Eating My (Key)Words: Changing The Way We Think About SEO

eating-wordsI have glimpsed the future of search, and it is not keyword-driven. While I have long been an advocate of using keywords as an indicator of a searcher’s intent, I am about to eat my words.

The truth is that search is heading in a direction that most of us could not have foreseen… a technically complex and varied amalgamation of platforms, devices, and inputs.

What I mean by this is that as the search engines become more focused on discovering user intent based on various elements that can be measured before a user even types anything — location, search history, mobility, circles, etc. — it becomes less important what that searcher actually typed in to access the SERP. And with the rise of conversational search touted in platforms like Google Now and Google Glass, the searcher may not even type at all.

Keywords In Real Life

Take a recent example of how Google Now works. You can ask, “Who is the President of the United States?” And the answer is displayed for you: it’s Barack Obama. You can then ask, “Who is his wife?” The answer is again displayed for you — it’s Michelle Obama — but let’s say you choose to click on or otherwise select a result on that page. Maybe it’s a listing of famous first wives throughout history. As the site owner, the referring keyword would be [who is his wife]. That’s not useful to you, because you don’t know if [his] refers to Obama, Jefferson, or Washington.

This is the future of keyword-based referral, and it’s one reason of many that you shouldn’t be too upset about “Not Provided” going to 100%. (Unless, of course, you want to debate the politics of the issue, data sharing, and paying for data — then there’s plenty to get upset about.) But on the face of it, you’re not losing much in the way of useful customer data.

So Is SEO Finally Dead?

No, SEO is not dead. And neither are keywords. The truth is, we probably won’t see the standard search box disappear in our lifetime. But we will see a lot more variation in how people type keywords into the search box.

These changes make it absolutely essential to grow SEO into a slightly different concept. Gaming the system ended last year, for those of you who didn’t get the memo. Attempting to reverse-engineer the algorithm will get you in a lot of trouble.

But the future of SEO is all about optimization. In a sense, what’s old is new again — except that the way we think about the term [SEO] needs to be changed again. Matt Cutts said at SXSW last year that we should think of SEO as “Search Experience Optimization.” I’ll go one step further and suggest…

Subject Experience Optimization

Instead of thinking of “marketing,” which is defined as the act of promoting and selling products or services, SEOs need to be thinking about how they can deliver the best possible experience for their subject — the visitor.

What combination of elements do they need to present to make the user experience most optimal? What key actions do people want to take on the website, and how can we appeal to their base instincts and language with clear headlines and copy?

There’s a concept called “aboutness” that was developed by R. A. Fairthorne back in 1969, popularized by William John Hutchins in the mid-70s and more recently adopted by Shari Thurow, an industry expert whom you may be familiar with. Originally used for library and information science, in a marketing application, it refers to making what a page is “about” very clear to the user.

You can do that with well-chosen and labeled images, with keyword-based headlines, and with copy that clearly explains the purpose of the page. This is where keywords become essential, because until we can read minds, we have to be able to guess at the language that will compel users to take action — guess at first, and test to refine. This is not to be confused with “user experience optimization,” which goes deeper and is more detailed. But it does scratch the surface of what good SEOs should be thinking about.

Technical Optimization Is Here To Stay

The traditional definition of SEO, “Search Engine Optimization,” will always be relevant and necessary. This refers to how we optimize websites for search engines, and it includes everything from making sure search engine spiders can crawl pages to helping them understand complex content on pages with Schema markup. But there’s another, even more important, aspect of SEO that we will need to pay attention to.

The Rise Of Entity Search

Earlier this month at SMX East, there was a panel (the first of its kind, I believe) on Entity Search and its impact on the future of SEO. David Amerland began his part of the session by asking everyone to think of a tree. I immediately visualized something like the image on the left (below), but then realized he probably meant for people to visualize something like the image on the right:


The rest of this exercise was particularly powerful for me because of what I had visualized at first. David said you probably saw something different based on where in the world you live, or what your understanding of a tree was. In my case, my mind was on entities and information architecture, which is why my “tree” looked like the image on the left.

