Keyword density for SEO: really?

keyword density for SEO- how what and why

Yes, you are right, it is keyword density we are discussing here. This is in the face of perennial discussions around “SEO is dead”, “Keywords are dead” and “Links are dead”.

But we are in 2015, not 1995 – do we need to worry about keywords now? Google released a hummingbird update a couple of years ago and this aimed to make the search result so much better for the user where keywords played a smaller role in the ranking of a website on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP).

What is keyword density in SEO?

Keyword Density analysis was used by early search engines to determine the topic of a web page. Essentially, it relied on the count of a term and the repetition of a keyword in the content of your web page. If you like a formula, here we go:

keyword density = keyword / total number of words per page * 100

For example, the current page has 2272 words and a keyword “keyword density for SEO” is mentioned 7 times, the keyword density is:

KD (A) = 7 / 2272 * 100 = 0.30809859154

So, is the keyword density of 0.3 good or bad? This is not a question according to Barry Adams, Katrina Gallagher, Alex Moss, Nick Garner, Sophie Iredale and Matt Cutts and a number of other practitioners:

“Keyword density is bollocks”

Keyword density is bollocks. It’s an antiquated leftover from the days when Google’s algorithms were simpler and incapable of processing human language effectively. Search engines have moved on dramatically since then, and SEOs should as well.

Barry Adams SEO Consultant, State of Digital Senior EditorGoogle is now very, very good at understanding concepts and how they relate to one another, which makes a total mockery of keyword density.

Really, stop worrying about how often you should cram your focus keyword into a page – instead, worry about writing high quality, in-depth content that talks about your chosen topic in a meaningful and engaging way.

Stop focusing pages on keywords, start structuring your website around topics and themes.

Instead of asking “what is the perfect keyword density to get this page to rank first?”, you should ask “how awesome can I make this content to get it to rank first?”.

Barry Adams – SEO consultant at Polemic Digital

“SEO statistics, check-lists and rules definitely help”

SEO statistics, check-lists and rules definitely help streamline your processes and reduce decision fatigue.

I always consider what people might search for to find certain content, but ‘keyword density’ is something that I don’t give much thought to.

Katrian Galagher SEOUsing the keyword density for SEO can be useful when you’re learning how to optimise blog posts. It forces you to do your research into what people search for and in what volumes; and what other people are writing about on the topic.  It’s like learning to parallel park – your driving instructor will pick a spot, tell you to move to a certain point, turn your wheel to a certain angle and it helps get you started.

Google is getting better and better at understanding content, structure, words and synonyms; even the pictures and video content that might embellish your work. The keywords that you use on a page still matter, but not a specific density or even the specific phrase that you want to rank for.

If you write robotic text, following a formula, then it’s unlikely that you will stand out to the humans that you want to fall in love with your content. Worse still, if you’re targeting a certain keyword density for all of your posts, the search engines may pick up on it and that’s not likely to have a happy ending.

Katrina Gallagher – Director at Digitangle

“Minimum keyword density does not prove relevance”

Alex Moss SEOSomeone who obsesses about keyword density for SEO is someone who is incorrectly setting priorities. Content should be natural, so this should correlate into content production.

To rank within search engines, your content has to be relevant, and minimum keyword density does not prove relevance.

Always think about the user first, then the search engine.

Alex Moss, Director at FireCask

“Does your page answer the question?”

People who obsess about keyword density, miss the whole point about what Google really cares about. There are far too many websites which have either no keywords or hardly any, yet rank for very competitive phrases.

Nick Garner 90 digitalThat question puzzled me for a long time and I realise that it’s engagement! Click through rate on search results is such a strong indicator for Google, if they think users want your web page, Google will do whatever it can to make some sense of it and rank that page.

So the idea that you should spend all your effort tweaking and fiddling with content to satisfy the old algorithm, is daft…

Here’s a concept… A key phrase is a question, does your page answer the question being asked? If it is you get more engagement than the next person. If that happens you have content that Google wants to be seen on its search results. And when you have content Google wants, Google will rank it no matter what.

If you doubt me, think about all of those PDFs, Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, sites which have nothing but a meta tag in them all ranking on pretty competitive phrases.

Of course, it’s not an excuse to ignore on-site content, but I suggest you just focus your efforts somewhere more productive than keyword density

Nick Garner, Founder & CEO – / Founder 90 Digital

“You cannot quantify creativity, so don’t try to count instances of keywords in your content”

It’s not that the concept of keyword density is right or wrong, it’s that it isn’t really relevant anymore.

Yes, it is still important that a page is in context and relevant to a given search query (so naturally you might mention a target term, or variations thereof) but to be able to place a calculation against a page’s keyword density is dangerous territory.

Sophie Iredale – Salford Business School – UKGoogle’s algorithm, from what we understand about it, has evolved far beyond the crude tactics of keyword density, keyword stuffing and everything else in between. Google got shrewd and a hell of a lot more perceptive.

Now, if a page’s content has a formulaic pattern to the way it presents keywords within content, this can have an adverse effect and leave your page open to being devalued by search engines.

If the content is resourceful, reads naturally and resonates with a user’s search intent then we’re thinking more like the Google algorithm of today.

