Keyword Density: Optimize Your Keyphrase, But Avoid Stuffing

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In last week’s edition of Mediavine’s SEO series, we talked about keyword prominence, or where to place your keywords within a post.

Short answer: Early. But how often?

Glad you asked. This week, we’re breaking down keyword density, or how frequently to deploy your keyphrase without overdoing it.

What is keyword density?

Keyword density, in general terms, is what it sounds like.

The density is how often your keyphrase is used relative to the total number of words on a particular page, by percentage.

How that percentage is calculated may vary, however.

There are actually two formulas used by the SEO community to calculate keyword density, which we’ll explain below.

Formula One: Splitting the keyword

Let’s say your keyword is a two-word phrase. Using this method, those two words are split up and therefore, count individually toward the overall density calculation.

Take my delicious go-to example of “cheesecake recipe.” If my post is 500 words long and I only mentioned “cheesecake recipe” once, the density would be 2/500, or 0.4%.

Formula Two: No split required

In this model, the entire keyphrase is counted as one word, whether it’s one word, two, or several. If we said “cheesecake recipe” once in a 500-word article, we’d be at 1/500, or 0.2%.

You can see how these two formulas produce wildly different percentages based on the number of words — which will usually be the case, especially if you’re (wisely) going after long-tail keywords.

Which formula should I use?

It doesn’t really matter, because the important takeaway is that keyword density is a percentage — the number of times you use your keyword in your content, relative to its length.

Personally, I lean towards the latter, or calling it all one “word.”

Keyword Density: Learn what it is, how to optimize your posts, and avoid keyword stuffing. - Mediavine Pinterest image

What is the ideal keyword density?

We’re actually not going to give out a specific percentage ourselves, but the popular Yoast SEO tool recommends between 0.5% and 3%.

If you’re writing for those green lights, you’ll have to be in that zone. Most other SEO analysts land somewhere in this range, as well.

Ending up between 0.5-3% on a 1,000-word blog post means that you should be using your keyphrase anywhere from 5-30 times.

That’s a pretty broad range, to be sure, but it’s typically safe. (I’d definitely stay away from the higher end, but more on that later.)

The reason we don’t personally recommend a certain density percentage is thanks to the company we turn to for SEO guidance.

Google flat out tells you not to write for a keyword density.

How Google thinks about keyword density

You can hear Matt Cutts (formerly of Google) answer “What is the ideal keyword density of a page?” in detail on the Google Webmasters YouTube channel, or read our quick summary here.

As far as Google is concerned, the first one or two uses of your keyphrase will help with your ranking. Every time you use it beyond that, you’re going to start seeing diminishing returns.

If you really overdo it, you run into “keyword stuffing” territory.

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DANGER: Keyword Stuffing

This almost deserves its own blog post because it’s so important. If you’re nearing the high end of keyword density ranges — or worse, exceeding them — you’re running the risk of keyword stuffing.

What is it?

Keyword stuffing is when you use keywords in an unnatural way, either because you think it legitimately helps with search engine optimization or because you’re trying to game the system.

Either way, it’s a form of web spam and will earn you a Google penalty.

Note: If your keyword density is 4%, you’re not automatically keyword stuffing or incurring penalties. Not at all. However, it could be an indicator that you should rethink your approach.

This is why we trust Google’s nuanced approach. If you’re keyword stuffing, you or anyone reading your content should be able to tell. Does it really sound natural everywhere you used your keyword?

Think back to those writing classes where we were taught to use synonyms for words and not repeat them. Do you use your keyword multiple times in the same sentence or paragraph?

If so, you may want to enlist your favorite online thesaurus. A great example is in this blog post. An alternative word I can use for keyword is keyphrase. For density? Frequency.

But most importantly, the advice I always give is don’t stress. Write for your readers.

If you’re writing naturally and using keywords where they belong, organically, you’re not keyword stuffing. If you’re trying to shoehorn them in so often that it’s changing how you write, then you probably are.

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Should you worry about keyword density?

Yes, but again, we encourage you to think about this the Mediavine way.

Make sure you use keywords in your page title, first paragraph, meta description, ideally one heading and maybe a few times throughout your post.

Basically, follow the advice we gave about keyword prominence, and sprinkle your keyword in there maybe an extra time or two on a long article.

As long as you’re writing between 500-1,000 words and using that phrase naturally, you’ll never be at risk of keyword stuffing.

Don’t obsess over percentage ranges or including certain phrases beyond the prominent areas described above. Don’t stress. You’ll naturally use the words enough times to appease Google and readers alike.

Even better? That thesaurus may have indirect SEO benefits, too.

If you’re using different terms for the same thing, chances are people searching online are mirroring that behavior. As effective as real keyword research is, plain old synonyms can be effective too.

You’ll likely be targeting additional long tail keywords without even trying. Who knows, maybe someone showed up on this article looking for “keyword frequency” without knowing the industry term.

Be smart and mix it up. Reap the SEO rewards on many levels.

In our next post in this series, learn about keyword proximity, or check out our list of SEO Resources.

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