The power of this example is that it explains a universal truth in a very concrete way: language cannot indicate with certainty what someone is thinking.

If Google had known based on my location or the last photo I took or my search history that I was working on information architecture for a client during the last break or attending a search conference, then a search for [tree] might have resulted in something very different for me.

So as SEOs under my new definition (Subject Experience Optimization), we have a responsibility to clearly define and indicate our clients’ entities. Where are they located, what do they specialize in? How do those things form relationships to other entities? Some of this is familiar, like the concept of “local search” or “authorship” or “link graph;” but, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

The future of SEO is not based on keywords, but rather on how those “keywords” form a relationship to an entity, a concept, or a target. For more on this, I strongly suggest reading Paul Bruemmer’s latest article on Entity Search. And here’s David’s presentation from SMX East:

As to what exact format that will take, or whether we’ll all soon be flocking to FreeBase in the way that we once killed DMOZ, I can’t say. But the future of search is coming quickly, and SEOs (whatever we define that as) will need to adapt rapidly to remain ahead of the pack.

Images used under Creative Commons License.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO | | SEO: General


About The Author: is the President of an online marketing consulting company offering SEO, PPC, and Web Design services. She's been in search since 2000 and focuses on long term strategies, intuitive user experience and successful customer acquisition. She occasionally offers her personal insights on her blog, JLH Marketing.

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  • Silviu

    Hello Mrs Jenny,

    “Search experience optimization”. I can see that the search and SEO world becomes more and more complex each day. Maybe in a the future we will need University training just for optimizing the pages of a site. It clearly becomes very complex and difficult to do than it was. We are probably at the dawn of a new age. However, the old age is not gone yet while the new one is yet to come. So we are now in a kind of Twilight zone.

    Have a wonderful day

  • Jenny Halasz

    “twilight zone”, I love it. Thanks for your comment. :)

  • Michael Martinez

    I’m going to stay with “search engine optimization” because it’s all the same.

  • Pat Grady

    “The truth is, we probably won’t see the standard search box disappear in our lifetime.” How about working life? I plan to live another 30 years or so, and I’d say it’s highly unlikely that your statement is true – and I’m not a young marketer. :-)


    Very informative post Jenny! Keywords have and always will play a part in the search process, but as times (algorithms) change so will the way KWs are utilized. You are 100% correct in that the focus should be placed on “Search Experience Optimization” going forward. I’m starting to view KWs as tools to help build relationships, especially longtail phrases. Is SEO dead? Hardly, it’s just evolving, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do.

  • Transhumanity

    Great article, Jenny! We are living during the advent of the Semantic Web.

  • disqus_W4KjfaOksA

    Excellent post, Jenny. From a writer’s perspective, it seems that Google is heading in the right direction. I think things are coming full circle: At the start, websites needed to be key-word rich to rank; now it’s more about producing great content.

  • Legalcomplex

    Me too, I actually invented a model for searching without a searchbox because I hope to one use my big screen TV for searching some day. Moreover, Google Now, Google Glass do not have searchboxes. Jenny, plan to eat your words again soon ;-)

  • Gregory David Keet

    Hi Jenny! i tried searching – Who is the President of the United States? and sure enough Barack Obama come up as an answer.,

    I then searched – Who is his wife?

    His wife does not come up at the top? Is is because i get redirected to instead of dot com? Are the result different based on what portal is served?

    Thanks for your article though :) i test out everything so this one seems to be a mystery.

  • Boni Satani

    Hi Jenny, sorry didn’t find anything that was actionable? can you list 2-3 things that can be implemented to take advantage of entity search?

  • Ali Moghadam

    Hey Jenny, great post! Keywords are nothing without context. Context is the next big leap for search, but that will take a little more thinking power from robots. I don’t think it’s quite there yet – but it will be soon enough.

    What it’s highlighted for present day webmasters is the importance of knowing your target audience well enough. You need to make them want your site over other sites – even if those sites have better exposure and better rankings.

    It can be harder on general websites, but even these can be broken down into genders and age groups and then tailored to fit. Know who you’re going after and give them precisely what they want.

