The Keyword Density Myth: What Google Actually Cares About
- There is no such thing as an “ideal” keyword density.
- Google still cares about keywords, but it cares more about user experience.
- Instead of “keyword stuffing” or shooting for an arbitrary keyword density, write with user intent in mind.
Many SEO gurus promise a silver bullet to drive your website to the top of search engine results. But Google and Bing’s algorithms are complicated and nuanced, taking into account a large number of factors when determining site rankings.
And there’s perhaps no more misleading factor than the notion of keyword density.
In spite of all the information available about search engine ranking criteria, the keyword density myth persists as a popular misconception about search engine optimization.
Below, we’ll take a look at what it is and whether it holds any relevance today. We’ll also explain how keyword density relates to keyword stuffing, and why the latter won’t help you achieve a better ranking for your website.
What is keyword density?
Keyword density describes the frequency of a keyword phrase within the text of a particular web page, generally represented as a percentage. You can calculate this figure by dividing the number of times a keyword phrase appears by the total word count on the page.
For instance, if the phrase “New York pizza” appears six times in a 600-word blog post, its keyword density is 1%.
Is there an ideal keyword density?
Generally speaking, SEO experts prescribe aiming for a specific keyword density—generally between 1% and 3%—for optimal search performance.
However, before you begin calculating your content’s keyword density for its various target phrases, know this:
There is no such thing as an “ideal” keyword density.
In fact, in 2011, Matt Cutts from Google said: “If you think that you can just say, ‘I’m going to have 14.5% keyword density, or 7%, or 77%, and that will mean I’ll rank number one,’ that’s really not the case. That’s not the way search engine rankings work.”
Instead, Cutts recommends keeping your target keywords in mind while writing a piece of content—but writing it in such a way that its wording does not come across as stilted or unnatural.
An artificially high keyword density can result in unnatural, hard-to-read copy and negative user experience. And as Cutts says, shoehorning your desired keywords into every possible sentence won’t help your page rank any higher on Google. This practice, better known as keyword stuffing, is a form of black hat SEO that is frowned upon by search engines.
Does Google still care about keywords?
In short, yes—keywords still matter because they help demonstrate the relevance of a page to a particular search term.
However, keywords may not be as important as other metrics, specifically those that gauge user behavior.
In fact, according to a 2017 study by SEMrush, the exact placement of keywords did not appear as significant as visits, time on site, or pages per session in determining a site’s rankings.
(Image credit: SEMrush)
That said, you shouldn’t throw keywords out of your optimization plan altogether. Keywords matter because they are precisely what users search for—and including them in your content can signal to Google your site’s relevance in answering user queries.
Of course, this doesn’t mean mindlessly repeating the same phrase over and over again throughout your web pages. Instead, aim to create user-centered content—that is, content that aligns with search intent and offers a pleasant reading experience.
It won’t hurt to naturally incorporate your primary and secondary keywords in your content’s body text, title tag, meta description, and URL, but know that this alone won’t guarantee greater search visibility.
Effective SEO Techniques
As research shows, keywords are not the be-all and end-all to achieving a high search engine ranking. Rather, creating a positive user experience is key to successful SEO.
To do this, focus on the following strategies.
- Create content that aligns with user intent. Rather than simply pitching your product or service, remember to answer your users’ search queries. What is it that readers are looking for? A mismatch in intent can translate into lower user engagement and negatively impact your content’s search performance.
- Optimize your content for mobile devices. Invest in making your site responsive—or, in other words, making your content adaptive to users’ screen size and platform. You can also improve user experience for touch-screen devices by avoiding small buttons that are hard to click on, and opting for HTML5 instead of Flash, as not all phones can use the latter.
- Format your content for better readability. Aim for shorter paragraphs instead of walls of text, and use bolding and italics to emphasize key points. Additionally, pay attention to your web design—for example, choose easy-to-read fonts and colors that won’t strain your readers’ eyes.
- Avoid writing misleading headlines and clickbait titles. Using misleading copywriting techniques may result in a higher click-through rate, but these can also translate into poorer user engagement. Why? Users will feel deceived and promptly bounce from your site.
The bottom line: Write for the user, not keyword density, and your search engine rankings will likely improve.
Go Forth and Optimize
Keyword stuffing is outdated—and so is the notion of an optimal keyword density.
Simply put, when it comes to making content SEO-friendly, user experience is of utmost importance.
While it doesn’t hurt to include relevant keywords in your content and on-page elements, you should ultimately focus on creating a helpful and engaging user experience. Your search engine rankings and your users will thank you.