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SEO Website Audit

Matt Cutts Reveals Google's Updated SEO Copywriting Strategy

August 22, 2012
By Karon Thackston © 2012, All Rights Reserved

I've been suspicious for years now. Just from paying attention to the sites that come up in the search engine results pages (SERPs), I've seen differences. What I was finding was that the top sites didn't always have the exact keyphrase multiple times in their copy. It appeared that (with all of Google's updates over time) we've moved away from needing to use the keyphrase as-is and more toward using the individual words within the keyphrases as we write.
Photo Credit: Rick Bucich
While I was suspicious, what I was able to confirm (during an email conversation with Google's Matt Cutts) didn't take me by surprise. As a matter of fact, this is what I've been teaching for at least 10 years now because it makes sense. Google has always preached "natural" and "relevant." After they started incorporating synonyms several years ago, changing the way they recognized keywords seemed like a logical course for them to follow as far as copywriting goes.

If you've learned SEO copywriting from me through my Step-by-Step Copywriting Course, you should be good to go. If not, you'd better keep reading. You'll want to start changing your strategy pretty quick-like.

As-Is vs. Individual Keywords

In the beginning (as the saying goes) were keywords (that grew into keyPHRASES). And from early on, those who were paying attention found that Google (and other engines) ranked pages that mention the keyphrases multiple times throughout a page.

The headlines, subheads, Alt tags, copy, and other pieces of text were all prime candidates for keyword insertion. That's because Google was only able to do exact or partial matches.

But since Google has gotten more synonym-savvy over the last couple of years, there's no need to cram keyphrases everywhere you possibly can. In fact, you may be surprised at what Matt Cutts has to say about this point.

So, instead of always using "blue suede shoes" as-is (the entire, original keyphrase together), you can also use just "blue" and just "suede" and just "shoes" within the copy. This is precisely the SEO copywriting technique I've included in many of my books and seminar sessions for years.

I'm going to paste the conversation between Matt and me below so you can read exactly what was said.

In Google's Own Words

KARON: I've been noticing a trend over the last couple of years (maybe longer) as far as SEO copywriting goes. It seems the pages that are ranking well are not always using the keyphrases as-is, but are using the individual words within the keyphrases separately. For instance, instead of always using "blue suede shoes," the page will also use "blue" and "suede" and "shoes" individually.

Can you confirm and/or comment on whether keyphrases always need to be used in their original form and if it helps or hurts to also use the words within the phrase?

MATT: Keyphrases don't have to be in their original form. We do a lot of synonym work so that we can find good pages that don't happen to use the same words as the user typed.

In general, though, if the words are on the web page (not in a spammy way, of course), that makes our job easier because we don't have to rely on synonym matches to find good documents.

KARON: Has proximity of the keywords on the page also gone by the wayside? And, while we're on the topic, is it still best practice to include keywords in certain locations on the page? For instance:

1. Headline
2. Subheads
3. Alt tags
4. Anchor text link

MATT: People can overdo it to the point that we consider it keyword stuffing, and it hurts. I would just make sure you do it in natural ways where regular people aren't going to find it stiff or artificial. That tends to be what works best.

KARON: So, then, you're saying perhaps put the original keyphrase on the page once or twice (to help Google out), and then just use the individual words within the phrase throughout the rest of the copy? If so, that's what I've been suggesting for years.

In light of all the recent changes with Google, would using the keyphrase numerous times (which is what everybody has gotten used to doing over time) hurt the page's ability to rank? I'm not talking about the infamous keyword density. For years most people have been taught that you do keyword research to find what people are searching for, and then you use those phrases (provided they are relevant) within your copy, within anchor text links, etc., etc. Still true or...?

MATT: Correct, as long as it's done naturally, not artificially or in a spammy way.

As I've always said, "Never sacrifice the quality of your copy for the sake of the search engines." It's just not necessary. The next time you write a new page of copy, test this approach to writing for the engines and see if you get as good (or better) results than before. I'm betting you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Karon Thackston is the President of Marketing Words, Inc.,Karon Thackston and has over 25 years of combined experience in marketing, advertising, copywriting, and SEO copywriting. Want to learn more about excellent SEO copywriting and content marketing strategies? Subscribe to Karon's Marketing Words Copywriting Blog today for insightful articles and more.