How keywords are targeted on page is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle to getting a page ranking for a particular term. A page’s overall ability to rank for specific search terms is comprised of numerous other signals, such as its overall authority and popularity (through content marketing and promotion). This derives from content that is genuinely interesting and creative.

Creativity allows us to generate content that goes beyond traditional rules and patterns, incorporating multimedia rich elements that engage an audience and match user intent.

You cannot quantify creativity, so don’t try to count instances of keywords in your content.

Sophie Iredale – Salford Business School

What is a good keyword density?

For those who wanted to rank well for a particular keyword, the technique involved positioning the keyword inside the text as often as possible to convey a signal to the search engine that this page has a lot of content for a particular keyword.

Matt Cutts – The head of Google anti SPAM team also contributed to the conversation:

Key advice from Barry, Katrina, Alex, Nick, Sophie and Matt is:

  1. Write copy that is long enough
  2. Read the copy aloud and see if it makes sense to a human and is not artificial – make sure that the copy is read by someone else who is not aware of the keyword you are targeting
  3. Include the words that you target in your copy

Keyword density is still being searched over 6,500 times per month. If you are one of these individuals interested in understanding what keyword density is and how many keywords you should be using on your page – this post is for you!

keyword density google adwords

Screenshot of Google AdWords in July 2015.

What is a “keyword”?

OK, before we dive into what keyword density is – what is a keyword?

A better term to refer to a keyword is a “search phrase” that is input by search engine users when they need information about a particular subject. A keyword could be a single word or a collection of words. However, for a meaningful keyword that helps a search engine as well as a marketer to understand the intention and what searchers are looking for – it is a good practice to use a keyword that comprises of at least two words and ideally more than three.

This is because we have to always balance the “short tail” vs “long tail”.

Longer search term = more specific search intention = more likely to satisfy their needs

On the other hand:

Short term = early stage of research = not sure what they are looking for

For example, if you are looking to enrol on a course in digital marketing and you are based in Salford and want something local to you, you might start with the search term “Salford”. The search result will show you a number of results that use the term “Salford” in their text or have links referring to them as Salford in the clickable text or “anchor text”.

Realising that this term is not useful, a user would either scroll down all the search results – most likely only for the first three pages. Most users would adjust their search term or the “keyword” to a more specific term such as “Salford university business school”

Short tail vs long tail keyword

So, why do we spend time thinking about Short Tail vs Long Tail when this post is about keyword density? You want to know how many times you have to mention your keyword – right? Well, the answer is that the length of your focus keyword determines the calculation for the keyword density. Ultimately, if you are counting a single word keyword it is more likely to be mentioned more often compared to a four or five word long keyword phrase.

What is good keyword research?

Marketing is about understanding your audience and delivering what they want. For a digital marketer, Keyword Research is one of the key methods for understanding what digital audiences are looking for. This research can be used by analysing qualitative data (questions, comments and feedback captured on social media), comments from customer questions and queries that are received by your organisation, focus groups and competitor analysis; there are also tools. An example of a tool that allows us to monitor conversations on Twitter is Topsy. Here is a screenshot of a “keyword density” term. We can see that in the past 30 days alone 361 tweets mentioned this topic and one of the top ranked tweets has been shared over 3.3000 by Terence Bringley:

Terence Bringley on keyword density

The ultimate result of keyword research is the development of themes for your “average visitor” or “buyer persona” and the integration of this into your digital profiles themes. This map could show where the themes fit within your own websites and social media profiles. Tools such as Answer the Public help digital marketers to understand and predict questions which might be asked by your target audiences and help you to narrow down the keyword you might want to target: The screenshot illustrates questions asked in the UK by Answer the Public:


keyword density for SEO

What is a good keyword density for SEO?

Right, so we have established that before your start calculating the keyword density, some homework has to be done on

  1. A keyword that is specific – more than one or two words and is used by the target audience you are aiming at
  2. A text copy that is detailed and useful to your audience that for example, goes beyond 600 words
  3. A document that has a good term frequency (TF) and inverse document frequency (thanks to Andrew Åkesson for the suggestion)

Now the ultimate number – Matt Cutts said that there is no number! But, if you are new to SEO not having any guidance is unhelpful: how do you know you are doing the right thing?

Tools such as Yoast SEO offer some guidance on basic optimisation and checks the presence of the keyword in the page. When you keyword stuff a page and run it on Yoast SEO plugin analysis for your wordpress site, you will see something like this:

Yoast SEO plugin

OK, so Yoast SEO suggests that it should be below 4.5%

There are other studies that suggest a lower keyword density of between 1 to 3% would be appropriate.

Whilst Matt Cutts and others agree that repeating your keyword on a page without reason is not helpful another point that they agree on is that the keyword has to be present on the page in strategic places:

  •      Page Title
  •      Page URL
  •      Page Description
  •      Images
  •      First paragraph
  •      Headings in your text

Therefore, it is important to bear in mind that keyword density above 4.5% can suggest that an article is SPAM (although the reverse is not true) – the advice here is to keep to the lower suggestion of below 1% if you need a guide and remember that keyword density can only be used as an indicator of SPAM but not as an indicator of goodness.

This blog post relies on Google as the main search engine for discussion of keyword density for SEO purposes. Other search engines might have different attitude to this issue of keyword density but the principles of positioning the keywords in strategic places instead of counting them applies to most of them.

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