Keywords did not die with the Hubspot Keywords Tool


Considering how our entire content development process is based on keywords, news that HubSpot was sunsetting the Keywords tool admittedly hit us pretty hard. Keywords are the bricks we built our homes with. So, why now is HubSpot, the community that has taught us so much about SEO, someone we trust and look to for guidance, taking such a hard stand against our precious keywords? 

This move caused us to question everything we thought we knew about SEO. Organic ranking is crucial to inbound marketing, so the decision to remove the Keywords tool is akin to HubSpot saying keywords are irrelevant to organic ranking. What?!?

Screenshot of HubSpot Keyword Tool


First of all, what was the Keywords tool?

The Keywords tool was an area in HubSpot where you could input keywords you wanted to rank for to review how often those terms were searched, how difficult they would be to rank for and how your pages have been ranking.

A few weeks back this area started displaying a warning that the keyword tool was not reporting properly. This message evolved a few times and currently states: "Due to the changing nature of SEO technology and search, this report will not be available as of May 30, 2018. Please consider using the Content Strategy tool and learn more here."

The link to the Keywords tool has been removed from the HubSpot navigation under Reports, but can still be accessed by searching "keywords" in the HubSpot search bar, at least until May 30. Truthfully, why bother? At this point, any work you do in there would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Now's the time to start coordinating your efforts elsewhere.

Our Content Development Process:

Here's why keywords are a crucial component in our content development process.

  1. Step 1: Keywords Identify the keywords you want to rank for. You'll consider search volume and difficulty, your personas and rank opportunity. These will be long tail and short tail keywords and will be used to help come up with blog topics fro your content plan.

  2. Step 2: Pillar Pages Of the keywords you've identified, what are the general terms? What does your company absolutely have to rank for? These are probably more difficult to rank for with higher search volumes. These will be our pillar page topics. Pillar pages are comprehensive and informative—the highest quality result a search engine could return when that keyword is searched. They are 10x better than what is currently ranking No. 1, otherwise search engines wouldn't prioritize it over other top-ranked results. (Note, this is not the definition of a pillar page as HubSpot defines it.)

  3. Step 3: Supporting Posts For each pillar page, plan 5 - 10 supporting blog posts that dig deeper into a related topic and link back to the pillar page. Often, these topics are sections of the pillar page, flushed out a bit more. Supporting posts focus on the longer tail keywords with lower search volume and easier difficulty. Ensure these posts link back to the pillar page and have limited links to content irrelevant to the theme of the cluster.

This process, which was originally executed completely outside the HubSpot platform, has evolved over the years. We mapped clusters in a spreadsheet and organized the assignments in BaseCamp, our project management platform. HubSpot's roll out of their Content Strategy tool in 2017 reinforced our theory that organizing content around topics was correct, enabling us to now coordinate and visualize these clusters directly in HubSpot. It seemed we were all on the same page.

Soon after introducing the Content Strategy tool, though, HubSpot announced they were removing the Keywords tool. They suggested that focusing on keywords was less important than concentrating on broader topics. While we do agree, topic-based content production is more effective than thinking of keywords in silos, keywords cannot be completely ignored, can they?

The Problem with Keywords

1. Search has changed

With the introduction of RankBrain and Google's understanding of search intent, users have evolved the way they search. A few years ago, a typical search could have looked something like, "Financial Planner Long Island." Now it appears more like, "I need financial advice on retirement and preparing for my kid's college." Google has matured, and now factors in the user's intent, location, history, and even misspellings. As a result, user behavior has evolved. Hard, ridged keywords do not have to be explicitly used anymore.

Google and its users have changed, so shouldn't content developers change too?

Give us some credit here. Content developers have changed leaps and bounds right alongside users and search engines. The old tactics of keyword stuffing and blackhat backlinks have been replaced with pretty sophisticated content mapping and an emphasis on quality over quantity. "Killer, not filler," as we like to say. Search engines are far better now at understanding the context in which keywords are used, and that's precisely why they are delivering better results. But they are still looking for keywords to put in context, right?  

2. Synonyms and Related Keywords

An old-school SEO practice was to account for variations of almost identical terms  when producing content. A blogger trying to rank for Online Wealth Manager, for instance, would produce multiple blogs using "Online Wealth Manager," "Wealth Managers Online," "Online Financial Planner," and "Financial Planners Online." Google's improved understanding of related keywords and synonyms has made such practices completely unnecessary, and will actually generate compromised results.

The system Google uses to determine the relationship between terms and concepts is called Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI). This makes it possible for Google to know a blog post titled, "Comparing Online Wealth Managers," could be delivered for the query "Financial Planners"— even if the keyword "Financial Planners" is never used in the article. This may render the difference between the search volume and difficulty of these two terms irrelevant when deciding which to use. With this in mind, wouldn't knowing the metrics on these terms compared to alternative topics still give you an idea of which is better to center content around?

