keyword density

Is Keyword Density Essentially Dead?

For many years, “keyword density” was the holy grail of SEO content.

There have been dozens, if not hundreds of theories on what the optimal keyword density is, from formulas produced to strict guidelines on how writers should be using it in SEO content daily.

No one knows better than me. I came from the old Google days (pre-2012) when online writers were sometimes treated as the minions of SEO black hats. It was rough: we had to stuff in those keywords like nobody’s business, no matter how much they read awkwardly.

According to many industry experts, however, keyword density has now completely died today.

Is that true? Let’s chat about it.

is keyword density dead

What Really is Keyword Density?

Keyword density is the measurement that indicates how many times a keyword appears in a piece of content (i.e. blog, web page) versus the total number of words in the piece. Keywords were counted within content, headings, meta descriptions, image names and alt tags to provide what many experts believed for many years was a better user experience.

Keyword density was calculated by the number of times a specific keyword was included in content, divided by the total number of words in an analyzed text, x one hundred. For example: 10 keywords in 500 words = 2% keyword density.

Here’s an official chart showing the formula:

Photo courtesy sycosure.com

Photo courtesy sycosure.com

This formula, while it may seem meaningless today, was very popular in and around 2011 and was widely believed to be the “right” way to do SEO content.

As I mentioned earlier, I remember the days of stuffing my SEO content with keywords and counting said density, and it was rough. Marketers in 2011 thought creating 50 articles on this exact keyword “payday loan Atlanta Georgia” was a good idea, and those keywords stuffed in made the content like the most overstuffed Thanksgiving turkey you ever saw.

Now as you and any good content marketer knows, today’s content is more about people than keywords. 

And that’s the real reason we don’t count our keywords any more.

Let’s explore further why keyword density is officially dead.

The Keyword Density Booby Trap

According to Moz, companies that focus too much on attaining a certain keyword density often run the risk of ruining content, slaughtering credibility, annoying readers, and earning themselves all too many “back” clicks. Strong words, right?

Unfortunately, Moz is right. It stands to reason that keyword density may be one of the great SEO myths of our day. While keyword density is meant to create a more readable document, more often than not it simply destroys the legibility and readability of content, creating low conversion rates and poor user experience.

Why, then, have we been taught that keyword density is the end-all-be-all of SEO and high-quality content? For one, many people were taught to believe that keyword density is how search engines determine the relevance of a given page.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. According to Moz, if search engines focused solely on keyword density to rank pages, all content creators would need to do is repeat the keyword phrase of choice over and over again in order to rank well in Google. And, trust us, Google is not that stupid.

In fact, it’s likely that Google evolved beyond that in the late 90’s. That said, it’s unwise to use density as a reliable metric in today’s search climate. Most reputable keyword tools have already kicked it to the curb. In order to rank pages, Google does take keywords into account but the actual density doesn’t matter nearly as much as we’ve always believed it does.

The Pitfalls of Keyword Density

When you really think about it, keyword density is a fluid term. To have a certain number of keywords in a piece of content is one thing, but to attain the correct relative position and dispersion of keywords throughout the document is entirely another.

The traditional measure of keyword density fails to take into account things like how many documents are relevant for a given keyword or how the piece of content targeting the keyword uses things like internal linking, webpage structure, user experience (including how long users interact with a page and what the page’s bounce rate is), domain age, and back links.

Yes: Keyword Density is Now Confirmed as a Useless Metric

Because of this, keyword density is essentially a useless metric which many industry leaders believe is a complete waste of time. According to Moz, “people who chase some mystical on-page keyword density are probably doing more harm than good.”

The Rise of Semantic Search

In 2013, Google released the Hummingbird update.

This update allowed Google to process search results based on semantic search, which evaluates results based on their ability to match user intent, rather than ranking them by keyword density and other Boolean measurements.

hummingbird

As soon as Hummingbird came out, marketers began to re-evaluate their relationships with keyword density. Specifically, many marketers began wondering if keyword density mattered as much as they had always thought it did. Overwhelmingly, the answer was “no.”

