SEO Basics: What is a Keyword?

Stylized picture of keys as keywordsWhen just starting to learn how to perform Search Engine Optimization – or SEO – for a website page, online ad, or even a blog post, you’ll probably come across the term keyword. Many guides look at the keyword as a more of a keystone: something which the entire rest of the page is written around. However, as an SEO tool, the keyword has changed over the years as search engines have attempted to balance the usefulness of a keyword with the pitfalls of too little content on a page. So what is a keyword, and how has it changed?

Definition of a Keyword

A keyword is an exact phrase you’re looking to match on a search engine. More often than not, this keyword is actually more than one word, and might even form a complete (short) sentence, though sans the punctuation. Longer keywords (known as long-tailed keywords in SEO parlance) are actually more often successful in search engines due to modern algorisms (see below). Your selected keyword is your guide for a page, as well as your exact phrase in certain locations.

The History of the Keyword

When the internet was new and growing from a handful of primitive forums to the first wave of webpages, it started to become difficult to find and navigate to websites you wanted. Search engines were born, which indexed websites and allowed users to type in words (such as “shoes” or “games”) to find the websites they were looking for. When indexing websites, these search engines would scan all the text on a website: when a user used the search engine, it would compare the searched words to the website.

Keywords in Scam Sites

Over the years, you’ve probably run searches for keywords only to find yourself on a sketchy website that is filled with ads and requests for you to download executable files. It’s an ongoing struggle between search engines and scam sites, and it was not uncommon through the late nineties and early 2000’s to find yourself on websites filled with pages of keywords in an attempt to increase their ranking while providing no legitimate services. Because of this, how SEO keywords work and websites have indexed them has changed over the years.

Keywords Today (Specifically Google)

When we talk about SEO, the search engine primarily used is Google. Google has a majority (world-wide being used by more than 65% of internet users, according to, and is generally both the trend and technology setter. As such many SEO practices have been changed (by Google) to avoid exploitation, meaning that actual content is king, though optimizing that content for keywords is icing on the cake. Other search engines follow this lead to avoid losing relevance.

Two Definitions to Help Understand the Term

A personal favorite of mine, Wikipedia has two definitions for keywords that both resonate here:

Under keyword (linguistics):

In corpus linguistics a key word is a word which occurs in a text more often than we would expect to occur by chance alone.

And under keyword (term index):

An index term, subject term, subject heading, or descriptor, in information retrieval, is a term that captures the essence of the topic of a document.

The first of these two covers how to look at the keyword as you write content. Your keyword is both your topic, and your proper noun. The subject is your keyword and therefore the contents of the page, but the exact keyword (usually a phrase) will exist in certain locations. The second is the keyword as the search engine sees it. Instead of a keyword pile, your keyword is the singular essence of the document (web page), and help links a concept (keyword) to a document (your site).

Keywords are of course for more than just websites: they also are a key part of Google AdWords. You can learn more about that at my other blog: Two Terrific Types of Google AdWords to Try. If you’re interested in taking your SEO to the next level through a new website, monthly blogs, or AdWords, drop us a line.

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About the author : Alex Geyer

Alex wears many hats, and not just because he’s bald. A writer by background, Alex writes “content” for Vision – anything from social media statuses to blogs to website copy and beyond. In addition, as Senior Brand Strategist, he builds and maintains all search engine advertising for Vision, manages multiple client projects, and herds many meetings. In his free time, he starts and stops writing novels, reads a copious amount of fiction, plays video games, and an enthusiastic chef at home. He’s trying to become a better plant daddy.