Anyone who writes and works in the digital space should be familiar with the concepts of search engine optimization (SEO) and keywords.
They’re related to one another in that SEO depends in large part on targeted keywords, i.e. words and phrases appearing in the text, titles, and tags of a website that describe and relate to the site’s specific topic. SEO, of course, involves improving your web pages’ rankings on search engines in order to drive traffic. Though keywords are not the only thing search engines use to rank websites, they are how search engines determine what a given web page is about, and play a major role in ranking each page on a specific search term comparable to every other web page competing for that same term.
Which all sounds simple enough, but there are quite a few ins and outs regarding the use of keywords to optimize a web page. Far too many, in fact, to cover in one blog post (there’s an entire library of literature you could study for years), but one concept related to all of the above that we can cover in a more easily-digestible way is the concept of “keyword stuffing,” why it’s a terrible idea, and how you can avoid it.
What is Keyword Stuffing?
It might seem natural to use a keyword you’re trying to rank on as much as possible in the text of a given page. Except this is called “keyword stuffing,” and it is a BAD IDEA.
Once upon a time, it was a standard practice, but as search engines like Google refined their approach to generating search results, they realized that the experience of search engine users had been minimized. The old ways of optimization delivered winners and losers in a contest completely unrelated to searching: some sites did well, others did poorly, but the entire enterprise had almost nothing to do with providing search engine users with the actual information they were seeking.
That’s all changed. Today, search engines want pages to be optimized so that users find the best content and information possible related to their search terms. They want web pages to serve a purpose and provide value, and have rededicated their algorithms to weeding out keyword stuffers and elevating sites that deliver users with information related to the given search term. The bots and combers that dissect pages and report back with ranking information have become smart enough to tell the difference between keywords being used naturally and keyword stuffing, and are being engineered to mimic human language and to read the way a human would.
Some tricky developers still get away with flaunting the rules in the short-term, but keyword stuffers, once found, get penalized, demoted, and lose traffic. For neophyte users and DIY content marketers, following the rules and optimizing properly is a much better way to do business. Sites look better, read better, and appear more trustworthy from the jump, while the valuable information they provide inspires the confidence in readers that wins fans, clients, and customers.
The best metaphor we’ve heard for keyword usage is sunlight: a little bit of it is good for you, essential even, but too much of it can cause serious problems.
A Few Ways to Avoid Keyword Stuffing
The best way to avoid keyword stuffing is to give the people what they want. In fact, you should get the idea that you need a certain number of keywords per page out of your head entirely before beginning. Though one theory posits that 2-5% keyword usage is safe, thinking about frequency of use before beginning is the wrong way to conceive of the task.
Instead, use your keyword as a focal point. Think about how you can write about a given search term in an accurate, natural voice, and go forward from there.
As for sentence-level best practices, steer clear of repetition, and don’t pile related keywords together in long lists. Also, don’t simply jam your paragraphs full of out-of-context keywords. These look stupid, for starters, but they’re also dead giveaways to bots and crawlers that can “read” how a human would. All keywords appearing on a page need to be relevant to that page’s subject, but practically so. Everything should sound like it was written by an actual human being, for the purposes of being read by another one.
It’s also a good idea is to keep a list of long-tail keywords and related phrases handy as you write. You don’t want to overdo it on this front, either, but deftly tossing in a related phrase or synonym here and there prevents you from getting in trouble, with the added benefit of providing some ranking juice for the page on those related terms, as well.
The overall point is to provide value-rich content that uses keywords not simply as a means for driving traffic, but as a way of sharing information with users searching for it. Don’t write in the service of placing as many keywords as possible; write in the service of delivering ideas and information.