If you take an interest in SEO, you may have read various opinions similar to this one expressed on Search Engine Watch by Jayson DeMers, founder of SEO agency Audience Bloom: "The focus on keyword-based search engine optimization is dying quickly".
There are numerous blog posts (such as this one) explaining how Google’s Hummingbird algorithm update in 2013 heralded a new era of "semantic search", in which meaning and context would be understood by the Big G, and keyword pedantry would - perhaps - be consigned to SEO history.
But hang on. We're not there yet.
In fact, from what I have seen, many companies are neglecting the basics of SEO and could be losing serious money.
Let me give you an example.
The CRM (customer relationship management) software industry is a $23 billion market. It's also a complex market, with many competing vendors, and search, naturally, is a key part of a prospective buyer's journey (when is it not?)
So let's see what we get when we do a Google search for "CRM".
When I searched today from London (excluding ads and news results) this is what the rankings on the first page of Google looked like:
Search for: "CRM"
5. Microsoft Dynamics
6. Sage CRM
7. Capsule CRM
8. Sage CRM (UK site)
9. CRM Care Fertility
So what can we observe?
For three of the nine results, "CRM" is the first word in the title.
For another three, "CRM" is the second word in the title.
Sage gets two results on the first page by having two separate websites.
What about the companies who miss out on page 1 altogether? Oracle CRM, for example. Their CRM landing page does feature the word "CRM" quite a lot. 16 times in fact. But compare it to Zoho's landing page. Zoho has "CRM" 24 times, and not just that, but the term is used in numerous headings and links (and in image alt text).
Another killer SEO advantage is that Zoho has "/CRM" in its URL, only one sub-level down from the homepage, whereas Oracle's landing page ("oracle.com/applications/customer-experience/crm") is three levels down in the URL structure - so Google probably infers that Oracle is not as much focused on CRM as Zoho is.
More shockingly, Oracle.com does not even use the word "CRM" anywhere on its homepage!
There are similar deficiencies when you look at SAP's CRM landing page.
These tech giants are losing out big-style to their younger, smaller, more SEO-savvy competitors.
Ok, how about if we try searching for "CRM software" instead?
Here are the results (again, searching from the UK):
Search for: "CRM software"
2. Software Advice
4. Sage CRM
6. Sugar CRM
7. Really Simple Systems
8. Sage CRM (UK site)
What do we notice this time?
In four out of 10 results, "CRM software" is the first two words of the title
For all the other results, except Wikipedia, the word "software" is in the page title.
Microsoft Dynamics CRM misses out on page 1 completely because it doesn't use the word "software" in the title, description tag or in any heading text.
Capsule CRM also misses out on page 1 because it doesn’t use the word "software" in the title, description tag or in fact anywhere on its homepage.
Finally, what happens if we search for "best CRM"?
We get quite a different set of results:
Search for: "best CRM"
1. Business News Daily
2. G2 Crowd
4. CRM Software Review
5. Software Advice
6. Software Advice
10. Harvard Business Review
11. Venture Beat
What can we see this time?
Six out of 12 results - and all of the top four - have "best CRM" in the title.
In 5th and 6th positions, at first glance it appears that Software Advice gets away with not using the word "best" at all, but if you view page source you find that the word "best" actually appears 26 times on the page! This would seem to be more by accident than design, as "best" is used in the context of the instruction: "The best way to get a real cost is to request a quote".
In 7th position, the Forbes article contains three links (beneath the article) with the phrase "best CRM".
In 8th position, the Harvard Business Review piece contains the word "best" three times.
Salesforce and Sugar - which do so well in other "CRM" searches, but don't make it onto page 1 for this search - do not include the phrase "best CRM" or even the word "best" at all on their UK homepages. (Salesforce's global homepage does actually include "best CRM" as a link in the bottom navigation and manages to rank on page 2 for the term.)
I would wager that if either of those two companies started to use the phrase "best CRM" a bit more (in the right places) they would start to make more of an impact in the organic search results for this relatively high value search term.
I could be wrong - and maybe Google in fact understands that the query "best" means the user is looking for a comparison article. But the fact that Salesforce.com does already make it onto page 2 for this search phrase suggests it would be well worth them giving it a go.
Now I would be the last person to imply that SEO is a simple game, or that keywords are always the most important consideration (inbound links often are). But when some of the world's biggest tech companies are failing to implement even the most basic of keyword techniques, I think it's worth drawing attention to the room for improvement.
My advice is simple: pay more attention to keywords.
Research the most valuable key phrases for your business, and make sure you use exactly those phrases in various ways on your homepage and other key landing pages.
Yes, one day Google will be smart enough to understand exactly what we are asking for when we search, but until then you can’t afford to take liberties with your language! The devil is often still in the keyword details.
Let me end by saying I don’t consider myself an SEO specialist by any stretch, so I would welcome input from others who I’m sure will have much to add.