated
Our current keyword approach was a natural evolution of how digital marketing evolved. Early software couldn’t understand full sentences, so people dumbed down their queries. Then Google hit the scene with a revolutionary concept that factored in how many websites linked to a particular webpage and how many votes that webpage has—yet the whole mechanism was still based on keywords. In 2000, Google launched AdWords (now Google Ads), a platform for buying keyword text ads on Google Search.
These developments kept reigniting the keyword flame, and the entire industry post-AdWords followed. Strategies, research, ad spend and copy were built around keywords. An entire ecosystem arose around them. We were trained to use them and conditioned to believe in them.
Early on, searchers looking for “polarized sunglasses” would click on the first result. As technology became prevalent, savvier consumers considered more options and developed greater affinities for brands that seemed credible.
Today, it’s not about who ranks first for a keyword—it’s about brand positioning. Consumers look at Instagram and influencers and “About Us” pages. They ask, “Do I believe the brand is authentic?” These new considerations relieved the pressure on the old keyword approach and refocused strategies on product quality, users, and the customer experience.
Understanding users takes precedence over the caveman keyword approach. Consumers might find you that way: The top Google result nets a 32 percent click-through rate on average. But once they enter the consideration phase, your keyword rankings won’t help.
A better method: research
A single keyword can’t answer shifting consumer queries like “How do you buy stocks?” or “Can I suspend my mortgage payment?” So what should marketers do instead? They should go straight to prospective customers and conduct marketing research. You know there’s an audience, but you don’t know how to market to them. Identify and clarify what customer information you need. For instance, if you’re selling soda to millennials, you’ll need to know what prompts their soft-drink purchases.
Once you’ve defined your research questions and objectives, you can design a survey. Use what you know about your potential customers’ preferences and pain points to design the questionnaire. In this case, asking “Why do you buy soda?” won’t be as effective as “Would you rather buy from a brand that donates a purchase percentage to charity or a health-
conscious brand that sources locally?”
Run an incidence test (if you use screening questions) to determine the rate of qualified responses. Finally, execute the research survey, collect and organize data, and then analyze and interpret the data to extract marketing insights.
This time, Google has it right. It’s time to focus on users and their intent, not useless keywords. Ultimately, talking to your prospective customers leads to higher conversion rates.