Do You Need To Use Exact SEO Keywords?

Christy Walters


June 7, 2018 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

Search engine optimization (SEO) rules can change often, with every new search engine algorithm and core update. Without a consistent rulebook, how are you supposed to know the right keywords to choose and how to use them? Today, we’re working to answer the question “Do I have to use exact SEO keywords to rank for my content?” with topics like:

Do You Need To Use Exact SEO Keywords To Rank?

Picture this: you run a real estate office in California working to develop a solid content marketing strategy. You’ve done thorough keyword research using helpful SEO tools and you’re ready to write, optimize, and share your content. Your first piece focuses on the keyword “real estate San Diego.” As you plan your outline, you realize this keyword is a little clunky. If you use it in its current state, the blog post title may read something like “Where To Buy Real Estate San Diego.” It doesn’t sound natural.

Is it necessary to keep the keyword in this exact context? Or is it more important to make your titles and your overall writing sound conversational? Thanks to Google’s 2013 Hummingbird algorithm update, which incorporates semantic search that considers user context and intent, you don’t have to use your keywords in their exact phrasing to rank for that content. Because search engines can understand keyword meaning in variations and pair them with long-tail questions based on user intent, you have more freedom to adapt and adjust how you use those keywords in your content.

Considerations for Keyword Usage

Consider these areas when deciding where and how to use SEO keyword phrasing in your content:

Stop Words

Kevin from The Office discusses if you need to use exact SEO keywords to rank for content.

Image via Life & Style

Stop words are any words that get filtered out, or “stopped” during natural language processing. Google and other search engines use this type of process to determine search context and intent based on what users type into the search box and what they’re looking for online. There isn’t a complete universal list of stop words, but the most common ones are short grammatical articles, prepositions, and conjunctions like “a,” “the,” or “of.”

In the past, people left stop words out of their keywords because the search engines processed content with and without them differently. That’s no longer the case, thanks to updates like Hummingbird. So, returning to our California real estate example, instead of creating a blog post titled “Where To Buy Real Estate San Diego,” that content creator could instead title the post “Where To Buy Real Estate in San Diego” and still rank for the same keyword.

Keyword Variations

Variations are another trick you can use to rank for clunky keywords and use them in a more conversational and familiar context. Keyword variations come in multiple styles, including:

  • Order: You may switch the order of keywords in your phrases, such as saying “San Diego’s Real Estate Offices” rather than “Real Estate San Diego Locations.”
  • Grammatical variants: You may fix a misspelling, or change the tense or possession of a word in your key phrase, such as making “San Diego” possessive in the example above.
  • Long-tail keywords: Consider using long-tail keywords, such as more specific phrases, or questions like “Where Can I Buy Real Estate in San Diego?”
  • Synonyms: Consider using synonyms in your content to help search engines better understand the content intent, such as using phrases like “homebuying,” or “rental properties in southern California” throughout your pieces on real estate San Diego.


The best content, no matter what keywords you choose, is easy for your target audience to read. It’s more important to write for the reader rather than the search engine, even when you’re engaging in SEO strategy. Why? Because the search engine’s goal is to please the reader. It should be your goal too. Engaging in practices to game the search system, such as keyword stuffing or clickbait, not only annoys the reader, but search engines may penalize your content for it.

When deciding to use a keyword or one of its variations, consider if you’re writing valuable content for a reader. Is this something that can help them? Is it explained for the right audience? Can people understand it without additional context? Does it read naturally? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, your content may have a better chance of ranking high on search engine results pages (SERPs).

Are you ready to create content that readers and search engines alike love? Start a free call with CopyPress today. Our team of creatives and strategists can take your ideas and pair them with the right SEO keywords to create stunning blog posts, articles, and visual content that help you get the result you’re looking for from your target audience.

Author Image - Christy Walters
Christy Walters

CopyPress writer

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