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Is Keyword Density Dead: How it Affects SEO

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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.

About the author

avatar

Julia McCoy

Julia McCoy is a serial content marketer, entrepreneur, and bestselling author. She founded a multi-million dollar content agency, Express Writers, with nothing more than $75 at 19 years old. Today, her team has nearly 100 expert content creators on staff, and serves thousands of clients around the world. She's earned her way to the top 30 worldwide content marketers, and has a passion for sharing what she knows in her books and in her online course, The Content Strategy & Marketing Course. Julia also hosts The Write Podcast on iTunes.

32 Comments

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  • Using synonyms is a good point , allows one to mention keywords repeatedly without triggering bad signals. Nice!

  • Very nice information. thanks for sharing this interesting article Julia.In an 500+ article how many keywords will be use to promote any

    • Hi Rakesh, the Yoast SEO plugin will give you some good suggestions for KW amounts in your content. For 500 words I’d say no more than 10. But that doesn’t include your meta tags/titles.

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  • I understand the meaning and usefullness of ‘semantic search’. Is this the same as ‘long tailed search ? Also, can you give a typical example of what to use as semantic keyword/s in the META KEYWORDS section of an HTML page…would I type “Brown leather shoes in all styles” as a ‘semantic’ keyword sentence or Brown leather shoes in (then state all the styles. Its what I actually type in my KEYWORD METATAG website pages that I’m trying to get to grips with.

    • Hi John, semantic isn’t all about the keywords but rather context/human nature of the content. Long tails certainly play in. Your meta description should ALWAYS read natural and that’s a part of semantic search. Meta keywords should just be one long tail keyword (create multiple content per keyword, not lots of keywords in one page).

  • Very informative and useful…thanks. I am new to SEO, and your keyword density assessment is an important piece of the puzzle, helpful.

  • Interesting article, it is so true that keywords stuffing will definitely cause the rank to plummet. I saw a Google video that mentioned this very thing. The fellow mentioned that placing the keyword at the top of the article, in the title and perhaps one of the H1 and H2 of the text is sufficient to let the Search Engine know what it is that your article is about. Synonyms are a must.

  • Hi, nice tips! Use synonyms it’s ok but also it’s necessary to build additional content semantically related to the main theme of the article.

  • A great article about keyword density.In my point of view,keyword density is useful but stuffing shouldn’t be allowed as this may leads to the penalty.So,better we could focus on writing the useful article which readers like instead focusing on merely keyword density.

  • Hello dear,
    Well Said, SEO Keywords Now dead you can check Yoast Plug in we have to active keyword option manually means they have stopped keyword meta tag in every Page.
    Thanks
    Sagar Ganatra

  • Great info on semantics and using synonyms instead of repeating or keyword stuffing my content to gain an advantage in the SERPs. Thanks for sharing!

    Paul

  • Thanks for sharing a great information about keyword density dead how it affects seo. Great informative article.

  • Basically characteristic connecting will come after unnatural connecting. Individuals have a tendency to advanced his/her site first to get common connecting.

  • Keyword density is really an issue when you use too much keywords phrases in your web content. However, keyword density meaning has been going to be down after 2003. but, we should keep focusing on Keywords placement in your web or article content. The content is really awesome and fantastic.

  • Keywords density in a major factor which increase or decrease your ranking. If you going to write any content like Blog, or Article just keep right keyword at right place no need to use excessive keywords.

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