How many keywords should you use in your content, and how many is too many?
These are the questions that creators regularly run into when crafting content for readers and optimising it for search engines such as Google.
Keywords ensure content is tailored to the search intent of target audiences, making it more relevant and more likely to feature at the top of rankings for queries featuring those keywords.
As keywords are so important to the discovery of content on the web, it can be tempting to overload these terms and stuff scores of them onto a single page. Why not, when the potential returns for visibility and organic traffic could be transformative for a business?
However, most things in life need to be done in moderation. Stuffing might appear like a worthwhile strategy at first but being too greedy will backfire almost immediately. You will be left with content that is difficult to read and is shunned by Google’s algorithm.
What exactly is keyword stuffing?
Knowing the definition of keyword stuffing is the best way to avoid this frowned-upon tactic. In its guidance about spam policies, Google states: “Keyword stuffing refers to the practice of filling a web page with keywords or numbers in an attempt to manipulate rankings in Google Search results. Often these keywords appear in a list or group, unnaturally, or out of context.”
Google doesn’t provide an exact number or threshold where a legitimate keyword tactic suddenly flips into the danger zone and becomes a stuffing faux pas. However, as Google states, “filling” numerous sentences with keywords is likely to see pages being flagged by its spam detectors.
The consequences can be dire; sites that violate policies can be delisted and not appear in any search results. Even when the penalties are not that severe, unhelpful and incomprehensible content will almost certainly be consigned to the depths of search results where it won’t be seen or heard of again.
What are black hat stuffing techniques?
As you will have noted from Google’s guidance, keyword stuffing typically refers to keyword spamming on a large scale. Google has indexed millions and millions of web pages during the last 15-20 years. The inclusion of 20 keywords is not considered best practice but it's unlikely to set off any alarms at Google HQ.
Resident search expert John Mueller says anything up to 20 keywords is “amateur numbers”. He says Google often has to sift through pages with a colossal 300-500 mentions per page.
When this happens, publishers are deliberately using so-called "black hat SEO” techniques". These are crafty tactics deployed to boost search rankings unethically. Black hat SEOs set out specifically to violate policies to gain from them in search rankings.
The most common, as referenced by Google, is the use of keywords in lists and groups. These may appear to be “invisible” to the user. This can be done by matching the colour of written text with a web page’s background. It will be unnoticed by the reader’s eye and supposedly not affect the user experience, but will still be picked up by Google’s search engine crawlers. Keyword stuffing may also involve terms being shunted into HTML code, metadata and tags.
Are there less serious examples of keyword stuffing?
The second, less serious example of stuffing involves visible keyword usage. This happens when a target keyword is used multiple times in a paragraph, even when it doesn’t read right or make any sense. An example of this would be forcing the keyword “best mobile phone” – or slight variations of it – into every sentence.
For instance: "Looking for the best mobile phone? Our website offers the best mobile phone deals on the best mobile phone brands. If you want the best mobile phone at the best price, our best mobile phone selection is unmatched. Buy the best mobile phone today and experience the best mobile phone features!"
The above paragraph is stuffed to the gills with keywords. This sort of excessive repetition disrupts the flow of sentences, is painful to read and will not be looked upon favourably by Google's algorithm. While this isn’t classed as black hat SEO as such, it’s still an example of keyword stuffing and should be given a wide berth.
What’s the best way to avoid keyword stuffing?
Writing naturally, forgetting about search engines for a moment and focusing on the reader is the best way to avoid keyword mishaps.
Mueller regularly espouses the need to consider the audience and what will make content more compelling for them when crafting content for search. Mueller responded to a question on social media site X in August 2023 about keyword stuffing. He stated that a good starting point is to ask yourself: “Does this annoy users when they go to my page”.
Copy that is difficult to read and has no context due to an egregious use of keywords is unlikely to satisfy readers. When an article or blog doesn’t provide value, Google takes note and is less likely to rank that piece on the first page of search results.
Not annoying users is a low bar to build from, though. Ideally, you want to create useful, information-rich content that weaves in keywords judiciously so the right people can find and learn from it.
How many keywords should you use?
Google has never stated a magic number for how many keywords you should use. However, there is a common understanding that around four mentions for your target keyword per 1,000 words, or once every 250 words, is best. Some SEOs believe the primary keyword can be included around 10 times, but this also covers the meta description, title and alt texts, not just the main copy.
You can also add variations of your primary keyword; secondary keywords, long-tail keywords and synonyms provide context and support your exploration of the main topic. Secondary keywords are terms that are closely related to your target keyword, while long-tail keywords are less competitive terms that will again be adjacent to the primary word but be three to six words in length.
Including target keywords in your page elements is also a good way to establish an effective “keyword density” throughout a piece. Using these terms in subheadings and image alt tags is recommended when it's natural and makes sense to do so. Rather than stuffing, creators should focus on “strategically” placing keywords. Strategic keyword approaches are much more likely to get your pages ranking in the top positions in Google’s search results.
The bottom line is to avoid temptation and never stuff keywords into your content. Are you struggling with keyword strategies and crafting engaging copy for your web pages? Atlas SEO can help. We offer content creation, outreach, blog management and social media services that have our clients ranking in SERPs and increasing their visibility across key digital channels. Contact us today to supercharge your search engine optimisation.