Are Keyword Density Percentages Killing Your Content?

Traffic Boost

It was down to the wire. We needed a big boost in traffic and we needed it yesterday. Everyone waited impatiently as the boss read over the copy; the copywriter rubbed her raw fingers, staring down at the still smoking keyboard she had ruthlessly pounded in a race against the clock. The optimizer, bouncing on her toes, stared at the boss and chewed a fingernail down to the nub. The boss gave a quick nod. “Send it to the client.”

With a sigh of relief and the first line of approval passed, the copywriter jabbed out a quick email, attached the copy and sent it flying through the lines. Leaning back, she gave a half-hearted grin to the optimizer, who switched to destroying another nail.

Five sweaty, painful minutes later, a reply came back.

I like the tone and the information. It’ll spread like wild fire – but what about the keyword density? I think you could fit “Kansas city real estate law firm” in there at least 10 more times. And don’t split it up. I want at least 10% density for the whole term. Nobody will notice.

Keyword density…

…the bane of existence for many an optimizer and copywriter. Somewhere, somehow, people got the idea that there is some magic number for the times a keyword should be used in a piece of copy. The idea has stuck. Oddly enough, they apparently haven’t found out what the actually number is, however, because everybody seems to have a different percentage.

What is keyword density

Rushing around

For those that don’t know, keyword density is a percentage value, based on the number of times a key term is used vs. the number of other words in a piece of copy. The “talked about” density ranges from 2% to 9%, depending on who’s doing the talking. To give you an idea of what that looks like, consider this:

At an 8% density, a single keyword would have to show up eight times in a piece of content approximately the length of the first two paragraphs of this article. Eight. Times. Now, you might think, “well, a single word… that’s not so bad”, but what if it’s actually a key term?

When the idea of keyword density became big for a while, we had clients who wanted a high keyword density percentage for terms like real estate law firm and used car deals. Trust us when we say, no matter how good the copywriter is these words will not look natural used several times in a single piece of content.

Sacrificing SEO

A while back, we wrote a post about organic content. In the comments, a reader said, “I don’t quite understand the phrase ‘Sacrifice SEO before you sacrifice the content quality’, could you elaborate?” This question ties in perfectly with this article.

We don’t, and never have, advocated any type of crappy content. This includes keyword stuffed articles. High quality articles retain more traffic, every time, than a bunch of overly SEO’d content.

By “sacrificing SEO”, we mean don’t choose SEO over user experience. In this case, it means don’t be so worried about keyword density that you forget someone is going to read your article. Don’t use a keyterm again just because there’s room for it. Your readers will notice, will consider the copy as content spam and will not stick around for more.

Never force the usage of a term. Let the words flow like music, baby, and let your readers dance to the tune. One commenter summed it up this way, “…if you’re in a situation where you could put out lower-quality content that would rank better, or have a better quality article that might not “rank” as well (due to lack of spammy keywords, etc.), you should put out the better quality article. Your audience and the Internet will thank you.”

Ranking isn't everything

Ranking isn’t everything.

Don’t scoff, it’s really not. It doesn’t matter how much traffic you get, none of it counts unless you retain at least a portion of your visitors. That’s the idea behind organic SEO – to bring in, and retain, visitors. Because:

  • People who come back are more likely to associate your business with a product or service
  • People who read your blog on a regular basis are more likely to think of you when they need a product or service
  • People who read your blog on a regular basis are more likely to trust your opinion
  • People who come back are more likely to bring others to your site

Guaranteed, these same people who could become word-of-mouth cheerleaders, will ignore you if you spin out spammy content. Even those that don’t recognize keyword stuffing and don’t know anything about SEO… they may not know what it is, but they know bad content when they see it.

Conclusion

If you’re writing articles and blogs about your topic, key terms will naturally show up in the copy. It just happens that way. If you can’t figure out how to “fit them in”, you need to change the focus of your article. Because, yes, Virginia, people will notice when you force keywords to fit. Keyword density is just another number. If you worry about it too much, you could end up killing your content and, ultimately, your traffic.

About Gabriella Sannino

International SEO consultant is my title...but who cares about those? What I love is, writing about marketing, social, SEO, relevance, ruffling feathers and starting revolutions. What you read on this blog, will hopefully inspire you to continue the conversation. When I'm not multitasking around Level343 I sneak away and go sailing. I'm crazy about pistachios, and of course Nutella.