Before semantic search, Google used metrics like keywords and linking architecture to determine which pages were the best match to a reader’s intent and query. Once the search engine had evaluated these things, it returned rank-ordered results that were based largely upon how well the page’s keywords matched to the number of links within the site as a whole. More keywords, more positive evaluation, generally.

This led to the rise of keyword density and to many marketers beginning to see keyword density as one of the best ways to rank well in Google. This, in turn, led not only to a craze with keyword density but also to black-hat SEO tactics like keyword stuffing and predatory linking strategies.

Semantic Search De-Values the Keyword “Overstuffing” Density

Fortunately, the introduction of Hummingbird altered the playing field in a big way. One of the main things Hummingbird did was use semantic search principals to make keyword stuffing and misleading linking strategies too difficult and expensive to pursue.

Because Hummingbird evaluates content based on its relevance and value to a reader, it actually looks at contextual relevancy (the words around your keywords) more than it does your keywords themselves. This allows the search engine to determine which pages best match user intent and are most likely to be relevant to a reader.

Because Hummingbird understands that the correlation between themes, videos, and topics is more important than the number of times a given keyword appears in a piece of content, it ranks pages that place an increased focus on context higher than it does pages that focus mainly on keywords. Because of this, many marketers have been proclaiming the death of keyword density for years.

5 Post-Hummingbird Keyword Truths

Now that we’ve discussed semantic search, it’s important to think about what exactly, keywords are doing in today’s society.

So, here are the five golden truths of today’s modern keyword rules:

1. Keywords are tools to discover a user’s intent

Just because keyword density doesn’t truly matter any longer, keywords are still important. Instead of being measured against a meaningless metric, however, they’re now used to determine what a user is looking for. This means that all the words in a query are important but that the connection between them is now the focus.

2. Keyword density is dead

We can talk about it openly now – keyword density truly is dead. Content that is created with the goal of satisfying a set keyword density number generally isn’t catering to user needs and we know that, in 2016 and beyond, value, relevance, and interest are the most important metrics search engines are using to evaluate content.

3. Keyword research isn’t as important as user intent

Knowing which keywords will rank well is one thing but knowing what the intent behind those keywords is is entirely another. As search engine algorithms continue to get smarter, it’s imperative that marketers learn to focus on providing content that caters to a user’s intent rather than a set of obscure (and outdated) ranking algorithms.

4. Use natural synonyms

Now more than ever, readers are happy to leave if your content feels spammy or forced. This means that instead of stuffing your content with keywords, you need to employ natural synonyms in a comfortable way. This makes your content feel varied, unique, and interesting.

5. Focus on quality over anything else

SEO is a little bit like fashion: there’s always a new trend on the horizon. When you buck the trends, though, and focus instead on providing lasting, valuable content that fits your reader’s needs, you can begin to create more sustainable content that helps meet your user’s needs.

A Better Way: 3 Modern Keyword Tips

If keyword density is dead (and it is), what remains? Ideally, writing content boils down to using a natural language pattern that revolves around keywords, nouns, verbs, and synonyms. This is where a page gets its true meaning and value

In this type of construct, keywords are not nearly as important as the words that surround them. For example, “Apple” could refer to the tasty, crispy fruit or the world-famous tech company. With that in mind, there are a few ways to proceed into the post-keyword age. Here’s what we recommend:

1. Use keywords in the headline

Your on-page content is very important. With that in mind, it’s important to learn how to use keywords correctly in your headline. This is not because SEO requires you to master flawless keyword placement or to use your keywords in your H1 and H2 tags. In fact, many experts say that it truly doesn’t matter if you use keywords in you H1 and H2. Rather, the reason this is so important, is that people click on your page expecting to wind up on a page featuring the same headline as the one they clicked in the SERPs. If this doesn’t happen, they’ll happily click the “back” button in order to find a page that they believe more closely matches their queries.

