Since the first primitive SEO cave paintings were made, SEO copywriters have used keywords to move their client’s websites up the rankings for specific targeted words and phrases. Through the many changes and algorithm updates carried out by search giants like Google and Bing, keywords have remained a vital ingredient of the SEO pie.

However, according to Tom Anthony, an SEO Consultant at Distilled, this could soon change. Writing on the Moz blog in a post titled ‘From keywords to context: the new query model’, Anthony says that, “I believe we are at a transition point wherein the next 2-3 years is going to see a declining focus on keywords.”

Implicit and explicit search query aspects

The main thrust of Anthony’s post is that while keywords were the principal elements of a search query in the past, a range of other aspects are now coming into play as the search engines get smarter about what their users really want. The main addition that SEO copywriters need to know about is context.

Context is essentially what the user is doing and where they are, and the search engines are increasingly able to figure this out based on what device they are using, the location data from these devices, and other factors such as speed of travel.

Anthony says that context forms a major part of the ‘implicit aspect’ of a search query. Whereas the actual words typed into a query, the keywords, are the ‘explicit aspect’ of the query, this implicit element provides further information which may modify the search results delivered. He goes on to postulate that, “Query = explicit aspect + Implicit aspect.”

Moving towards context-only queries?

With the increase in additional data forming part of the search query there is no denying that keywords are no longer the only important factor involved. But it’s hard to imagine a world in which keywords, the explicit part of the query, are no longer relevant. Anthony quotes Google’s Sergey Brin, who once said, “My vision when we started Google…was that eventually you wouldn’t have to have a search query at all. You’d just have information come to you as you needed it.”

While context-based applications such as Google Now are making it possible to receive information, such as transportation details, weather and other elements, without the need to enter a query, it seems likely that this will remain limited. While search engines are getting smarter, unless they develop mindreading capabilities, the chances of widespread context-only queries seem unlikely.

For example, if someone suddenly thinks to themselves that they’d like to buy a new summer dress, Google is never going to know that that information is required without the person physically entering a query containing keywords. However, once this explicit aspect of the query has been entered, the search engine could use the context data to determine whether to present results of shops in close proximity to the user (if they’re mobile in a city centre), or results for large online retailers (if they’re at home on a desktop computer).

Long live keywords

Anthony himself concedes that, “As long as people are doing language-driven searches (be it text or spoken word) – which is going to be for some time to come – keywords are obviously going to be important. What the user explicitly enters as part of their search query is clearly always going to be important.”

It also seems likely that keywords will continue to be the most important aspect of search queries. Without the keywords there would be no query, whereas the relatively new aspects such as context and other implicit aspects of the query could be removed and the query would still make sense and deliver results.

While SEO copywriters clearly need to be aware of the changing face of search, the degree to which they can have any bearing on these new factors would appear to be limited. With keywords on the other hand, the SEO copywriter can wield great power in determining which queries a specific piece of content ranks highly for, and can thus mould the development of a website and bring in targeted traffic.

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