Why Is HubSpot Sunsetting Keywords and How Should Your SEO Strategy Change?

A week ago I heard the familiar ‘ping!’ of my email inbox. And there it was – the announcement from HubSpot’s partner team that they have decided to sunset the keyword tool in May of 2018.

My first thought was: it’s about time.

My second thought was: this is going to ruffle some feathers.

For years, marketers have relied on HubSpot’s keyword tool to validate their marketing efforts. Perhaps it's the nature of our culture to rejoice when we finally see that sparkling #1 next to a priority keyword. It is even more rewarding when we watch that keyword travel from spot #15 to spot #1. How proud this progress makes us! Our marketing efforts are working!

I’m terribly sorry to rain on your parade… but keyword rank just isn’t as relevant anymore. Keyword variation ranking is no more meaningful than a shiny blue participation trophy. Even if there is a #1 next to it.

In this post, I will help you understand why HubSpot has made the decision to sunset the keywords tool and what steps your marketing team can take to refocus your SEO strategy for 2018.

Why did HubSpot decide to sunset the keywords tool?

Research by SEO specialists shows that keyword rank has become more and more inconsequential over the years. One study shows that the #1 ranked page of a website could also rank #1 for more than 1,000 other related keywords.

Graph of how many keyword phrases pages rank for from Ahrefs

source: ahrefs.com

If you have 25 keywords in the #1 spot in the HubSpot Keywords tool, congratulations! You probably have 250 keyword variations also in #1. And, chances are, the keyword that’s been stuck in position #5 for over a year is arbitrary – your page is likely ranking for something else.

In 2011, Adam Lasnik – now a Program Manager at Google – said, “I believe rank checking is grossly overrated and largely a waste of time. Particularly given the increasingly personalized (and localized) nature of results…”

Google was warning us as early as 2011 to stop focusing so much on individual keyword rank.

When we go to HubSpot's keyword tool and see a rank report of our priority keywords, we are ignoring the bigger picture. HubSpot is removing the keyword tool because:

  1. The keyword tool gives you a very narrow understanding of how your pages are ranked. Because YOU are the one entering keywords into the tool, you are simply guessing at terms that you think you might rank for. The tool does not show you what you should be targeting or how to target it.

  2. In the past you needed to write an individual page for every keyword variation. Now, a single well-written and informative page can rank for 1,000 related keywords without you needing to write 1,000 variations of that page. (Yay!)

  3. Google’s AI technology is more focused on what the intent of your page is – not the specific search term.

  4. The format of your page is more important than on-page SEO. Many pages that rank #1 in Google have no text at all – they may contain an image gallery, an infographic, or a video tutorial. Why? Because those formats answer the search query better than paragraphs of optimized text.

  5. HubSpot has introduced a new tool to help you develop your content strategy titled – not surprisingly – Content Strategy.

What alternatives can you use to the HubSpot Keyword Tool?

If you simply cannot comprehend a world without keywords in it, that’s okay. There is general agreement across the SEO community that keyword research is still valuable. No matter what AI technology takes over Google, we are still humans and need inspiration. Here are some incredible free tools you can use to perform keyword research, track your ranking, or find inspiration:

  • Google’s Keyword Planner – A free keyword research tool that allows you to find the right keywords to target for display ads, search ads, video ads, and app ads.
  • Answer The Public – Find out what questions and queries your consumers have by getting a free report of what they're searching for in Google.
  • Keyword Tool – Using Google’s autocomplete technology, you can find related search queries to inspire new content.
  • LSI Graph – Using Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) technology, this awesome website will show you related keywords to a generalized search query.
  • Moz Keyword Explorer – Search for priority keywords to target using a related term, domain, subdomain, or specific page.
  • Spyfu – Determine what keywords your domain is already ranking for (or your competitors) with Spyfu’s suite of free SEO research tools.

What factors are more important for Google ranking than keyword optimization?

If keywords are no longer a defining metric, how do you get your pages to rank in Google? Understanding how Google assigns authority to pages can help you let go of the keyword tool.

  1. The intent of the page: The most important element of your page is it’s intent. Google is smart, and people are smart. That means the content of your page matters much more than how many keywords are shoved into your URL and alt text. Step outside of the individual keyword query and ask yourself – how would I answer this question in the most comprehensive and helpful way? Write for your audience. If your audience uses slang, abbreviations, or even emojis, you should include it. If your audience is no-nonsense, professional, and data-driven, use that voice. When you write for keywords, you forget your audience. Your audience is all that matters.

  2. The format of the page: Just like the intent of the page matters, the format is equally important. If someone is searching for inspiration, designs, ideas, or how-to's, a 2,000 word blog post is not always helpful. Consider this search for newsletter designs:

    Newsletter designs search results in google example

    The result for "
    16 Revolutionary Email Newsletter Designs" has almost no written content at all. It’s simply a gallery of incredible newsletter designs. Why? Because that’s what the searcher wants. We need to start thinking about how the user prefers to consume content.

    Newsletter design awwords result

    Here’s another example of creating content for intent. A search for “how to bathe your dog” populates an ungated step-by-step guide, common related questions, and a how-to video:

    How to bathe your dog search result variations
  1. Your site’s content architecture – Now that you’ve determined the best format and created your content, you need to insert it into your site's content architecture. There is more on content architecture later in this post. In short -- you can increase the ranking authority of your content by linking it to related content on your site. Linking strategy is detailed in this post about topic clusters.

