A new Searchmetrics study finds relevant terms - not keywords - are correlated with top-ranking website content.

Searchmetrics just released its 2014 SEO Ranking Factors and Rank Correlations study, showing that many new elements are impacting search results while others are less important. Case in point – relevant terms. This factor had the second-strongest correlation (0.34) with top-ranking web content, but had never made the list before.

To put it in context, relevant terms now fall behind click-through rate and Google +1s, which ranked first last year.

Hold the phone. What exactly are relevant terms?

According to Searchmetrics, they are: “Semantically removed relatives of the main keywords, and are usually part of a subordinate topic cluster. They are not mandatory but are often included in the main copy.”

Searchmetrics Data shows that relevant keywords are a top ranking signal.

In other words, they are terms related to targeted keywords and they signal that the entire body of content is about a specific topic by providing added context. If you’re targeting the keyword “automotive repair,” the page might use similar terminology like “car repair,” or “replacement parts.”

It now looks like relevant terms are one of the most important parts of a content-driven SEO strategy. They are more closely correlated with top rankings than:

  • Using keywords in the body of content
  • Having keywords in H1 and H2 tags
  • Including keywords in external or internal links

However, the idea is that they’re included naturally – as part of the context in a relevant, researched piece of web content.

Keyword not provided – we get it, Google

Just in case marketers need another reminder to focus less on keywords (See: Last year’s keyword not provided trend), Searchmetrics’ results show that frequent keyword use is not rewarded. In fact, overuse of keyword terms is a surefire way to be identified for spammy SEO, and the practice is correlated with lower rankings.

Overuse of keyword terms is a surefire way to be identified for spammy SEO and is correlated with lower rankings

Don’t be mistaken. Keywords are still important for SEO success and related to stronger ranking positions, but they won’t be the driving force behind a content strategy. As Hummingbird becomes more effective at understanding context, Google will rely less on keywords to interpret the meaning of a page and the information on it when serving results to users.

For more on how they keyword-focused culture has changed in the past year, check out this blog post.

Moving forward, keep your keyword use in check

Think about the question someone is asking that’s bringing them to your website, and provide an answer

If you want to reach top search positions, limit your keyword use (I know, it’s scary!). Think about the question someone is asking that’s bringing her to your website, and provide an answer in a way that’s easy to understand.

When crafting your response, think sixth-grade reading level. Searchmetrics found top results tend to score around 75 on the Flesch-reading scale, while means they could be easily understood by a 12-year-old.

If you approach content marketing this way, the pieces you write will most likely contain the keyword and relevant keywords naturally – and it will rank much higher than if you try to stuff them in for added SEO value. Search marketing success can’t be achieved with a check-list of technical on-page optimization tactics anymore. It requires sophisticated strategies that combine social media distribution, high-quality content and evolving SEO approaches.

To find out more about Hummingbird, semantic search and how to speak Google’s language, read this eBook.

Lauren Kaye is a Marketing Editor at Brafton Inc. She studied creative and technical writing at Virginia Tech before pursuing the digital frontier and finding content marketing was the best place to put her passions to work. Lauren also writes creative short fiction, hikes in New England and appreciates a good book recommendation.