Is optimizing for one specific keyword an outdated SEO practice?

For a long time, optimizing webpages to rank for a single targeted keyword was a common SEO tactic.

Marketers would carefully select a high-value keyword and optimize content and on-page elements to rank well for that term.

However, this hyper-focused keyword approach is now considered outdated in many cases.

Today, searcher behavior, query intent and the buyer’s journey are more important than targeting individual keywords.

Queries have become more conversational, and users want relevant content that matches their true needs – not just pages stuffed with certain words. Ranking for a single popular keyword is also difficult and may attract the wrong audience.

That said, optimizing for specific keywords or niche topics isn’t always outdated. In some situations, concentrating on a focused area and proving topical expertise can still be an effective strategy. Understanding when a narrow vs. broad approach aligns with your goals and audience is key.

This article will cover scenarios where single keyword optimization is likely an outdated practice to avoid, as well as cases where a niche keyword focus remains valuable. 

When is specific keyword optimization considered outdated?

When it is literally about a ‘single’ keyword or phrase

I occasionally still have conversations with brands and people who are fixated on just one specific keyword or phrase.  They see it as the key to success, believing that if they can just rank high for that term, they’ll get lots of relevant website visitors.

But sometimes, this focus on one phrase is more about perception than actual results.

If you’re a local car dealership in a small town, ranking number one for the generic term “cars” is not very likely to happen for you on a broad scale. Plus, it isn’t very helpful if 99.9999% of the people searching that term (if not more) are not your target audience in your market, who are seeking what you have to sell.

If you could get exponentially more ROI by targeting multiple keywords relevant to your core service offering, geolocated to where you are, then you’re going to have more realistic opportunities and results.

In some cases, ego played into the reason for the single-term focus. Before I was a “CEO” myself, I used to call these “CEO keywords.” I guess I still do, but then and now, it was never with the intent to offend, just with the understanding that sometimes there’s a brand reason behind it, a highly competitive motivation, or possibly the lack of research and understanding of what it takes to land a top spot for a single phrase.

If your goal keyword doesn’t match search intent

Context matters. It matters to the search engines trying to determine what subject matter you are relevant to and authoritative on – that’s step 1.

However, step 2 is to convince your target audience and those who come through the SERPs to your site that you’re the answer they are looking for.

Context is critical to understand if you focus too narrowly on a literal single keyword phrase or one looser term and variations.

I had a client who was a high-end continuing care retirement community (CCRC). Like many, this client didn’t want the word “facility” associated with its brand or on its website. The same goes for “nursing home.” 

However, the data showed that most people searched with those words in their queries. We navigated around that by building a robust strategy that included enough context that even without those words appearing in the page copy or HTML, we were able to rank at the top of Google for them anyway. 

This is the power of understanding and getting the right context and caring more about it than keywords themselves. Finding the balance between what searchers want, what Google understands and how to be relevant is a big first step.

Dig deeper: There are more than 4 types of search intent

If you’re leaving qualified traffic on the table

If you’re focused super narrow, you might not be considering all the ways someone might search for your content. I love the bottom of the funnel traffic (which is converting) as much as anyone. 

But, with the range of ways that people search (e.g., queries formatted like questions that are popular through voice search) and the variance of behavior ranging from researching to buy now, you could miss out. 

You might also be losing some brand awareness and the chance to educate and convert earlier in the customer journey – or to gain those early impressions in technical areas and those with longer sales cycles.

Considering quality and quantity is key to a long-term and sustainable SEO strategy. If the long-tail terms are highly qualified, convert much better and add up to a decent volume compared to a single high-volume term, you need to consider where you want to invest. We want all the terms and traffic. 

But, if you care more about quality and conversions than impressions, you likely want to shape your content and investment to a broader set of terms and a more diversified strategy.

When you’re expecting to do a limited set of activities for quick results

I’m not saying that quick wins don’t happen in SEO. I’ve been doing it for nearly two decades and have seen some awesome things happen in short timeframes.

On the flip side, though, I have also unfortunately seen a lot of situations with mismatched expectations versus what has played out.

If you’re aiming for a quick win by targeting a single term and speeding up the process, it’s not impossible. However, it’s crucial to question whether your strategy and tactics align with your desired results. Simply throwing together a landing page, stuffing it with keywords, directing links to it and hoping for rapid or sustainable ranking can often lead to disappointment.

Yes, you can see things work in niche areas and with the right mix of strategy and tactics in short order. However, if you’re taking shortcuts and get to the top of the SERPs, you’re possibly in a longer-term risky position.

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When does specific keyword optimization work?

OK, let’s look at the other side of the argument. Let me be the first to share openly that my agency is a specialist, and last year, we went through the process of narrowing and niching down. 

So, on the “not outdated” side of this argument, I can attest to ways it can go well if you know what you’re getting into.

When it is about a niche or single topic, not just a literal query

This is on the flip side of what I talked about earlier. If you’re in full agreement and understanding that context matters more than literal words, then you can specialize and focus on a specific “keyword.” I’m loosely talking about a “keyword” and expanding that to a topic. 

Having specific subject matter, expertise and depth can work really well to beat out broader competitors and those that are more full-service. The more quality content you have, the better you can focus on, show your relevance for the subject matter and attract links and signals to validate authority.

Additionally, you have the opportunity to fully map out your content to match search intent at each step of a customer journey and cover a range of ways that someone might find your content, want to engage with it.

When you have a broader marketing and SEO view

There are times to get granular with topics and subject matter. That could include when you want to launch a new product or service and be the expert in it.

If you have a comprehensive SEO and marketing strategy and understand the depth of your focus on a specific topic, you’ll grasp how that attention contributes to your overall efforts.

Knowing the trade-offs of going super deep and isolating the data and variables can be an awesome place to test, move fast and support a broader strategy overall.

When you know your market

If you’re well-versed in your market, including prospects, competitors and even in SERP features, then you can tailor your laser-focused strategy and have confidence in how it will return for you. You don’t have to test as much and waste sprints and cycles trying to learn as you go.

Leveraging your industry knowledge and expertise, you can spin up content, build out a niche platform and optimize it well in ways that more bloated and slower competitors can’t. You can also cut through the waste of trying to answer questions that Google may be directly answering (not sending you traffic) and trying to validate ideas and content.

As long as you’re fully in command of the customer journey, funnels, or however you look at the complete picture of how you engage your audience, the length of sales and consideration cycles and are monetizing as much of that journey as you can, you can leverage narrow focus in a way that doesn’t leave potential ROI on the table.

When the reward is worth it

I normally talk about goals at the top of articles. However, I wanted to dive quickly into this topic.

You can definitely see success with a specific keyword or very narrow focus if you have done your research and know that the opportunity is great enough to reward you for the effort.

Maybe you just need that one click to convert, which gives you 1,000 times ROI. Or, maybe your ROI is in being ranked number 1 for that key “CEO keyword.” I won’t judge either way.

Just know what you’re investing in and why you’re doing it. Have a full view of potential and go after it if it fits your goals.

Rethinking single keyword optimization in SEO

Optimizing for specific keywords or very narrow topics isn’t always an outdated practice. Concentrating your SEO efforts on niche areas and proving expertise can be a winning strategy in certain situations. 

The key is understanding when a focused vs. broad keyword approach aligns with your business goals, industry, audience demands and ability to comprehensively meet search intent.

Dig deeper: How to target highly competitive organic keywords: An advanced approach

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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