Mastering Search: Keyword Stuffing – How to check for it and ways to avoid it.

We’ve all heard it before, if you want to rank for something in Google search, you must rank for keywords people are searching for.

It makes sense, and in fact it is somewhat true. Maybe you’ve heard that keyword stuffing is a good idea. Personally, I have heard this recently from a client less than a month ago. Someone told them this practice was a good idea, and so they asked me to clarify.

In today’s article, we’re going to dispel some of the myths on the topic of keyword stuffing and determine if it is a good practice for SEO.

Keyword Stuffing Definition

First, let’s define what is meant by keyword stuffing, it is taking a central keyword, and repeating that keyword in an article over and over and over and over. The practice of stuffing keywords into an article has been around since the beginning of time; well at the very least since the beginning of the digital age.

Google defines the act of keyword stuffing as web spam. So, with that, we could say case closed, don’t do it, this is not a good idea. Regardless that wouldn’t make for a very interesting article, so let’s take a deeper dive.

How to recognize keywords that have been stuffed.

Typically, this repetitive rephrasing of a keyword sounds unnatural, and makes the article awkward to read. If you’ve been online for any amount of time, you’ve probably come across an article or two like this. See our example below for more details.

The history of the Meta Keywords tag & where keyword stuffing began

If we want to really want to understand where keyword stuffing came from, we need to understand it all began with stuffing keywords into the meta keyword tag of an HTML page. This practice began innocently enough and served its purpose well.

an image of an antique typewriter showing where keyword stuffing began.

The Meta Keywords tag original intended use

People would take relevant terms to the written piece of content and add them to the meta keywords tag. Bots would crawl the page, determine what the article was about from these keywords, and would then index the page accordingly. It all made perfect sense from an engineering perspective, until someone figured out that you could appear on more search results simply by adding keywords into this tag. The more keywords you added the more you would appear. People would add high volume search terms that were not relevant, and as you can imagine, search quality started to become awful.

The web spam begins

At one point, I can remember in about 2006 or so, it was so bad, that whenever I would search for something, for a period, most of the results would be for books on Amazon. Affiliate marketers had closed in on a flaw at that time. At times, some of the results were for the same book, with just a different affiliate referrer ID in the URL. It was frustrating.

Search engine engineers began to reference the meta keywords tag less and less and in 2009 that problem stopped for good. The official date when Google no longer referenced the Meta Keywords tag was in September 2009. 

Oddly enough, one might think that this would fix the problem, when really it was just about to grow into something much worse.

Keyword Stuffing post 2009

What then ensued was what I would call the dark ages of content creation. Google was leaning toward indexing stronger more engaging content (as they always have been) and the algorithm was tweaked to focus on keywords or key phrases in the body of the content, instead of the meta keywords tag.

Next thing you know, page one search results started to become dominated by poorly written content, where with most pages referring to the same word over and over.

During this period, about mid 2010, I can remember sitting in a meeting one day. This junior marketer had this great idea he wanted to present to us. He had collected all these keywords that had spelling mistakes or typos. He was convinced that we should write articles with these mistakes in them to rank in search. Fortunately, the senior executive at the time shut it down quickly, however the sad thing is, for a brief few moments in that era, it might have actually worked.

During that period, it was so bad, my personal feelings were, it might be better to just get into a different career. Like painting fences or something.

Example of keyword stuffing

Anyway, I digress, articles at one point would read something like:

“The thing about new cars is, new cars are better than older cars, and with new cars, you don’t have to worry about breaking down in your old car. Buy a new car here and discover what a new car can do for you.”

Keyword Density around 1%

That new car sentence is 44 words, and the phrase new cars is mentioned 5 times. The keyword density on that is 11% which is massive. We will get into more about keyword density and how to calculate it further in this article, however keyword density best serves at 1%. Some SEO professionals say 2%, I think 1% with extremely well written, compelling content will outperform 2% every day of the week. That is just my opinion.

It was time for a miracle.

What happened next was nothing short of a miracle for quality content on the web. Google began to calculate; the number of times keywords or key phrases would appear on a page and adjusted their algorithm to identify stuffed keywords on pages. They then slapped keyword stuffed articles down in the results, and the term Google slap began to take hold. For the record, as mentioned before and is worth repeating, Google to this day defines the practice of keyword stuffing as spam in their web spam policy.

All of this started on Feb 23, 2011, with the Google Panda update. A day of infamy for some and a day of joy for others.

A brief look at keyword cannibalization

I must touch on keyword cannibalization, because sometimes the two terms are interchanged in conversations, and while they are similar in a sense to keyword stuffing, they are not the same.

The major difference of the two is, that cannibalized keywords are similar phrases that are spread out over the course of several pages, effectively creating several pages of the same article.

An image of the back of a business man in an overcoat looking at a board with a bunch of post it notes on it. The post it notes represent keyword stuffing

In turn, the bots crawl the page, and don’t know what page to rank so neither page is indexed properly.

This can happen when several articles are written on one keyword or near identical keyword. Let’s take new cars again as an example.

Cannibalization example

If a website had five articles, all on new cars as the focus, this might create keyword cannibalization depending on the focus.

The solution here is to find several topics in your keyword research, that are similar, but are not the same. Don’t create several articles or pages all on the exact same topic.

For example:

What not to do

  • New cars
  • New car
  • Best new cars
  • Cheap new cars
  • Cheapest new cars

You can only write so much on the topic of new cars. If this was the focus for five articles, they would start to read the same and may end up confusing the bot, and each article would “cannibalize” itself.

Realistically, if you’re struggling with creating content as in this, then I highly recommend reading the section on keyword research in my article on SEO best practices.

What to do instead

These articles would likely perform better and not trigger keyword cannibalization

  • Buying a new car
  • New car reviews
  • Selling my old car
  • New electric cars
  • Financing options for new cars

The central theme of the topic is spread out enough amongst varying sub-topics, which would create a healthier balance of keyword clusters, based around the main focus.

A Bit on The Focus Keyword & Keyword Density

When planning a new article, having a focus keyword as the focus is a sound practice. The focus keyword acts as the focus for the query you want to appear on. We want to measure this focus keyword in the article for keyword density.

If you want to improve your position in the SERP, when someone searches for pumpkin pie filling, then pumpkin pie filling would be your focus keyword. You would then place that focus keyword in key spots on the web page to help improve your on-page content.

Understanding keyword density in relation to word count

Let’s say the focus keyword for an article is banana bread recipe. As a rule of thumb, you would want to have that specific phrase referenced only once for every 100 words. If the article is 600 words long, no more than six references to banana bread recipe would be ideal.

How to calculate keyword density

The math for this one is relatively simple. Keyword density of less than 1% for a focus keyword is what I recommend. Take your total word count and divide that by how many instances your focus keyword appears. I use CTRL F on a PC and Command F on a Mac to search for my focus keyword to quickly identify the ratio.

Okay this wraps up this article. I hope you’re leaving with a good understanding of keyword stuffing and how to check for keyword density. Be sure to check out my next article, coming next week, on keyword research.

Article by Scott ChandlerSenior Director of Demand Generation, VonClaro

Scott Chandler holds the position of Vice President of Growth Marketing at VonClaro. In this capacity, he orchestrates sophisticated marketing strategies, primarily focusing on paid advertising and search engine optimization (SEO). His deep comprehension of the digital marketing sphere empowers him to produce substantial and measurable achievements for the clientele.

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