Using multiple focus keywords and how to rank for synonyms

Should each web page have one focus keyword or are multiple focus keywords allowed? Do keywords even matter anymore? Does using multiple keywords count as keyword stuffing? I’m asked these questions about keywords, and more, on an almost daily basis.

Thankfully for the reader, Google is likely to penalise hard-to-read, keyword stuffed web pages and doesn’t even use the keyword tag as a ranking signal anymore. However, keywords do still matter because they tell Google – and your potential customers – what each web page is about at a glance.

Recent advice has been to choose a single focus keyword that best reflects your topic when creating a new web page. But the SEO landscape is shifting once again. Back in December 2015, Yoast introduced a ‘multiple keyword’ feature to version 3.0 of the Yoast SEO Premium plugin for WordPress. This reflects a growing emphasis on using a small number of carefully selected key phrases and/or synonyms alongside the primary focus keyword within each new web page or post.

Not sure what a synonym is?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a synonym as “A word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase in the same language, for example shut is a synonym of close”.

using multiple focus keywords

Why you might want to use multiple focus keywords or synonyms

If there are two keywords/phrases or synonyms that are closely related and share the same search intent, it might be better to incorporate them into one article than to create several articles around what is, essentially, the same topic.

Having lots of pages covering the same topic can be expensive, time-consuming and unnecessarily bloat your website, as well as increasing the risk of featuring duplicate content and putting your pages in direct competition with one another for the same traffic.

By using multiple focus keywords or synonyms, you can reflect the variety of language that people might use to look for the same thing and, in doing so, bring more traffic to the page of your website that’s most relevant to the searcher.

Things to consider when using multiple focus keywords

If you do decide to add multiple focus keywords to a page or article, it’s important to do your research about the most appropriate phrases.

We would recommend that you still choose a primary keyword – i.e. the keyword or phrase that it’s most important to rank well for – and then identify other words that would share the same search intent as the primary keyword. We’ve given some examples of how to do this further down the page.

Using long-tail keywords

In particular, you might want to use long-tail keywords to attract web users who are likely to be highly engaged with your content.

Here’s an example. Imagine you are a clothing retailer and you have a new line of black dresses to sell. Google Keyword Planner shows that ‘black dress’ attracts between 10-100 million searches per month but competition for this generic keyword is high and it would be hard to rank well for this phrase.

Long-tail keywords can help you tap into an audience of searchers who are all looking for a black dress too but have a clearer idea about the type of black dress they want.

Phrases such as ‘perfect little black dress for petites’, ‘lbd little black dress’, ‘simple black dress’, ‘black sundress outfit’ and ‘low cut black dress with sleeves’ all share the same broad search intent – i.e. the searcher wants to buy a black dress – but they have low competition because they include extra detail to narrow down the search to the most relevant results.

The search volumes might be lower too but the people you do bring to your site via long-tail keywords like these are more likely to convert to customers because they know exactly what they’re looking for.

A note about Latent semantic indexing (LSI) keywords

Back in 2010, Google introduced latent semantic indexing (LSI). Search Engine Journal defines LSI as “a mathematical method used to determine the relationship between terms and concepts in content”. In other words, LSI enables the search engine to look for synonyms that are related to the title of a web page.

If Google finds synonyms for your focus keyword within your copy, LSI will help it to recognise the relevance of the synonyms and it should, consequently, help to rank your page higher for your focus keywords.

Here’s an example of synonyms in action – imagine we run a search in Google for ‘royalty free pictures’. Here is a screenshot of the first page results:

synonyms in action

Because of LSI, Google understands that when we talk about ‘royalty free pictures’, we could also mean ‘stock pictures’, ‘pictures’, ‘photos’ and ‘images’. All of these synonyms rank highly and/or appear in bold within the search results and are treated as a direct keyword match because they mean the same thing.

For this reason, it’s advisable to include synonyms within your content as well as your chosen focus keywords. In our experience, if you write an article with a specific topic in mind, synonyms will usually appear naturally within the copy.

