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Do SEO Keywords Need to Be Exact? Yes, No, and Why

Julia McCoy
Monday, 10th Jun 2024
Do SEO Keywords Need to Be Exact

Back in the day, SEO was all about stuffing your content with exact match keywords to rank higher. But times have changed, and as search algorithms become more sophisticated, the approach to keyword usage has shifted significantly.

Today, the focus is on creating high-quality, relevant content that appeals to both search engines and users.

In this blog post, we’ll talk about why exact-match keywords are no longer the golden rule and how a strategic mix of exact, broad, and related terms can enhance your SEO efforts without compromising the natural flow of your content.

Table Of Contents:

Do SEO Keywords Need to Be Exact?

In the early days of search engines, peppering content with exact keyword phrases was the best way to rank.

Not anymore.

Search engine algorithms are now trained to better understand the intent behind a user’s query. This means that while exact match keywords still have their place, they’re not the only factor in determining rankings.

What are Exact Match Keywords?

Exact match keywords are search terms that are entered into a search engine exactly as they are. When a user types in an exact match keyword, the search engine tries to return results that closely match that exact phrase.

Here are some examples:

Keyword: “best coffee shops in New York”

In this example, the user is searching for the best coffee shops specifically in New York City. The search engine will aim to return results that match this exact phrase.

Keyword: “how to tie a tie”

This search query is looking for instructions or guides on how to tie a tie. Results that precisely match this phrase will be prioritized by the search engine.

Keyword: “iPhone 12 Pro Max reviews”

Here the user is likely interested in reading reviews specifically about the iPhone 12 Pro Max model. The search engine will prioritize results that match this exact phrase, ensuring relevance to the user’s intent.

In each of these examples, the user’s search intent is clear, and the exact match keyword helps the search engine deliver highly relevant results.

Should You Optimize Your Content for Exact-Match Keywords? Yes and No.

Optimizing for exact-match keywords has its perks and pitfalls. Let’s break down both sides of the coin.


  1. Precision Targeting: One major benefit of exact-match keywords is their ability to precisely target a specific audience. When users search for that exact phrase, your content is more likely to appear at the top of the search results. This can lead to higher click-through rates and increased visibility for your website.
  2. Higher Relevance: Exact match keywords ensure that your content closely aligns with the search intent of users. By incorporating the exact phrase into your content, you demonstrate to search engines that your page is highly relevant to the query. This can improve your chances of ranking well for that specific keyword.
  3. Improved Conversion Rates: Since exact-match keywords attract users who are specifically looking for what you offer, they tend to have higher conversion rates. These users are already further along the buying journey and are more likely to take action, whether it’s making a purchase, signing up for a newsletter, or contacting your business.


  1. Limited Reach: One of the main drawbacks of optimizing for exact-match keywords is that it can limit the reach of your content. Not everyone uses the exact same phrasing when searching for information online. By focusing solely on exact match keywords, you may miss out on potential traffic from users who use similar but slightly different terms.
  2. Competitive Landscape: Exact match keywords often come with high competition, especially in popular industries or niches. This means that it can be challenging to rank well for these keywords, especially if you’re up against established brands with massive budgets and resources.
  3. Keyword Stuffing Risks: Over-optimizing for exact match keywords can lead to keyword stuffing, where the keyword is unnaturally repeated throughout the content. This not only makes your content less appealing to readers but can also result in penalties from search engines.

The Role of Semantic Search

Semantic search is the ability of search engines to understand the meaning and context behind a search query. Instead of just matching keywords, semantic search looks at the intent behind the query.

For example, if someone searches for “how to change a flat tire,” semantic search understands that the user is looking for a step-by-step guide, not just information about flat tires.

If someone searches for “best Italian restaurant near me,” the search engine would understand that the user is looking for a highly-rated Italian restaurant in their local area.

Now let’s take a look at our earlier sample keyword “best coffee shops in New York” and what results show up at the top of Google:

Thanks to semantic search, marketers no longer have to stuff their content with exact-match keywords to rank on Page One.

Best Practices for Keyword Optimization in 2024

With search engines constantly refining their approach, we need to keep pace.

