Content optimization

How important is keyword density in SEO?

Written by

Haley Carroll

Keyword density refers to the number of times a focus keyword appears on a page divided by the number of words on that page.

Popular tools obsess over keyword density, even making it a focal point of their offering as they try to guide you to an optimal density.

I've got some news for you: those tools are wrong. Keyword density does not matter, at least not in the way you'd think.

Marketers love metrics. Metrics make things easy, especially when they are color coded. Is there such a thing as an optimal keyword density though? A common fear among content creators is that their content will not rank because it does not contain the right words Google is looking for, and those keywords do not appear enough times as compared to other ranking content.

This is a justified fear to have as you don’t want all of your hard work and quality content to be pushed down simply because of a few words. It is true that Google looks for websites that contain these keywords when finding and indexing the user’s search results. However there is no optimal amount of time to use these keywords (though there are certainly less optimal amounts of time to use them, more on that later).

What is keyword density?

Ok so what is this keyword density metric everyone seems to go nuts over?

Keyword density measures how often your target keyword appears in a piece of content. Sometimes, people refer to this concept as keyphrase density because oftentimes users are searching for phrases instead of just singular words, and you’ll want to include the entire phrase in order for the search engine to recognize it.

Keyword density can be calculated by dividing the number of times the keyword is used in the webpage’s copy, divided by the word count of the copy and multiplied by 100 to convert that number to a percentage. For example, if you use 3 keywords on a webpage that has 100 words total, your page’s keyword density would be 3% (3/100 = 0.3 x 100 = 3%)

This seems simple enough to measure and keep track of, but does the keyword density of your webpages really matter?

How important is keyword density in SEO?

Here's the short answer: way less than you would think.

As of 2014 Google's Webmaster and search expert John Mueller went on the record saying he would not focus on keyword density. Even Bing has jumped ship on the keyword density bandwagon:

But as the engines get smarter with and about signals, and as new, trustworthy signals are grown and adopted, the SEO of yore becomes a bit less relevant. No one really cried when we all walked away from <meta keyword> tags after they were inundated with spam. No one cried when keyword density became a passé topic, largely covered up in the then somewhat novel approach of “making quality content”.

Google boasts some of the most advanced AI when it comes to understanding what a piece of content is about. They don't need to see your keyword x number of times throughout the post, in the title, in the first paragraph, and in a heading to know whether your blog post is about that keyword. Instead, Google cares a lot more about the quality of your content, as evidenced by their extensive Search Quality Rater's Guideline report.

So what ARE search engines looking at if not keyword density?

What do search engines look for in quality content?

Google cares about content quality - a lot.

Google’s Panda update, introduced all the way back in 2011, was implemented in order to start ranking thin content lower.

Thin content is copy that contains no value for the reader, may be duplicate content or perceived to be thin content, or is simply irrelevant to what the user is looking for. The more recent introductions of the Hummingbird algorithm and RankBrain allowed Google to better understand the information on a page, and return users with results that better match their search intent. (Confused about what all that means? Learn more about search intent here.)

Google's success (well, dominance) as a search engine is entirely owed to the fact that they consistently return high quality, relevant results for every search.

In summary, search engines want to find rich content with natural writing that matches the user’s search intent. They seek writing that answers the user’s question and provides value to them. Using a keyword more, or less often does not automatically translate to more or less value, so keyword density has gradually become less important over time.

Okay, so where does keyword density fit into all this?

As you can see, keyword density is somewhat of an SEO myth.

Once upon a time when search engines were less intelligent keyword usage throughout a page may have mattered but those times are long over. There is no magic percentage to reach in order to optimize your webpage. While keywords are important to use, it’s more about which ones you use and where, and less about how often.

First, make sure you keywords are in the right spots

Rather than focus on using a keyword an optimal number of times, you should make sure that the keywords you do use are put in the right spots.

This means including your target keyword in the title tag and body content of the webpage, as close to the beginning as possible for each. It's not that Google cares about the position of the keyword, it's that your audience will probably be more likely to click your search result if they see you're writing about exactly what they are looking for.

Less important are including keywords in the headings, URL, meta description, and image alt tags, but you can still add them in these places for further optimization (again, less important to Google but more important for your readers).

In each of these components your target keyword should appear only once, with the exception of the body content. For the body of your webpage, you can include the target keyword and variations of it more than once, while still keeping the writing natural and avoiding straight up repetition. Don't try and force your keyword in throughout your content, instead use the focus keyword as a guiding topic and reference the topic as you need to.

Next, use variations of your target keywords

This one is a biggie.

Remember, Google wants to return the best content for a given keyword, and the best content is going to be more authoritative. The best way to demonstrate authority is not to use the same word over and over again, rather it's to touch on related topics in order to show you really do have expertise on the topic for your post.

For variation, you should focus on incorporating long-tail keywords and LSI keywords into your copy; these will be additional signals to Google that your content is relevant to your target topic. LSI keywords are related keywords that are adjacent to the core focus of your blog post. Using LSI keywords (covering related topics) is a much better strategy than simply using the same keyword over and over again.

It's also much more valuable for the reader, which ultimately will translate to better rankings.

Finally, make sure your content is valuable

Sounds like a no brainer, but you'd be surprised just how much low-effort, low-value content is on the web.

Well, maybe you're as jaded as me so that doesn't come as a surprise.

After completing all this, you need to make sure that your website aligns with the user’s search intent and is written with the user in mind. Is your target user looking for information? Are they trying to make a transaction? Are they attempting to make a commercial investigation?

Once you answer this question, you need to tailor your content to match their intent through the content’s style, type, format, and angle. Think about whether the user needs a product landing page, a blog post, or something else. Do they need a tutorial video or a compiled list? Construct your content in a way that makes sense for the user and provides the most ease of access to them.

Once you’ve done this, your webpage will be in pretty good shape to rank, will have a higher chance of getting backlinks and will increase your website’s domain and authority.

What is a good keyword density?

Again, I hate to give a number you can shoot for because that is beside the point.

If you do need a guideline it's somewhere above 0% and below excessive. What is excessive? Hard to say, it's not as though 4% suddenly means you are using a keyword an excessive amount, instead I would focus on using your keyword within reason throughout your post.

There is one thing you should always avoid though: keyword stuffing.

When focusing too much on achieving a high keyword density, you run the risk of keyword stuffing-using a keyword too many times on a webpage can trigger penalties from search engines and will most certainly make your writing seem robotic and spammy. This is a serious SEO no-no and should be avoided at all costs.

Conclusion

Remember, we aren’t saying that you shouldn’t include keywords into your writing; it’s just that keyword density is not the end all be all of SEO.

Make sure that your target keyword is incorporated throughout the different aspects of your webpage, and use synonyms and related keywords to make the content stronger. Instead of being keyword dense, your web pages should be content dense and full of value for your users.

So yet another SEO myth has been busted. If you’re wondering about other commonly accepted SEO principles, check out our blog for more helpful articles and information.

Updated on:

February 14, 2021

Start mastering SEO today

Learn more about Centori