Keywords are the words and phrases that describe what your content is about. Because search engine users use keywords to find content, these are also known as “search queries” in the SEO context.
A typical SEO keyword strategy will identify a few core, high search volume keywords, known as head terms, as well as a larger quantity of lower volume long-tail keywords, in order to create and/or optimize content targeting these queries.
Head terms is a phrase which refers to keywords which are broad in nature and have a high volume of monthly searches.
For example, if you have a pet supplies business, the term “pet supplies”, along with large subcategories like “pet food”, “pet toys”, and even slightly more specific terms like “dog harnesses” could all be head terms that you target with your SEO strategy (in this example, the most common type of page that you would optimize for these would be product category pages to capture users who are ready to purchase).
Long-tail keywords are the more specific, and therefore less frequently searched-for, phrases related to a chosen topic and its head terms. They are called “long-tail” in reference to the concept that a high volume of products with lower demand and/or lower sales value can collectively generate a larger market share than chasing the same few high value but highly popular items that all your competitors are selling. This concept was discussed in a book titled “The Long Tail” by author Chris Anderson.
The book focused on the idea in reference to products, rather than keywords, but the principle is the same: if you can generate small quantities of traffic for a lot of very specific keywords, they can collectively drive the same amount of traffic or better than if you focus all your energy on the few high volume, very competitive and most popular keywords that everyone is trying to rank for.
In the pet supplies business example, terms like “5′ dog leash with harness”, “bamboo scratching post”, best dog toys for anxious puppies” and “is grain-free cat food healthy for cats?” are examples of long-tail keywords that you could target with SEO content (e.g., product pages and/or blog content to capture more high-funnel traffic).
Keywords represent the way in which users discover content via organic search. Because of this, SEOs use keywords in their content to help Google and other search engines understand what the content is about, in order to appear in search results as relevant content for those queries.
In the past, this meant literally including multiple exact mentions of the keyword or phrase in the on-page content, as well as in metadata like the meta title and meta description HTML tags. As Google’s algorithms have gotten more sophisticated, it is no longer necessary (or advisable) to focus on exact match keywords alone. In fact, repeating the same keyword over and over again in a clunky or otherwise artificial way is considered “keyword stuffing” and can put you in violation of Google’s quality guidelines.
These days, search engines have a better understanding of the ways that people use words as synonyms as well as related concepts, and Google in particular likes to see that a website has “topical depth” when it comes to determining relevance to a given keyword. This means that the way SEOs use keywords has broadened since the early days of SEO.
Instead of focusing just on exact words and phrases, we need to make sure we are answering the question being asked by the query, and offering relevant content based on expected user intent. We do need to make sure we mention important keywords in our content, but only in appropriate, reader-friendly contexts and with other similar and related words and phrases.
By understanding how our target audience searches for the topics we want to rank for, we can develop an SEO strategy — and create content — that uses a mix of both head terms and long-tail keywords to capture traffic at every stage of the user journey.