What is Keyword Targeting in SEO?

 8 important keyword targeting elements (and 1 not-so-important element)

#1: Page title

Using the primary keyword phrase at least once in the page's title, and preferably as close to the start of the title tag/element as possible is highly recommended. Not only are titles key to how engines weigh relevance, but they also dramatically impact a searcher's propensity to click.

Above is an example comparing some title elements for the search query "lip balm." The tag for Allure - Beauty Tips, Trends & Product Reviews is more compelling from the perspective of fulfilling the searcher's intent (which is likely to compare multiple balms vs. find a specific one), but it also puts the keyword in prime, eye-catching real estate on the results page. We have seen the evidence and heard the engines themselves discuss the value/importance of earning clicks and preventing " pogo-sticking" (the bouncing of a visitor back to a search page after clicking a result). Optimizing for both keyword prominence AND user intent/visibility is an excellent idea.

#2: Headline

While we've seen mixed results over the years with using the H1 tag specifically for keyword placement, it's almost certainly the case that a searcher who's just clicked on results expects to see a matching headline on the page they visit. Failure to do so may increase the odds of pogo-sticking, and our most recent rank correlations suggest that a topically relevant H1 is associated with higher rankings.

I wouldn't always require a match between the title and the H1 precisely, but they shouldn't be so dissimilar as to drive anyone who's clicked away from the result.

#3: Body text

It should come as no surprise that using your primary (and secondary, if relevant) keyword phrase(s) in the content of the page is important. Our research suggests that it's not just about raw keyword use or repetition, though. Search engines are almost certainly using advanced topic modeling algorithms to assess the relevance and perhaps quality, too.

This means it's wise to make your content as comprehensive, useful, and relevant as possible, not just filled with an instance of a keyword. We've observed plenty of cases where the overuse of keywords resulted in a negative impact on rankings, so be judicious. If you asked a non-marketing friend to read the page, would they get the sense that a term or phrase was suspiciously prominent, sometimes needlessly so? If that's the case, you're probably overdoing it.

#4: URL

A good URL has a few key aspects, but one of those is keyword use. Not only does it help with search engine relevancy directly, but URLs often get used as anchor text around the web (mostly through copying and pasting). For example, if I link to this post using its URL, e.g. A Visual Guide to Keyword Targeting and On-Page SEO, the phrases "keyword targeting" and "on page optimization" appear right in the text.

#5: Images and image alt attributes

Having images on a keyword-targeted page is wise for many, many reasons, not least among them is that these can help directly and indirectly with rankings. Most directly, your image has an opportunity to show up in an image search result. Granted, Google's new interface has dramatically lowered the traffic from image search, but I still find great value in having your brand name/site associated with the production of useful graphics, photos, and visual elements.

For search engines, the image's title, filename, surrounding text, and alt attribute all matter from a ranking perspective. In particular, those doing SEO should know that when an image is linked, the alt attribute is treated similarly to anchor text in a text link.

#6: Internal and external links

A good page should be accessible through no more than four clicks from any other page on a site (three for smaller sites), and it should, likewise, provide useful links to relevant information on any topics that are discussed.

Some SEOs have, in the past, questioned whether linking externally, especially to sites/pages that might compete for a visitor's time/attention or a search engine's rankings is wise. I believe the nail in that coffin was delivered by Marshall Simmonds in his Whiteboard Friday Interview noting the value the NYTimes saw from their implementation of external links. Since then, search engine representatives have subtly hinted on multiple occasions that there are elements in the algorithm that reward external links to quality sites/pages.

#7: Meta description

A page's meta description isn't used directly in search engine ranking algorithms (according to representatives from Google and Bing), but that doesn't mean they're not critical. The meta description tag, if it employs the keyword query, usually shows up in the search results, and is part of what searchers consider when deciding whether to click.

As you can see from the snippet above, when keywords appear in the meta description, they also get bolded, which can help with visibility. The primary goal of a meta description should be to earn the searcher's click. Think of them like ad copy, and work to make searchers care about your page.

#8: Meta keywords

Notably absent from this list is the Meta Keywords tag, which Google does not use in rankings, and we, along with many others (including SearchEngineLand) recommend against employing it on your pages.


The reason it's so important to balance these keyword-targeting demands with other attributes of on-page optimization is illustrated below:

As you can see, while on-page features like keyword use in titles, keywords, and body text (even when measured via a more sophisticated and higher correlating model than just raw usage like our data science team did in the ranking factors) have reasonable correlations given the complexity of Google's rankings, other elements are found much more often in higher- vs. lower-ranking pages.

If social shares, brand mentions, links, and domain authority all potentially trump keyword-based factors as differentiators, marketers need to make sure we're hitting the basics of on-page but never extending in such a way that interferes with our ability to succeed in these other avenues.