KEYWORD DENSITY – IS THERE A DEFINITIVE PERCENTAGE?
Keywords have been the central facet of search engine optimization since Google first started delivering returns back in the late 1990s. In the beginning, the sheer number of times that a keyword appeared on a page determined where it showed up in the SERPs. As search engines evolved, the amount that keywords helped became a bit less important. Other factors were added into the search engines result equation. Today, there are over 200 individual metrics that are used by Google to determine a web page’s SERP ranking. And, even though Google’s representatives have tried to downplay the importance of keywords, it is still obvious that they are at the top of the metric list.
Google Weighs In
The real key is to understand how keywords are measured by Google. As Google’s search engine spiders were evolving, the programmers noted that some webmasters were finding new and innovative ways to incorporate keywords into their pages. Some of these methods included placing a huge list of keywords at the bottom of the page, putting “invisible text” (text that is the same color as the background) on the page, placing a list of keywords in the META description, stuffing keywords into picture descriptions and file names and various other ploys. The quality assurance team at Google felt that these tactics were nothing more than attempts to game the system without delivering high-quality content. This led to the decision to make keyword stuffing count against a site in the calculation of its rank. Thus, the new game became trying to figure out at exactly what percentage these penalties were going to be assessed. Google has stated that there is no one magic number, but rather that it depends on what the competition is doing. While this sounds good when it comes from the mouth of Matt Cuts (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Rk4qgQdp2UA#!), it doesn’t really hold water under scrutiny.
Mr. Cutts asserts that there is no set keyword density number that will cause a penalty for a website even though the web spiders are computer programs that are unable to make arbitrary decisions. This means that they must have a set parameters to impose a penalty. Of course, if Mr. Cutts did give us a number, then every single website in the world would optimize every page to meet these new density numbers, and the purpose of the entire metric would be compromised. So we can’t blame Mr. Cutts for towing the company line and imploring us to create quality content and stop worrying about keyword density.
Sorry, Mr. Cutts, we just can’t do that. We’ll take your advice and load our pages with well written content that works keywords naturally into the flow, but we’ll still be trying to figure out the golden keyword ratio that is hidden in the bowels of the GoogleBot.
Experimentation is the Key
If we listen closely to what Matt Cutts says, he says there is “no one magic number.” Reading into this, it could mean that there are multiple magic numbers. These numbers could be different for different niches or different spider configurations. Maybe the keyword density percentage is compiled from different areas of the page. Perhaps, there is one penalty for a certain percentage of keywords in the Meta description and another totally different number for the percentage in the main text and then still another for the density in picture and alt tags.
The only honest way to determine how this system works is to experiment with a huge number of pages using multiple different keyword strategies. For most of us, this is simply impractical. A more plausible, and far more effective solution is to do this research for the keywords that you are trying to rank for. Look at the top ten page returns for your keyword in a Google search and then compare the keyword densities in each one. The results will give you a good idea of the density that will be required to reach page 1. If you are feeling a bit adventurous, check the next few pages and see if the densities change. This could give you a good idea of what is working and what isn’t.
What the Pros Are Saying
If you ask 100 different SEO experts what keyword density is working right now, you’ll get as many different answers, but they will be in the general range of 1% to 10%. The real telling thing is that most SEO professionals are steering away from keyword density in favor of creating more engaging, higher-quality content and using other Google “best practices” as the way to bring up SERPs.
We are still of the belief that you need to have the keyword in your text at least 2%-4% of the time or the search engine will never find you. You also need to have a much higher keyword density in your inbound links. This is really where keyword density is important. Google uses backlinks as an “objective” way of telling what a webpage is about. So if your inbound link keyword density is 20%, it’s going to get you ranked much higher than an inbound link percentage of 5%. It is unknown if there are penalties for an inbound link density that is too high, but Google has so many metrics that there is a good chance that there may be. It would be a good practice to shy away from an inbound link keyword density of above 35%. Again, check the sites that are ranking high in a Google SERP for your keyword and see what the link keyword percentage is on them. Here’s a tool that can be used to do just that. (http://www.webconfs.com/domain-stats.php)
After you have fully researched the competition, try to make some tweaks to your current pages and see what results you get. If your web rank doesn’t seem to be changing, reassess the conclusions you came to when analyzing your competitor’s sites. Keyword density may not be the part of your SEO that is the problem. You may have a quality issue, a problem with or lack of backlinks or perhaps your social media engagement simply isn’t nearly as complete as theirs. Just remember that keyword density, although it isn’t as strong as it used to be, is still a major factor in determining page rank and keeping the Google machine happy will help your rise above the competition.