  2. Backlinks: Yes, backlinks and guest blogging are still one of the best ways to build rank authority. When other reputable websites link to your content, Google says to itself, “Wow, this must be good stuff!” Instead of spending hours every month writing multiple new blog posts, consider reinvesting that time reaching out to sites to write guest posts. Or focus on creating content that would be easy to share on other blogs, like infographics, videos, and ungated guides. Not sure where to start? Check out this awesome guide on backlink strategy.

How should my SEO strategy change now that HubSpot’s keyword tool is gone?

Here are a few tangible steps your business can take to remain competitive in the organic search arena.

1. Perform a thorough content audit.

The first step to optimizing your content for Google’s SEO standards is to have a complete understanding of the content you already have on your site. It’s time for a little spring cleaning! Shedding your website of old, redundant content is the first step to building a streamlined content stack.

Export your blog titles and landing pages to an Excel worksheet (or Google Sheets if you can't stand Microsoft). Use your spreadsheet to indicate:

  • What content is out of date or no longer relevant? Update and republish your content, or unpublish and redirect it to more relevant content.
  • What content is repetitive, redundant, or about the same topic? Consider bundling these pieces together into a more comprehensive piece. Redirect URLs to the most successful organic piece of the group.
  • What blog content is getting little to no views? Try to evaluate why it may not be ranking. Is it the best format for the reader? Does it answer a question? Is it similar to other pieces? Have you not promoted enough it on social media? Just remember: it's okay to unpublish and redirect content that's not performing.
  • What content is performing best for organic search already? Yay! Use these pieces as a guide to what is already performing well, and use these successful elements in new content.
  • Are there any obvious gaps in your content themes? You may notice that you wrote multiple times about the same topic, but neglected something else relevant.

2. Determine what ‘topics’ you’d like to rank for.

Your business has a specialty. Whether it’s manufacturing vehicle parts, or providing financial consulting, you have something that people are searching for. Instead of thinking of individual search terms, ask yourself what the larger theme is.

This will be easier to determine after you’ve completed your content audit. What trends did you identify in your existing content? Did you write about various aspects of the same topic? Your ‘topics’ will be the foundation of creating a pillar content piece.

3. Head over to HubSpot’s content strategy tool.

Navigate to Content > Strategy in HubSpot to begin brainstorming your pillar content piece and related topic clusters. Enter your primary topic into the center. This will be your core ranking piece. Let’s use ‘dog grooming’ as an example:

dog grooming hubspot pillar content strategy

Based on your core topic, Hubspot will recommend content you have already published to associate with that piece. That makes your life much easier! Scroll through your content and add them as subtopics.

If you notice any gaps, schedule time to write subtopic pieces that will add value to the overall topic. 

dog grooming subtopics hubspot pillar content examples

Notice how each subtopic links to our center topic – dog grooming. This is the ideal architecture of your new content strategy. Now that you have all your subtopics assigned, it’s time to write a comprehensive pillar content piece.

4. Write a pillar content piece.

Using your subtopics as a guide, write a comprehensive and user-friendly pillar content piece. The goal of this piece is to provide visitors with a high-level but educational overview of your entire topic. Do not simply copy and paste your subtopic pieces together. Instead, think about how you can give users a snapshot 1-2 paragraph summary of each subtopic.

Remember, you are always writing for your audience. Your pilliar piece can include infographics, interactive content, overview videos, galleries, or FAQs. If your piece is exceptionally long, be creative with the layout. It may make sense to add an interactive table of contents so your visitors can easily navigate to the areas that are the most interesting to them. 

5. Link your subtopics in your pillar content piece.

Just as HubSpot’s Content Strategy tool outlines, you will want to make sure that all your subtopics are linked within the pillar content piece. Conversely, you should also internally link your published pillar content piece within your subtopics if it makes sense to do so. This architecture allows someone who is interested in learning about dog grooming to easily navigate among related topics, while deriving a comprehensive understanding from your pillar piece. The subtopic pieces enable them to drill into subtopics of particular interest.

6. Monitor and test results.

As always, it’s important to review results and make changes. As you start to adopt a new content strategy, dedicate some time to analyze your metrics. What is performing well? What isn’t? What has a high bounce rate? What contributes to the most conversions?

Many companies are also choosing to ungate their most successful content to better rank in Google. Sometimes, the form protecting your high-value content is your biggest enemy in rank. There are other ways to collect leads. It may be a better strategic decision to ungate your content and add a lead flow to capture qualified subscribers.

In Summary...

Sometimes less is more. If you’re spending hours every week creating new content for your blog, it’s probably best to reinvest that time. Focus on optimizing your existing content for intent and format before you add more content to the pot. HubSpot announced at INBOUND 2017 that they reduced their content output by almost 75%. Instead of posting four times a day, they now post once a day. Instead of writing content just to write it, they now focus on how their existing pieces work together.

Chances are only 20% of your published content is contributing to rank and conversions. It’s time to focus on what that content does well and how you can make it work better.

Free Download: 9 Things Your Website Is Doing to Drive Visitors Away

Kate Moore | Content Strategy & SEO Director
About the Author
Kate Moore, Content Strategy & SEO Director

Kate Moore is a Content Strategist by day, HubSpot expert by night. When she’s not getting distracted by her many fans (ahem – work emails and phone calls), she’s hunkered down, plugged into Spotify and writing about stuff that will make your work with HubSpot smooth and simple.