Keyword stuffing was a black hat SEO tactic used to intentionally and unnaturally include targeted keywords, typically of products or services, numerous times on a page without adding value, in an effort to manipulate search engines to rank for that target keyword.
Keyword stuffing was popular in the '90s, but like all black hat SEO tactics and search engine hacks, was not an effective long-term strategy to rank in Google.
Google latest algorithm update, called BERT, aims to provide a better understanding of the nuance and context of words in searches and better match those queries with helpful results.
BERT uses Natural Language Processing and Artificial Intelligence and is pre-trained on Wikipedia and question and answers datasets from over one million user queries.
Before we look how Google has dealt with keyword stuffing over the years, let's take a closer look at how keyword stuffing used to work.
Let's start off by looking at an example. According to Google guidelines, here is a prime example of what keyword stuffing looks like:
In Google's example the target keyword is custom cigar humidors. That keyword is "stuffed" intentionally into every single sentence and even three times in the last one. Including the commercial keyword repeated adds zero value to the content.
In the example, the intent is to manipulate the page for the target keyword, custom cigar humidors.
In the past, commercial keywords were "stuffed" commonly in a list or group, and were our of context. The practice of keyword stuffing took away from the readability and resulted in a poor experience.
Just read the example out loud and you will instantly hear how artificial it sounds.
Keyword stuffing was a common practice back in the 1990s and the early 2000s, when search engines relied heavily on exact keyword matches.
Back in the early days of Google, adding keywords lists (whether visible or invisible via "white text") would manipulate the search engine algorithm and rank pages with lower quality and less valuable content higher in search engine results.
Google classified keyword stuffing under "irrelevant keywords" in it's guidelines because of these unnatural lists, invisible text, and well as large blocks of text of only keywords in the bottom of pages that humans wouldn't see, but search engines scanned.
Keyword stuffing practices were common amongst online products and were used to intentionally manipulate search results for the intended stuffed keyword to rank.
In November 2003, Google’s Florida update focused on keyword stuffing, multiple sites under the same brand, invisible text, and hidden link tactics.
In January 2014, Google rolled out another update to crack-down on deceptive on-page tactics, including invisible text and META-tag stuffing, that were not all caught in the 2003 update.
Matt Cuts speaks about keyword density and keyword stuffing and explains how it works with Google's Panda algorithm update.
"Once you start to mention [your keyword] a whole lot, it really doesn't help that much more. There's diminishing returns, and it's just an incremental benefit, but it's really not that large." Matt Cutts, Ex-Googler
In April 2012, Google rolled out the Penguin update that improved a number of spam factors, including keyword stuffing.
Whereas previous updates including Penguin and Panda were enhancements to the algorithm, hummingbird was an entirely new algorithm.
Hummingbird no longer exclusively relied on specific keywords to determine the topic of the page. Google was now able to identify topics by looking at the context of your page.
This meant content creators no longer needed to explicitly use keywords density and could use a variety of other words that are related to the topic.
Although on-page optimization can be a key success factor, search engines are not easily fooled.
Google has said so, too:
“Keyword density, in general, is something I wouldn’t focus on... Search engines have kind of moved on from there over the years... They're not going to be swayed if someone has the same keyword on their page 20 times.” John Mueller, Google
Here's the Google webmasters recording from 2014.
Google’s John Mueller reported that keyword stuffing may be ignored altogether if the content is found to otherwise have value to searchers.
It's usually more actionable to focus on your own sites, rather than to focus on "why is someone else's site ranking above mine when I don't think it's as good as mine" ... We use over 200 factors for ranking, the nice part is that you don't have to get them all perfect.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) June 20, 2018
Mueller also revealed that keyword stuffing shouldn't result in removal from Google's index.
Yeah, but if we can ignore boring keyword stuffing (this was popular in the 90's; search engines have a lot of practice here), there's sometimes still enough value to be found elsewhere. I don't know the page, but IMO keyword stuffing shouldn't result in removal from the index.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) June 20, 2018
The "medic update" introduced the announcement of Google's quality rater guidelines & E-A-T.
Is E-A-T a ranking factor? Not if you mean there's some technical thing like with speed that we can measure directly.
We do use a variety of signals as a proxy to tell if content seems to match E-A-T as humans would assess it.
In that regard, yeah, it's a ranking factor.
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) October 11, 2019
Google rolls out BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers). This major update helps Google understand topics and concepts in sentences, paragraphs and search queries.
Compared to the old ways of analyzing text in the sense of matching keywords, BERT is a huge game changer.
There's nothing to optimize for with BERT, nor anything for anyone to be rethinking. The fundamentals of us seeking to reward great content remain unchanged.
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) October 28, 2019
Google's John Mueller confirms that Google's search algorithm ignores keyword stuffing and that its algorithm is much more sophisticated than the early days.
Our systems are built to ignore keyword stuffing. Sites can still rank despite using keyword stuffing. Many sites follow old, outdated, bad advice, but are still reasonable sites for users, and search.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) October 20, 2020
Google also officially confirmed that keyword-heavy titles are not against guidelines. John Mueller explains why keyword-heavy meta titles and meta descriptions are not against Google's webmaster guidelines.
There are over 200 ranking signals that are considered when ranking a page — it's not that simple as it was 10+ years ago. Most people that have exposure to SEO check keyword density, others take it into consideration, and some ignore it completely. Practicing SEOs focus on content and topics.
In November 2003, Google’s Florida update focused on keyword stuffing, multiple sites under the same brand, invisible text, and hidden links. Then again in January 2004, the Austin update helped reduce meta keyword stuffing. Penguin in April 2012 and Panda in September 2014, also played a role in enchaining the algorithm against keyword stuffing.
According to Matt Cutts' video from 2013, you will receive a manual action labeled as "Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing" in Google Search Console. Fixing hidden text and keyword stuffing is fairly straight-forward. View affected pages and remove the hidden text and keywords.
Keyword stuffing was traditionally checked for using a keyword density tool as well as readability. The keyword density tool helped pick up white text and other hacks, and the "readability test" checked if the content was natural.
Most SEOs believe that the ideal keyword density is somewhere between 1-5% of the total text, however, like Matt Cutts explains in his keyword density video, there is really no ideal target keyword density to aim for.
Write high-quality, relevant content about the topic to demonstrate expertise, authoritativeness and trust. Google ignores keyword stuffing whether, intentional or accidental, and will focus on your content. You can also run your content through a keyword density testing tool, if you are really concerned about this out dated tactic.
It makes sense that a page about your company will use your company name more often, while a page about Google will use the word Google more often. Modern search engines are able to identify this type of content and will ignore it and focus on the primary content and topic of your page.
Although this page has a keyword density for the term "keyword stuffing" that is +10%, it is all written naturally, without the intention to "stuff" the keyword in and without malicious intent. We checked it after updating the page just out of curiosity. Google likely would not have problems with this page and not consider it spam or blackhat.
You'll still be able to find lots of articles online about keyword stuffing and other outdate or irrelevant practices. These are indexed, rank, and get traffic, but sometimes people read, or skim, them and take them at face value.
Google's John Mueller explains this is this SEO Myths podcast.