Search engines are code-driven, logic-based pieces of software and hardware that know and do what they’re programmed to do: rank data gathered from crawling websites according to specific algorithms against searchers’ queries. Those algorithms based on keyword relevance prefer exact matches between keywords and search queries. As a result, a site attempting to drive sales on the phrase “red roses” will not rank as well if it uses the phrase “roses red” across its pages.
Search engines are picky, and consequently so is search engine optimization. Small details matter. If two web pages look the same, the typical human will assume they are the same page. But if those two pages have different URLs thanks to tracking parameters, they are not the same page to a search engine. If a bad URL renders an error page, the typical human will understand that that page can’t be found. But if the error page serves up a "200 OK" server header status instead of a "404 File Not Found" status, search engines assume that the URL is not bad at all and hold on to it like a dog to a bone. This is really picky stuff bordering on annoying for most marketers. However just as using the exact keyword matters, all of these picky elements matter in the world of search engine optimization.
Exact Match and Search Keywords
Back to the example of “red roses.” According to the Google Keyword Tool, approximately 8,100 searchers query Google in the U.S. for the exact phrases “red rose” and “red roses” in an average month. But fewer search for the reverse ordering of the two words, “rose red” and “roses red.” In fact, only 110 people in the U.S. search for “roses red” in the average month. Consequently, a site that wants to target the most possible organic search traffic will optimize for the exact phrase “red roses.”
For example, a florist’s ecommerce site would be able to target many more searchers by using the exact phrase “red roses” in the title tags, headings and navigation for the site. The florist sets up a category for the flower type "roses" with subcategories for color, including red, to achieve this. But the ecommerce platform’s default title tag, heading and navigation formulas place category first and subcategory second like this: “Roses – Red.” As a result, the florist’s page meant to target the 8,100 searches that “red roses” drives is actually targeting “roses red” and its paltry 110 searches a month.
Does Exact Phrasing Still Matter?
SEOmoz, the SEO consulting firm, conducted a study of ranking factors. It concludes that keyword relevance is alive and well. True, the search engines have made great strides in determining the relevance of a piece of textual content. A decade ago, using the exact keyword phrase was critically important because the engines’ algorithms didn’t include semantic indexing, analyzing contextual relevance, advanced synonyms, and other relevance factors. While it’s true that the engines are quite aware that “red roses” and “roses red” are very nearly the same phrase, it’s also still true that search engines are still designed to some degree to prefer the exact match.
In a search result for “red roses,” if all other algorithmic elements were exactly the same between two pages except for the use of “red roses” or “roses red” in the title tag, the page using the exact phrase “red roses” would rank ahead of its competitor. Granted, it’s virtually impossible for all of the other algorithmic elements to be the same between two pages. Still, exact match represents an advantage that’s relatively easy and inexpensive to exploit. There’s no reason not to take advantage of it if SEO traffic and sales are a priority, especially when the competition probably already is.
What Is Exact Match Exactly?
Time and again I’ve trained teams of highly intelligent and creative people to optimize content using the exact phrase. When it comes time to review their content post-training, I invariably find that the concept of “exact” is more flexible in their minds than it needs to be for SEO purposes. If the targeted phrase is “red roses,” then “roses red” is not an exact match. The phrases “red and white roses,” “red velvet roses,” and “painting the roses red” are also not exact matches. These phrases may all support the general keyword theme of red roses, but they do not constitute an exact match of the phrase “red roses.”
It's obvious, right? Obvious in theory often becomes murky in practice. Take a look at the next piece of textual content you write through exact eyes. What was the keyword that content was meant to target? Objectively, did that exact phrase actually make it into the elements of the page that a search engine considers prominent? Does the exact phrase lead the title tag and heading? Is the exact phrase used in the navigation, if at all possible? Is the exact phrase used in the meta description to increase the likelihood of searchers to click through to the site? Is the exact phrase used near the beginning of the content and at least one other time after that? Do the supporting keyword phrases actually support the exact phrase using similar words in different phrasings or synonyms?
To illustrate the point, paste the text into a word cloud generator like Wordle or Tagxedo. The most frequently used words will stand out larger. Is the targeted keyword one of the larger words — excluding and, the, and similar frequently used non-keywords? Or just use the "Find" function in Word to find the instances of the exact phrase. Is it used as frequently and in the optimal places you thought it was? If not, the content is likely not as optimized for the exact phrase as it seemed to be during the writing. This is very common and not an issue as long as the content is written first for customers and then reviewed with an eye for SEO.
The last couple of paragraphs placed a lot of emphasis on the number of times a keyword is used, also known as keyword density. To be clear, keyword density is easy to measure and visualize but it is not the key to optimal content. Keyword prominence, placing the exact keyword in the most optimal places in the content and on the page, is far more important.
For more on how to optimize content for SEO, see "Optimizing a Page for Search Engines, Part 3: Keywords to Content," my previous article on that topic.