    If “search experience optimisation” is the future, then those doing the right things and making killer sites with sensible, honest SEO behind the scenes should naturally flourish. Those doing bad stuff should disappear. This was the expected outcome of Panda and Penguin – but I find that Google SERPs have a lot of catching up to do before they meet their own criteria. I feel it will be a long time before everyone can play by the rules and be successful in search.

  • Chris Kell

    I also did the ‘Barack & his wife’ test and it appears that this part (of an otherwise good and interesting article) is incorrect. I’ve been involved in similar discussions before i.e. search coffee on your phone and allegedly Google picks up your location and knows you’re seeking a coffee shop in your locale. Maybe this is what’s coming but during my own ‘tests’, it’s not the present.

    When I joined the digital marketing industry 7 years ago all I heard was “content is king”. So I’ve watched with bemusement as many, many ‘search experts’ have done everything but great quality content and now they, and their clients, are paying the price.

    It’s always been about (quality) content and that is one thing that has remained constant with Google, with more organised and better ways to display for the SERP’s being introduced along the way.

    It is a different landscape now and an exciting one, with so many platforms and avenues to assist in website optimisation and success. It’s all about using these platforms and, in good measure, ‘paid for’ services to build a cloud around the website in question. But when it comes to great content, as James Earl Jones once so eloquently put it, “if you build it, people will come”.

    ps. for all you movie buffs, I know James Earl Jones didn’t actually say that line but, he was there.

  • Danny BenDebba

    Thanks for this article, get me up to speed!! sounds like Google is trying to create a human brain, period. Hmmmmmmm. There’s a term Google Brain.

  • David Jensen

    A technical basis for the article was not mentioned. for one, Freebase, bought by Google, is the semantic web. One attempt to introduce linked data in web pages is rnews Google should not be the one that owns the technologies and they should be open.

  • Loren Giarraputo McMillan

    Hi Jenny… What I eat, where I go, whom I call, and most everything else I do, is stored in data form and used to personalize the marketing experience. So, it’s pretty surprising, when you think about it, that Subject Experience Optimization isn’t already the norm.

  • Rich Richardson


    Great article! Another way to think about it may be “Shared Experience Optimization”, as providers leverage factors as diverse as browsing history, location, weather condition, purchase history, in-session activities and behaviors, time-of-day, and other types of third-party-data to optimize the experience. The market has clearly started the journey towards “mass personalization”

  • Jenny Halasz

    Hi Gregory, thanks for your comment! The “semantic” search like I described is currently only available for voice search, like Google Now. You may be able to use the voice search feature on desktop (there’s a microphone to the right of the search box) to do this too.

  • Jenny Halasz

    eating my words is something I’m very familiar with. I’ll be interested to see what the future holds.

  • Jenny Halasz

    thank you! It’s really exciting, isn’t it? :)

  • Jenny Halasz

    Hi Boni, this was an opinion/thought piece. I did link to Paul Bruemmer’s article on entity search. I suggest starting there for actionable takeaways.

  • Jenny Halasz

    I couldn’t agree with you more! The actual results have a long way to go.

  • Jenny Halasz

    I think that’s a fair statement. But Google is a business like any other, and buying up the semantic databases is a good way to stay ahead. Someday they’ll face another antitrust inquiry from the government, but I expect it will go pretty much the same way that Microsoft’s did.

  • Tony Proctor

    By coincidence, I’ve just written about search engines and the issue of precision versus relaxed (or probablistic). I was getting increasingly annoyed at the inability to frame a search accurately. I’d be interested on your feedback Jenny.

  • OrganicNaturalBeautyDirectory

    This was an excellent read Jenny- thank you for writing it :)
    I would like to ask though what your feelings are for the other search engines & what you have said (seeing as you focused solely on Google)?

