If you are researching effective SEO practices, then at some point you are going to come across the question: What is a good keyword density? It turns out that this is a less relevant question than you might initially assume, but the good news is that it is a good start to understanding the nature of SEO and to finding the perfect, up-to-date SEO policy for your website and/or blog.
Defining Keyword Density
In its basic form, keyword density refers to the number of times a keyword appears in a web document divided by the total number of words in the document. If you want to express this ratio as a percentage, then just multiply by 100.
Some argue that keyword density is more accurately calculated by taking into account the word length of the keyword. After all, most keywords are better described as keyphrases – they contain more than one word. One way to take this into account is to multiply the number of times the keyphrase appears by the number of words in the phrase, then to divide this product by the total number of words in the web document.
Traditionally, a keyword density of 3 to 5 percent was regarded as ideal. However, as search engines started to crack down on the artificial use of keywords to trick the system, lower percentages started to be favored.
If this seems overwhelming, do not worry. There are very inexpensive, or even free, keyword density calculating tools that will simply take your web text and give you a result.
Keyword density is a foundational concept in search engine optimization (SEO). Webmasters (general term for people who have any role in website creation) do keyword research to find the best keywords to get their content to the people who want it most. Search engines show a search engine results page (called a SERP) to individual searchers. As a webmaster, your goal is to be as close to the top of a searcher’s SERP as possible.
Keyphrases vs. Keywords
A keyphrase that really describes what your material is about is better than a single general keyword. It is hard to be specific in one word – and you must be specific if your content is directed at a well-defined niche. A much better policy is to generate a focus keyphrase that is made up of words carefully chosen to capture the core of your content. Note: To count for SEO purposes, the words of the focus keyphrase need to appear within the same sentence. Also, note that a good keyword density in today’s time is between 0.5% and 3%.
A keyphrase can be any length needed to serve the purpose. The specificity of your content should be mirrored in the keyphrase. It is better to have a descriptive keyphrase that is too long to use repeatedly (called a long tail keyphrase) in your text than a poorly-crafted phrase that is easy to insert everywhere.
If you cannot seem to fit your chosen keyphrase into your document enough, then there probably is some discrepancy between the keyphrase and the topic; this could indicate a problem with either the keyphrase or the writing. Also beware: difficulty finding a fitting keyphrase for your content might indicate that the site’s mission is unclear.
If, in contrast, you have a great keyphrase and your problem is that you cannot help overusing it, then there are a couple of solutions. One is to consider using related keyphrases: Look for keyphrases expressing an idea related to the initial keyphrase; integrating these new related keyphrases might involve some editing, but ultimately, you will bring in different users and give helpful information to original users. An added bonus is that more good keyphrases will put you higher on more people’s SERPs.
A less SEO-oriented approach to the keyphrase overuse problem is to find synonyms for the words of your keyphrase. The synonyms will not directly improve your SEO ranking, unless they happen to overlap with related keywords. However, synonyms make for less redundant, more exciting writing; readers will likely reward this with more visits to your site, which ultimately will improve your search engine ranking.
Keyword Consistency Replacing Keyword Density
Keyword consistency is another SEO measure of keyword usage. Keyword consistency refers to the extent to which a keyword/keyphrase appears throughout the various elements of a website’s build. In addition to the body of written text, it includes the title, headers, alt texts, image file names, URL, and metatags. In HTML code, these entities form different categories, some visible to the user and others not. All are visible to search engines, however.
If you are a coder, you probably already know what these terms mean. Otherwise, here are some basic definitions:
The title is what it sounds like – it is the title of the webpage; it usually appears at the top of the webpage and on the first line of a search result listing.
Headers are subheadings that mark any subtopics/subdivisions in the text.
The image file name is probably familiar to you – just the name of the computer file that contains the photo.
Alt text is text content that can be read in place of an image; it is normally hidden from user view.
The URL is the web address, which for the sake of both the user and the search engine, should be consistent with the page’s content.
Lastly, meta tags are pieces of data that describe the webpage to a search engine but are not part of visible content.
The object of keyword consistency is to have the keyword appear in several of these elements, not to have a high density in any one element. As with keyword density – if you have a good keyphrase, you should not find it difficult to put it in multiple elements of your webpage.
Keyword consistency is replacing keyword density as an effective SEO measure. Search engines are increasingly wary of keyword density, and so they are basing their rankings more heavily on keyword consistency. However, there is a caveat: Just as excessive keyword density started to be down-ranked, so have some forms of excessive keyword consistency.
