Considering that SEO rules are generally just guesses, and that Google’s process constantly changes, let’s just say it’s hard to keep up. One area of confusion is whether you need to use your keyword exactly the way it is worded.

Say you’ve found a keyword, “jazz harmonicas San Diego.” Maybe you figure that you should use it word for word exactly the way your keyword tool has it laid out. But is that the best way to use SEO? Is it even necessary to keep the exact keyword phrase? As SEO has changed, you have the freedom to change your keyword using some of the techniques below.

Stop Words

Image via Flickr by oh.tinkerer

Stop words are words like “the,” “a,” and “of.” They help create complete sentences that make sense to the reader.

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In the past, it was easy to find web pages with keywords missing those stop words. They would say something like, “If you’re looking for jazz harmonicas San Diego, we have what you need.” But that sounds weird.

Sure, many writers creatively used these keywords by adding punctuation in the middle or saying “the best jazz harmonicas San Diego residents could want.” But many exact keywords don’t work and make it sound like the writer doesn’t have full mastery of English.

Fortunately, you can add stop words to your SEO keywords and key phrases. It makes much more sense when you say “jazz harmonicas in San Diego,” and that’s okay to do.

Google Hummingbird

The Google Hummingbird release in 2013 made it okay to use stop words within keywords. This update helped Google better understand what a searcher is trying to find rather than solely relying on exactly what he types in.

It considers context and intent. This is called semantic search. And, search engines need this ability to understand natural language and intent even more now that people are using voice search, which encourages them to search with full phrases, sentences, and questions.

The search engine is able to understand the keyword and its meaning even if you include a stop word. In reality, the stop word might even help if it provides the search engine with more context.


Stop words are just one example of changing a keyword. Overall, you can create variations of your keyword.

  • Consider the order. You’ll see keywords like “pants men’s” instead of “men’s pants.” Once again, if you try to put the phrase “pants men’s” into a piece of content, it will not sound good. But you can switch the order to make a phrase sound more natural.
  • Use slight variants. You could adjust a word by making it plural, fixing a misspelling, or using a different ending such as “talking” or “talker” instead of always sticking to “talk.”
  • Incorporate the keyword into a long-tail keyword, even if this means you add words to the middle of your phrase.

Also, try using synonyms throughout your content. Any time you give more context, you help Google understand your meaning. In this way, synonyms might help if they show the way you’re using the keyword.

You could go a step further and focus on LSI keywords, or Latent Semantic Indexing keywords. Following this technique helps you show Google the context for your keyword. Rather than adding just any synonym from the thesaurus, include terms that show what your intention is for the content.

If your term “glasses” is referring to eyeglasses rather than drinking glasses, talk about eyes rather than drinking. If your company has the same name as a movie or common item, such as the Apple brand and apple the fruit, the LSI keywords that describe what your business does will tell Google that your page is not associated with a piece of fruit or movie.

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Readability and Quality Content

Content is a lot about quality and readability. You should be writing for your reader (your target audience) and not just for search engines. Because of this, it’s not always the best tactic to use an exact SEO keyword — and to use it over and over — when it will make your content awkward and when it tells the audience you’re writing for SEO instead of for them.

While it may seem like you need to walk a fine line between balancing SEO and quality content that speaks to the reader, quality content is actually a factor that can improve SEO, and many experts encourage it as the most important factor. Google encourages you to provide high-quality content that is useful to visitors.

Google penalizes for keyword stuffing and low -quality content. By using synonyms and variations on a keyword, while still using the exact keyword a little bit, you can prevent stuffing. Changing an awkward keyword and writing more to the way people naturally speak contributes to higher quality content. Google recommends, “Think about the words users would type to find your pages and include those words on your site.”


Consider these factors when you’re changing keywords:

  • Think about keywords differently when you’re working with AdWords, as this overview is focused on organic SEO search.
  • You may want to keep the exact keyword in certain page elements; for instance, you could add it to the URL, a headline, and in the alt text. You could even use it once or twice in the body of the content. But, you don’t have to force it when it sounds too awkward, and don’t try to jam it into too many page elements.
  • It is worth checking whether a variation to your keyword creates a new keyword phrase that affects factors like search volume.

In general, it’s no longer necessary to worry about using your exact keyword throughout your content. If it sounds awkward or you use it too many times, you may even harm your content and SEO. Instead, focus on creating quality content that reads like natural speech and on providing context with your keywords. Rather than playing a strategy game, focus on guiding Google, and visitors, to your topic.

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