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Is Optimal Keyword Density a Red Herring?

Keyword density. It’s such a widely-known dilemma in the world of search engine optimization (SEO) that Yoast handles it in its keyword checklist that is so popular on WordPress. However, as search engines turn away from traditional rankings signals and towards signs of user intent and satisfaction, that dilemma has evolved. Things have changed so much that the inherent danger in disregarding keyword density—hurting your own site through keyword stuffing—has become questioned by marketing professionals: There are indications that keyword stuffing penalties are on the wane.

So, what is keyword density? What’s the optimal percentage? Is there one? Was there ever one? Is this all just a red herring?

Optimal keyword density in SEO is a red herring

Keyword Density: Count and Divide

Keyword density is simply the number of times a particular word (or phrase) appears in the written content of a page, expressed in a percentage. So, if you write a 1,000 word legal blog and use the word “conviction” 12 times, and the phrase “Fourth Amendment” 3 times, the keyword density for “conviction” would be 1.2%, but only 0.3% for “Fourth Amendment.”

It’s important, especially for the purposes of this particular discussion, to recall that you do not get to choose which words and phrases are “your keywords.” They all are: Every word you use in a legal blog post is a potential keyword.

What’s the Big Dilemma?

The big deal about keyword density is that search engines like to use the written content of a page to determine what the page is about, and therefore whether it is relevant and important for a given search query. If your webpage is more relevant and important than someone else’s page, yours gets boosted in the search engine results page (SERP) and becomes more likely to attract web traffic.

Naturally, once professional online marketers learned that, they started cramming webpages so full of the words and phrases that they wanted to rank well for that the pages became unreadable. Search engines responded to this black hat SEO move by penalizing webpages that used the same words or phrases too often.

This created the keyword density dilemma: Marketers wanted to know how much was too much, so they could go right up to that line without going over it. Google knew about the issue as early as 2011, with SEO guru Matt Cutts succinctly encapsulating the issue at the 0:42 mark of this now-infamous video:

Marketers knew that the magical talisman of optimal keyword density would have to be a percentage—while Cutts talks about keyword count in terms of numbers, it would be silly to think that longer webpages run past the magic number more often than shorter webpages. They also knew that Cutts’ claim that there was no magical number was a lie: If he said anything else, it would just be a matter of time before they figured it out and could “beat” Google’s algorithm.

But what was the percentage?

A Wide Range of Answers

Different online marketers have different answers in the search for the keyword density Holy Grail.

Yoast says it’s between 0.5% and 2.5%, and we’ve found that most others fall in that range. At Myers Freelance, we’ve seen some attorneys working on their own approach 5% in their legal blogs and landing pages. We’ve even seen professional legal marketers end every paragraph with targeted keywords.

Moz, on the other hand, says not to sweat the density and just write naturally while making sure to hit your targeted keywords or phrases a few times.

Finally, Google revisited the topic in October, 2014, with John Mueller admitting that “search engines have kind of moved on from” keyword density signals.

Our Take: Write Naturally While Hitting the Salient Notes

We’ve had our ears to the ground for some time, now, and our experience watching the tectonic shifts in the SEO world lead us to think that keyword density percentages are something to have on the back burner, but never on the front one.

Yes, keyword density data is helpful because it can tell you if something is horribly wrong. If you write a legal blog post and see red flags because a word or phrase takes up 10% of your content, you should probably go back and edit. You may get penalized for keyword stuffing.

However, outside of those instances, keyword density is not something you should bother thinking about. Write naturally, instead, and the keywords will happen because you are already writing about what you want to write about. Drop in your law firm’s name. Mention your practice area. But don’t sweat the rest of it.

We say this for two reasons.

First, a bright line rule like keyword density is old school search engine technique. Search engines used to have other relatively bright line rules—like penalties for “thin” pages with under 300 words of content—but have increasingly moved away from them. Better indications of a webpage’s relevance and importance have come from user-generated signals like time spent on page. The tectonic shift away from bright line rules and towards a more holistic approach fits the keyword density dilemma, as well.

Second, we’re seeing strong indications that keyword stuffing penalties are weakening. Why would those penalties decline in importance if keyword density was still a big piece of the SEO puzzle? If keyword density really mattered, we’d see marketing pros cramming webpages with keywords all over again. We’re not, so keyword density is probably, in the end, a big red herring.