SEO Keyword/Keyphrase Density Myths
Probably the most common SEO keyphrase density myth is that more is better: It is natural to assume that, if the search engine is ranking your webpage based on keyword density, then the higher the density, the better your ranking. Back when search engines were new, this might have worked.
However, with the rise of keyword consistency and other more advanced measures, search engines are not likely to rank your page higher just because a keyword appears many times in the text body. In fact, search engines might even rank a high-keyword-density site lower.
The reason search engines see high density as a negative is because it frequently indicates that the user has loaded the document with the keyphrase unnaturally – possibly by repeating the phrase over and over in a nonsensical way that does not contribute to the writing or content at all. This is known as keyword stuffing, and it is the most common type of search spam (aka spamdexing).
Keyword stuffing is also a problem in keyword consistency; however, this is really just another case of the same problem: Search spammers pack keyphrases into other web elements, especially meta tags and backlink texts. (Backlinks are links from other sites, as when they use your site as a source; they are also known as inbound links). However, search engines have become increasingly sensitive to these tactics and are likely to rate a page with any form of keyword stuffing down.
If all of this leaves you wondering what you can do to get ahead with SEO, realize that one of the biggest SEO myths, ironically, is that you have to do crafty SEO tricks to be ranked highly. More and more, search engines look for content relevance and user response. The best way to out-perform the competition in these areas is just to provide well-made content.
Another myth is that you have to use keyphrases that are relevant to wide swaths of people. Showing up on a huge number of people’s SERPs is not helpful for the endgame, because you will be competing with more webpages – many of which are more on point for many searchers.
Also, if someone clicks on your site, only to find your content irrelevant and quickly leave (known as bouncing), this will not promote your content – and, furthermore, search engines down-rank high bounce rates. Therefore, in most instances, it is best to target a specific niche. To do this, you should use a well-researched keyphrase that will show up high on your target niche’s SERPs.
Google’s Approach to Keyword Density over Time
Over time, Google has worked diligently to reduce search spam. As part of this mission, Google began to disregard keyword density in favor of keyphrase consistency around 2014. Naturally, it then had to crack down on the more advanced keyword stuffing techniques used in the keyword consistency-based environment. One approach: Google stopped using meta tags as criteria for search rankings.
All the while, Google began putting more emphasis on user response to sites: It up-ranked sites that proved themselves to be authorities – that is, sites that people searched for individually. Similarly, it up-ranked sites with heavy web traffic. All the while, Google found increasingly clever ways to take search words and produce relevant results. Ultimately, Google has gotten more and more like a really fast human reviewer, and less like a machine that can be tricked.
Google’s Algorithm: Mostly Mysterious
Google, like all search engines, is based on an algorithm. An algorithm is a series of programmed computer instructions. A search engine algorithm at work is sometimes called a web bot or web crawler. Since Google is always working to improve their algorithm, the Google bot does not work the same way over time. Google does not publish specific criteria by which sites are up-ranked by their bot.
However, there are certain basic criteria that are likely help you rank well on Google (and probably all other search engines too): First, do keyword research and use good keyphrases in a measured way; have a well-structured site with peripheral pages linking back to foundational pages; manage your site so that all page elements load as intended; produce relevant, high-quality content for a low bounce rate and high inbound link rate; and make your site mobile-friendly.
Other Search Engines: Bing and YOUTUBE
In general, there are only a few SEO differences to consider if you are working with search engines other than Google.
Bing differs from Google in its emphasis on official authority, multimedia sites, and social media posts. Where Google tends to up-rank popular sites as authorities, Bing tends to treat officially credible sites (often .gov or .edu) more favorably.
Bing, more than Google, up-ranks sites with multimedia elements (videos, audio, etc.) and is accordingly more favorable to sites that run on Adobe Flash. Finally, unlike Google, Bing presents relevant social media actions, if available, at the top of its SERPs.
YouTube is another very popular search engine, mostly because video is such an effective way to share content. Since its content is audio-visual by definition and involves direct viewer feedback, YouTube uses slightly different criteria: user ratings; numbers of views, comments, and channel subscribers; how often a video is added to a playlist; and how often a video is embedded on a website.
SEO Is Increasingly Humanized
Search engines are becoming more and more humanized. Search algorithms do not just keep track of the number of times a word appears on a webpage; they look at word distribution, context, link quality, user traffic data, URL construction, and more. They look at sites in a holistic way – much the way a careful human critic would – but much faster.
Therefore, the best SEO strategy for both marketing and information-sharing is to focus on providing well-made, relevant content. Focus on making a better product or service, taking better photos, doing better graphics, shooting better videos, and writing with greater force and style. Effective SEO tactics should work almost naturally.