Search engine optimization (SEO) is an essential component of content strategy. If audiences can’t easily find or discover your content through search, its value and usefulness is diminished.
We need to understand the words our audiences associate with our content so that we can cater to their search habits with relevant keywords. This is a fundamental task for SEO.
However, people often confuse valuable SEO keywords with the right SEO keywords. Although a keyword may be valuable for increasing traffic with SEO, it may not be appropriate for your organization.
To be effective, SEO keywords need to be both relevant for search and appropriate for your brand. When you don’t align search with branding, keywords become less meaningful and your communication goals are compromised. The keywords you use must accurately reflect the message you’re trying to convey for clear communication.
Different Words Have Different Meanings
Evaluating keywords for optimal visibility in search results is a crucial SEO process. Why? Because the words we like to describe our services are often not the words our audiences use to find them.
As described in Audience, Relevance, and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content, understanding the words your audiences use is necessary to clearly convey meaning:
Readers determine what they think a word or term means, and writers need to pay attention to this first and foremost. The writer is best served by keeping these conventional or community definitions in mind, because users will use them in their searches (p.25).
One of my favorite higher ed examples of relevant search terms (and how they are overlooked) was shared by Kyle James of .eduGuru, who discussed the use of dorms vs. residence halls for SEO. College administrators often dislike using the term dorms, but what’s the value of using residence halls if people can’t find the content? To communicate effectively with users, you can’t ignore their content needs or search behaviors.
When evaluating keywords, however, we have to be mindful that similar words can have slightly different definitions. Just because a word appears in our thesaurus or keyword analysis tools as a synonym doesn’t mean it conveys the exact same meaning.
For example, cheap is a synonym for inexpensive — but cheap often has negative connotations, reflecting poor quality rather than value.
Content strategist Margot Bloomstein illustrates how similar words can reflect different meanings in her A List Apart article, The Case for Content Strategy — Motown Style:
At first glance, the paid ad copy and keyword-rich meta content fit the common search terms: "gym," "workouts," and "private trainers." However, our client didn’t want the typical "gym rat" audience. …We revised the site content and search terms to fit the brand of a premium fitness experience. As a result, our client attracted more traffic from an audience eager for their style of gym. The leads were good, but the conversions were even better.
Why On-Brand SEO Keywords Matter
Your brand message represents your organization’s core values. It defines who you are and how you want to be perceived. Confusing your brand message with inconsistent, off-brand keywords hinders your ability to communicate clearly.
If you can’t communicate clearly, all other website goals will fail.
I liken the value of quality SEO keywords to the value of quality student applicants. It’s easier to find unqualified applicants than those who are qualified. In the short term, unqualified applicants can benefit by meeting your admissions quota. But, in the long term, the quality of education and the value of the degree may decline.
Such is the case with your web content and SEO keywords. While in the short term inappropriate keywords may increase traffic — however irrelevant that traffic may be — they’ll ultimately reduce the efficacy and value of your website.
As stated in The Art of SEO, "Terms that are highly relevant will convert better than terms that are ancillary to your content’s focus" (p.167). "Relevant" keywords are those that accurately represent the content, not simply relate to it. Anything less than relevant is link bait.
Communication Is Key (As Usual)
In order for SEO keywords to be effective, they need to align with your brand attributes — the keywords that reflect the core values of your institution.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers examples of brand attributes amid their stellar Illinois Identity Standards site.
For the purpose of web writing and SEO keyword analysis, it’s useful to reference a message architecture that defines your brand attributes and communication goals.
Bloomstein describes a message architecture as "a hierarchy of communication goals that reflect a common vocabulary." This common vocabulary provides a benchmark for your SEO keyword research. This ensures that entrepreneurial mindset and strong business foundation are attributes that complement, not contradict.
On-brand SEO keywords ensure that audiences not only find your content but find your content meaningful — supporting both your institution and its web users. For those keeping track, meeting website goals and users’ needs is the benchmark of a successful content strategy.
Do you have examples of misaligned, off-brand SEO keywords that you’ve struggled with at your institution? If so, how have you managed them?
Asher Elran says
I like the example of “dorms” vs “residence halls”. For SEO finding the right words to convey the meaning can be the difference between found on the first page for something people already are looking for, and have a blog post that no one ever read, because you have chosen the targeted keywords incorrectly.