The Agonizingly Slow Death
of Keyword Density:
What Worked Yesterday Won’t Work Today
If you’re about to launch a new website, there’s something you should know right now. Search engine marketing – in fact the entire online marketplace – is evolving so quickly that the marketing strategy you developed yesterday is out of date.
Keywords Are Born
Prior to the mid-90s, we were all stumbling around the web. There was no map. No address book. So, if you wanted to buy an elephant online the only way you’d find one is if the local elephant franchise posted their URL (universal resource locator, your web address) in a flyer or newspaper ad.
Then, the folks at Yahoo (not much more than a good idea back then) came up with the idea of a search engine – a small piece of programming, comprised primarily of a simple mathematical formula called an algorithm, that would assess web sites and sort them into categories (the search engine taxonomy) so that, if you typed in ‘elephant,’ you got links to various elephant retailers. Cool. It was like the sun came up in Webville, or at least we had a flashlight!
That primitive search engine relied, primarily, on reading letter strings. And the more a particular letter string was repeated on the web page, the easier it was to index the web site back at search engine headquarters.
Well, it didn’t take site owners long to discover the inner workings of Yahoo’s search engine and the Dark Ages of search engine marketing descended upon the virtual landscape.
Keywords were scattered all over a site – along with keywords that had nothing to do with the site’s subject. So, lots of site owners started adding keywords like “sex” and “porn” to their site text – even if the text was invisible to the human eye. (White text against a white background is invisible to humans but search engines can read it just fine.) The site could be selling dietary supplements but the owner (or search engine optimizer) could add a bunch of other words to the site text. No problem.
And what the search engine user saw amounted to keyword babble. Just a bunch of keywords (letter strings) designed to fool search engines, not to help site visitors.
Other abuses followed as technology marched on until we entered the era in which we now function online – an era of SEOs trying to anticipate what Yahoo, Google and Inktomi programmers are hatching and those programmers trying to stay one step ahead of keyword abuse and subterfuge. Why? The purpose of the search engine is to deliver relevant results to the user. If site owners undermine the process through the use of keyword abuse, the relevance of search engines diminishes.
Other forms of keyword abuse included (and still include) keyword stuffing – stuffing the HTML keyword tag with every word in your kid’s dictionary. At one time, these keyword tags were given significant weight by search engines. Today, they’re considered much less important because of the on-going practice of keyword stuffing.
Then, finally, we come to keyword density – a loathsome concept to copywriters, search engine programmers and web site visitors. Simply put, keyword density is simply the number of times a keyword or set of keywords appears in a body of text. Example:
The Ski Hut carries the latest in skis, ski gear and ski wear. Snow skis from around the world, along with ski boots, ski poles, ski goggles and ski outerwear line the aisles at The Ski Hut where, if it has to do with skiing, we sell it.
Can anyone guess what the Ski Hut sells? Hands please? That’s right, they sell skis and, in this example, the keyword density is about 22%, i.e. out of the 48 words in the example, 11 mention skis, skiing and other ski word keywords. Unfortunately, with a keyword density of 22% the text isn’t much more that a continuous letter string of ski ski ski.
The Evolution of the Search Engine
Yahoo’s algorithm builders gradually developed increasingly sophisticated search engine algorithms to thwart keyword abuse, adding numerous other criteria to assess the nature and quality of each spidered site. And, when Google came along with an even more sophisticated algorithm the flood gates opened and the search engine wars began. Yahoo, Google and Inktomi (used by MSN and many other search engines), along with My Simon, Ask Jeeves (now just plain Ask.com) and a bunch of other search engines, big and small, all went at search engine building a little differently.
Some, like My Simon and Ask Jeeves, focused on retail sites. Type in wristwatches and the SE would delivered sites and pictures of wristwatches. (That picture thing is making a comeback, btw.) Other search engines, like Google, focused on sheer size, spidering and indexing literally billions and billions and billions of web pages so no matter what a user enters as a key word or phrase, something will show up.
Yes, they’re still marginally relevant. HTML code still allows for a keyword tag and spiders still count up letter strings so, yes, selecting keywords that count is a critical part of the optimization process.
But keywords ain’t what they used to be. Fact is, contemporary search engine algorithms are designed to detect keyword stuffing and abusive keyword density so their users don’t have to plow through page after page of repetitive, nonsensical keyword garbage. So, choose your keywords carefully. They still count.
As far as keyword density is concerned, cut it out! Different search engine marketing professionals will tell you a 5% keyword density (5 keywords per 100 words of site text) is still acceptable but the majority of SEOs recommend a keyword density of 2% to 3% to keep search engine spiders from slamming a site for abuse.
The Agonizing Slow Death of Keywords
There are still site owners, and even SEO experts, who believe that keywords are the end all to be all. Soooo not true.
Keywords are great for delivering organic traffic to a site – organic traffic being the links on the left side of Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs). These are sites that the programmed-to-be-impartial search engine has determined will be relevant to the user. Organic SERP traffic is rock solid. It’s a good thing. But think about your own search engine habits.
How often do you look beyond the first or second page of Yahoo’s SERPs. Occasionally? And how often do you search for a site on page 145 of Google’s SERPs? Never. SERPs are sorted by relevance to the user’s query (keywords) so anything on page 145 is going to have much less relevance than links that appear on page one of Google’s SERPs.
And, bottom line? The chances of you creating a page one SERP site are pretty remote (though don’t give up. It happens everyday).
Today, search engine algorithms are much more sophisticated, looking for fresh, informational content, non-reciprocal inbound links, interactivity between site and visitor and other criteria, again giving some, but not much, weight to keywords that appear in the HTML keyword tag, or how many times you can stuff the word ‘kumquat’ into the text of your kumquat site.
And, it’s only a matter of time before site-owner-selected keywords will finally fade away altogether. Search engine spiders will assess and sort each site according to growingly sophisticated and expansive criteria.
It’s only a matter of time and that time can’t come soon enough. Kumquat.