SEO keywords: dead or alive?

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Ines Maione

Ines Maione brings a wealth of experience from over 25 years as a Marketing Manager Communications in various industries. The best thing about the job is that it is both business management and creative. And it never gets boring, because with the rapid evolution of the media used and the development of marketing tools, you always have to stay up to date.

Keywords SEO

Content, search intent, user experience, differentiated user signals, and artificial intelligence (AI) — Google’s ranking criteria are becoming increasingly complex. So where does that leave keywords? Have the keywords in the text outlived their usefulness as ranking factors? The relevance of keywords for search engine optimization has changed. Online copywriters are now facing new challenges.

A look into the past

Some of you will remember those splendid SEO times at the turn of the millennium. Back then, simply mentioning the main keyword as often as possible in the text was enough to achieve the highest positions in the search engines for precisely that keyword. It hardly mattered how well the content matched the topic. And then there was the legendary “keywords” meta tag. Depending on his mood, the webmaster was able to insert the keywords for which he wanted to rank. And that actually worked.

The algorithms of the leading search engines at the time (Google, Yahoo, Lycos, Altavista) were relatively straightforward. Using comparatively simple calculation methods, the crawlers of the search engine pioneers tried to track down the relevance of texts. The main factor here was keyword density. As a rule of thumb, the frequency of keywords in a text is an indicator of relevance.

But those days are long gone. The more keywords, the higher the website’s rankings? That is yesterday’s news. Things are quite different today:

  • A text in which a specific keyword appears particularly frequently can lead to devaluation: Suspicion of spam.
  • The meta tag “keywords” has not been taken into account by Google’s algorithms for a long time now, except in exceptional cases.
  • Even advanced keyword-oriented optimization strategies such as WDF*IDF are generally only moderately successful.

Three decades of Internet have also brought about many changes in the field of SEO. Keywords alone are no longer enough. But does that mean that they are dead? What are the top current ranking factors on Google?

Important ranking factors today

Current optimization of search results focuses on the users. In the process, the relevance of keywords is fading more and more into the background. The latest algorithms of Google, Bing and Co., which are based on user orientation, are extremely successful. It is becoming easier than ever for searchers to find exactly the results they want.

Google relies on artificial intelligence, which essentially functions without keywords. The focus is on individual and collective surfing behavior, because it produces increasingly accurate results and optimizes the search results:

  • The latest algorithm of the largest search engine (Google MUM) is already based on the forecasting of search intent. What information does the user expect? Google’s AI tries to answer these questions in advance.
  • User signals such as bounces and dwell times provide valuable information regarding the relevance of a website for certain keywords. These user signals are usually more valuable than keyword density, keyword distribution and synonyms.
  • Technical aspects such as loading times, usability and the user-friendliness of a website are also becoming increasingly important (Google Core Web Vitals).

The “content is king” principle still applies to SEO. Good content is the basis for good positions on the SERPs. The intelligent search algorithms aim to track down valuable content and assign it to specific search intentions.

SEO experts should therefore pay particular attention to users and optimize content to meet their needs. Google tries to compensate inferior machine readability of the content of images and videos with a better analysis of the functionality and functioning of web pages.

Keywords are still important

Today, SEO no longer works with keywords, synonyms, and significant accompanying words alone. The needs of the user are the focal point of SEO.

However, none of this should obscure the fact that words are carriers of meaning. And this is why, even in the distant future, machines will have to rely on keyword analysis to capture the meaning of content — and thus its relevance for the user. Google will not be able to dispense with text analysis in the long term.

Therefore, the idea of WDF*IDF can still be very helpful for web copywriters. This formula calculates which words appear frequently in the proximity of a keyword.

A simple example: How can an engine recognize the meaning of the keyword “ruler” in a text?

  • Words like crown, scepter and throne indicate that ruler means a person who commands.
  • Words like classroom, geometry and inches indicate that an instrument for measuring or drawing straight lines is meant.

In the early 2010s, a lot of SEO hype was generated around WDF*IDF. It was assumed that with the help of precise lists, one would be able to convince the search engines of the relevance of a text through a very specific distribution of terms. This was only moderately successful. However, this method remains an important aid for capturing each topic as holistically as possible. Content creators who check WDF*IDF lists for a keyword before writing a text do not run the risk of forgetting an important aspect.


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However, in over 20 years of SEO history, the following realization also prevails: Nothing lasts forever. The principles, focal points and no-go’s in search engine optimization are subject to constant change. What was frowned upon yesterday is up to date today. Therefore, that is why it does not hurt to continue to pay attention to keywords when writing texts. When used correctly, keywords are not harmful. They make a website future-proof for upcoming algorithm changes.


There is no doubt that the importance of keywords has steadily declined over the years. But keywords are not dead. They no longer play a leading role, but they do play an important supporting role. And this is where SEO and Hollywood have something in common. Sometimes a supporting role is the deciding factor in whether a movie (or website) becomes a box office hit. Webmasters and content creators should therefore continue to pay attention to keywords in order to achieve good Google positions.