Stuffing, Density or Proximity: which keyword optimisation technique should you be following?

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Whilst doing some on-page changes for the Purple Frog site last week, I noticed - whilst looking at Google Search Console - that we had experienced some dips in Impressions for particular keywords. After some further tweaks these recovered and then improved as intended.

So then, the cause? We (should) all know by now about 'keyword stuffing' and the dangers of over promoting particular keywords in the hope that Google will pick you up for certain, desired, phrases. But is this really still relevant, and in the age of real-time indexing by Google is it enough to just avoid traditional keyword stuffing practices. 

Good keyword ranking & on-page

Rather ironically, the page we were trying to optimising was SEO Marketing. This in itself served up some problems mainly relating to how competitive this term is to rank for but also because when talking about a subject as niche as Search Engine Optimisation you have to mentioned SEO quite a lot...

Now although Google doesn't explicitly state how many times you should use a target keyword in your content, it was once understood to be around 5 times. But this created a number of questions regarding how practical this actually was.

For example if a sentence was briefly describing SEO strategy you'd probably use it at least 2 / 3 times before even getting to Headings, sub-headings and then the various other content areas you wanted to talk about!

"See what our SEO can do for your business! Are you looking for Search Engine Optimisation campaigns that will work to develop prominent visibility on Google SERPs to increase targeted traffic to your website? Fill out this form and get a FREE consultation from one of our SEO team."

Although only using it twice in this passage, you can see how over 500 - 1000 words on a single page you could end up using your keyword many, MANY times.

Below is our data from Google Search Console regarding the last 90 days since we started ranking for 'SEO marketing'. Before editing our content 'SEO marketing' was used 4 times across 250 words (initial increase); the first edits increased its use to 15 across 1,200 words; and the final - current - version sees 'SEO marketing' only used 10 times across 1,100 words

 

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These metrics bring up some very interesting trends and confirm a few long held beliefs.

Firstly, and most importantly, you can see how the real-time Google indexing of content on a website's pages reacts to constant content changes. After each content change, we resubmitted the site to Google Search Console to be re-indexed. 

The results were almost immediate and shows the power of on-page when done correctly. Conversely it underlines the dangers of getting it wrong, or overusing target words. However, the biggest development from this mini 'experiment' was that although we used 'SEO marketing' far more than is normally (greater than 5) expected, we still got excellent results in Impressions.

 

Stuffing, Density or Proximity?

So which is it?! 

The curious results opened us up to the idea that stuffing is most likely an outdated way of looking at on-page keyword distribution. Although it is completely possible to overuse, or overstuff, content with keywords you are trying to rank for. Perhaps instead we need to start becoming aware of the density and proximity of keywords. 

Density

Keyword density relates simply to how the number of times keywords are used in content relative to its length.

For example having 300 words is great, but if you use a particular keyword 7 or 9 times you are likely going to be pulled up. Where as using it 7 or 9 times in 500 - 600 words will likely put you in the all clear. 

Working out the correct density is tricky and there are no hard-and-fast rules. Best practice however is to work out what the average density is for the top 5 - 10 websites currently ranking for that particular keyword and have a slightly lower keyword density than them. (Higher authority sites can get away with using a keyword more than less 'trustworthy' sites). 

Google balances authority with density. But conservatively, two to four-percent is probably in the correct range. We definitely wouldn’t exceed six or seven-percent.

Proximity

This applies only to longer tail keywords and how close together these keywords are to each other.

For example, for the keyword 'SEO marketing' this: "Although SEO is will form just a small part of your overall digital marketing strategy..." will likely be seen as less relative to a searcher than: "Although including several elements, SEO marketing should form a central part of your overall digital strategy..."

Therefore, decreasing the distance between two keywords whilst maintaining a natural prose and not forcing it will put you in a good position. 

A balancing act

A balancing act is about right. Combining or reducing stuffing, proximity and density can sound like a nightmare but it does hark back to the same old story: make your content sound as natural and useful as possible. Google has gotten pretty good at working out when people are forcing words and phrases they want to be found for into their content.

Although managing or being aware of our keyword density, increasing our keyword proximity and reducing keyword stuffing whilst maintaining a natural and readable prose is tricky, you should - in theory - be able to nail by simply aiming to inform your audience

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About the author
Alex Thomson

When he's not managing websites, analysing Health Checks, completing SEO campaigns, writing killer blogs or smashing social media campaigns. Alex can be found skinning defenders for his Saturday team; enjoying a craft IPA; or buried in an Oxford record store.

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