Beyond keyword optimization, the name of the game now is crafting top-notch content that matches user intent.

Avoid Keyword Stuffing

One outdated practice that you absolutely must avoid today is keyword stuffing. This is the old SEO practice of cramming as many keywords as possible into your content in an attempt to rank higher.

Search engines can spot keyword stuffing from a mile away, and when they do, they’ll penalize you for it. The solution is simple: use keywords naturally, in context, and with the user in mind.

Focus on Relevance and Intent

Instead of fixating on exact match keywords, try to understand what drives your target audience.

What are their pain points? What questions do they need answers to?

Craft content that addresses those needs and you’ll be surprised at how effective it can be.

Broad Match vs. Phrase Match

Broad match allows for variations and related terms, while phrase match requires the keywords to appear in the exact order but allows for additional words before or after.

Capture a broader range of search queries by mixing and matching different keyword strategies. Long-tail keywords are a game-changer in this regard.

Incorporate Long-Tail Keywords

Long-tail keywords are longer, more specific keyword phrases that often have lower search volume but higher conversion rates.

For example, “best running shoes for flat feet” and “lightweight running shoes for marathons” are long-tail variations of the broader keyword “running shoes.”

By homing in on long-tail keywords, you’ll attract high-quality traffic that’s primed for conversion.

Incorporate Keywords Naturally

When integrating keywords into your content, prioritize natural placement over forced inclusion. Use keywords in your headlines, subheadings, and throughout the body of your text, but ensure they flow seamlessly with the surrounding content.

Strike a balance when crafting your content — don’t sacrifice readability for the sake of getting more keywords in there.

Remember, the ultimate goal is to engage your audience while also appealing to search engines.

Optimize Metadata and Alt Text

In addition to the main content, pay attention to your metadata and alt text. Include relevant keywords in your title tags, meta descriptions, and header tags (H1, H2, etc.).

Enhance your online visibility by optimizing your page elements, which can significantly impact click-through rates from search results. Adding descriptive alt text to your images, for instance, can improve accessibility and search engine rankings when you include relevant keywords.

Create High-Quality, Helpful Content

What sets successful keyword optimization apart is the creation of top-notch, helpful content that truly resonates with your audience. It’s not just about targeting keywords; it’s about providing real substance that genuinely helps people.

Use your keywords as a starting point, but don’t be afraid to branch out and cover related topics that will be useful to your readers. The more helpful and informative your content is, the more likely it is to rank well and attract organic traffic.

Ensure Readability and User Experience

Content that is easy to scan and enjoyable to read is essential for keeping visitors hooked. Break up the monotony with short paragraphs, concise bullet points, and subheadings that guide the reader through your story.

Let’s face it, a website that’s a pain to read or slow to load is a major turnoff. Give your visitors a break and make sure your font sizes and colors are easy on the eyes.

And don’t forget about page loading speed and mobile responsiveness — you want your website to load quickly and shine on any device.

As someone who has been in the SEO game for a long time, I’ve seen firsthand how the landscape has changed. While exact match keywords still have their place, they’re just one piece of the puzzle.

To get people to stick around on your website, make it a joy to use and pack it with helpful content. This double whammy will not only boost user engagement but also earn you brownie points with search engines.

FAQs: Do SEO Keywords Need to Be Exact?

Do SEO keywords need to be exact?

No, they don’t. Search engines like Google understand variations and synonyms through semantic search. So you can mix it up without losing relevance.

Should I only use exact-match keywords?

Nope, don’t limit yourself. Use a mix of broad match and phrase match keywords too. This helps capture more traffic and matches user intent better.

Do SEO keywords need to be next to each other?

No, they don’t have to sit side-by-side. Natural language processing allows for some flexibility in keyword placement within your content writing.


So, do SEO keywords need to be exact?

Not necessarily.

While using exact-match keywords can still be beneficial, it’s more important to focus on creating high-quality, relevant content that satisfies user intent.

As you optimize your site, keep the user in mind first and foremost. Choose keywords that accurately reflect your content, but don’t get too hung up on exact matches. With a little creativity and a lot of hard work, you can create content that both users and search engines will love.

Written by Julia McCoy

See more from Julia McCoy

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