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Post Comment

 Larry Chrzan said:
Informative interview from Karon with Matt. Glad to have confirmation that we can use natural language - keeping keyphrases in the text without being spammy. It's interesting to see the evolutions from strict text match to synonyms, likely moving more towards semantic. Thanks for this article!
 Karon Thackston said:
You're welcome, Larry. I agree. Now if we can just spread the word and train everyone that they don't have to sacrifice the quality of their copy for the sake of the engines. (Something I've been trying to do for 10 years now - lolol!)
 Tom Gray said:
This is good stuff and corresponds to what I tell my clients. Write for your consumer - a person -first and search engines second. Making a page appealing to the search engines but, in the process, rebuffing the human reader is a strategy that might draw visitors but results in low time on page, high bounce rates and low or no conversions.

Thank you for a great post.
 Terri Zwierzynski said:
Knowing that Google recognizes synonyms...that has brightened my entire day! maybe my month!
 Don Sturgill said:
Thank you, Karon. I have been considering taking your Step-by-Step Copywriting Course for SEO writing.

This article tells me you are definitely on the right track and will be teaching how to write better copy, instead of how to game the system.
 Karon Thackston said:
Tom: AMEN!

Terri: This has been going on for years. Makes writing copy a WHOLE lot easier :)

Don: Come on over! Would love to have you in the Course. You might be interested in this webinar Jill and I did a few weeks back. The material comes directly from my Course.
 Tyler said:
I've always put my keywords in the page title, h1 and have something related, reordered or a synonym in the meta description. I think that is pretty much required. You never see a page ranked without an exact match in the title for a competitive term, but maybe that is just because you have to be an SEOer to rank that high and that is something everyone does.

The rest of the page I just write what sounds best.
 Enrico Campi said:
Thank you Karon and Matt, interesting article.
However, I have a tiny reservation. What the article describes is the long-term trend that's been happening ever since Google started. An excellent start followed by constant improvements that have ensured that Google is not only the best, but the ONLY Search engine that actually works. Heads and shoulders above the rest, from day 1 until today.
Having said that, I have recently (maybe for a few months now) noticed a slight trend reversal on how keyword usage SEEMS to be preferred by Google.
Of course it's hard to provide hard data when so many things affect the rating, but I am increasingly seeing at the top of my Search results:
- websites that seem to me to gain favour by having keywords (or phrases) in the URL;
- websites where keyword proximity is strongly favoured. Including tricks like separating a keyphrase with a period, so that the first part ends a sentence, and the second part starts the next.
About this last point, notice above that Matt did not openly answer your question: "Has proximity of the keywords on the page also gone by the wayside?"
Far from complaining or trying to be critical, and fully understanding that it's a constant "battle" between good guy Google and black hat SEO people trying to take advantage of any weakness they find, I would love to know other people's, and perhaps Google's, thoughts on that.
 Karon Thackston said:
Enrico: "- websites where keyword proximity is strongly favoured. Including tricks like separating a keyphrase with a period, so that the first part ends a sentence, and the second part starts the next. "

Yes, this has been a progression for many years now.

Yes, I've also done and taught this splitting of keyphrases for at least 10 years. I can't say that I've noticed that this particular technique as influenced rankings, but it does a lot for making copy read more naturally for people.

And no, Matt didn't give specifics about proximity.
 Jan-Willem said:
Interesting interview. I find my own websites ranking even better when there is only one or two instances of the main keyword. The trick is to use synonyms or theme related words as much as possible. To bad he did gave specific details about proximity!
 Farky said:
I thought that google also use Ngram data, which is math concept that looks for patterns that will follow the proceeding Word which is part of their contextual analysis as are moving so far beyond just keywords to understand content quality
 Ellie Gacy said:
Thank you Karon and Matt to be so clear on the topic. People try to fit the keyword which are grammatically wrong in the article and blog to use them as an anchor text. This blog can help them by avoiding such stuffing and just keep it natural considering people.
 Disa Johnson said:
While synonyms are great, it's true that key phrases don't have to be precise every time. When it would be unnatural to do that it would be construed as stuffing. That seems to be confirmed here. The information retrieval terminology for words of a target phrase separated by other words is proximity. The closer in proximity, the better. As long as it's natural and not stuffing, ten you're good because you're not overdoing it.
 Andrea said:
Great Read Karon. I have always told my writers to write naturally and worry later about SEO. If they stay on point then the seo will show itself in the article. Hardest part is for the writers to stay focused and not wander off in ten directions.
 Clinton Power said:
Thanks for this Karon. Nice to 'hear it from the horse's mouth' and that you're not going to lose out by writing for humans, instead of robots. This is a good reminder for me to keep the copy natural, informative and valuable to the reader, and hold the SEO stuff lightly in the background.
 Michael Fielding said:
Seems as though you were right all along Karon!