This is called “pogo-sticking” and it’s a real problem in SEO. When people navigate from SERPs to a page, back to the SERPs several times, the search engine gets the distinct message that people aren’t happy with the provided search results. This causes the search engine to down-rank a set page or assume that its relevance and value aren’t up to par. Fortunately, this isn’t fixed by stuffing more keywords into your text, but rather by using them correctly in order to create a relevant, valuable page that your readers appreciate.

2. Choose user experience over keyword density

If you have a choice between using your keyword phrase a set number of times or providing a great user experience, you should always, always choose the latter. This is especially important in light of Google’s recent Hummingbird update, which allowed the search engine to become incredibly sophisticated about how it evaluates text and the relevance and contextual value of it.

In light of updates like these, it’s no longer web pages with the “correct” level of keyword relevance that are winning the race, but pages that offer the best and most sophisticated content that most closely matches the intent and desires of the searcher. In light of this, it’s more important to connect the concepts and vocabulary that a search engine associates with a certain concept and to use those things to make your content strong, valuable, and interesting.

3. Provide unique content

This is the battle cry for content creators everywhere: in order to be valuable, your content needs to be unique, but what is unique content really? To put it simply, unique content is content that provides helpful information to users packaged in a neat and exciting little package. To be clear, this means more than just providing content that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the web: it also means providing content that offers a unique information and value that a reader can’t find anywhere else. This, in turn, involves using keywords in a unique and specific way that allows them to enhance rather than downgrade your text.

Conclusion

Keyword density is dead, and we might as well mourn it now. Fortunately, the passing of this useless metric frees us up to focus on more important things, like providing an outstanding user experience and writing content that caters to our users, rather than to some useless ranking metric that nobody truly cares about, anyway.

We never stuff our content with keywords. Order your correctly optimized, reader-friendly SEO content from our Content Shop.

13 replies
  1. DIO
    DIO says:

    An excellent article on key words, helped by the fact I totally agree with the authorette. Web content is what matters. Keyword stuffing causes bounce rates to go way up.
    Pop up gimmicks annoy, interfere and block the message, Headlines matter far more than keywords. People need to evaluate your web site as quickly as they pass a highway billboard at 100 KPH.
    Anyway this article covers the issues simply and very well. Pay attention.
    J Kirby Inwood
    President
    CanLaw .com

    Reply
      • Julia McCoy
        Julia McCoy says:

        True. But the calculation of it and the formula (with a goal to try to hit a percentage), more my point throughout the whole article, is essentially dead as an online practice. Back in the day of writing “SEO articles,” it was a requirement set by many of my clients. How days have changed!

        Reply
        • dan
          dan says:

          In that regards, I agree. However, I think it’s still a good practice to review your website’s content on a page by page basis for word count and density just to make sure everything is ok. For example, on a website I’m helping to build I found the programmers put the ToS/privacy policy in the source code as a modal popup instead of an ajax call. The site suddenly had legalese terms as most used keywords for every page =D

          Reply
          • Julia McCoy
            Julia McCoy says:

            Oh gosh. I can’t even imagine the SEO problems putting a policy page in a modal popup would bring up. That’s horrible! haha. In that case, a density review is critical!

  2. Julia McCoy
    Julia McCoy says:

    Sorry I never got back to you, J. Kirby! Capitalization probably wouldn’t matter – although it could be negative if you inadvertently mess the grammar of a sentence by uppercasing a word. Google is thinking like a human now, and ranking the content that matters in value first. Bolding/uppercasing/highlighting keywords won’t make a single difference (in fact, it may hurt you now).

    Reply
  3. Jared Chan
    Jared Chan says:

    Thanks for this, it’s helped me understand more about SEO. But I’ve got a question about keywords that I’ve found hard to find an answer to (Google hasn’t done a good enough job for me!)