    I also know as someone who maintains my own sites that quality content is ‘meant’ to win in the end- however I still find that no one is really talking about how an eCommerce website can maintain their search results or even grow them… I say this because if your website is specialized in a particular product field then you ‘should’ be highly relevant to what the user is searching for- & yet you can still not be considered so by search… I would love to know why?
    (And yes I have a blog that I add to- but there is only so much you can talk about that is helpful)

  • Mark Eccell

    I don’t things have really changed, just the idea that by taking short cuts you can gain an advantage. SEO is simply the idea that a well written piece of copy should reflect the terms people understand the piece to be about. What the latest update does is remove exact matching for long tails, but in the process re shifts the focus to multiple short tails…

  • Jenny Halasz

    Hey Tony, I’ll check it out. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jenny Halasz

    Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. Yes, it’s difficult when thinking of developing a new construct to realize that we’re so completely not there yet. In Google in particular, spam still seems to reign supreme. But I do think that all of the search engines will be moving towards this type of ideal.

  • eMaximize

    Great article! As marketers are are all on this path with Google, none of us certain where its headed but have a general direction in mind. Getting traditional SEO “consultants” to understand they need to change is futile. They will suffer the same fate as recruiters, Blockbuster Video and Tower Records if they dont broaden their scope, move away from silly meta tags and become Internet Marketing Consultants, embracing advertising, social media and SExO. Well Done !

  • Elaine

    Interesting article!

  • Pavol Hollosy

    actually google is going the wrong direction … or without any direction … just try to type any products, services, or industry category you are looking for and see how much garbage and old news you have to sift through to get what are you looking for …

    globalcatalog dot com

  • Jenny Halasz

    Thanks for your comments, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I just did the Barack and his wife test again, and it worked fine for me. Be sure you are using voice search for this test… typed queries don’t work the same way.


    Search Experience Optimization… luv it!!!

  • Andy Lorenz

    Hi Jenny, SEO was always about how to take advantage of google’s algorithms for commercial gain, it was *never* about helping google to understand your content properly for the good of man! As in, google have spent a lot more time modifying their algorithm to remove ‘unwanted/unwarranted’ content from its results than it ever did for some holy,altruistic purpose. And virtually every web-site (because they nearly all have a commercial element) has spent as much energy trying to beat those algorithms – for commercial gain. I fully ‘get’ the semantic web concept, and definitely buy into content that is much better understandable through a structure of context. But I don’t think you can envisage the future of search with this easy example “who is the president of the USA”. Why not try something a lot more real world and far more applicable to future reality – like “what is the best fridge for a family of 5″ ? search optimise that experience (if you can) …

  • Keegan Larson

    I really enjoyed the article, particularly the introduction of the term “subject experience optimization.” Listening to Matt Cutts over the years, he has always hinted toward this future.

    As voice recognition and semantic search continue to improve, I don’t think it will be long before we “search box death.” It will take a big leap but we are already seeing signs of it in technology like Siri. It will be more and more “subject” and “experience”, rather than keyword/phrase searched. Great article!

  • Search Engine Optimization SEO

    Great info about the SEO made from Kaywords, happy to know about the SEO Stuff day by day …thanks for sharing the news..

  • Linda Caplinger

    “As the site owner, the referring keyword would be [who is his wife]. That’s not useful to you, because you don’t know if [his] refers to Obama, Jefferson, or Washington.”

    Love this Jenny. Probably explains the timing alignment of the move to 100% “not provided”. ;-)

  • Romita Negi

    Being an SEO Executive, my goal is to meet the visitor’s intent when s/he performs
    a search.

    I agree with your point, “Instead of thinking of ‘marketing,’ we need
    to think about how we can deliver the best possible experience for our
    subject. ” and so it has become necessary for us to focus on ‘Subject
    Experience Optimization’ and ‘Search Experience Optimization’ to achieve our

  • Romita Negi

    Being an SEO Executive, my goal is to meet the visitor’s intent when s/he performs
    a search.

    I agree with your point, “Instead of thinking of ‘marketing,’ we need
    to think about how we can deliver the best possible experience for our
    subject. ” and so it has become necessary for us to focus on ‘Subject
    Experience Optimization’ and ‘Search Experience Optimization’ to achieve our

  • Eric Hardenbrook

    Well presented observations Jenny.

    Bruce Clay mentioned this direction in a conference I attended last week. The non-voice search example he used for a simple description of the problem was “hammer”. Much like your “tree” example individual results will vary based on the searchers location and search history. If you’re entering your query from a mobile device and from within a record store that has a G+ page you can expect to get MC Hammer in your results; not a tool (unless you consider MC Hammer to be a tool….)