It's great that Matt is so open about these things, so that it puts any conspiracies to bed! 'Straight out the horses mouth' as you say.

It's also important to not just make your content friendly for the users but also your page. i.e. offer them an alternative article at the end of the current one as well as internal links to helpful articles within the text. Social media buttons are also a recommended addition.
 Julie Larson said:
I like the direction Google is taking. Thank you for posting this Karon!

What are your thoughts on using keyword meta tags? I have not been using them because I understood that Google no longer pays any attention to them. But, recently, I've had people who recommend adding them.
 Jill Whalen said:
@ Julie, google has never used the meta keyword tag, but the meta description can be important. Please see my meta description article in the articles section of this site.
 klaus\ said:

I took the liberty and published your interview in Brazilian Portugues at

Please let me know if you are okay with it.

Full credit and accurate tranlations weere teklane care of.

thank you

 Klaus Junginger said:
Sorry for that bad typing, but my head is going to explode.

As I said, full credit and accurate translations were taken care of.

Thank you

 stacey herbert said:
I rarely read anything about Google updates, preferring to hear the horror stories and tales of woe from people who have had their sites bitch slapped by the search engines. But as a writer who writes SEO content or clients, it's about time that I stepped my game up here.
 Dev Digital said:
Hi Karon,
Thanks for sharing so useful information and I personally like the debate. Sometimes I found Matt to be very confused person.
 Karon Thackston said:
Klau - It's fine to reprint as long as the links remain live and are clickable to my site.

Julie - What Jill said :) The keyword tag won't help you rank. Neither will the description tag, but it is still important. Read Jill's article.

Thanks for your comments everyone!
 Gilles lancrey said:
Hi Karon, nice article, really. I made a translation in French for those interested, it can be found at
I made sure the links are live and clickable :)
 Sean Vandenberg said:
Hi, Karon;

Thanks for the great post. This advice recently helped a lot when I rewrote my site's content. Thanks!

 Stephanie W said:
Excellent information to use when putting new copy in place or revising existing copy! As a writer who is often hired to write web copy, this change has drastically changed the work we are asked to do. It is nice to have a better understanding of what it is we need to provide to our clients as well.
 Mona Sutherland said:
Hi Karon,

Thanks for a great article. Do you have any information with regards to synonyms in languages other than English? i.e. Is Google able to identify synonyms as easily in Spanish, Portuguese, etc. as they are in English (currently).

 Reagen said:
From what i've seen here in the Philippines, its not always the case. regardless of proximity or keyword variation, Google prefers large classified websites over small-scale businesses with legitimate content. It's amazing how these sites survived even after panda and peguin, makes you wonder if it's really the content or backlinks that impacts ranking locally.
 Paul Turner said:
This is very interesting and something I thought was happening. I had a chat to an SEO manager last year and he was asking about some work I had done for a client, he was asking why the keywords weren't highlighted, why the keyword phrases were not mentioned more often and so on. I said its not about that any more. It was more about the quality of the content. He said what I was doing was not common practice and it caused me to question myself even though I was getting first page rankings ( by not setting completely setting out to ). This was a great read and proves Im on the right track at least, thank you.
 Brad said:
This is a great thing to keep in mind when writing copy! It doesn't matter how high you rank if visitors think you're a robot. Connecting with visitors is #1.
 Peter Wise said:
Excellent article, thank you. Good to hear it from the horse's mouth
 Lauri said:
I don't think this new SEO concept that Matt speaks about works so well in languages that are not so common as English or French. For example in Finland we have the same problem that Reagen wrote about. That is, small businesses have a hard time to compete with large classified directory type spam sites despite Panda or Penguin. These sites typically charge more than 500 euros for a year to include your site in their directory and there are several of these in Finland. I have myself witnessed that the old fashioned SEO tricks work very well if you're writing content in Finnish because Google obviously can't be competent in all the languages of the World.