Does keyword density still matter?
Yes, Keyword densities still matter. You hear far less about it today in SEO circles, but keyword density remains an essential part of good SEO. The fact is that other as SEOs have begun to disregard it simply creates an opportunity for those who are willing to put in the work to write well optimized content.
What is keyword density?
When the Internet was young and search engines were in their infancy, SEO was often easy. One could simply cram a bunch of keywords onto a page, and that page stood a reasonable chance of ranking. It didn’t take long for the search engine to identify keyword stuffing as a spammy manipulation of search results, and begin working against it. One of the primary tools the search engines employed in this fight against keyword stuffing was a content density algorithm. Not so terribly long ago, if one wrote decent pieces of content with keyword densities of about 2%, they stood a fair chance of being somewhere in the first several pages of the rankings for all but the most competitive keywords. Now, an SEO specialist could spend countless hours creating well-written and lengthy articles with keyword densities of 2%, and at the end of the day have nothing to show for it. This has given rise to the myth that keyword density no longer matters, and that is exactly what it is – A myth.
How did this myth arise?
The short answer is that Google changed their algorithm.
The longer answer is much more complicated. First of all, the importance of keyword densities has decreased. It stands to reason that as Google incorporates more on page elements into its ranking algorithms, the significance of earlier on-page factors would shrink. That is exactly what happened here. Second, as Google’s algorithms became more sophisticated, they moved away from the notion that a certain keyword density would be the ideal density for any and all keywords. Let’s consider “telescopes” for example. Looking at the search results, it seems as though Google has a different ideal density for the phrase “the history of telescopes,” then they do for the phrase “buy a telescope.” Why is this? Google is attempting to understand user intent. In the first example, a user may be doing research for a paper, or to gain a better understanding on a particular topic. As such, Google might apply what we would consider “normal” standards regarding keyword density. In the second example, Google understands that the intent of the user is to purchase one or more telescopes from a selection of telescopes. The user wants to see products on a product category page without as much other text as they would want if they are researching a paper. As such, Google allows for much higher keyword densities for “buy a telescope” without regarding the results as keyword stuffing. In this example, it is not that density is irrelevant, but rather that there is no universally “correct” density. Google prefers different optimal keyword densities for difference understandings of user intent. Finally, there is the fact that Google has a better understanding of the English language and associates words with one another. Much has been made of this since the very first Hummingbird Update, and it is extremely important. Take for example, one of our favorite keywords, “private label.” It is not enough to simply get the density right on the phrase “private label.” Google understands that in a natural, not overly optimized, piece of content other variations of this word will appear. For instance, Google would expect to see, at the bare minimum, “private labels” and “private labeling.” That is the bare minimum. Google’s understanding is actually far deeper than this. For instance, in our earlier example, Google would expect any content about the history of telescopes to prominently include the name Galileo, and any content about buying telescopes to include prices. It is no longer enough to get the keyword density correct as SEOs must also get the associated words correct as well.
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The two most common mistakes I see
Over the years I have had the privilege to work with some fantastic SEO writers, and also the curse of having to turn away dozens of poor SEO writers. There are a number of very common mistakes that I have identified, but two important ones revolve around density.
Not understanding the math: Writers are often confused by the fact that the length of the keyword phrase has a profound effect on how many times it should appear in the content. Let’s take a simple example where a writer is trying to create a 1000-word article with a keyword density of 1%. New writers often believe that since 1% of 1000 equals 10, they should include the keyword 10 times. This is true if the keyword consists of a single word, such as “telescopes.” However, it is completely false if the keyword is longer. For instance, if the keyword phrase is “private label” the phrase should be included five times to achieve a density of 1%. If the keyword phrase is “top private label SEO provider,” the phrase need only be included twice in order to achieve a density of 1%. Please note that you should NOT count stop words like “the,” “a,” and “an,” to name just a few.
Not accounting for other keyword phrases: Other common problem I find when analyzing density is that the writer fails to account for other phrases that they use frequently. For example, we may create a piece of content built around the phrase “private label services,” in which we use that phrase four times in order to achieve the density that we want. However, if we used the phrase “Google algorithm updates” five times, that would gain greater emphasis with the search engines. This is true even if the density was too high and appeared spammy to Google. This would displace the keyword phrase “private label services” on the page, and dilute the effectiveness of the rest of our writing. If it is overly dense, the page would even begin to look spammy to Google and have a hard time ranking for anything. I consider this to be a crucial element in evaluating the quality of content. You do not have to look hard to find websites that accidentally rank for a whole host of keywords. In and of itself that is nothing tragic, but so many of the pages that people have spent lots of time and energy creating are actually not ranking as well as they should because they actually have too much density on the wrong words they mistakenly believed to be optimized. It is not that your page cannot rank for a whole host of keywords, but you can dilute what you are trying to do with the wrong words appearing too often.
So, what do you do about keyword densities?
I suggest a multi-faceted approach, including the following:
- Densities matter, so make sure you are factoring it into your content creation.
- Do not build your content around a single keyword. Rather build and optimize your content around a cluster of related keywords. Make sure to include plurals, and/or other verb tenses of the keywords you are focusing on. Make sure to include keywords that are embedded within your keyword phrase. For instance, if I am optimizing for “best private label PPC services,” I am also making sure to optimize for “best private label” and “PPC services.” I am including singular and plural versions as well, such as “best private labels” and “PPC service.” Before you know it, you have a small cadre of keywords for which to optimize.
- I begin my approach with the default expectation that I want a keyword density of just over 1% for each version of the keyword we are writing for. I will often check the top five organic listings, and see if the keyword densities there are significantly higher. If so, I optimize to a higher density in my article or blog as well.
- I make sure that the cluster of keywords I am writing for are well distributed across the page. They should be in the first and last paragraph, and spaced out reasonably well throughout the article or blog. This indicates to Google that it is not just a section of the page that is tied to these keywords, but the page as a whole revolves around them.
- The keyword is well represented in the important tags on the site, such as the title tag, H1, H2, and alt tags. I avoid spammy keyword stuffing by using different versions of the word in different places.
- Longer is better. There is a very strong correlation between longer content ranking higher than shorter content for the same keywords. The algorithms change all the time, and are not universal across all topics, industries, geographies, etc. That complicates matters. Article length is only one of scores of factors. Shorter content still wins top spots all the time, but the principle that longer content is better remains true.
- I double check the density of everything on the page to make sure we are not accidentally optimizing for phrases we do not intend to capture. In the event that we discover a problem like this, we use synonyms to reduce the keyword density as appropriate.
Want an example? You can probably guess the singular and plural versions of the base keywords this page is written around. Do a quick search for them, look at their keyword densities, and see how they are distributed throughout the page. If you adopt these seven principles regarding keyword density, you will have a lot more success with your SEO. Happy writing.