Do SEO Keywords Need to Be Exact?

Perfect keyword matching was the holy grail of SEO content writing for years. But is this still necessary in the age of semantic search?

Recent algorithm updates aim to comprehend meaning and intent rather than merely tallying keyword frequency. So, while precise long-tail matches have their benefits, overall readability takes priority.

When do SEO keywords need to be exact, and when can you enjoy some leeway? Read on to find out!

Table of Contents

Semantic Search and the Evolution of Keyword Matching

In the early days of SEO, keyword stuffing was commonplace. Writers would cram irrelevant keywords into content simply to game search algorithms.

The way I see it, this tactic is now obsolete.

You’re better off understanding how semantic search works and how it fits into the recent Google updates.

Let’s take a closer look.

Hummingbird: A Breakthrough

With the 2013 Hummingbird update, Google introduced natural language processing (NLP). The goal was to connect searches with pages based on contextual meaning, not exact keywords.

All in all, Hummingbird laid the foundation for semantic search.

A man checking financial spreadsheet report

RankBrain: Building Off Hummingbird

A few years after the Hummingbird update, Google unveiled RankBrain as a machine learning system update.

Like Hummingbird, RankBrain aims to interpret user intent. Its key innovation is continuously learning from top-performing results to identify meaningful patterns between entities.

So, we started seeing a rise in comprehensive content focused on full topics over pages targeting one keyword form. Think plural vs. singular variations.

The result? Your content could rank even if it doesn’t include the user’s exact search query in the search bar.

BERT: A Leap Forward

There are a lot of nuances in our natural language. Take, for instance, the different meanings that a polysemous word like “bank” could signal.

That’s one of the aspects that BERT tackles. The algorithm looks at the whole context (in a bidirectional manner) to see what this keyword actually means in the specific article.

Without digging too deep into the update itself, we can say that BERT pushed SEO writers to create clear, user-focused content optimised for the reader.

3 Reasons Why Incorporating Exact-Match Keywords Is Tricky

Perfectly matching target keywords might seem like a logical tactic for attracting the target audience. Yet, it’s not always easy.

I sometimes find myself tweaking keywords slightly to make them fit into my articles.

Here’s why.

1. You Need to Work Around Misspellings

Misspellings run rampant online, and search queries are no exception.

In 2021, it was estimated that one in ten queries contain misspellings. Some are typos, while others are well-intentioned guesses at spelling unfamiliar words.

Either way, we often end up dealing with search terms that are a jumbled mess. In the past, many content creators would have tightly copied that mess, but that’s not the way to go now.

Today, natural language takes centre stage.

Thankfully, search engines are getting pretty good at deciphering the misspellings and directing the reader to the proper pages that match their intent.

2. Keyword Stuffing Can Lower Rankings

Back in the day, cramming in keywords ran unchecked. But Google updates like Florida and Panda cracked down on spam tactics.

Now, Google penalises pages that stuff keywords. So, rigid matches might sink you instead of giving you a boost with organic searches.

3. Readability Matters (And So Does Your Writing Experience)

Even if rankings weren’t a concern, readability goes out the window when keywords (that may or may not be grammatically correct) are forced into the text.

Remember that stop words in queries are often neglected in queries, which makes for awkward phrasings.

Plus, let’s just admit it: writing content becomes a heavy chore when you have to warp language to match keywords exactly.

Personally, I’d rather focus on drafting a blog post with natural, comprehensible content.

Using a Keyword Variation: How Does It Work?

Okay. So, using exact matches throughout the article isn’t always a good idea. But what’s the alternative?

Well, variations and close matches can do the trick.

Remember that Google Ads allows three main keyword match types for fine-tuned targeting: broad, phrase, and exact.

That means that you could try the following tactics, and the search engine would likely consider the result a “close variant” of the main keyword:

  • Using plural/singular versions, abbreviations, stems, synonyms, and paraphrasing
  • Reordering words while retaining meaning
  • Adding/removing function words to make the keyword less awkward
  • Removing implied words from the phrase
  • Identifying related phrases and questions (great for voice search optimisation!) with the same search intent

How do you find these variations? Keyword research tools like LowFruits can help you uncover relevant related terms.

I did a full review before. Check it out if you want to learn more about using LowFruits. You can also give tools like Frase and Market Muse a shot.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that search engines will see these variations as semantically linked. But logical efforts will likely resonate with the algorithms since they were designed to understand natural human language.

Frase website

When to Use Exact Keyword Matches

While you don’t have to include the main keywords everywhere, they are handy sometimes.

For example, exact matches in URLs, headers, titles, or image alt text could help Google quickly grasp page topics. Long-tail keyword matches can improve ranking for specific queries, too.

Additionally, you need to match acronyms in some cases to clarify meaning. That’s particularly true if an acronym has multiple definitions.

The key is balance. You want to avoid awkward over-optimisation while benefiting from precise keywords in select technical areas.


By balancing keyword variations, conversational tones, and strategic exact-match placements, modern SEO content can resonate with search engine algorithms and target audiences alike.

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Phillip Stemann
I'm Phillip, and I've been in the SEO game since 2020, where I took it under the skin. I've grown multiple websites to thousands of clicks, and I'm sharing all my SEO knowledge through my content and YouTube channel. I started as a curious mind at 13 years old, programming and programming for many years before I discovered SEO. I then started with the technical part of SEO as it came naturally to me with my technical background, and then I took on all parts of SEO. I love helping other people grow their websites, and I help my clients do the same.

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Do SEO Keywords Need to Be Exact?

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