Above all, it’s important to recognise that synonyms can help to add variety to your copy, create context for the reader and Google, and even positively affect your rankings.

How to optimise a web page for multiple keywords

Having considered the role of multiple focus keywords and synonyms, the obvious question is, how do you optimise a web page for multiple keywords without diluting the impact of your primary keyword? We recommend the following steps:

  • Step one – Identifying potential keywords and synonyms using Google Keyword Planner

The Google Keyword Planner is a free tool available through Google AdWords; you can set up a Google AdWords account for free without being required to run an AdWords campaign. Once your account is set up, you simply need to click on Tools>Keyword Planner in the main menu, then choose the option to ‘Search for new keywords using a phrase, website or category’. Here, you would enter your main primary keyboard or search intent.

We’ve created an example below. Here, a fictitious company that offers self-catering holidays in Devon wants to write a blog to attract people who are searching for a ‘Devon holiday’. ‘Devon holiday’ itself attracts between 100,000 and one million searches per month but competition for the phrase is high.

The aim, when using multiple focus keywords, is to find lower competition long-tail phrases that are likely to be highly relevant to the searcher. We can find ideas by clicking on the ‘Keyword’ ideas tab (see the picture below) and sorting the results by low to high competition – click on the ‘Competition’ column header twice to sort the data by this category.

Identifying potential keywords and synonyms using Google Keyword Planner

When optimising for multiple keywords and long-tail phrases, it’s worth remembering that Google doesn’t particularly care about word order – ‘holiday devon’ and ‘devon holiday’ will be viewed as interchangeable by the search engine.

On page one of the results alone, there’s a long-tail keyword – ‘holidays in North Devon self catering’ – that is relevant to the company offering the holidays and their target customers. We can also fairly safely assume that people using search terms such as ‘Devon holiday cottages with indoor pool’, ‘self catering in Devon with swimming pool’, ‘visit Devon’ or ‘Devon resorts’ may be planning a holiday to the region too.

All of these search terms have low competition and attract between 100 and 1,000 searches per month. Therefore, our fictitious holiday home company might decide to optimise a single blog post for some or all of these terms.

  • Step two – Writing a compelling title

The main heading on a web page should have an H1 tag that tells search engines that this is your main title and the topic of the page.

When you’re optimising for multiple keywords or synonyms, you may be tempted to create an article title that uses as many keywords as possible, but this may make the title repetitive, clumsy and hard to read.

More often than not, it may be a wiser approach to stick to using your primary focus keyword in the H1 tag for an article.

That being said, there are creative ways to incorporate several keywords in a main page heading. If we go back to our ‘Devon holiday’ example and the potential long-tail phrases we identified above, we could write an article titled, “Planning your perfect Devon holiday: Self-catering, with a swimming pool or a Devon resort?”

This title uses the primary focus keyword but also some variations of the long-tail phrases we would want to target too.

It also gives us a topic for the blog, enabling the fictitious holiday home company to explore people’s different options for holidaying in Devon and promoting their own range of properties, including those with indoor pools.

  • Step three – Use the heading tags

Once you’ve identified your multiple keywords and the overarching topic of an article, it can be helpful to treat your keyword list as a series of subheadings – each with H2 tags – that provide an outline for your content.

Here’s a rough plan for the ‘Devon holiday’ article:

Title (H1 tag): Planning your perfect Devon holiday: Self-catering, with a swimming pool or a Devon resort?

Introductory paragraph

Sub-heading (H2 tag): Holidays in North Devon self-catering

Overview of self-catering holidays in North Devon and South Devon and how they make a brilliant base to visit Devon and come and go at your own leisure.

Sub-heading (H2 tag): Devon resorts

Short paragraph about Devon having some wonderful resorts from which to explore the area. Some are self-catering, some inclusive, but they can be busy throughout the year and may not offer that ‘home away from home’ feeling.

Sub-heading (H2 tag): Finding your ideal Devon holiday cottage

Paragraph about things to look out for, choosing where you want to stay, bedrooms, facilities, local amenities, etc.

