If you were involved in SEO in the 1990s or early 2000s, you know that keyword density was a hot topic. Webmasters and SEOs regularly calculated the ratio of keywords to the total word count of a given page. The idea was that there was some ideal keyword density for any page and that when a particular page reached this number, it would have a better chance of ranking for that specific keyword.
Sadly, this actually worked much of the time. Search engines were still in their infancy, and were tricked relatively easily. This is why keyword stuffing, as it came to be known, was such an effective strategy.
Google changed all that with various algorithm updates, including Panda, which began penalizing sites abusing this tactic. Most marketers are now aware that keyword stuffing is not only ineffective but that it can result in a manual action against their entire site.
However, many marketers and writers still struggle with whether or not keyword density still has a place – even a small one – within SEO. Is there an optimal density that guarantees you’ll rank better for a given keyword? Should we even be calculating keyword density at this point? And if not, how do keywords fit into web-based content?
This article will explore these questions and more.
First things first: Do keywords still matter?
Before we talk about keyword density, it’s important to consider keywords' role and importance in 2022. What role do specific keywords play in organic search rankings? Have long-tail keywords made individual keywords obsolete?
To put it simply, keywords did still matter in 2022. Chances are they’ll always matter, to an extent. However, as search engines have become more sophisticated, they have started putting far less emphasis on specific keywords, and more emphasis on the meaning or intent behind those keywords.
For instance, if you exclusively used the phrase “wedding cake” on a particular page, it’s entirely possible you could end up ranking for “bridal bakery”, even if you never used those specific words on the page.
The emergence of this semantic search has also led to a decline in the importance of using specific keywords in your copy. Google and other search engines have become better at determining the intent behind a search query.
For instance, using the example above, Google is better able to determine that someone searching for “wedding cake” is likely looking for a bakery in their area that could provide them with a wedding cake; whereas in the past, Google may have returned results specifically for wedding cakes: pictures of cakes, instructions for how to make one, etc.
So, while keywords do still matter, they clearly don’t matter to the extent that they used to. Should we even still be talking about keyword density, then? Let’s take a look.
Is keyword density still important in 2022?
While I haven’t directly answered this question yet, hopefully, you’ve gotten a good sense of the decreasing importance of using specific keywords a certain number of times within your copy.
There is no “optimal” keyword density you should be aiming for. If you feel a desperate need for a specific number, here’s the best I can do: according to Searchmetrics’ 2020 Ranking Factors report, the top-ranking pages used their specific keyword approximately 8-10 times, while having an average of 2250 words on the page.
However, there are a few important things to keep in mind:
- The study found this did not necessarily apply to the top 5 pages. In fact, pages that held the #1 position in the SERPs used their keyword an average of only 7 times.
- Word count has become a more important ranking factor than the number of keywords used. Longer content will naturally contain more instances of relevant keywords, so it’s not surprising that the number of keywords in high-ranking content has risen slightly since 2014 – so has the average word count of top-ranking pages.
- Relevant and proof terms have increased in importance, and marketers and SEOs would do well to increase their focus on incorporating these words and phrases into their content, rather than on calculating keyword density. Relevant terms are just what they sound like: related words and phrases that show you’re doing a good job of comprehensively covering the topic at hand (for instance, if you were talking about “wedding cakes”, you may use words like “bride”, “groom” or “event”). Proof terms, on the other hand, are words or phrases that are essential when covering a specific topic (using the same example, some proof terms might be “wedding” or “baking”).
How should I use keywords on my page?
There’s no doubt that the one-to-one relationship between specific keywords and rankings is all but gone. In light of this move away from using specific keywords a set number of times, how should keywords be used? Here are a few tips.
The placement of keywords is more important than frequency.
I recommend using your primary keywords in your header tags (particularly H1 and H2 tags), title tag, h1 tag, URL, and at least once within the body of the text content. Then, instead of honing in on one specific keyword, incorporate a number of related keywords into the content. Here is a great overview of where to use your keywords on your page.
Focusing on creating longer, more valuable content will naturally lead to higher rankings.
Instead of getting hung up on how many times you’re using your keywords, aim to cover every angle of your topic. With the vast majority of online content getting little to no traction, writing long-form, highly detailed, valuable content will give you the best chance of gaining inbound links, social media shares, and increased search rankings.
Keyword research is still important for finding overarching topics as well as related and proof terms.
Lest this article has led you to assume that keyword research is now irrelevant – it’s not. Understanding what types of queries your users typically use can help you address those specific questions on your website, and gain visibility as a result. It can also help you find potential subtopics you can cover in your efforts to write comprehensive content.
To quickly answer the question of whether keyword density is still important, consider this: two pages with the exact same keyword density can rank very differently. A page containing few or even no instances of the selected keyword can rank highly for that keyword, whereas a page with dozens of keywords and variations can receive no search visibility.
The biggest dangers, as I see it, in focusing on keyword density are that it takes your focus off of providing the best coverage of a topic, and it can land you a manual or algorithmic penalty if it’s especially egregious. Instead of spending your time thinking about how to strategically incorporate keywords, focus on covering a variety of subtopics while providing the best possible value for your readers.
When you write excellent content that does the best possible job of covering your topic – that’s the key to high rankings in 2022 and beyond. Not some imagined optimal keyword density.