Why keyword density is crap

Wky keyphrase density is crapIt happened again during SES San Jose 2008. In fact, the situation happens so often (actually, every conference for the last 10 years) that I call it “The question.”

“What kind of keyphrase density should I shoot for in my copy?”

I don’t blame the person who asked the question. Heck, I’m not surprised they’re confused. Ever since the dawn of SEO copywriting time, SEO’ers have been trying to game the content part of the algorithm. It’s even a technique that worked years ago. Back in the early days when Google was but a mere blip on Stanford’s server, SEO experts knew that a 5.5 percent keyphrase density would get a top spot in Alta Vista.

We don’t think that way anymore.

The first reason we don’t is that SEO has gotten harder order the years, and the algorithm has gotten more complex. There’s no magical keyphrase density number that “games” Google or the other engines. So, writing towards a particular metric to position higher on search results is unnecessary and ineffectual. This is supported by Matt Cutts of Google who said in a 2006 blog post, “I’d recommend thinking more about words and variants (the “˜long-tail’) and thinking less about keyword density or repeating phrases.”

The second reason is because writing towards a particular density ignores your main target audience — the people you want to read your articles, contract with you for services and buy your products. Artificially targeting a keyphrase density alters the intent of your writing and sacrifices proven direct response principals. Yes, keyphrases in the copy is important. Yes, include them in headlines, subheadlines and throughout the body text. Yes, it does take time to learn how to weave the “right amount” of keyphrases into your copy so it reads seamlessly — yet leverages every keyphrase opportunity you can leverage. But the main focus should always be “how does what I’m writing engage and persuade my readers?”

Does “ignoring” keyphrase density really work? I was talking to a client last week about a site I had written pages for years ago. After six years, the pages are still positioning in Google’s top three — and that’s without measuring keyphrase density. And more importantly, the copy converted well. That’s a definite win-win – without having to worry about meaningless metrics.


18 replies
  1. David Lux
    David Lux says:

    I continue to have the same reaction whenever this comes up. When it comes to SEO in general, new algorithms and technologies require that SEOs stay current with new ideas and methods, yet many older tactics that had an effect on SEO two or three years ago are still being widely used, even though they may have little or no effect on SEO today. Case in point is the issue of keyword density. With greater emphasis on semantic search in the near future, the preoccupation with keyword density will hopefully fade away.

  2. Digital Labz
    Digital Labz says:

    I truly agree with you that keywords density is kinda dead. If you write content which converts into sales that should be the key for a SEO copywriter from here on. Thanks for sharing the article.

  3. Ramon Eijkemans
    Ramon Eijkemans says:

    Here is an article that dives into the algorithmic reasons why keyword density is nonsense: http://www.miislita.com/fractals/keyword-density-optimization.html. Thus guy talks about the following content-indexation techniques: Linearization, Tokenization, Filtration, Stemming, Weighting. Anyway, definitely worth a read. A snippet: ‘I recommend SEOs to start incorporating lexicographic and word pattern techniques, linearization strategies and local context analysis (LCA) into their optimization mix.’

  4. Jordan
    Jordan says:

    I think the keyword density matters as the contents of a web page are read by a machines (Search Engines) and not by humans & for machines there are definite algorithms (like to check the keywords density) to verify the genuineness of the contents.

  5. Jeff F.
    Jeff F. says:

    I think I may have been the one that asked ‘The Question’ during the session you spoke at in San Jose. In fact, I asked that question multiple times, in multiple sessions… and everybody gave me a similar version of the same answer.

    Basically, I was told – Don’t focus on Keyword Density. Write the content for the user. But, Make sure you use your target keywords in the right places.

    Lesson Learned.

  6. marianne
    marianne says:

    Actually, I would disagree somewhat. Yes, the idea of stuffing keywords into the first few paragraphs of a webpage has breathed its last and gratefully so. However, term frequency and placement is still a foundational element of information retrieval. Yess, there are pointy-headed ways around this using inverse document frequency but these are rich and rare. I cannot dance on the grave of keyword density yet and so advise my clients to ensure that there are keyword or phrase concepts that are used throughout the document along with related terms and concepts. This is the direction that Web relevance is going in, the association of both actual and tangential. For more information, check out the Orion, Hypertext-Induced Topic Search[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HITS_algorithm] and Hilltop [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilltop_algorithm] algorithms, all conceptually based and doing well.

  7. Heather
    Heather says:

    @Jeff – I couldn’t have summarized it better myself. :) I didn’t mean to pick on you (sorry!), but your question was a good one – and one that is incredibly common. Thanks for posting!

