Long-form content is still king, and that means keywords and search strings matter. Keyword stuffing is too much of a good thing…and it’s NOT a good thing!
In Thursday’s post, I mentioned that content creation is a balancing act between satisfying the algorithms by which search engines rank content and writing for human eyes. This week, I want to do a deeper dive into the concept to illustrate why it is so important to achieve this balance–and why sometimes, seemingly paradoxically, the machine will lose.
Some of the most popular and risky ways to game SERP rankings include:
- “Spun” or computer-generated content
- Keyword stuffing
- Artificial linkbuilding
- Link spamming
- Whited-out text
Yesterday, I talking about content spinning. Today, we’re going to talk about keyword stuffing.
Keyword stuffing is generally the easiest algorithm-gaming method for non-SEO geeks to understand. Stuffing occurs when content is so bogged down with iterations of a keyword that it no longer reads naturally to the human eye. While the main keyword or string the page or site is trying to rank for is usually the culprit, associated keywords can also contribute to keyword stuffing.
Back in the bad old days, keyword stuffing was commonplace. Especially in content mills, seeing orders with required keyword densities of 3%, 5% or even a preposterous 10% was typical. The results made for agonizing writing and poor reading, but the algorithms in place at the time were in their infancy when it came to prioritizing human readability and content value. Today, a 10% primary keyword ratio on one page would probably get an entire website flagged.
Let’s say I’m tasked with creating a landing page which optimizes for the key phrase “SEO services Portland.” Many people’s first inclination would be to cram the target key phrase in anywhere they possibly can. But this isn’t actually the best solution.
1-2% keyword density is generally considered optimal. This means that for every 100 words, you want the target keyword to show up no more than twice.
For purposes of this example, I’m trying to create content which will rank for the phrase “SEO services Portland.” The [keyword][location] format is very popular, as is [location][keyword]. However, [keyword][location] can be trickier to work with, because it’s not a natural construction to native English speakers. For an experienced writer, this isn’t a problem in itself, but it does require special handling.
Starting with the landing page title, I can get one instance of the keyword in right off the bat, like so:
SEO Services Portland Businesses Can Trust
This is a logical use of a slightly illogical keyword. It massages some of the apparent strangeness out of the statement, because in English we typically place location after any adjectives and before any other nouns. Now I can start on the actual content. This paragraph is intended only as a sample; for a landing page, I would typically want to go at least 750 words, and 1,500-2,000 would actually be better. Always remember long-form content performs better for algorithms!
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Let’s break this down to see its moving parts.
We’ve already got the title hammered out, so that’s one iteration of the target keyword. However, that iteration is not normally included in the actual document count, because the title is treated as a separate signal by algorithms. Knowing this, we’re okay to add approximately 1-2 more iterations per 100 words of copy.
Each red, yellow and/or green item can be considered as one keyword, but we can also split up and combine keywords which are marked together. Notice that if I was only trying to rank for “SEO” as the target keyword, it would occur FIVE times in the copy. Since this paragraph is exactly 100 words as calculated by Microsoft Word 365, that would be a 5% keyword density and thus into stuffing territory. But since SEO in this case is treated as an element of the primary and single-iteration keywords, I can get away with having that in there more times without it technically being considered stuffing.
Here’s where things get a little more dicey: I’ve already got two iterations of the target keyword in 100 words of text. To preserve my optimax 1-2% keyword ratio, I need to vary my usage of the target keyword. So if I wrote a second paragraph, I might use the target keyword ONCE. In the third, I may not use it at all.
There are three reasons for not maxing out your keyword usage, even if you theoretically have the space for more.
- Even if it’s not stuffed by the “according to Hoyle” definition, if it doesn’t read naturally, the algorithms may erroneously report it as such.
- You need to save space for one iteration of each keyword in your landing page metadata. If you’ve already maxed out at two iterations per 100 words in the main content, you might get flagged for stuffing, even though the metadata, like the title, is technically a separate signal. The more you push the envelope, the more likely it is you’ll get flagged, justifiably or not.
- Repetition is not always your friend. Think about your favorite song which has lyrics. (Without the qualifier, I just know someone out there’s going to think, “Well, the Imperial March from Star Wars doesn’t have lyrics, so gotcha!” No. No, you didn’t, so let’s not try, shall we?) There’s almost certainly some repetition in the choruses, or even in the verses, but it’s broken up by other material. This is why I loaded the target keyword into the beginning and end of the paragraph, and mixed other related keywords in between. It keeps the basic concept front and center in the reader’s mind without beating them over the head with it until they’re sick of reading about it and move on to someone who doesn’t assume they’re not smart enough to remember why they’re reading about it!
Now, what would it look like if I just went all-out and used the target keyword every possible time? Let’s find out.
UGH. OUCH. NO!
If I wasn’t trying to prove a point right now, I’d be severely questioning my life choices and contemplating the merits of a career in fast food. As you can see, this is a glaring example of why stuffing is best saved for turkey!
This content is technically readable–except to human eyes, it isn’t. The repetition makes it monotonous and boring. I’ve had to add nine more words to the content to shoehorn in three more iterations of the target keyword. Even with the extra words, we’re now at ~5.2% keyword density, a rate even the most generous algorithm will likely bird-dog. I didn’t bother to flag the other keywords for this pass, because this content will never pass muster. There’s absolutely no room for metadata, title keyword or anything else unless I completely ignore the target keyword for at least three more paragraphs to let things average out.
Achieving the perfect balance of keywords and readability is as much of an art form as it is a science. Getting the keywords to flow naturally while still positioning the content to rank takes a certain degree of creativity and an understanding of how to balance the needs of human viewers with the signals the machine wants to see. This is just one of many areas where a skilled content creator can help you develop content which ranks but still retains readability for a human audience.
Be sure to tune in tomorrow when we discuss artificial linkbuilding! Also, let me know your thoughts on keyword stuffing. Have you ever noticed this going on in the content you’ve read in the past? How did you react when you encountered it? Let’s talk!