Do High-Density Keyword Articles Still Have a Place in SEO?

Spoiler Alert: The answer is no.

Absolutely, positively, and without reservations, focusing on high-density keyword articles is a bad idea, and if you find one in the wild you should quietly escort it into the woods and put it out of its misery. It’s a mercy.

And I’d recommend you never, ever, EVER write one yourself. I’d add another “ever”, because it’s appropriate, but I don’t want to get dinged for word stuffing.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In the years book-ending 2000 keyword stuffing was a perfectly valid and widely practiced SEO strategy. SEO experts would write “keyword articles”, where the bulk of their SEO content was keywords and related keyword phrases, barely held together by just enough filler content to vaguely approximate a real article.

Writers active during this time will remember (not so fondly) clients asking for specific keyword densities with their articles. I’ve seen briefs that asked for as high as 15% density.

The result? These articles were often mostly unintelligible. The text would be so stuffed with every permutation of the keywords being targeted that it resembled the English language only in the way that Play-Doh Fun Factory soft serve resembles ice cream or Nickelback resembles music.

But this worked because search engines at the time weren’t savvy enough to realize they were being gamed. And this situation lasted longer than you might expect, but it had an expiration date.

Panda Mauls Keyword Articles

As the early 2000s wore on search engines, and Google specifically, got incrementally better at recognizing and penalizing keyword stuffing, and as a result keyword stuffing got gradually subtler, but still remained a common strategy for SEO professionals. But in 2011, with Google’s release of their now famous Panda update, keyword stuffing and keyword articles were read their last rites and pronounced dead.

Panda, named for Navneet Panda, the Google employee responsible for the machine learning breakthrough which underpinned the entire update, allowed Google’s engine to rank pages based on hundreds of different metrics, and then cross reference those results with user experiences. And it could do this on a massive scale. In very short order Google’s search results got orders of magnitude smarter.

Rand Fishkin, founder and former CEO of Moz, summed up Panda’s impact this way:

“So, Panda kind of means something new and different for SEO. As SEOs, for a long time you’ve been…building good content, making it accessible to search engines, doing good keyword research, putting those keywords in there, and then trying to get some links to it. But you have not, as SEOs, we never really had to think as much or as broadly about, ‘What is the experience of this website? Is it creating a brand that people are going to love and share and reward and trust?” Now we kind of have to think about that.’”

For the first time, in a really meaningful way, Google was able to distinguish a site that people found useful, memorable, and generally likable from pages people found confusing, grating and unhelpful. Suddenly keyword articles and keyword stuffing were a major drag on search rankings, because Google’s machine learning algorithm associated them with low quality sites with poor user experiences.

If Keyword Articles Are Dead, What Replaced Them?

No one thing replaced keyword articles. Instead a whole new way of thinking about creating content for SEO was born. A better question then might be, “What’s constitutes good SEO content in 2019?”

Keywords Are Still Important

To start, keywords still play a role, though it’s dramatically deprecated from the heady keyword days of the early 2000s. You want to try and get your target keywords into your page title, meta description, H1 header and somewhere in the body. But once is enough. Unless it organically fits in other places (and it often will) it shouldn’t be wedged in. You can almost guarantee Google will devalue your content if your keywords are stuffed in places that feel spammy and disjointed. And, so will readers.

Next, it helps to place semantically connected keywords in your body content as well. These are keywords and keyword phrases that are meaningfully connected to your targeted keywords and help establish that your content is the most semantically complete piece of content for the intent it aims to solve.

ALSO Why Latent Semantic Indexing Keywords Allow for Better SEO

But above all, search intent is the most important part of creating content for SEO, as we’ll soon see. Semantically related words and topics help Google understand the intent of your page. If your target keywords are “grilling burgers”, is your page about how to cook them or where to buy them? If you add semantically-related phrases and subjects like:

  • Gas grill
  • Quality charcoal
  • Indirect grilling

your intent becomes clearer. Tying semantically-related words to your keywords and topics helps Google determine whether your article is the best and most comprehensive article for a given search. And, a semantically complete article is much more valuable for your readers.

ALSO Copywriting for SEO: How to Be Sure Your eCommerce Copy Converts and Ranks

Searcher Intent is Where You Focus

Google’s search algorithms try and serve up the most relevant results based on what it thinks is the intent of the user’s search phrase. So if someone searches for “grilled burgers proper temperature” it’s likely Google will guess they’re looking for information about grilling burgers, not locations of restaurants that sell grilled burgers.

They’re likely to get the latter if they were to search for “grilled burgers restaurants”. The more that you can do to optimize your content to match your targeted searcher intent around the keywords you’re targeting, the better your content will do in search rankings.

Keyword Research is Key

According to Joshua Hardwick, Head of Content at Ahrefs,

“Google’s entire business model relies on them serving the most appropriate result in the top spot. You can use that fact to your advantage by checking your gut instinct against what currently ranks for your target keyword.”

It’s still important to research what keywords to target.. You need to see what people are searching for.

Note – You don’t always want to optimize for the most competitive words though, because those can be much harder to rank for and are often too broad. Most SEO tools will give you an idea of organic competitiveness.

We won’t get into keyword research too much here except to point you in the direction of several great tools to help. Here are several you might consider:

In our example you wouldn’t optimize for “burgers” because it’s simply too broad a concept. Instead you want to look for words related to burgers that are commonly searched for that more closely fit your page’s intent. “Grilled burgers” or “burger recipes” or “properly grilling burgers”. And then, you would expand to semantically related keywords and topics that add more depth.

Bear in mind though that optimizing for searcher intent isn’t about cramming in as many semantically-related keywords are you can. You’ll definitely get devalued for that.

Your process should be organic. Think of these keywords as topics that your article should cover. More than anything, keywords should tell you what searchers what you to write about – not which keywords you should include.

You want to work in keywords that fit well with the content you’re creating, and this shouldn’t be difficult because…the content you’re creating is intended to service the specific intent you’re targeting.

If you’re finding it hard to work your keywords in, your content is likely already failing on other fronts and will not rank well. Notably, you’re likely not covering the topics the keywords represent.

You should focus on delivering great content that does a great job of satisfying what consumers most likely want from it. If you’re doing that a lot of the other stuff follows fairly naturally.

Make Sure it Looks Good

Brian Dean with Backlinko doesn’t mince words on this point. He says,

“Design is THE most underrated part of content marketing. You can have the best content ever written. But if it looks like this… [A giant text block straight out of 1998] …it’s not gonna work. That’s why I invest A LOT of time and money into content design.”

Remember. Google’s looking to rank sites people want to visit. If your page is ugly, clunky or confusing you will never rank well. So make sure your pages don’t suck.

ALSO How’s Your Image SEO Game?

Keyword Articles Are Dead. Let’s Move On

To reiterate our initial answer to our initial question, high-density keyword articles are to SEO as eight-tracks are to modern home audio.

They shouldn’t be used in modern SEO. Not even ironically. They don’t help SEO and will only serve to damage your page ranking. If Google finds out you’re engaging in keyword stuffing they may send a very angry, hungry panda to teach you a lesson.

Please don’t make them do that.

Eric Hoppe

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Eric has been working in marketing and product management for over a decade with companies in the software, eCommerce and content creation spaces. He’s particularly drawn to both content marketing and SEO and is excited that the two areas are increasingly converging. While he’s pretty serious about marketing, he does love to drop a great dad joke on occasion.

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