It is possible some HubSpot users are misinterpreting the data they've see when looking in the Keywords tool. They see all these different iterations of keywords and assume they need dozens and dozens of alternate versions of the same content, using substituted variations of keywords. If a small subset of users are confused, taking away the tool may benefit them in the long run, but what they gain by losing the tool does not outweigh what the rest of us lose. 

3. Too Much Emphasis on Ranking as a KPI

As an isolated metric, too much emphasis has been placed on keyword rankings. Focusing exclusively on rankings as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) could mean ignoring what content is actually bringing in traffic and converting. It could be true that you are ranking No. 1 for a large number of keywords, but if none of that traffic is resulting in sales, are you really winning?

HubSpot suggests it is better to monitor what topics are inviting the most traffic and converting, rather than just relying on ranking info. But, if you are attempting to rank for a topic that is not producing meaningful traffic, how do you know if your efforts are helping you achieve your ultimate goal? Ranking on page six... ...then five...then four for a particular term is a leading indicator of improvement, and confirms if your efforts are starting to pay off. 

4. Keyword Rankings Are Not Accurate

Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) results vary dramatically from one user to the next depending on location, device and user history. Furthermore, it can fluctuate quite dramatically through the day, at least for those not closer to the top. But, is there an average? When reviewing Google Search Console you can see that you are ranking 1.3 for a select query. This means on average you are returned somewhere near position 1 over the period of time you are reviewing. If it appears you are ranking 20th for a select term, this is an average of your rank across multiple users, and that average is probably trending in a general direction.

HubSpot has positioned the removal of the Keywords tool as a strategic decision and has been forced to defend that stance. Although on the surface it appears that HubSpot is signaling the death of keywords, that is not the case. HubSpot's official explanation encourages users to continue keyword research outside of the HubSpot environment. 

"While we can all agree search has changed, and topics are crucially important, we are not saying that keywords are irrelevant. In fact, the concept of keywords is still very important to your SEO and overall content strategy. Once you answer the question, what do you want to be known for? Then you should still perform keyword research to determine the content within that cluster."
—Hubspot, We're Sunsetting Keywords in 2018. Here's Why.

So, where do we go from here? We still need to do keyword research. We still need to review and organize keywords for content planning. We still need to monitor keyword growth. It seems the most logical question is, where can this be accomplished? 

How to Monitor Keywords Without the Hubspot Keywords Tool

Google Search Console

Who better to report on your rank in Google than...Google. Google Search Console (GSC), formerly known as Webmaster Tools, is free to set up and easy to use. With GSC you can view actual search queries that returned your website as a result. This is not a theoretical projection of keyword took predicting how you will be delivered, but how you were actually delivered.

It is worth noting that keywords are different than queries. Think of keywords as what you want to rank for, and queries as what people actually search. A simple way of thinking of it: queries may have misspellings. Because these are actual queries, and not keywords, you can't add keywords you want to rank for. A term must have actually been searched for you to see where you are delivered.

Screenshot of search results in Google Search Console

You have access to information on average position, impressions, clicks and click through rate for queries that returned your site as a result. Filter by specific pages to see what keywords it is ranking for or filter by query to see what variations are being searched.

Screenshot of Average Position ranking in Google Search Console

Screenshot of red down and green up arrows signifying changes in rank in Google Search ConsoleBut what about your beloved red and green arrows? Not only did the Keywords tool show your website's rank for a tracked keyword, but any subsequent change as well, whether it was positive or negative. This helps users visualize what efforts are paying off and what topics need more attention. With GSC, this can be displayed by setting the date range to compare with a previous period. The change in rank is displayed in a "difference" column (though without those beautiful arrows).

GIF showing how to do look at keyword rank tracking in Google Search Console

Actual Keyword Research

Google Search Console covers some of what was lost with the Keywords tool's departure, but certainly not everything. Search volume and difficulty, though available through the AdWords Keyword Planner, is not represented in Google Search Console. To solve this, you'll require a paid third party, such as SEMRush, Moz or Ahrefs. These platforms offer keyword information accounting for semantic search, broad matched keywords and  keyword gap information which is much more comprehensive than what was available in the HubSpot Keywords tool, but have an added expense, which can be substantial. 

One way to keep these costs under control is rethinking the way you need to track keywords. Consider only monitoring a segment of keywords in a cluster rather than every potential iteration. Rand Fishkin discusses this approach in an episode of Whiteboard Friday embedded here:

Should SEOs and Marketers Continue to Track and Report on Keyword Rankings? - Whiteboard Friday


Don't be surprised if HubSpot hears the cries of their people and reintroduces some version of keyword organizing again in the future. It seems like too critical a component of content planning. Perhaps this will happen after our dependence on keywords has been broken and HubSpot trusts we can use them again responsibly. 

UPDATE: With the addition of the Keywords Everywhere Chrome Extension search volume, CPC and competition information is displayed in Google Search console. 

Screenshot of Keywords Everywhere tool