Does keyword density matter in 2013?

by Tim Hill (aka Doodled)

August 7th 2013
Many SEO practitioners try and fail, and then conclude Keyword Density doesn't work and therefore doesn't matter
Many SEO practitioners try and fail, and then conclude Keyword Density doesn't work and therefore doesn't matter

Oh so many people spend a great deal of time fretting over having a keyword density of 4% or 6%. Is it enough? Is it too much and they'll get penalised?

And advice on the internet is pretty hazy because the SEO community seems divided between those who feel it is of no importance at all and those, including me, who can see it still plays a part.

I know it does because I use it on a regular basis to profoundly effect the rankings of pages and sites. However it is a bit of an art to get it working as it is not just a case of adding your keyword 'a few more times'.

For this reason many SEO practitioners try and fail, and then conclude Keyword Density doesn't work and therefore doesn't matter.

But who best to explain the truth of the matter than Matt Cutts and he does so in the video. Watch it first and then let's read between the lines.

Time to break it down:

Keyword Density is part of SEO

The first thing to note is this: Keyword Density is part of your SEO work, no the be all and end all.

Just because you get it right doesn't mean you will out rank other websites who have got it wrong. If they have been doing other things, such as building very high quality links, this may be more effective than your keyword density work.

That said, I have ranked many websites just by sorting out keyword density so it is very possible, just not a definite answer.

The keyword density curve

Notice in the video how Matt makes a curve in the air with his hand. He's basically saying this:

  • keyword density of below x% is not helpful to search engines (where his hand starts the curve),
  • keyword density of x% helps (his hand is moving upwards – he mentions “a couple of times” but obviously there is a context issue here, it depends how large your page is),
  • keyword density of greater than x% doesn't change anything (his hand is flat lining),
  • keyword density of greater than y% can result in a penalty (his hand is moving downwards.)

OK – now we're drooling, all we need to know is what that x% or y% is and we could be motoring.

But that's the point he makes at the end of the video - “it depends”. So how are you going to achieve the right keyword density if “it depends” and we don't know why, and on what, “it depends”.

A good keyword density

The answer is really quite simple, but with a string attached. First, as most people accept, write for people and write naturally. If you don't have the gift of the gab hire someone who does.

Second, make sure your chosen keyword (or phrase) is the most popular occurring word or phrase on the page, and your second keyword or phrase is the second most popular occurring word or phrase on the page, etc.

This may mean tweaking the text a little but it should be done after the original written piece has been authored for humans. It may mean your keyword or phrase has a density of 2% or 4% or 6%.

Third, ensure that the density is not substantially higher than other words on the page. So if your chosen keyword has a density of 12% and the next most popular keyword is 3% you have an issue.

Stripping out white noise

If, after tweaking your text, you think it doesn't read that well then look at the other content on your site that may occur often but not actually mean anything such as 'read more' or 'start today'.

Sometimes it is better to strip these out than to stuff the main content with your keyword. You can do this by changing text links such as 'more info' and 'contact us' into graphics.

What the video doesn't say

Matt's video is made for beginners so it is fairly simplistic. What it doesn't mention is that Google has a vast library of words that mean the same thing. So it understands, for example, ' that 'doctor' and 'medical practitioner' and 'general practitioner' are the same word.

This means that you could accidentally end up keyword stuffing if you are trying to get 'doctor' to be the most common word on the page but you also use 'medical practitioner' on a regular basis.

So check your text carefully for this and add the various densities together when you are analysing your content.

Latent Semantic Indexing

Search engines are also increasingly using Latent Semantic Indexing. This is where they understand the keyword based on the context of the text. For example:

“Here at our practice we care about our patients and their treatment”.

From the context: “we” = doctors.

As such you should be careful to consider how many times contextual keywords occur.

Cleaning up the text

If you are writing in a language other than your own and you are not fluent get a native speaker to give it a final clean. Google and others have spell check and grammar check in just the same way that Word does. They can see poorly written content and, given the choice, will rank better content higher.

The upshot of it all

  • Write first for humans.
  • Tweak if needed either by adding the keyword into the text more often or by stripping out noise.
  • Remember to consider where your keyword appears 'in context' rather than literally.
  • If you are writing in a foreign language get a native speaker to go over your content.