    I’ve been blogging for 3 months and using Yoast SEO and I’m struggling to understand what keyword to actually use for a given post. For example I’ve got a post titled ‘I EXPOSE MY DEEPEST SECRET ABOUT CREATIVITY’ with the Tagline being ‘Understand creative flows and how to ‘ride’ the creative process’. I chose the keyword to be http://www.livingthewiselife.com/secret-about-creativity/ but people who would enjoy the post might not be typing in ‘secret about creativity’… Plus some of my other posts are metaphors and convey powerful insights but their literal meanings end up being the keywords for those posts. It makes me think I should just forget about SEO as its too rigid to allow for creative type blog posts. Any help would be appreciated!

    Reply
    • Julia McCoy
      Julia McCoy says:

      Hi Jared, I’d suggest taking a different approach to your keyword research. Step 1 involves learning more about keywords and keyword research itself. a) research a keyword first and build a topic around it. You don’t just want to google randomly, I’d suggest using proven tools that give you metrics on keywords, and know/understand those metrics. I have a whole chapter on how to do this in my book, So You Think You Can Write? 70% of the blogs I write are actually built around a keyword I’ve researched before even writing the post, that is long-tail and has the ABILITY to rank on my site (it’s not crazily competitive). & b) if you have a topic that DOESN’T work with a keyword, don’t actually force it around one. Notoriety from an awesome post that’s either controversial/insightful/etc, and subsequent success from social promotion, can be worth more than all the keyword focused posts put together…because you have no keywords holding you back within limits, but can write on a topic and put your soul into it. Also bonus point c) never put full trust on the Yoast seo plugin. I’ve seen “red seo” posts ranking highly on Google – and the green are nowhere to be found in rankings. The “warnings” they give you about interlinking may actually be incorrect.

      Reply
  4. Bill Skowronski
    Bill Skowronski says:

    I think it’s worth noting the disconnect between writers/bloggers and their target audience. We (I count myself guilty of this at times) tend to write in terms of what we find interesting, and often end up drawing validation from others like us, as opposed to our target audience. For SEO, this becomes a problem when we lean towards “creative/catchy/sticky” headlines and titles, instead of ones that match user search and intent. It’s also an issue when we assume the audience knows as much as we do, or would conduct a search the same way we would.
    My point is, the better [read: closer and open/honest] our relationships with our target audience, the better our content will serve them–and the search engines. Start with your target audience, begin with their end in mind.

    Reply
    • Julia McCoy
      Julia McCoy says:

      This is great insight, Bill. Drawing from our audience instead of our likes when it comes to topics/content creation is so important. Down to the tone of voice, we should attract and write for them if we want to succeed and gain traction – just like you said, in creating better content that serves them (and in return, SEO will love it too!)

      Reply
  5. Brent
    Brent says:

    Glad you asked our opinion Pal. I believe keyword density and LSI is an old and obsolete metric. But yet, there seems to be some disagreement out here in the “series of tubes” about it. There many reasons why I think it’s not just an outdated concept, I think it will actually HURT your ranking(s).

    Why some might ask? Because I believe Google (and the other search engines will be coming right behind G soon enough, if not already) is looking at density averages from page to page looking for natural averages. Meaning, if you’re writing naturally solely for the sake of help your readers, your density will vary WILDLY. Your post here actually inspired me to write my opinion elsewhere, and I mention a little experiment.

    The experiment goes like this: Write a great piece of content that is specifically helpful for readers who want a problem solved. Don’t pad the content for the sake of making it longer. Just include enough valuable information in the post to make it complete (like you did in this post).

    THEN, use some of the LSI and keyword density tools on your new content. You may be surprised to find how high your density is when you write naturally.

    If you were writing your content with a LSI tools and density tool, you may very likely have a much LOWER density.

    So when you take into account G looking at varying average from page to page, you can see why using a density or LSI tool is just plain fool-hearty.

    Reply

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