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February 1, 2016

Is Keyword Density Dead: How it Affects SEO

Image courtesy of (Stuart Miles)/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Big news in the world of SEO: keyword density is dead.

It was a long, slow affair and, ultimately, it was the introduction of a seemingly innocuous little hummingbird that did it in. Here’s what you need to know:

What is Keyword Density?

Around 2011, keyword density was all the rage. Marketers believed that, by incorporating the correct number of keywords into a piece of content, you could rank more prominently in Google and score better positions in the SERPs. The following formula was used to calculate keyword density:

Keyword density = keyword occurrences / total words in a piece of text x 100

Therefore, if you have two keyword occurrences in 10 words of text (0.2), you multiply that by 100 to get a 20 percent keyword density. While the estimations for the “perfect keyword density” varied depending upon which marketer you were talking to, many SEOs believed a density between three and five percent was the SEO sweet spot.

How Keyword Density Died

Keyword density enjoyed a huge level of popularity for many years. Unfortunately, it suffered a sharp decline when, in 2013, Google released its Hummingbird algorithm update. Hummingbird was unlike any of Google’s previous algorithm updates in that it operated on the tenants of semantic search.

Around the time that Hummingbird was released, Google was starting to realize that focusing on metrics like keyword density and linking strategy wasn’t ultimately a trustworthy way to evaluate the relevance or value of a page. This was due in large part to the fact that search queries were rapidly moving away from things like “restaurants in Seattle” to “Where to find the best Thai food in Seattle” and that these progressively more involved queries were being issued from mobile devices and with the help of voice applications like Siri and Cortana.

In light of changes like these, it was becoming clear that keyword density wasn’t nearly as important as new metrics like user intent and how closely a piece of content matched that intent. Google quickly realized that it needed to get better at discerning user meaning and, thus, semantic search was born and the importance of keyword density began to wane.

The Rise of Semantic Search

Semantic search is a collective response to the problem of keyword density. As we saw earlier in this article, keyword density is a somewhat meaningless metric that only measures the set number of times a keyword appears in a piece of text. It notably does not address the way in which the text does (or doesn’t) address users’ concerns or answer their questions. To put it another way, semantic search seeks to evaluate user intent and context more heavily than keyword density.

User intent is the user’s statement of what he or she is looking for on the Web, and context is generally understood to mean everything that helps give a search meaning. One of the reasons semantic search came to be so popular within the last several years is that it sought to take meaningless metrics like keyword density and trade them out for more important metrics like relevance, quality, and usefulness.

How to Use Keywords Today: 5 Tips For 2016 and Beyond

Just because keyword density isn’t a reliable metric any longer, doesn’t mean we can write off keywords altogether. The fact is, keywords still do the important job of helping us discern user intent and create content that better caters to that in every way.

The only caveat is that, today, we need to get better at using keywords because they are intended to be used for modern search. This means focusing less on total keyword occurrence and focusing more on how we use keywords to better cater to readers.

1. Choose user experience

The laws of keyword density say you’re supposed to use the phrase “Seattle clam chowder” 10 times in this article, but doing that makes the text feel clunky, heavy, and spammy. The answer? Get thee away from keywords. If you’re faced with a choice between user experience and the “correct” keyword density, you need to realize that user experience wins out every time.

2. Provide better context

Semantic search is a sophisticated ranking algorithm, and it focuses much more on the words that give a keyword meaning than it does on the actual keyword itself. In light of that, it’s important to create text while thinking about what you can do to make the content easier to find and how you can use your content to better answer user questions. Doing this helps ensure that you’re providing value to readers and creating unique content.

3. Use natural synonyms

Keyword stuffing is a dreaded SEO no-no, and today it’s worse than ever. Varying your keyword use and using natural synonyms (“espresso” for “coffee,” for example) is a great way to ensure that your content is readable and rich, which makes it valuable and in-demand for readers.

4. Quality over keywords

The ultimate goal in today’s SEO environment is to create quality, relevant content that stands the test of time. This means focusing not at all on keyword density and focusing instead on how you can craft content that provides long-lasting value for readers. This, in turn, means focusing on answering user questions and providing a viewpoint that can’t be found anywhere else on the Web.

5. Use keywords as a tool

For many years, keywords were the virtual center of SEO. Today, they’re better seen as a tool to help enhance and expand the rest of your SEO efforts. When you see keywords as a tool that can help you clarify and determine user intent, you ensure that you’re providing the best-quality content to your users and that you’re focusing more on their needs than you are meaningless ranking metrics.

The Verdict

Keyword density is dead, folks, and we have a feeling that it’s not something we’re going to miss very much. By focusing on using keywords as a tool rather than a foundation and seeking to provide lasting, valuable content that truly answers a user’s questions, we can all ensure that we don’t fall prey to SEO trends and that our content is always top-notch.


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Julia McCoy is a top 30 content marketer and has been named an industry thought leader by several publications. She enjoys making the gray areas of content marketing clear with practical training, teaching, and systems. Her career in content marketing was completely self-taught. In 2011, she dropped out of college to follow her passion in writing, and since then grew her content agency, Express Writers, to thousands of worldwide clients from scratch. Julia is the author of two bestselling books on content marketing and copywriting, and is the host of The Write Podcast. Julia writes as a columnist on leading publications and certifies content strategists in her training course, The Content Strategy & Marketing Course. Julia lives in Austin, Texas with her daughter, husband, and one fur baby.

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