Keyword stuffing: Why Google hates it & how to avoid it

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During the discussion of any topic in SEO, keywords will invariably come up in the conversation.

Of all things SEO-related, keywords – how to use them, and how to find them – tends to dominate. Keywords are the words and phrases that users enter as the query to a search engine.

You’ll constantly hear about the importance of keywords and doing keyword research, and it’s true: you cannot rank on Google without understanding and utilizing keywords. But how exactly should you be using keywords on your website? 

In the early days of search engines, the practice of keyword stuffing was a viable tactic that many websites used to rank higher in SERPs

What is keyword stuffing?

The action of keyword stuffing can be described as repeating the same keyword on a website’s pages and articles as many times as possible. For example, if someone who owned an online cheese boutique decided to use keyword stuffing, they might use the phrase “buy gourmet cheese” on their website over and over, inserting the phrase needlessly and incessantly into its copy. 

In the old days of SEO, webmasters would even put these keywords on the page and make them invisible so that they could put a keyword on the page dozens, or even hundreds of times to game the system. They did this to avoid blatantly repeating keywords in the copy for all their users to read. This could be making the keywords’ text the same color as the webpage’s background, or placing keywords into the webpage’s code, within the meta, alt, and comment tags. Though ordinary people would not see the keywords, search engines would still be able tell they are there. 

You’ll also see websites stuff keywords unnaturally, similar to this fun joke:

The theory behind keyword stuffing is that Google or some other search engine will notice the extremely high number of matches between the searcher’s query and the website’s content, and thus rank that website higher on the SERP. While this logic seems to be simple and intuitive, does it actually hold up in real life?

Does keyword stuffing actually work?

The answer used to be yes. But it’s been a while since it did, and now it can hurt you.

Keyword stuffing has actually worked in the past, and that’s why people may still attempt to do it today. In the early days of search engines sites that stuffed certain keywords really would be rewarded with a higher ranking on those searches. Search engines were a lot less sophisticated back then. We didn’t have Penguin, Hummingbird, host of other updates.

However, that was around 20 years ago. Google became aware of this practice and the fun ended. They recognized the content that was ranking higher from keyword stuffing was not as quality as other webpages which had more information and depth. Since Google optimizes its search results to best match the search intent of its users and provide them with the highest quality information, the search engine redesigned itself to outsmart the keyword stuffers. 

Now, there is a penalty if your website is found to be guilty of keyword stuffing. A search engine can tell if a website uses a keyword in excess, and will lower its ranking in response. This includes the “invisible” keyword stuffing too; those attempts at camouflaging cannot escape punishment from search engines. Google can even go so far as to remove your website from the index altogether if it finds that you are a repeat offender of keyword stuffing.

Even if your website isn’t removed from the index, keyword stuffing causes other negative effects as well. Keyword stuffing makes for bad content and website design. Reading the same few words and phrases over and over again is distracting for users, and people will easily be able to tell that there is no real value or quality to the copy on the website. When your website is designed to trick an algorithm, human readers will be able to see through the robotic and spammy nature of the writing. 

People who visit your website probably won’t stick around very long if the copy is a useless jumble of repeated keywords and some other words thrown in between. In consequence, your website will have a high bounce rate, meaning that users will go back to the search results after viewing only one page of your website. No one will want to link to meaningless and hard to read content either, and so you’ll have a much harder time getting backlinks. A high bounce rate and few backlinks mean that your website will have little authority, and Google will rank sites with a greater authority far above yours. 

With these changes to Google’s algorithm and the negative consequences of this practice in mind, it is clear that you want to avoid keyword stuffing as much as you can. But how can one go about doing this?

How to avoid keyword stuffing

In order to avoid keyword stuffing and the trouble for your website that comes with it, the simplest way to go about it is to design your pages with the real readers in mind. This doesn’t mean forgoing using targeted keywords entirely, but instead choosing one targeted keyword per page and providing useful, quality information surrounding that topic. Only use keywords when it makes sense in the writing, and in the correct context. 

Make sure that your writing is actually helpful and provides a solid answer to the user’s query, and always relate each piece of writing on a page back to the main idea of the entire website as well. Write articles that are long enough, at least 800 words minimum as a rule, so users and search engines alike will know you’re knowledgeable and your ideas are fully developed. Readers will respond positively with a lower bounce rate on your website and by sharing your pages with others. This is a great way to legitimately build authority for your website and raise your ranking on Google.

If you’re still looking to get more benefits from keywords without keyword stuffing, there are some other keyword practices you can use instead. 

What can I do instead?

While you want to avoid using keywords in excess, it is appropriate and strategic to place a page’s primary keywords once within all of its elements. This means inserting the keyword into the title of the page, the first paragraph and within the “conclusion”. It also means using your keyword in at least one subheading, the meta description, the title tag, and one or greater image alt tags. This practice ensures that the primary keyword is incorporated well throughout the page, without overwhelming the content with the same word or phrase and risking any search engine sanctions. 

Use related keywords

You should also aim to include related keywords in your copy to improve your visibility to users.

Related keywords, also known as secondary keywords, are closely related to the primary keyword: they are synonyms, variations, and semantically related words and phrases that will support the primary keyword you’ve already included throughout your webpage.

Using related keywords in your writing will help ensure your page ranks for more searches than just one In practice, this makes your content more comprehensive and can provide a major boost to your organic traffic. Think of it as a reinforcement, making your page that much stronger against the competition. 

LSI Keywords 

A more formal approach to this topic is something called Latent Semantic Indexing, or LSI keywords.

Okay this sounds technical, but bear with me a bit here!

These keywords are meant to help Google truly understand what your webpage is about. Unlike secondary keywords, LSI keywords are not synonyms to your primary keyword, only words that could be paired with your primary keyword.

For example, if you run a website to order gourmet cupcakes and your primary keyword was “order cupcakes,” some LSI keywords could be “special occasion,” “delivery,” and “personalized.” This would help the search engines recognize that your website does not simply just talk about cupcakes, it is a place where people can order them.  

You can identify LSI keywords by typing your primary keyword into Google, and then observing what Autocomplete suggests that you include in your query after that. Including these words and phrases generated by Autocomplete can help you rank for those specific searches and, as stated before, help the search engine identify what your page is about. You can also look at the list Google provides of “Searches related to . . .” to find LSI keywords, and there are also many other free tools available online which are specifically designed to help you identify what your page’s LSI keywords are.

LSI keywords can be included anywhere throughout your page, so feel free to place them in any of the elements. 

Long Tail Keywords

Another useful practice is to incorporate long tail keywords into your copy.

These keywords are more lengthy and less common than the primary and secondary keywords, but using them can help you rank for niche searches that truly match what your website is all about. Getting specific with the phrases that you use can help target users find exactly what they’re looking for-your website!

To identify what long tail keywords you should be using, you need to think about what specific searches your target users would be making. Incorporating these keywords will give you an edge among your competitors, and help connect you with your intended audience. 

Conclusion

Though keyword stuffing used to work to rank higher on the SERP, search engines will no longer tolerate copy that repeats words and phrases in a nonsensical fashion. If you’re looking to rank, you can’t take the easy way out or sneak past the search engines by making your keyword stuffing habits “invisible.” Though it may seem daunting, using keywords properly isn’t as hard as it may seem, and it is definitely worth the effort. 

Using one primary keyword per page and including that keyword once within each element of the page is a good place to start. Then, you can do your research and work in related, LSI, and long tail keywords. If you work these keywords into writing that is information-rich and helpful to your audience, the benefits your website earns will far surpass anything you could’ve gained from keyword stuffing, even if you were doing it 20 years ago.

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