  8. Heather
    Heather says:

    @Jordan- it is important to have the keyphrases within your copy. That part is definitely true, and you’re right. At the same time, stuffing your copy with keyphrases just to build keyphrase relevancy is still considered spam – and horrible for your users.

    Yes, certainly research your keyphrases and include them within your copy. But don’t get hung up on a density percentage. It’ll just drive you nuts. :)

  9. Scott
    Scott says:

    I think you are incorrect in your assertion or at least over simplifying. Like many other things SEO, it is true that there are a multitude of things that one should do to rank well. Optimization is just one factor among many. Further still, keyword density is one issue among many when optimizing. And this can surely be taken to extremes which should be avoided.

    Finding a good keyword density -is not- crap. I’ve spoke with and watched customers who had pages that did not rank, who turn around and optimize based on some density ranges. The engines revisit a page and boom, they rank. No additional content elsewhere on a site. No additional links. No additional anything.

    I think that the better advice would be to not obsess about keyword density. There is not a “golden” number to hit. As you and others mention, conversions are key. Writing content that is compelling is key. While I don’t think we should be slaves to density numbers, they should be some where in the back of the mind when writing.

    In the case of many newspapers… content that was published in their deadmedia version, is often re-written to take kw placement and other factors into consideration. The content is largely the same, the thrust of the information is largely the same, but the density is not. This does not guarantee an particular ranking but it can certainly have meaning to an engine when evaluating content for rankings. To say that KD is complete crap is to over simplify imho.

  10. Heather
    Heather says:


    Great comments, thanks!

    It’s true that adding keywords to copy can dramatically increase rankings. We work with publisher sites doing exactly what you mentioned – and you are exactly right. It can make a huge difference. I certainly didn’t meant to imply that adding targeted keywords makes little or no impact….it really does.

    However, I still maintain that targeting (and/or obsessing, as you mentioned) a particular density percentage isn’t useful. And for some people, they may not know *where* to place the keywords in their copy – instead, they focus on sticking them somewhere to fit a percentage. The end result is copy that doesn’t sound the best. I’m sure you’ve seen it too – it’s like good SEO copy gone bad. :)

    However, when you take that pressure away and work with people on how to write good content and leverage keyword opportunities, they will naturally add keyphrases where they “fit” within the copy. The end result is often a more relevant (read: higher ranking) page that keeps the conversion and informational flow.

    Awesome comment. Thanks so much!

  11. Abhinav
    Abhinav says:

    But, still I feel keyword density has a role in optimization of websites. However, the changes are very much small and inconsiderate, as almost everyone is using the same.

  12. Tertius
    Tertius says:

    One of the points you brought up : Your main audience is not the search engines but your readers.

    That’s extremely important. This is really all about design, and good design is focused on the user!

  13. Roger Hamilton
    Roger Hamilton says:

    Hmm.. interesting to hear that keyword density dosen’t have much of an impact.

    “Your main audience is not the search engines but your readers.” I agree with this very strongly. If you write for search engines, I think many people would be just glancing through as your post would probably not catch their attention. Ultimately this would bring less traffic.

  14. Seoigniter
    Seoigniter says:

    I can agree that if you are obsessing over keyword density, then that is not helpful, and stuffing extra instances of your keywords just for the sake of keyword stuffing is also not good. However, if you look at Googles standards for judging the relevance of a page, you will understand that the proper keyword density is enough instances to demonstrate that it is the topic of the page, as opposed to something that is merely mentioned on the page.

    I don’t feel like going back to look up the standard right now, but the standard goes something like a page that is vital, then a page that is important, and so on to a page that is off topic. That would be the other end of the spectrum. To at most make a passing mention of, say, the election, and then try to pass it off as a page about the election. You need to mention the keywords/keyphrases often enough to signal that is the main focus of the page so that it can be rated as vital or important (Or whatever the terms are).

    Furthermore, it would be poor copywriting to write about a topic, and barely ever mention the keywords. So, in summary. It’s a balance between garish overuse, and under usage, but the best way to determine the right keyword density is probably to just go with what feels right.

    As for me, my natural style is to avoid vague words like “it” and “they” and as a result, my writing tends to be so dense that I actually go back and edit IN those vague references just to tone it down. I want to be sure that my message is concise, and I think that words like “it” and “they” can create confusion in the message.

    Point #2 Search engines are designed to serve people. There are flaws, of course, but I get really tired of hearing “write for visitors, not search engines.” Write for both, because they are the same thing 95% of the time.

  15. Bart
    Bart says:

    this article has similar with the Keyword luv, though haven’t yet try using density, im having hard time using it and its hard to understand, thats my opinion on it. in the long run they’re all search engine with different brand software..


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