What is a Keyword: Focus on Keyphrases, User Intent For Best SEO Results

woman typing on laptop next to papers scattered on desk birds eye view

When it comes to SEO, keywords are everything.

Fundamentally, keywords are what you think they are: The search terms, or key words, that you’re targeting — the lifeblood of web traffic.

If you’re reading this, you already know this. However, your basic definition of what keywords are may vary slightly from Mediavine’s.

Think of it this way: A keyword, or really a key phrase, is a term or phrase that best describes the content or page on a website.

More importantly, it’s the sentence that makes it happen — the phrase that brings readers from the search engine to your site.

When you think about keywords using the second part of that definition, it becomes more nuanced and eye-opening.

What a Keyword is Not

Many times, when people hear “keyword,” they often think of a singular word. But is this really effective — or as effective as it could be?

Consider the example (apologies for using food keywords, but I’m pretty hungry right now) of a Low-Carb Strawberry Cheesecake Recipe. 

You might think that from an SEO standpoint, the keywords for this example are “strawberry,” “cheesecake,” “low-carb” and “recipe.”

You’d be wrong.

Those are indeed keywords, but when it comes to SEO, they’re not the focus keywords, or the keyphrase that best describes the content.

How can that be? Because there’s a better term, and it’s actually the full phrase: “Low-Carb Strawberry Cheesecake Recipe.”

What are keywords?: Learn how to focus on keyphrases and user intent for the best SEO results. - Mediavine Pinterest image

The Keyword is What the User Types Into Google

It’s both remarkably simple and profound. When considering keywords, what I like to do is put myself in a user’s shoes. 

As a user, when you’re searching for something online, what exactly do you type into that Google search bar?

If you’re anything like me, it’s an incoherent jumble of words, often out of order, and/or phrased as a question.

We’re not robots, after all. At least not yet.

As humans, we Google things like “How do I X?” rather than just typing in “X.” As far as Google is concerned, that entire search phrase, minus a few stop words (more on those later), make up the actual keyword or phrase.

Now that you’ve put yourself in the user’s shoes, try to flip the script and think about it from Google’s perspective.

This is a search engine that analyzes every single sentence we type in, tries to figure out what we mean from misspelled or disjointed text, and parses 100s of trillions of pages to find something that matches your query.

All in a matter of nanoseconds. No big deal.

Bottom line: Google doesn’t look at only one word, like cheesecake. If a user searches for “low-carb strawberry cheesecake,” Google’s not searching each of those words independently. They’re looking it as a sentence, or phrase, to deliver the best results.

Man using the Google search bar on his office laptop.


Should Everything Be a Sentence or Question Then?

In this age of buzzwords like “natural language processing” and “user intent,” it’s incredibly important to produce posts that directly answer what a user is searching for.

Often, that’s in the form of a question. Look no further than the headline of this article: “What is a Keyword?”

In the case of our recipe example above, the word “recipe” is what actually implies the user intent. Here’s where it gets really interesting, at least if you like to geek out over SEO minutiae.

If you take “recipe” away from that search, the keyphrase becomes “Low-Carb Strawberry Cheesecake.”

All of a sudden, Google has no idea if this person is trying to buy a cheesecake and eat one because they’re as hungry as I am, just look at pictures / daydream about a bygone era when they weren’t on a sugar-free diet, or trying to make it themselves.

See what a big difference that makes? Recipe is the key there.

Often, a question spells out exactly what you’re after, but you don’t always need a full question or sentence if the keyphrase implies intent. In the case of “low-carb strawberry cheesecake recipe,” it does.

What About Single-Keyword Keyphrases?

One- and two-word keyphrases definitely still exist and often imply intent. These are typically known as short-tail keywords, and typically have heavy search volume, though with that comes intense competition.

Think of it like this: If I post a blueberry cheesecake recipe and you write a strawberry cheesecake one, we’ve doubled the amount of search competition for “cheesecake,” not to mention our appetites.

But as you get more specific, there’s only half the competition for strawberry or blueberry cheesecake recipes, respectively. Going after a longer keyphrase, or long tail keywords as they’re called, likely increases your chances of ranking.

Woman happy with her work on her laptop by a window in her home office

So How Do I Pick the Right Focus Keyword For My Post?

Now that you’ve made it this far and we’re all on the same page for what a keyword, or keyphrase, is: What are you going to do with your newfound knowledge? How do you pick the right keyword for your post?

We’ll actually cover the complex topic of keyword research in more detail in a later set of videos and posts. But in short for now, you can use Google keyword planner, or similar third-party tools, to try and find a frequently-Googled phrase that hits the holy SEO trinity:

  1. It’s winnable (not too competitive)
  2. It has worthwhile search volume
  3. It describes your content

Don’t worry, we’ll be covering all of this later in a blog post that would be better described as targeting the keyphrase, “keyword research” or “keyword planning.”

See what we did there? #meta

Very Funny. How Do I Optimize Posts For Keywords?

Another great question, and one that’s worthy of more attention than a single blog post. The on-page portions of this Mediavine SEO series will come back to and expand upon this in the weeks and months to come.

(Again, it’s worth noting that “How do I optimize posts for keywords?” is a different, and more targeted keyphrase than “what is a keyword?” Right? Sorry, we’ll stop.)

All kidding aside, be sure to use your keyphrase in your page title, your first paragraph, throughout your post (without keyword stuffing), in headings, in anchor text for any internal links pointed to your post, your meta description, and beyond.

Anywhere you can organically use that keyphrase without interrupting the flow of content will pay dividends down the line.

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