UPDATED POST – This post was updated in November 2016 to reflect current SEO best practices

If you bum around the popular freelance writing job boards long enough, you’ll probably come across the phrases “SEO keywords” or “target keywords” every so often.  But if you haven’t had any past exposure to digital marketing techniques, it’s natural to be confused about what these words mean and why – as a writer – you should care about them at all.

So to clear up this confusion, here’s everything you need to know about what keywords are and how they’re used by web content writers…

The web runs on keywords

To get started, think about how you use Google as an internet civilian.  You have a question, you open Google and you enter a phrase or set of words into the search bar.  Google then runs its search algorithms and returns a set of results that are determined to be as relevant as possible to your search query.  Finally, you choose the result that best meets your needs and click through to the website you’ve selected.

On the other side of things, webmasters and digital marketers are using a set of strategies known as “search engine optimization” (SEO) to ensure that their sites are the ones that appear in response to your search.  Because websites can receive a huge percentage of their inbound traffic from the search engines, they want their sites to appear as close to the top of these listings as possible – increasing the likelihood that you’ll click on their listing over another.

The process of determining which sites appear in response to a query isn’t random.  This is where the search engine algorithms come into play – weighting hundreds of different on-site and off-site factors against each other in order to select the sites that represent the best possible matches to your search query.  SEO techniques are designed to target many of these different factors, helping the websites that use them to stand out to the algorithms and achieve top positions within the search results pages.

Of course, as you might expect, the process of carrying out an effective SEO campaign isn’t as easy as it sounds…

How webmasters evaluate keywords

First off, webmasters start by identifying the keywords that they want their sites to “rank” for (as in, the specific queries that they’d like their sites to appear for in response to a user search).  A website on pet training tips, for example, would likely rather appear in the search engine results for the keyword phrase “pet training” than for “Las Vegas vacations.”

Webmasters use a number of different criteria to choose their target keyword phrases.  Search intent obviously plays a large role, as site owners want their sites to appear in response to user queries that are actually relevant to their interests.  In the example above, a search user who stumbles across a website about Las Vegas vacations in response to a query on pet training tips isn’t likely to click through to the site, as it doesn’t represent a good fit for his interests.

But beyond this, webmasters are also able to use keyword research tools provided by the search engines and a number of private entities that give them an estimate of the keyword’s search volume and competition.

Search volume refers to the number of people who enter a given keyword into the search engines in a given period of time (typically reported in month-long intervals).  A popular keyword like “lose weight” might receive millions of searches each month, while more obscure phrases like “lose six pounds in two weeks without dieting” are searched for fewer times during this period.  Clearly, it’s in the webmaster’s best interests to target keywords that receive the highest possible volume of searches, as ranking well for these terms will send more traffic back to his site.

However, webmasters must balance possible search volume against keyword competitiveness.  Because so many people search for the phrase “lose weight,” hundreds of thousands of different sites are likely targeting this keyword in an attempt to take advantage of the huge potential traffic that would come with a top ranking in the search results.

On the other hand, fewer webmasters are likely targeting the phrase “lose six pounds in two weeks without dieting,” which will make it easier to secure a high ranking for the keyword phrase (though this will send less traffic to the webmasters’ sites, based on the estimated search volume). This is what’s known as targeting “long tail” keywords.

Though different webmasters will analyze all of these different metrics and more when determining which keywords to build their SEO campaigns around, the conclusions they’ll draw will – unsurprisingly – be different as well.  A huge offline company with a major marketing budget might be willing to invest more into SEO, giving it the ability to go after more competitive keyword phrases.  Conversely, a smaller startup might decide to stick to less competitive keywords that can be ranked for quickly without tons of capital investment.

But however they arrive at their conclusions, the end result of this analysis is that webmasters who utilize SEO techniques on their websites wind up with a list of specific keyword phrases that they’ll be targeting on their sites.

Implementing SEO techniques

Still with me?  Now that our hypothetical webmasters have selected their target keywords, they’ll implement a number of different tactics to get their sites into the top positions in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

In general, SEO techniques can be divided into two different categories – on-site techniques and off-site techniques.

On-site SEO techniques are things that are carried out within a website’s code in order to make the site as accessible and appealing as possible to the search engines’ algorithms.  A few common examples of on-site SEO techniques include:

  • Adding target keywords to key areas of page content, including the title tag, headline tag and body content to help the search engines better understand the subject of the content.
  • Launching “sitemaps” (separate listings of all the pages included on a website) that help the search engines’ automated indexing programs to read and understand a site’s content.
  • Cleaning up website code to improve page loading times (site speed is a major SEO ranking factor).