  • Ben Guest

    Bottom line is are you a reactor or a proactor? If reading this article makes you go ah ha then you are already way behind. It is extremely important to stay on top of technology or the smartphone will be invented again and you’ll lose your customers, again. ;-)

  • Jenny Halasz

    “unless you consider MC Hammer to be a tool….” Hahaha!

  • E-Koncept

    I actually agree with this statement. Building a website for users has always been and should always be the target. It was inevitable that Google would use the information available to them to determine the quality of a website. Google doesn’t even have to use Google Analytics data to optimise the search experience. things like CTR of listings in the SERP vsTime before returning to the SERP will all give a clear indication of whether something is relevant or of substantial quality. Given this going to happen sooner or later we should have planned for this years ago.

  • RedLeader

    Hey, just to be clear, the voice search on desktop only functions in Chrome. So if the user is using Firefox, Safari, IE, Opera, etc. they won’t see it.

    I wanted to post before you get a confused reply.

  • Jerry Nordstrom

    So Google is removing keywords from our reports – protecting the privacy of the searcher and all that good PR. Yet, the new model of defining user intent and thus serving up relevant ads depends fully on tracking every little detail about that user!?

    I get the shift entirely, what I don’t get is why they must remove keywords from being reported in this transition. Keywords are still very relevant either directly to goal conversion or at minimum as an attribute to goal conversion reporting. Optimizing for individuals with thousands of variables around them – Real time, Geo, Demo, Social etc. will certainly limit the field of effective SEO’s down to those with a high level of expertise, and a grand budget to afford the tools to track, analyze and optimize… Keywords were the main element that kept a number of SEO’s from having to take on this higher level of optimization. My cynical side keeps thinking that Google never intended for an SEO community, and honestly doesn’t want to grow one now. They are slowly making SEO less effective by removing important data and pushing this profession out of existence, hoping not to ruffle the feathers of a vocal community in the process. The end goal is that Google and Google alone will control all results – Organic results don’t fit in well with the profit model.

  • seo freelancer

    I love read a smart people ) Thanks, Jenny! In Twilight Zone (thx Mr. Silviu!) we start to see ‘a lot more variation in how people type keywords into the search box.’ And then we see also the intend of Google to give searchers Rich SEPRs. I like twilight aspect of that process as we move into more systematic approach for optimization and start to think of ‘entity’ more than about primitive instrumental aspect as link building, ‘on-page optimization’. There are our old friends as Linguistics and Theory Of Communication, and we have to be adopted to more rich discourse. Future of SEO is here, and what scares me now is ever-increasing speed of processors. Latest 16 cores mobile processors make me feel crazy – as I can’t imagine what content user will INPUT and what Google will OUTPUT. But I definitely do know that next stop will be Media Nirvana.

  • Nicky Helmkamp

    Hey Jenny! We loved your article and wanted to let you know it was featured in our Monthly Resource Roundup

  • Michiel Van Kets


    I see it very differently; what google is trying to do is to get better at reading the way we do things; genuine quality

    I know, for so long cheap crap and fake spam worked just fine, but that doesn’t mean that genuine quality didn’t work

    it has been in the shadow, because it’s more expensive and it goes slower, but those sites that the last 10 years did genuine quality seo instead of cheap crap, those sites are now the ones ranking on top; they’re not changing anything!

    there’s nothing new about our genuine quality seo, it’s just that your cheap crap seo doesn’t work anymore … hihi

  • annurao

    What is the meaning of SXSW?

  • Jenny Halasz

    South by Southwest. It is a conference held each year in Texas.

  • Jenny Halasz

    I believe that what we are seeing is that good quality is being rewarded even more than it has been in the past. For the record, I was never a “cheap crap seo” advocate – success from those methods has always been fleeting. In fact, I was one of the first to publicly decry PageRank funneling with the use of nofollow on site. But I digress. I really do see a significant improvement in the way that Google is “understanding” and associating entities – which is what this post is all about.


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