Sub-heading (H2 tag): The best of both worlds: Self-catering in Devon with a swimming pool

Section about how luxury touches such as an indoor swimming pool or hot tub can give you that resort feeling but the freedom and privacy of a cottage.

Using this approach, we have a clear outline for the article and sub-headings that include all of our chosen keywords, as well as maintaining the overarching topic of ‘Devon holiday’, which reflects the search intent of pretty much anyone who reads this article.

  • Step four – Write a compelling and keyword-rich meta description

As you may be aware, the meta description is the short snippet of text – up to 160 characters – that summarises what a web page is about. It appears in search results underneath the clickable title and page URL. Here’s the SEO+ main blog title and meta description as an example:

Write a compelling and keyword-rich meta description

The role of the meta description is to accurately reflect what the page is about and entice people to click through to it. In other words, the best meta descriptions act as a call to action. They are also the ideal place to incorporate your multiple keywords.

Sticking with our ‘Devon holiday’ blog, the meta description might read:

Need help planning your perfect Devon holiday? Find out how to choose an ideal self-catering holiday cottage for all the luxuries of a Devon resort without the crowds.

Here, we’ve managed to incorporate a number of the focus keywords in a way that reads naturally and is relevant to anyone planning a holiday to Devon.

Search intent is everything

As we have seen above, when it comes to using multiple focus keywords or ranking for synonyms, the search intent of the reader should be your primary concern. Every web user is on a journey and our role as content creators is to bring them to the best, most relevant destination.

When using multiple keywords or synonyms, the question is whether people using those search terms would all expect to arrive in the same place. Have they all just taken different routes to get there because of the words they’ve used to search? If so, optimising your content for several keyword or synonyms can enhance the web user’s experience.

If, on the other hand, you feel that seemingly closely connected search terms actually demand different content, then it would be better to stick with a single focus keyword for those pages.

Here’s an example of how different approaches might work for different businesses. A cosmetic dentist that offers a range of treatments to improve the appearance for teeth might optimise a single web page for ‘teeth straightening’ and keywords/synonyms such as ‘braces’, ‘orthodontics’, ‘fast teeth straightening’ or ‘clear aligners’ because they are all things that people might search for to straighten their smile.

However, an orthodontist who specialises solely in teeth straightening might decide to have separate web pages for terms such as ‘braces’ and ‘aligners’ because – in seeking an orthodontist rather than a cosmetic dentist – their potential patients are likely to understand that the two teeth straightening methods are completely different.

As with most aspects of SEO today, your strategy around multiple focus keywords and synonyms will depend on what is best for your target audience. Remember to keep an eye on your Google Analytics and Google Search Console data so that you can refine and adjust your keyword strategy.

Do you use multiple focus keywords? Do you feel confident about synonyms in your content? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the Comments below.

If you’ve found this article helpful, can I ask you to use the social buttons below to spread the word? It only takes a second but it means a lot. Thank you!

9 thoughts on “Using multiple focus keywords and how to rank for synonyms”

  1. Nice post Hazel.
    I agree with your point that search intent is everything.
    If you clearly fulfill the search intent of searcher, you can even rank high over authoritative domains.
    Its that powerful.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts

    • Thanks for your comment Vijay. Great that you understand the power of optimising for search intent.

  2. Hi from Romania. Follow you on twitter.
    This post is the cherry on the cake.
    Nice post :*

  3. I have noticed you don’t monetize your site, don’t waste your traffic,
    you can earn additional cash every month because you’ve got high
    quality content. If you want to know how to make extra bucks, search for: Boorfe’s tips
    best adsense alternative

  4. Hi Hazel, thank you for your clear and usefull post. Maybe the new extension of The SEO Framework, called Focus Keywords might be nice to look into, because it is almost completely in line with your vision. Kind regards, Nico

  5. Thank you from Vancouver Island BC, Canada. Makes so much sense and is exactly what I was looking for about using multiple keywords on one page.


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.