Keyword stuffing: why it's bad for SEO and how to avoid it

Haley Carroll

  | Published on  

September 29, 2023

If content is king, then keywords are the queen in SEO.

Even if you are a casual SEO, you've probably got a few terms in mind that you would absolutely love to see your website ranking #1 on Google for. Heck, most of us will take #3 or even #8.

Getting there though? That's another story. Ranking for keywords can be ridiculously difficult, and there are many tempting shortcuts along the way.

One such shortcut is keyword stuffing. We'll examine this more as we go on, but if you are unfamiliar with the term here's a quick definition: jamming a target keyword into your content every which way and as much as possible. There's more nuance to it, and a few malicious bad practices to examine so we'll examine this practice in depth in this article - hopefully we'll be able to show you why it's not a good practice to use and give you a few better ones to replace it.

What is keyword stuffing?

Keyword stuffing can be defined simply as this: repeating the same keyword on a website’s pages and articles as many times as possible.

A common joke floating around the internet is the following olive oil description:

That sounds like a blog post or two I've read before...

But not a blog post I've read recently, because Google has been cracking down on low-effort content like this that relies on keyword usage.

In the old days of search, search engines were dumb and looked for whether the keyword was used in a piece of content. Now, Google looks at what the content is about and whether it is high quality, which makes keyword stuffing an anti-pattern (bad practice) for SEO.

That doesn't stop people from trying it though. Some sites may even be successful at ranking despite following the bad practice.

Types of keyword stuffing

There are two ways people try to jam keywords into content:

  1. Visible keyword stuffing
  2. Invisible keyword stuffing

Both are bad practices, so let's examine them further.

Visible keyword stuffing

Visible keyword stuffing is much like the image above: cramming the keyword into the text as much as possible. The "best practice" here used to be using the keyword in the title, the first 100 words of the article, and sprinkled in throughout the content. The more the merrier because we all know the more you use a keyword or key phrase in a piece of content, the more that content must be about that keyword right?

Wrong - unfortunately it's not that easy, but we'll get into how to properly use keywords in your content later.

Invisible/hidden keyword stuffing

Invisible keyword stuffing is a bit more malicious.

In the old days of SEO, webmasters would hide keywords on the page and make them invisible so that they could put a keyword on the page dozens, or even hundreds of times to game the system. They did this to avoid blatantly repeating keywords in the copy for all their users to read. This could be making the keywords’ text the same color as the webpage’s background, or placing keywords into the webpage’s code, within the meta, alt, and comment tags. Though ordinary people would not see the keywords, search engines would still be able tell they are there. 

It is similarly ineffective now, but that does not stop people from trying.

Does keyword stuffing actually work for SEO?

Back in the early 2000s, yes keyword stuffing worked. But not anymore, and the practice can hurt more than it can help.

In the early days of search engines sites that stuffed certain keywords really would be rewarded with a higher ranking on those searches. Search engines were much less sophisticated back then. We didn't have Penguin, Hummingbird, or Spam Brain to knock this content down.

Nowadays though? Google is much smarter.

Google recognized that content that was ranking higher from keyword stuffing was not as quality as other webpages which had more information and depth. Since Google optimizes its search results to best match the search intent of its users and provide them with the highest quality information, the search engine redesigned itself to outsmart the keyword stuffers. 

So if you are trying to stuff keywords in like a Thanksgiving turkey - stop. At best, your content won't perform well. But at worst, you could earn a penalty from Google.

Does Google penalize websites for keyword stuffing?

Google is pretty smart and can tell when you are blatantly trying to stuff keywords into your content.

Because of this, Google will de-prioritize content that relies on keyword stuffing and this goes for invisible stuffing too. Google can even go so far as to remove your website from the index altogether if it finds that you are a repeat offender of keyword stuffing.

Even if your website isn’t removed from the index, keyword stuffing causes other negative effects as well. Keyword stuffing makes for bad content and poor website design. Reading the same few words and phrases over and over again is distracting for users, and people will easily be able to tell that there is no real value or quality to the copy on the website. When your website is designed to trick an algorithm, human readers will be able to see through the robotic and spammy nature of the writing. 

People who visit your website probably won’t stick around very long if the copy is a useless jumble of repeated keywords and some other words thrown in between. s a result, your website will have a high bounce rate, meaning that users will go back to the search results after viewing only one page of your website. No one will want to link to meaningless and hard to read content either, and so you’ll have a much harder time getting backlinks. A high bounce rate and few backlinks mean that your website will have little authority, and Google will rank sites with a greater authority far above yours. 