Comments

  1. Great post, Gabs! I couldn’t agree more. I refuse to put out anything in excess of 4% for that very reason. And as you know, even that can seem stiff and awkward with a long-tail keyphrase.
    I actually had to fire one client that edited an article I wrote for them, and jumped the density to over 10% on a five word phrase. It read about as well as you might imagine! She got quite upset, but not nearly as much as I was.

  2. Keyword distribution and density is a key aspect of what we do as web designers and developers and as such, as you rightly point out, is something we ought to consider in great depth. All too often I’ve come across sites that have been stuffed with as many keywords or key-phrases as possible, lowering the quality of the content, losing usability for the consumer and counteracting all the hard work put in to the SEO in the first place.

    Something I’ve continued to advocate for whilst working as a web designer is that no matter how many keywords or phrases, or indeed how often they ought to go in, that content remains as free flowing and natural as possible. It’s nice to see that others also feel the same in saying that content quality should most certainly NOT be sacrificed for the sake of a few more keywords.

  3. Patricia Skinner says:

    Guys, I’ve been doing this for years and I never measure keyword density. My traditional author sensibilities won’t allow me to. Instead, I pick a selection of related keyphrases including the main keyphrase and write my content around them. If it doesn’t flow naturally then it doesn’t get published: simple as that. Google seems quite happy, and so are human readers.

  4. LOL Doc, I (♥) you.. firing a client. Sometimes I wish I would have done so sooner ;) I wonder how much of this is initiated by SEO thugs? I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been stunned into silence when a client tells me “there aren’t enough keywords in this copy.” Needless to say, we’ve never written for him since.

  5. I really liked your article. I will read something that has meaning, is relevant and subject focused. I know we have to put those keywords in but they should be natural…I am a small business so while I want traffic to my site, I want to grow it slowly, organically and I want loyal, targeted visitors to stay and linger, develop a sense of community and never need to go anyplace else. I will lose them if I try to insert my quota of keywords instead of letting my heart beats out! I am not a great professional writer, I just muse, and if you care to read them great, come by stay awhile meet like minded folks and have fun – that’s what folks want. If you put those token keywords in your article over and over, it reminds me of the sales clerk that asks you over and over during your visit if she/he can help you…I just leave.

    Thanks for sharing your insights!

  6. Too high a keyword density can actually hurt your rankings! All you really need to do is have the keyword once in the content, once in the title tag, and once in the description tag. Most highly ranked pages have keyword densities of under 2%. Heck… some pages can rank without the keyword even being on the page at all due to incoming links!
    If this was a quality issue, then go with quality. If this is an seo issue, your client is mistaken in his theory that 10% keyword density will help. This may have helped in the rankings 5 years ago… but not today.

    Thank you for the post. It actually got me riled up :)

  7. Amen Brian. I should thank you for dropping in & by the way no need to get riled up, we understand each other ;)

  8. I actually don’t base my content around keywords. I base the information around what makes sense. So, if a keyword accounts for 10% of the density, so be it. To be real honest, I wouldn’t even check.

    ~Keyword in Title
    ~meta description (only because it influences CTR)
    ~First Paragraph (because it simply makes sense.

    At any rate, I can’t believe that people still place stock in this. What’s next? The reemergence of meta keyword tags?

  9. Hey Leo I’ve seen crazier things happen at least in this round SEO is not dead…but, we still have a few months left this year! ;-)

  10. Katerine, you’re absolutely correct. That’s what people want, a sense of community. Come in, sit down maybe learn a few things, share some new insight or a great link that can add value to your comment. I’ve said it over and over again, communication is the new currency. I actually read somewhere that the ROI in social networks is whether you are still communicating with your readers in a few years… love it!

  11. Francis says:

    The issue is not that keyword density is a bad means to determine relevance; it’s just that search engine algorithms have evolved while many SEOs and the search engine optimization software tools they use, have not. Where keyword density tools fall short is their ability to provide meaningful assessment and objective insights into ranking improvements. But keyword density tools are meaningful when used in conjunction with the right tactic. The “right” tactic in this case is to reduce on-page irrelevance and to boost relevance.

  12. That’s a good quote, Francis.. and thanks for pointing us to “SEO Strategy – Keyword Density”. Using keyword density tools as a means to decide whether you’ve strayed off topic, or to make sure a page is about your chosen topic (as far as search engines are concerned), is a fine tactic. However, I would council caution when manipulating text based on density – make sure you reread the article before sending it out; manipulating text based on numbers can potentially ruin the readability.

