SEO Basics – Understanding Keyword Density

As a company offering Search Engine Optimization services, we often get asked by clients and potential clients about the various aspects of SEO which they think they need to improve. One of the most popular questions we get asked is about keyword density, specifically how many times they should mention keywords on a webpage. We thought this week we would talk a bit about keyword density and explain it in a way everyone can understand.

What is Keyword Density?

Keyword density, by definition, is the number of times you mention a specific keyword on a page, in relation to the total words on the page. As an example, if you were selling Rugs and mentioned rug 50 times on a page with 1000 words, your keyword density would be 5%. Is this a good keyword density? Many people (some SEO’s included) get wrapped up in trying to create content so that they can have the “best” or “most optimized” keyword density and try to throw in as many mentions of a keyword they can. This is not a very good way to do SEO, and shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how SEO works, and how Google’s Algorithm measures keyword density in 2016.

Why is Keyword Density Less Important Today?

The truth is that it doesn’t matter as much today as it did 10 years ago. In fact, using a keyword too many times can actually hurt your ranking instead of helping it. In the early days of Google’s Algorithm, how many times you mentioned the same keyword or phrase mattered a lot more than it does today. It was used as way to gauge what a web page was all about. To explain this in simple terms, If you mentioned the same target word over and over and over again, then Google would see this and you would rank high when people searched for that word. However, there were two big problems with using keyword density as a major ranking signal.

The first problem is one of linguistics. Words, without context, often do not or can not properly convey meaning. In other words, focusing on the most mentioned words on a page and deciding what that page is about can generate confusing search results that are not what someone is looking for. To make this concept easier to understand, lets run through a real world scenario I think most of us have experienced at least once in our lives. Lets say you come across people having a conversation and overhear bits and pieces of it (but can’t overhear every word) which goes something like this:

Person 1: “….can’t believe….bat…and….out in the…..bats….was crazy…”
Person 2: “Are you serious? If I…..bat….running as fast….for sure”
Person 3: “…bats….bat…running….bat….”

Now, upon hearing this, you walk over and try to join the conversation by saying “Oh yeah, I saw that game too! John Smith was at the plate and broke his bat when he hit the fastball and was so surprised he didn’t even start running for 5 seconds while he was stunned by the broken bat in his hands!” However, the people look at you like you are from Mars, until one of them says, “No, we were not talking about a baseball game. We were talking about the colony of bats which have started roosting under the 4th Street bridge. They attacked our friend Jerry who had to run for his life. We don’t really watch baseball at all.” And now you feel like an idiot for having such a misunderstanding.

Because you only were paying attention to bits and pieces of the conversation, you completely misunderstood the point of the conversation. Just as in the example, search engines found that just using the amount of times a word was mentioned on a page was not the best way to understand what that page was actually talking about. Today, search engines still look for the keywords but place a higher degree of importance on the context of those keywords, so that the results they deliver will be relevant to the search. In addition to the context used by page authors, search engines also consider the probable context of the search query itself. This explains why a search for “chicken wings” will deliver restaurants in the search results and not sites explaining the anatomical structure of the wing of a chicken.

The second problem with using the density of keywords as a primary ranking factor is spammers. While most site owners want to make websites which are high quality and useful to people, there are some people who just want to make money and “game the system.” I’m sure many people can remember times where they have searched for something online and when they clicked on the top result they got to a page full of on a site which said “No results found for (term you searched for) found” or got to a page which basically had machine generated gibberish text which repeated the phrase you searched for but did not provide anything useful related to your search. As a user, having this happen is one of the most frustrating things that can happen when using a search engine.

Google has over time made many updates to its algorithm that target web-spam and remove these low quality sites from SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) including Google Panda (the most well known and talked about) and other updates. These updates have dramatically improved the quality of the results by introducing new and adjusting the importance of current ranking factors. As a result, Google no longer looks at keyword density the same way.

How Google Sees Keyword Density in 2016

The current incarnation of Google’s search algorithm sees keyword density similar to a bell curve. The first few times you mention a keyword, it will help your pages ranking for that keyword a lot by showing relevance. Once you mention a keyword a certain number of times, you see diminishing returns as these subsequent mentions give smaller and sometimes negligible help pushing up your ranking. After a certain point, and a certain number of additional mentions, your page is in danger of being penalized by the search algorithm for “keyword stuffing,” which is when a page is considered to be artificially stuffed or over saturated with a particular keyword.

You can think about it like this situation, where gum will substitute for a search query. Lets say you are with a group of people and start to crave a piece of gum. You ask loudly so everyone can hear you, “Does anyone have a piece of gum?” and the following are the peoples responses, and your likely reactions to their responses:

Person 1: “I don’t have any gum on me” – Ok, this person doesn’t have what I am looking for.
Person2: “I have one piece left” – Hmmm…I would rather not take your last piece
Person3: “Sure, I have 3 pieces of gum if you want” – This sounds good
Person4: “No problem, I just got a brand new pack of gum so I can help you” – This sounds really good
Person5: “Do I have gum? Yes I have Gum! I have one, two, three…(keeps counting, time ticks away)….thirty three, thirty four…thirty nine pieces of gum.” – I don’t even care anymore, just stop talking.

Whats the moral of this hypothetical situation? The moral is that at a certain point, it doesn’t matter how many pieces of gum you have, and making such a big deal about how much gum you have is not helpful, but is instead very annoying. This logic can be directly applied to how Google looks at keyword density. Mention your target words and phrases enough to show that the content is about those words and phrases, but do not ramble on for no other reason than to try to include as many keywords as you can into a a page or an article.

So Does Keyword Density Matter?

Yes! Of course it matters, but like many things in life, keywords should be used in moderation to get the best results. You have to use keywords to make sure that search engines, which are automated processes driven by algorithms, can understand what your page is about. But you should make sure you are not trying to overuse keywords or “forcing” them into your content. Stop worrying about the density of your keywords and just make sure you use the keyword often enough so that if you read the page to someone, and then ask what the topic of the page was, they will correctly answer you. If you need help optimizing your site for search engines, then contact us for more information or to receive a free SEO analysis and quote.

TL;DR: Keyword density, or the # of times a keyword is used on a page, is not as important as it used to be when it comes to ranking in search results. However, you should still use keywords on a page often enough so that the search algorithm, and a human reader,, will be able to understand what that page is all about.

Some ideas expressed were adapted from a Q+A video by Matt Cutts of Google (video below)



Image from Pixabay used under Creative Commons CC 0