There’s a seemingly intuitive – but in practice misguided – logic that continues to lead marketers astray when trying to optimize website content for SEO. Since search engines are designed to accept keywords as input and show search results that are most relevant to those terms, you might reason: “Why not cram those keywords into my content as much as possible?” Well, because you’ll be doing a lot more harm than good.
This practice is called keyword stuffing, and it actually used to be fairly successful – until search engines wised up to it and began penalizing websites that did it. Today, stuffing a keyword into your content too many times can actually knock the stuffing out of your search rankings, or even cause your content to be removed from search listings entirely.
Why is the practice of keyword stuffing so problematic?
Search engines are in the business of connecting an audience with the content that will satisfy their search intentions, which means they use algorithms that do their very best to favor high-quality, informative content. When content isn’t written for a human audience, but is instead structured to game an algorithm, the result is usually a spammy and artificial read that doesn’t serve a site visitor’s needs and (in almost all cases) doesn’t deserve their attention.
Consequently, keyword stuffing is rightfully considered a black hat technique that goes against SEO best practices.
How does keyword stuffing work – and how do you know if you’re doing it?
Unfortunately, many marketers and content creators still practice keyword stuffing (believing it to be an advantageous strategy for the logic described above). However, doing so can and will cripple their sites’ standings with search engines as a result.
Here are two examples of the more common keyword stuffing varieties (i.e. do not do these):
Repeating the keyword over and over, in full view of your site visitor
Say that a kitchen appliance ecommerce site wants a content page to rank highly in search results for the term ‘most affordable toaster’. An example of keyword stuffing would be if they unnecessarily included the phrase ‘most affordable toaster’ line after line, even jamming in ‘most affordable toaster’ where the term is out of context or irrelevant to the content topic. Most affordable toaster. In the most egregious cases, the content may just repeat the keyword in a block of text. Did I mention most affordable toaster?
There’s actually a useful equation that should be applied as a best practice to govern how often a keyword ought to be included in a piece of content. While the guideline is flexible, it’s best to aim for a keyword density of 2% or less, where keyword density = the number of times the keyword appears in the copy divided by the number of total words in the copy. For example, the above paragraph is 88 words and includes ‘most affordable toaster’ five times, giving a keyword density of 5.7% – much too high!
Including the keyword invisibly
In an attempt to avoid alienating readers by making them read spammy, unhelpful copy, some sites will stuff keywords where they aren’t visible. This can include camouflaging text by making it the same color as the webpage’s background, or placing text within the page’s code, such as in meta, alt, and comment tags. Even more so than with visible keyword stuffing techniques, these efforts are aimed solely for the consumption of search engine crawlers and not actual human readers.
This attempt to fool the algorithms that determine search rankings is (once again) not as clever as it might seem, because search engines actually can and do recognize these misguided efforts and penalize pages’ search rankings in response.
Using keywords correctly
As with most aspects of life, doing the right thing is the right thing to do if you want your site’s visibility to grow. Attempting to deceive search engines with keyword stuffing shortcuts isn’t going to work – following legitimate SEO best practices will.
It all begins with creating content with real visitors in mind, and then building out that content to meet their needs. Google offers guidance on producing quality content pieces around targeted keywords, suggesting that sites should “focus on creating useful, information-rich content that uses keywords appropriately and in context”.
One important technique – which is nearly the opposite of keyword stuffing – is to be sure that each content page focuses on a single primary keyword that is closely representative of the content as a whole. Ideally, this keyword should be a popular search term with minimal competition, making it a ripe target for your page to achieve a high rank. By focusing each page on a separate keyword, you make it significantly easier for search engines to understand what each content page is about and will avoid keyword cannibalization (where two or more of your pages end up fighting for attention).
Another best practice is to make sure content pieces include more than 300 words in the main body copy. Doing so alerts search engines that the content is probably robust enough to offer valuable information, and it helps with ensuring a keyword density of under 2%.
And while keyword stuffing will earn negative results, it’s a good practice to incorporate secondary keywords, keyword synonyms, and long-tail variations of the primary keyword within content copy in order to reinforce the topic’s focus.
It’s also perfectly acceptable (and smart) to place the primary keyword once within page elements, including the page title, one or more subheadings, the title tag, meta description, one or more image alt tags, the first paragraph, and near to the end of the content.
By avoiding keyword stuffing while still providing search engines clarity around the keywords that your content pieces should be associated with, you can:
Earn the higher search ranking placements that lead to more robust organic traffic
Provide the quality of content that rewards (and brings back) your audience and customers.
Kim Kosaka is the Director of Marketing at Alexa.com, whose tools provide insight into digital behavior that marketers use to better understand and win over their audience.