Content marketing uses keywords as a primary form of SEO – but how many is too many? Most marketers would agree that as we move into a new decade, content is and will remain a key component of any digital marketing strategy.
Taking the longer view, however, will naturally raise a note of caution. The way content marketing has evolved has been shaped by a range of factors, primarily the search engines themselves and their changing algorithms.
For that reason, it may be that much will change over the course of the coming years – though it is a matter of speculation exactly what, how and to what extent.
What content marketers can do, however, is understand how best to approach content writing in the here and now.
The ghost of keywords past
While there are many elements that make up SEO – Google is said to have around 200 in its algorithm – the reality is that keywords remain the most important. After all, it is these that people are looking for when they come to use search engines in the first place.
All that once made SEO very simple, with writers able to hit page one by the following means:
Using popular search terms even if they were not relevant to the topic
Keyword stuffing – the process of using very large numbers of keywords
Spam – using the same keyword repeatedly
The result of this was a lot of low-quality content and frequent searches that directed people to the wrong topics.
However, from around 2010 search engine algorithms started changing in order to filter out such poor and irrelevant content. Relevance and authority became more important, as did other elements like strong backlinks and good, relevant images and videos.
The question is, how should you proceed with keywords now?
Finding keyword best practice
If irrelevant keywords and spam have been consigned to the past, is the same true of keyword stuffing? After all, how many is too many?
In developing a content strategy, marketers will have their own set of keywords, be they obvious short-tail keywords or more sophisticated long-tail phrases.
While some might simply rely on their own initiatives and the priorities created by the nature of the products or services they are seeking to market, others will look to go further and carry out supporting research on what the best keywords are to use.
This can be done using a variety of tools, such as SEMrush, Spyfu and Buzzsumo, to establish answers to the following questions:
What keywords are ranking highly and getting a lot of responses?
What are the keywords being used most by rival firms offering similar products or services?
What keywords are failing to make an impact?
By doing this, you should be able to establish a list of powerful and effective keywords to include in your blogs, news articles and other content.
Choosing the right number
Having established what your best keywords are likely to be, the thorny question of how many to use arises. Most writers can imagine what keyword stuffing looks like – especially if they have been involved in content writing for many years and are familiar with what blogs looked like back in the 2000s – but even if your content does not emulate that, how many keywords should an article include?
Among the reasons for this seeming, a grey area is the length of content. Another feature of changing search engine algorithms has been a shift towards giving greater authority and ranking to longer articles although in practice just how long they are should depend on many factors, not least the complexity of the subject.
Nonetheless, it may seem logical that an article of 1,000 words should have more keywords than one of 500 words.
However, this is not necessarily so. If you have a keyword list of a dozen or so, using them all because an article is long is not best practice and can be penalised by search engines, even if not so heavily as a repeat of the keyword-stuffing practices of the past would be.
The reason is in principle the same: if you are seen to be putting all your eggs in one basket, that suggests you are trying too hard to catch the attention of potential readers.
Moreover, a fact that needs to be noted is this: from the perspective of the reader using a search engine, only one keyword is being searched for at a time, no matter what the length of any of the articles they might be directed to from page 1 as a result.
Therefore, the best number of keywords is likely to be around three or four from a longer list. These can simply be rotated over time or selected according to the specific topic of the content.
Making the most of the long tail
If the number of keywords should be limited, the importance of how you use each one is consequently higher.
This is why it is particularly important to ensure the keywords you do use are of a high quality and have been checked for relevance and high response rates, so carrying out research on what works well and what rivals are using is a wise move.
It is also important to consider the effectiveness of each keyword in isolation. The increasing sophistication of algorithms did not just involve curbing bad keyword practices; it also made possible the widespread use of long-tail keywords. This was because a phrase consisting of several words no longer had to be reproduced precisely; a close approximation to it would be good enough.
This fact should act as a reminder about the best way to use keywords: It is not all about the number; what matters most is the relevant use of high-quality keywords in well-written and optimised content.