Back in the 1990’s or early 2000’s if you were a part of the SEO scene you know that keyword density reigned supreme as the quickest method of making money.
People made a fortune literally overnight and many a webmaster feverishly calculated the keyword to total word count ratio in an attempt to hit that perfect keyword density per page.
The belief was that when a particular page reached this ratio it would have a better chance to rank for that keyword. It was a simple scheme that made it easy for almost anyone to start ranking.
Although there are still many search marketers that hold this method in high regard, these particular black hat search engine optimization practices have mostly died off leaving in their wake a revival of long tail – phrases longer than three words – keywords.
Keywords were once the bread and butter of a campaign; Google crawled the data based solely on the keywords that were present on the page and you could easily measure your success based solely on how you ranked for your keywords.
The introduction of Google Panda update in 2011 put an end to the microsite millionaires heavily penalizing sites abusing this tactic.
Not only has the update made keyword stuffing ineffective, but continuing to use it put you on Google’s radar risking a manual action taken against your entire website.
Keyword Placement over Frequency
No matter how much you read about it, the fact of the matter remains that the role of SEO is not as important as it used to be because now Google has essentially started doing SEO for you.
That is not to say that SEO is not relevant anymore, but the landscape has changed significantly.
For instance, it is still desirable that your log tail keywords appear in your URL, headers, subheadings, image descriptions, meta descriptions and so on.
We also know that Google still structures a site into key areas with meta information and headers at the top, copy being second and side bars as the last priority.
All of the above confirms that placement is still important but the frequency is another matter completely.
There is no point in repeating keywords several times in a copy looking to populate it with the perfect density.
Besides making your copy less enjoyable to read, the method just doesn’t work anymore and in fact you put yourself at risk of being penalized.
Google Looks for Meaning Not Specific Words
With the advent of Google’s Hummingbird update in late 2013, keyword stuffing suffered a fatal blow. These updates have become so advanced that Google can now interpret the meaning behind your search query.
Hummingbird does away with guesswork and instead interprets queries with associations. Google can now direct you to a website that does not even contain the keywords you typed in the search bar, but will instead show you results of what you intended to find.
Thus, Google algorithm’s paradigm shift effectively and efficiently put a stop to the practice of keyword stuffing and looking for that ideal keyword density ratio.
It is not important any more how frequent your keywords are throughout the page but what meaning do they convey. Google has put a stress on content semantics within a page, looking for meaning rather than just specific words.
Do keywords still matter?
So, do keywords matter at all anymore? They do, and they will most probably always matter to a certain extent.
As search engines become more and more complex and sophisticated there is less need for specific keywords and more an emphasis on the meaning behind those keywords.
But how does it work? Let’s say that for example you enter the query “car repair”. The Hummingbird update now recognizes the intention and meaning behind your search.
It understands the relationships between topics, themes, and videos, and how they relate to each other, making all the words in a query important.
In our case Google interprets that someone is looking for a business that deals in car repairs and might return results listing car mechanics and other repair shops in the area; whereas in the past the query might have yielded separate results and images of cars and unrelated results including repairs in general.
Google now contextually crawls your pages looking for semantic connections within the copy and has become so sophisticated and efficient that your page might even rank for keywords you did not use at all.
In other words, the text surrounding your keywords is now more precisely interpreted.
In our previous example a car mechanic’s page on vehicle maintenance may rank even if it failed to emphasize specific keywords such as “car” or “repair”.
It is safe to say that keywords won’t disappear anytime soon, but as an element of SEO they are slowly becoming obsolete.
The future of traditional, keyword-dependent SEO marketers does not look bright if they continue pursuing their old habits.
Onsite optimization has switched focus from keyword optimization, and even keywords themselves now rely more on Google’s subtle understanding of human language and meaning than specific words.
It is highly plausible that one day SEO marketing as we know it today may entirely cease to exist in its present form.
Instead, the search engines’ algorithms may become so powerful and all-knowing that you may be completely oblivious to the existence of SEO and still rank high for your target search based on some other metrics of page authority.
Until then, instead of wasting time trying to perfect your optimal keyword density and ratios you should focus on providing the best possible value for your audience.
Providing your readers with a great experience, publishing accurate and relevant content is in fact the best way to ensure high rankings.