Keywords used to be the dominant force in the world of search ranks. Because Google’s main search algorithm functioned on a keyword basis, matching the keywords in a query to keywords as they existed on a web page, it was a best practice to include your “target” keywords as many times as possible on the pages you want to rank.
Today, such a practice is known as “keyword stuffing,” and it can actually hurt you instead of helping you. Ask any professional SEO what they think of keyword stuffing as a strategy and they’ll tell you it’s obsolete, useless, or actively harmful for your brand. But just how harmful is it? What are the risks involved?
To understand why keyword stuffing is harmful in the first place, you have to understand the world of semantic search, which boils down to two important Google updates: Panda and Hummingbird. The Panda update, from 2011, dramatically changed the way Google evaluated the quality of content on various sites. The depth of research, length of material, subject of material, detail, wording, and accuracy were all taken into consideration (among other factors). Sites with “fluff” content or content that isn’t relevant or useful are penalized, while sites with more valuable, well-written content are rewarded. Because of this update, keyword-stuffed content naturally reads as unnatural and non-useful, making it rank lower than its contemporaries.
The Hummingbird update, released in 2013, introduced the concept of semantic search. Instead of Google’s algorithm matching keywords in queries to keywords on web pages, Google attempts to understand the purpose of a query, then find a website that matches the user’s need. In effect, it doesn’t use keywords at all the way it used to, and it’s become better at evaluating the intentions of a website. Because of this update, it’s not even necessary to include multiple instances of target keywords throughout your site. In addition, Google has gotten better at determining when a site is using irrelevant or inappropriate wording in their content.
According to Google’s own definition, keyword stuffing is “the practice of loading a webpage with keywords or numbers in an attempt to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results.” Google goes on to explain that these instances often appear in a list or group, in a context that makes no sense for them, or repeated an inappropriate number of times.
There is no hard parameter the number of times you use a keyword on a given page to qualify it as keyword stuffing. Because Google’s ranking algorithm works at least partially based on the context of various pages, it’s almost impossible to empirically tell. Instead, you’ll have to use your best judgment. If you read a keyword-containing phrase and it sounds “weird” or “off” to you, that’s a good indication that you’ve “stuffed” it into a place it doesn’t belong.
Now that you know what keyword stuffing is and why it can hurt you, we can take a look at exactly how keyword stuffing can hurt you. I’ve already mentioned that it can lower the rank for the page or site in question, but how much?
When combined, these effects have a cumulatively devastating effect on the ranking of your website. You won’t end up on Google’s blacklist, and a few simple content edits should be enough to reverse your momentum, but keyword stuffing will still stifle your progress almost completely for as long as you continue to abuse it.
With all that said, “keywords” as a concept are still valuable—they’ve just evolved as a form of understanding your users. Rather than selecting a handful of specifically phrased keywords to hammer into your content at every turn, in the modern world, you’ll want to find subjects that your average user might like to read about or search for, and build content topics around those subjects. If you’re sufficiently detailed, and you focus on answering user questions completely, you’ll naturally use the type of language Google wants to see in its evaluative processes, and you’ll naturally rank for those queries.
It’s also important to use keyword identifiers for your brand and company in the page titles of your site, so Google understands who you are—the trick is to avoid too much repetition or any situation that might make a user grimace. Again, if it sounds like something a person would say naturally in a conversation, you’re probably in the clear.
Keyword stuffing is a dead strategy—not just because Google has told webmasters to stop doing it, but because it genuinely detracts from your overall user experience. You’ll lose ranks, audience loyalty, and potential all at once, so don’t think you can cheat the system by stuffing keywords in a smart or clever way. There isn’t one. Instead, focus on writing the best natural, informative, detailed content you can, and focus on user needs instead of the exact phrasing they use in searches.