Keyword density has long been thought of as a ranking factor.
Some consider it an essential piece to the SEO puzzle for achieving a Page 1 position in Google.
Why is it so highly regarded?
We know keywords are important to Google. It’s difficult to rank content for a specific term when the words don’t appear in the on-page text.
Some SEO tool companies help add to this belief that there’s an ideal ratio of keywords to copy that will maximize the chances of earning high rankings.
It’s time to examine the evidence behind the claims that keyword density is a ranking factor.
The Claim: Keyword Density Is A Ranking Factor
First things first, what exactly is keyword density?
Keyword density refers to the number of times a term or phrase appears in relation to the amount of text on the page.
It’s calculated by dividing the number of keywords by the total number of words on the page and multiplying by 100.
For example, if a keyword is used 26 times in a 1,000-word article, then it has a keyword density of 2.6%.
There are various claims around the “best” keyword density to aim for. You may hear 2%, or 5%, or even as high as 10%.
So why do people believe keyword density is a ranking factor?
Unlike other ranking factor myths, this one is based in fact – keyword density used to be a real thing. But we’re talking way back in the earliest days of search.
Yet the idea persists today. Why? The thinking goes like this:
Keywords send signals to Google about which types of queries a page should show up for.
If too few keywords are used then Google may not understand what the page is about.
If too many keywords are used, then Google may see that as an attempt to manipulate search rankings, which it doesn’t take kindly to.
So some people believe there’s a specific keyword density that’s “just right” – a happy medium between using too many and too few keywords.
However, there’s no magic number that will achieve the best results for everyone. That’s not how Google works today.
The truth is fairly simple: using keywords is important, but hitting a certain ratio won’t help your SEO efforts.
In fact, a webpage can rank for a keyword even if that keyword never appears on that page. Which pretty much instantly blows up the whole idea of keyword density.
Keyword Density As A Ranking Factor: The Evidence
To answer the question of whether keyword density is a Google ranking factor we’re going to look at an official Google video from 2011, which is as accurate today as it was then.
The video features Matt Cutts, who worked with Google from 2000 to 2015. He was the head of Google’s webspam team and acted as a liaison between the company and the SEO community.
Cutts confirmed there is no ideal keyword density for Google. He said that overuse of a keyword can do more harm than good.
Mentioning a keyword a few times can help with rankings, but any more than that may lead to Google seeing it as keyword stuffing.
“Once you start to mention it a whole lot it really doesn’t help that much more. There’s diminishing returns. It’s just an incremental benefit but it’s really not that large. And then what you’ll find is, if you continue to repeat stuff over and over again, then you’re in danger of getting into keyword stuffing or gibberish and those kinds of things.
So the first one or two times you mention a word that might help with your rankings, absolutely. But just because you can say it seven or eight times, that doesn’t mean that it will necessarily help your rankings.”
If keyword density isn’t a ranking factor, then what’s the right way to use keywords?
Once you’ve identified the keywords you want to use, Cutts recommended writing content that’s long enough to work those keywords into the copy in a natural way. Read the content out loud when you’re done writing and listen for anything that doesn’t sound right.
If the copy sounds artificial, stilted, or like it was written by a robot, that’s a reasonable indicator the keyword was used too many times. On the other hand, if it sounds natural, then you’re on the right track.
Using synonyms when possible can help you avoid using the same keyword repeatedly. For example, in this piece of text, we could swap out “keyword density” with “keyword frequency.”
Synonyms are also a great way to hold a reader’s attention, and they may even help with ranking for other terms. Google understands synonyms, which means it’s possible for a page to rank when it’s not optimized for the exact term typed into the search bar.
Don’t Obsess Over Keyword Density
Cutts advice was clear: stop obsessing over keyword density. Be cautious of anyone who says otherwise.
“I would love it if people could stop obsessing about keyword density. It’s going to vary. It’s going to vary by area, it’s going to vary based on what other sites are ranking it.
It’s not a hard and fast rule, and anyone who tells you there is a hard and fast rule you might be careful because they might be selling you keyword density software or something along those lines.”
Keyword Density As A Ranking Factor: Our Verdict
Keyword density may have worked at one point. Ask any long-time SEO professional and you’ll hear lots of anecdotal evidence that keyword density worked – and worked quite well.
Keyword density simply isn’t worth stressing about. As long as you use the word or phrase a few times, as you likely would if you weren’t aiming for a specific ratio, then you’re good.
At the least, use the keyword in your page title, meta description, and first paragraph. Then limit the use to a few more times throughout the copy.
There’s no perfect percentage of keywords to use because keyword density is not a ranking factor.
Featured image: Paulo Bobita/SearchEngineJournal