With these changes to Google’s algorithm and the negative consequences of this practice in mind, it is clear that you want to avoid keyword stuffing as much as you can - but how?

How to avoid keyword stuffing

It's pretty simple - just don't do it.

Write high-quality content that educates and engages the reader. If you fall back on that, you'll naturally lean away from unnaturally cramming keywords into your pages.

This doesn’t mean forgoing using targeted keywords entirely, but instead choosing one targeted keyword per page and providing useful, quality information surrounding that topic. Only use keywords when it makes sense in the writing, and in the correct context. 

Make sure that your writing is actually helpful and provides a solid answer to the user’s query, and always relate each piece of writing on a page back to the main idea of the entire website as well. Readers will respond positively with a lower bounce rate on your website and by sharing your pages with others. This is a great way to legitimately build authority for your website and raise your ranking on Google.

If you’re still looking to get more benefits from keywords without keyword stuffing, there are some other keyword practices you can use instead. 

What to do instead of keyword stuffing

While you want to avoid using keywords in excess, it is appropriate and strategic to place a page’s primary keywords once within all of its elements. This means inserting the keyword into the title of the page, the first paragraph and within the “conclusion”. It also means using your keyword in at least one subheading, the meta description, the title tag, and one or greater image alt tags. This practice ensures that the primary keyword is incorporated well throughout the page, without overwhelming the content with the same word or phrase and risking any search engine sanctions. 

Start with the question behind the keyword

Most keywords are 1-3 words, however there's probably a 10-word question behind that.

Before blindly including a 3-word phrase several times in a page, stop and think about the question (or search intent) behind the keyword. The motivation to ask “how to get more traffic from Google” is very different than “cheap SEO tool”. A useful practice here is to consider long tail keywords that branch out from the root keyword you want to target.

These keywords are more lengthy and less common than the primary and secondary keywords, but using them can help you rank for niche searches that truly match what your website is all about. Getting specific with the phrases that you use can help target users find exactly what they’re looking for-your website!

To identify what long tail keywords you should be using, you need to think about what specific searches your target users would be making. Incorporating these keywords will give you an edge among your competitors, and help connect you with your intended audience. 

Explore related keywords and synonyms

You should also aim to include related keywords in your copy to improve your visibility to users.

Related keywords, also known as secondary keywords, are closely related to the primary keyword: they are synonyms, variations, and semantically related words and phrases that will support the primary keyword you’ve already included throughout your webpage.

Using related keywords in your writing will help ensure your page ranks for more searches than just one In practice, this makes your content more comprehensive and can provide a major boost to your organic traffic. Think of it as a reinforcement, making your page that much stronger against the competition. 

Use keywords strategically in your content

You've got a set of keywords to target now, so it's time to use them strategically in your content (rather than blindly).

There are 2 areas we recommend focusing on:

  1. The title
  2. The headings

But probably not for the reasons you’d think.

Conventional SEO wisdom says to jam the keywords in to game the Google algorithm in hopes you’ll rank, instead weave the keywords in so that:

  • The page jumps out in search results
  • The page is easy to scan
  • The page leads the reader a logical conclusion in your content

It’s not about using the keyword just to use the keyword. It’s about taking care to mirror the core question with your title and h1, and use informative and helpful headings to guide the reader through the content.

It just so happens that Google appreciates this too.

We see a lot of headings using very generic wording like “introduction”, “conclusion”, or only a couple words. I don't like doing that. I actually like phrasing the headings as questions/queries that people might be typing into Google because it stands out to the reader and Google keys off of it. All this is to say the headings are important to Google, so wording them to align to the questions your customers are asking is a great way to structure your content.

Check out our guide to using keywords in your content to actually rank for more information on this.

When in doubt write for humans, not search engines

Though keyword stuffing used to work to rank higher on the SERP, search engines will no longer tolerate copy that repeats words and phrases in a nonsensical fashion. If you’re looking to rank, you can’t take the easy way out or sneak past the search engines by making your keyword stuffing habits “invisible.” Though it may seem daunting, using keywords properly isn’t as hard as it may seem, and it is definitely worth the effort. 

Using one primary keyword per page and including that keyword once within each element of the page is a good place to start. Then, you can do your research and work in related, LSI, and long tail keywords. If you work these keywords into writing that is information-rich and helpful to your audience, the benefits your website earns will far surpass anything you could’ve gained from keyword stuffing, even if you were doing it 20 years ago.

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