Keyword Density and The Value of Synonyms

Keyword density is a tricky thing. On the one hand, we need to include a keyword in a web page more than once to tell Google what our content is all about. On the other, if we stuff that keyword into our content too frequently, Google could mark us as dirty, filthy spammers and inflict penalties on our site. The trouble is, Google doesn’t have a specific guideline as to the optimum keyword density for SEO success.

Be natural, says Google

The last time Google spoke explicitly about keyword use was way back in 2011 in a YouTube video featuring one of their most well-known algorithm experts, Matt Cutts. In it, he explained that there isn’t really an optimum keyword density. “Use your keywords,” he said, “but don’t stuff ‘em.” Helpful stuff.

Google’s attitude seems to be that as long as your content reads in a natural way, you’re good to go. If your copy becomes repetitive and your sentences clunk over poorly placed keywords, it’s likely that you’re overusing them. There doesn’t appear to be a magic number or a perfect percentage for keyword density; it’s all about common sense. After all, the ranking factors involved in getting your content to the first page of Google are far more complex than how often you use a particular keyword.

Say it with synonyms

In 2013, Google released an algorithm known as Hummingbird which changed everything. Don’t you love how they use these cute names for algorithms which cause us so much SEO-related stress? Hummingbird was designed to look at the context of web pages to get a better understanding of what they’re all about and deliver more relevant search results to its users. It basically works to assess the intent of a user’s search and deliver web pages of most value to that intent.

For example, let’s say you wrote an article about wagon wheels. Sure, wagon wheels may be your primary keyword, but prior to Hummingbird Google wouldn’t know whether you’re talking about the circular structures attached to wooden carts, or the marshmallow-filled choccie biccie. Post-Hummingbird, Google is capable of checking for relevant keywords and phrases within your content to better understand your subject matter and only deliver your wagon wheel-related content in the context of a relevant search.

So, what does this mean when it comes to keyword optimisation? You need synonyms. Related words and phrases will help Google to understand the context of your content far better than repeated use of a couple of exact keywords. This is known as semantic search.

My take on writing keyword optimised content

If you’re looking for keyword optimised content, I’ll always recommend that you offer me some synonyms and alternative phrases too so that I can craft copy which reads naturally while providing Google’s little Hummingbird with the context it needs.

I’ll always recommend against having a vast list of keywords, too. Ideally, you should have one or two focus keywords for each page of your site, which will probably be used between two and four times throughout the copy, depending on how long it is. Then, a few related phrases and synonyms should be scattered throughout the content, usually only once or twice each.

It’s as simple as that, really. My job is to make your content read so naturally that your audience can’t even tell that it’s been optimised for search. A good test for this is to read it out loud; if the words flow with ease, the keyword density is just right.


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