Off-site SEO techniques, on the other hand, refer to processes that are carried out away from the webmaster’s website.  For the most part, this includes link building – or, the process of creating backlinks on other sites that point back to your own.

Many search engines treat these backlinks as “editorial votes” – that is, if another site is linking back to your own, it can be assumed that that site is vouching for the quality of your site’s content.  Though this is a somewhat simplistic look at why link building is important, all web content writers need to know is that the number and quality of sites linking back to a webmaster’s pages plays a role – one of many – in how well that site will rank in the search results pages.

Here’s where you come in…

For the most part, web content writers don’t need to be too concerned about SEO techniques, as webmasters will carry out most of this work without you ever being aware that it’s being done.

However, there are a few circumstances in which you’ll be called upon to utilize SEO keywords in your writing.  These situations may include:

Adding keywords to your web content articles

In the past, some webmasters believed that the number of keyword mentions in an article played a role in its performance within the search results.  As a result, it wasn’t uncommon to find web content writing projects that requested authors use a specific keyword a certain number of times in the same article or to write the content so that the keyword density (that is, the percentage of the article that was made up of keyword phrases) met a certain threshold.

As you might expect, it’s not very fun to try to work the same keyword phrase into a 500-word article ten different times and still have it sound natural!

Fortunately, this practice – known as “keyword stuffing” – has pretty much fallen out of favor amongst smart webmasters, as the search engines’ increasingly stringent content quality standards (including the infamous Penguin update) tend to penalize these types of article.  You may see a few potential clients using this method, but in general, I’ve found that their reliance on scam SEO techniques tends to correlate with their aversion to pay writers well.  Basically, they’re best avoided altogether.

Instead, what you’ll see more often is webmasters who request that a single target keyword be used once in the article title and once in the body content.  In these cases, the webmasters will provide the specific keyword phrase you’ll use, and then it’s up to you to be sure it’s integrated naturally into the text (which isn’t typically difficult to do when you’re only dealing with a single instance).

Adding keywords as backlink anchor text

UPDATE – Google’s Penguin algorithm update included, among many other things, penalties against those sites deemed guilty of over-optimization. Over-optimized backlink anchor text has fallen out of favor with SEOs, for reasons described in this Moz article. I’m leaving the information below as a tutorial in case a client of your requests anchor text optimization, but please be aware that this practice is no longer condoned by white hat SEOs.

The other circumstance you might encounter in which you’ll be using a webmaster’s target keywords is if you’re responsible for sourcing internal or external links for your client.

There’s a slight SEO benefit to including both links to other pages on your client’s site and to other reputable websites in your industry.  Some writers are responsible for adding these links on their own, though you shouldn’t assume that this is the case with all clients unless it’s agreed upon in advance and subject to an extra charge.

But if you are responsible for adding these links to the content you create, your client might give you a list of target SEO keywords that should be used as the anchor text in the links you build.

Essentially, anchor text represents the “clickable” part of the link.  For example, the link Write Your Revolution is structured in HTML as follows:

<a href=”http://writeyourrevolution.com”>Write Your Revolution</a>

The link code is contained within “<>” sections, while the anchor text – “Write Your Revolution” – remains visible and clickable to people reading the article.

The inclusion of a website’s target keywords in the anchor text area has long been used as an off-site SEO technique.  Keep in mind that, given the size of the web, the search engines can’t manually evaluate the quality of every website that’s out there.  Instead, they must rely on arbitrary signals – like the presence of a keyword phrase in the anchor text of inbound backlinks – to determine what a page is about and how good the content is.

There’s a lot of debate going on in the SEO world right now about whether or not the process of including target keywords in anchor texts is as beneficial as it used to be, or if the search engines appear to be catching on to this technique and devaluing it.

But from the web content writer’s perspective, the efficacy of this technique isn’t important.  Instead, all you need to know is what to do if a client asks you to create backlinks with keyword-rich anchor texts in them – which you can do using the code format above.

Finally, keep in mind that this is a fairly brief overview of the highly-technical subject that is SEO.  If the subject interests you, I’d highly recommend that you read through the content found on sites like Moz and Search Engine Land in order to expand your understanding of it, as writers who bring digital marketing knowledge to their contracts tend to be paid more highly than those who just crank out content.