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Is Keyword Density Still Important?

  • Written By Marcus
  • Posted November 23, 2017
  • 4 minutes Read Time

It’s nearly the end of 2017 and the SEO game is still changing. Keyword density is a common area of concern for all that dabble in search engine optimisation, but is there an answer to the age-old question?

Back in 2011, including plenty of keywords in your body content and meta tags would almost guarantee that page would rank well in search engines for that specific search term.

It’s because of this that the whole concept of keyword density even exists. Industry experts caught wind of this strategy and began advising us all that a density of anywhere between 2 and 5% (meaning at least 2-5% of words on the page were your specific target keywords) was something to strive for.

When the Panda update was released, this approach was called into question – was it better to leave things as they were, or shift your focus towards creating high quality, reader-friendly content?

Ultimately, that question remains unanswered today, partly due to the fact that the SEO landscape has continued to increase in complexity. The release of the Hummingbird update, as well as other semantic search improvements, has left marketers struggling to understand if content keywords are still as important as they used to be.

That original game plan appeared to work regularly back in 2011 and still forms the basics of keyword density strategy today. It’s premise was straightforward enough – if you wanted to appear for a search term such as ‘hardback books’, you’d simply include the phrase ‘hardback books’ regularly throughout your content.

Unfortunately, Google decided this wasn’t providing its users with the most relevant content and moved the goalposts with Hummingbird – an update to the search algorithm that changed how Google viewed relevance. Instead of matching identical ‘exact match’ keywords, the new update meant that Google would now attempt to understand the intent of a user’s search term and therefore present pages that matched its own interpretation.

Simply put, instead of searching for pages that repeatedly listed ‘hardback books’, Google would find pages that discuss hardback books using natural language and present these at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs). This change suggests keyword density as part of an SEO strategy is no longer as important as it used to be, plus the fact that a more contextual writing style would appear to work more effectively with the Hummingbird update criteria.

So What Does The Cold, Hard Data Suggest?

Well, research from SEMRush conducted earlier this year showed that 18% of top-ranked pages actually didn’t have the searched keyword in body content at all – surprising huh! This reinforces the new-found belief from many industry experts that you can rank for a target keyword without including it in on-page content.

Now we don’t want to suggest that you start ignoring keywords – far from it. A focus on your target keywords is still vitally important to any SEO campaign, but the research suggests that keyword density has far less of an impact on rankings than it used to. Even though the data highlights 18% of top-ranked pages don’t feature the searched keyword, the other 82% do – that’s still 8 out of every 10 search results.

In fact, pages targeting keywords that are particularly popular and see large volumes of traffic featured the search terms in their titles, metadata content or a combination of all three. The key thing to take away from the data is the fact that the higher the keyword was placed in the body content of a page, the more important Google’s crawlers took it to be.

Key Points

  • Researching Keywords Are Still Important – You should still take the time to investigate potentially valuable keywords and find the most appropriate topics to create content about.
  • Popular Keywords Matter More – Pages that feature more popular search queries include more keywords than less popular queries. This means that main keywords have more value to you than long-tail keywords.
  • Keyword Position Matters – Google takes the position of your keywords into account, so keywords in titles and high in body content have more importance than those hidden at the end.
  • Natural Language Is King – Only produce content that is natural and high quality as Google will discount anything else, and keyword density shouldn’t interfere with this.

So is keyword density still important in SEO? Yes, but not nearly as much as it used to be.

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So is keyword density still important in SEO? Yes, but not nearly as much as it used to be.

Don’t go out of your way to optimise individual pages for exact-match keywords and aim for that previously worshipped 2-5% density – your time is better spent understanding your primary target search terms and creating shareable content that is of use to readers.

Relevancy and usefulness are the new kings in SEO town.