  13. Cramming your content with keywords totally ruins readability and looks like blatant product placement to even the most casual reader. Needless to say, overuse of keywords will turn off readers very quickly – if you can’t get your text to flow naturally then you’re not doing it right.

  14. Thanks for a great article about keyword density. I sometimes wonder what the right mix is myself. I really don’t think you want to just write content without considering the keywords you are aiming for though. That is silly and a waste of time. Write content based on your message AND placing in the relevant keywords in a way that it still reads well.

  15. Hey Doug thanks for your input…the best % is if it reads like &%*&% then it’s time to start from scratch. Of course that goes without saying, but the most important reason we wrote this post is to clarify the many unanswered questions that always include “Is there an acceptable number or percentage” the answer is no, and personally numbers or percentages shouldn’t even be part of the question.

  16. Thnx for this article im having some worries about my keywords i guess ill just have to wait and see how things turn out

  17. Hey no problem, if there is anything we can add or any suggestions feel free to ask!! Enjoy your week :-)

  18. Your article was very thought provoking and informative. Thanks for your insight on this subject I am new at this and was wondering about keyword density I guess I will just let the words flow and it will all average out in the end. Thanks

  19. It is important for your main keywords to have the correct keyword density to rank well in Search Engines. Experts consider the optimum keyword density to be 1 to 3 percent and that looks just fine. Better be safe and avoid looking spammy :)

  20. Content should never give way to keyword density. Your readers will be able to see right through it and readers hate to feel like they are being deceived… that is how you loose your readers. And like you said your returning readers are so valuable.

  21. Hey Karen, I agree. They’re our most valuable asset. Dare I say they’re part of the evolution in SEO and story. Thanks for your input, and Happy Holidays!

  22. Most of the time keyword density varies depending on the topic. Let’s say if you talk about SEO then that article will really be kind of jammed with the keyword. Overall I believe the longer the article less keyword density should be set as a target.

  23. Hello Martha, Thanks for your input I couldn’t agree with you more…we either keep the original name given by the artist or create one that is applicable to our post. Something I urge everyone to do. I surfed by your site, great pictures are they originals?

  24. I do agree. However, it would help to upload photos with given names instead of IMG_587384 etc
    this way, you can get some traffic as well as keep your content without abusing your SEO plug in :)

  25. Well, that’s true but Google has already stated that if you just specify an ALT tag with the keyword, you’re good to go! Someone actually did a case study differentiating rankings for ALT tags vs. file names — surprisingly, he didn’t find much of a difference.

  26. The keyword density for the phrase “breast cancer” on (BreastCancer.org) is 2.73%. This is the #1 result in Google for the same phrase.
    This is a site that is about “breast cancer” if it’s about anything and “breast cancer” is in the URL title and appears just about everywhere on the page you would want it. So increasing this value by a factor of 5 is questionable advice to me.
    The guidance I recommend is to strive for a keyword density of between 2% and 3.5% I rarely see credible sites with higher densities than this for key phrases.

  27. Hey, this is a great post and I completely agree. Put the user above all and the rest will take care of itself. Great content will get shared and read while mediocre or crappy content may rank for a short while.

  28. The concept of ‘keyword density’ is largely obsolete nowadays, and has been for a while. Just throw in your keyword a few times and be sure to just write naturally. Don’t worry about a percentage or number of appearances of the keyword.

  29. True, the concept of optimizing for density is largely obsolete these days, however, it’s still useful to consider when assessing if a page has gone overboard. Perhaps another term could be used, but the point is still the same.

  30. I also found simular article at http://www.geoseo.net/matt-cutts-what-is-the-ideal-keyword-density-of-a-page/ Where Matt Cutts describes about keyword density:
    The question is “What is the ideal keyword destiny: 0.7%, 7%, or 77%? Or is it some other number? Ok…keyword density. Let’s talk about it a little bit. A lot of people think that there is just one recipe and you can just follow that, like baking cookies and if you follow it to the letter, you will rank number one. And that’s just not the way it works. Um…so, if you think that you can just say “Ok, I’m gonna have 14.5% keyword density or 7%, or 77% and now it mean that our rank is number one. That’s really not the case. That’s not the way that Search Engine Rankingswork.

  31. Keyword density thankfully is a thing of the past. I’m writing this 2013 and just publish good content. Writing naturally will include related words LSI and google will know when to render the page.

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