I first started writing Web content in 2008. Although I’d been a writer for more than 20 years at that point, I’d never written specifically for the Web, and had definitely never written marketing copy. I secured a freelance position, and then began reading everything I could get my hands on to learn about writing Web copy.
At that time, one bit of advice popped up quite a bit, and that was to get the right keyword density in any given piece. If your article was X number of words long, then your primary keyword needed to appear at least X number of times in the copy in order for it to be most effective.
Being new to the game, it sounded logical albeit a bit foreign to me. The first few freelance jobs I had, I was often asked to place keywords in certain orders, in certain ways, and yes, a certain number of times.
Even as recently as 2011, some sites were still promoting keyword density as an SEO tactic. (And sadly, even today, readers are leaving comments indicating they’ve taken that advice to heart.)
Fast forward to 2014. If the digital marketing industry is going to proclaim anything as being dead, it should be keyword density, and it should have died a long time ago. In fact, it really never should have existed at all. Yet, I still get questions about it from both writers and potential clients. The keyword density myth is apparently alive and well, and it needs to die once and for all.
Who’s Your Audience, Really?
Keywords are important. No one denies this. But the days of using nearly every variation of a keyword, and using them multiple times, in descending numbers according to importance are long gone, and may they remain so forever.
If you’re writing a page about wallets, then of course your copy is going to include the word wallets. You may also use billfold just for variety to keep your reader from tiring of reading the word wallets. But a good copywriter can also write about something without having to use the item’s name in every sentence, and without beating the reader over the head with it.
And there’s the key. Yes, keywords are important to search engines. But you’re not writing for search engines, right? Of course you’re not. You’re writing for your audience, the people who want to learn about or buy wallets. Continually mentioning wallets is going to make your copy sound weak, not to mention atrocious, and even if your wallet page is ranking well, you’re losing your audience, so what does your ranking matter?
Search engines don’t buy your products and services—people do. Write for them.
The Hummingbird Effect
In a nutshell, Google’s Hummingbird update geared the search engine toward more natural-sounding search terms and phrases. Rather than relying on searches structured as “wallets leather buy where,” Google has gotten better at recognizing natural speech patterns, so it’s able to return better results for actual questions like, “Where can I buy a leather wallet?”
The effect this update had on Web copywriting methods has been covered enough that it shouldn’t bear repeating. However, as I mentioned, clients and writers alike still occasionally ask about keyword density. So let’s explore it again, briefly.
Hummingbird is not only a good response to what terms are used in search, but a good guideline for how Web copy is written. Writing the way you speak doesn’t just make for better reading; it’s more appealing to search engines as well, and in this case, to Google.
If Google is responding better to more natural search terms, you should be writing more naturally as well. Again, your page will mention the word wallets because that’s what it’s about. But if you wouldn’t use the word wallets 28 times when actually speaking out loud to someone, don’t do it in your writing either. It’s unnatural.
There is no keyword density for speaking, and there isn’t one for Web copy, either.
Why Keyword Density Never Existed
From the time it was conceived, keyword density has been a myth. There is no certain number of times a keyword—or any other word—should appear on a page in order for search engines to take notice.
Well, OK, your keyword needs to appear at least once, of course. But as I’ve said, it will appear at least once, and perhaps a few times, simply by virtue of it being the page’s subject matter.
But the minute you being trying to force your copy to fit some sort of elusive mathematical formula to gain better rankings, you’ve already lost both your audience, and quite possibly, your ranking potential.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying by any means that copy can’t be optimized, or that SEO doesn’t—or shouldn’t—exist. Quite the opposite.
I fully believe copy can be written in a way to appeal to search engines. I just don’t think it requires a formula, or a mythical term like “keyword density.” I think it entails writing to your topic, and to your audience. I think it includes being aware of how search engines work and what they look for, and writing in a cooperative manner—not a manipulative one.
The thing is, there’s no secret sauce for SEO, for copywriting, or for any other aspect of marketing, digital or otherwise. Keyword density is not a magical method for ranking. Take it from Matt Cutts:
It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing about wallets, widgets, or whatever—writing is still an art. It’s OK to color outside the lines sometimes and be creative rather than trying to fit your writing into pre-cut molds.
If you treat your writing as a vehicle for education, information, entertainment, you’ll gain more trust from your audience, earn more conversions, and encourage more interaction and sharing. And those are much more worthwhile goals than a keyword density percentage.