Do SEO Keywords Need To Be Exact in Content?

Jill Conway


July 20, 2021 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

Hands typing on a laptop.

Quick Navigation:


Considering that SEO rules are generally just guesses and that Google’s algorithms constantly change, let’s just say it’s hard to keep up. One area of confusion is whether you need to use keywords exactly the way they’re 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, so have the rules for using it.

Stop Words

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

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’s Algorithms

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 they type in. It also allowed writers to change the order of the words and use other terms around the keyword, which created something called long-tail keywords.

silver laptop on black reflective table with analytics graphs on the computer screen

Image via Unsplash by Carlos Munza

Long-tail keywords are exactly what they sound like. Instead of a single keyword, it’s a keyword phrase that encompasses a larger idea and helps Google narrow down what the searcher is looking for. For example, instead of trying to create content for the keyword “bowl,” which would be competing against every other article that mentions the word, you could instead target a long-tail keyword, such as “best bowls everyday use.”

In 2015, Google continued to improve on their search engine algorithms when they acknowledged the existence of Rankbrain. Rankbrain combined the search terms and keywords that searchers used and organized them by intent to help ensure that users found the articles most relevant to their needs. What this means is that Google no longer just scans the content for keywords that it can use to identify the article, but also tries to clarify the intent of the article through synonyms and other words that correspond to the keyword itself. Google refers to these synonyms as latent semantic indexing (LSI), and they help to rank your content on the search results.

That’s a lot of fancy talk to say if you’re writing content for “best bowls everyday use,” adding other phrases and words in your article such as “long lasting bowls,” “shatter-proof bowls,” or “easy to clean bowls” can help Google understand the intent of the article and display your content to searchers who need it.

Readability and Quality Content

Along with displaying more relevant content to searchers, Rankbrain also measures the user’s satisfaction with the 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 — especially over and over — when it might make your content awkward or tell 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 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. CopyPress offers a great eBook to help you develop a brand using high-quality content. Sign up for the eBook today and start developing your own engaging and rewarding articles.

Using Rankbrain to track user satisfaction, Google now also penalizes for keyword stuffing and low-quality content. You can prevent this by using synonyms and variations on a keyword, while still using the exact keyword in strategic places. 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.”

Where To Use Keywords

Though quality content is still the most important factor in optimizing your articles for SEO, it’s still important to use keywords on your pages and articles. Strategically placing keywords in an article or throughout your web pages can help users and Google bots quickly understand what your company or business offers.

When adding keywords to your content, places such as the title tag, body of the article, and meta description are all great places to put them. Don’t worry about making them exact, though. Using stop words and reordering the terms in these places won’t scare Google’s bots, and it will only make your content more understandable for your audience.

It’s also helpful to add your keywords to your URL and to your most prominent headers, which can also help Google quickly understand the broad topic of your content before narrowing down the article’s intent. But just remember: less is more. Adding the keywords to the places mentioned above can definitely help to increase your ranking, but don’t spam your article with them every other sentence. Place your keywords where they’re most helpful to entice your audience to click on your content, and then provide them with quality and beneficial information to ensure they stay.

How To Create a Keyword Content Strategy

So now that you understand why matching exact keywords isn’t always necessary, it’s good to know the other ways you can incorporate them into your content. One of the most effective ways to incorporate keywords into your marketing is by developing a content strategy.

Here is a list of steps to help you develop a content strategy using different keywords:

  1. Make a list. The first step is to get a list of the major keywords in your industry. In other words, what do people search for that you can help with? If your company sells pet supplies, some keywords might include “healthiest dog food,” “large bird cages,” and “most comfortable dog bed.”
  2. Develop a target persona. After creating your list of keywords, it’s time to analyze them and figure out the intent behind some of the searches. For example, a searcher looking for “healthiest dog food” might be concerned about their dog’s health, or maybe they’re a first-time dog owner who doesn’t know the best food to buy. Using these keywords and analyses, you can develop informative target personas, which can include important information about your customer’s buying habits and motivations.
  3. Create content for the persona. Finally, create your marketing content targeting the developed persona and not just the keywords. Sure, adding the exact phrase “healthiest dog food” multiple times in your article might help its ranking slightly, but focusing more on why the searcher typed in those words can help you develop better quality content. This can help increase your audience satisfaction and the content’s overall ranking with Google.

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

Author Image - Jill Conway
Jill Conway

CopyPress writer

More from the author:

Read More About Content Marketing