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Keyword repetition for search engine optimization (SEO)

How much is too much?

Search engine myths die hard, and this one is certainly an old one. So I will open with this: search engines have not used keyword density as a ranking factor in a very, very long time. They do not measure the keyword density in page/document titles.

But let's get to the reader question:

I remember reading in other articles about keyword usage rules that a particular keyword (in this case "asthma") should not be used more than three times on one page. Can you repeat "asthma" in many phrases, as long as the phrases are different?

This myth, I believe, is based on the meta-description tag. Many search engine marketers discovered that if they repeated a keyword phrase more than three times in the meta-description tag, then the search engines would penalize a page for keyword stuffing. At least that is the origin of the myth as I know it. (Remember Infoseek, anyone?)

There is no hard and fast rule which states that keywords should not be repeated more than three times on a page. In fact, I tend to think the exact opposite: important keywords or keyword phrases should appear at least three times on a page.

XHTML title tag

One of the most important places to put keywords is the HTML title tag. For those of you who are new to search engine optimization (SEO) and Web design, the HTML title tag is placed between the <head> and </head> tags on a Web page, and it basically looks like the following:

<title>Organic green tea from Tranquiliteas</title>

All of the major spider-based search engines (Google, Yahoo/Slurp, Live, etc.) use title-tag content to determine relevancy. Additionally, around 60-80 characters in the title tag are used as the hyperlink in search engine results pages (SERPs). So a title tag has two functions:

  1. Relevancy: accurately and concisely describe page content
  2. Call-to-action: encourage your target audience to click on a hyperlink to your site from a SERP
  3. Browser bookmarks and social bookmarks diplay your title tag
  4. File names of saved web pages include title-tag content

I would not repeat a keyword three times in a title tag, even if you see another site doing it. Remember, search engines do NOT use keyword density in a title tag to determine rankings. Usually, too much keyword repetition in a title tag communicates "keyword stuffing" and poor copywriting to end users. I might repeat a word twice, usually if a company name has a keyword in it, such as the following:

<title>Imprinted golf balls from ABC Golf Company</title>

Since I have found that people tend to type in the plural form of a word as well as the singular form of a word, I try to get both the singular and the plural form of a word in the title tag. On a page with a list? I emphasize the plural form more than I emphasize the singular form of the word.

My rule of thumb? Two times is the most I will repeat a word or phrase in a title tag. Once is usually sufficient. Three times tends to look "spammy." Besides, the goal of search engine optimization is not to rank. because a ranking is useless if your target audience does not click on the link to your site and convert. For a title tag to be successful, it must be relevant as well as lead to sales conversions. "Spammy" title tags rarely convert.


Main content

By main content, I mean the text that falls between the <body> and </body tags>, typically paragraphs, ordered/unordered lists, headings, hypertext links, alternative text, and even table cell content.

If visitors click on a link from a SERP and land on a page in your site, are they able to determine that the content is focused? I always ask this question in focus groups and usability tests. Usually, if people cannot tell me what a page is about without scrolling or taking some other kind of action, it is a dead giveaway that a page is not focused enough.

Both humans and technology -- searchers and search engines -- try to determine the aboutness of your page's content.

Minimally, I will repeat a keyword phrase in a breadcrumb link, main heading tag, secondary heading tags (if I have a long page), introductory paragraph, alternative text in graphic images (if used), and conclusion paragraph. If I have a shorter Web page (<200 words), that means I repeat the keyword at least three times in the body content. In fact, that is my rule of thumb to make a page appear focused: repeat the main keyword phrase at least three times in the body content.

All of the major search engines use text-based body content to determine relevancy.


Meta tags: description and keywords

Very few web search engines use meta-tag content to determine relevancy.

I do not spend a tremendous amount of time optimizing meta-tag content. With well-written content, meta tags are not always necessary. I have seen plenty of sites rank well (and convert) with little or no meta-tag content.

However, many search engines use the meta-description tag in their SERPs. And since I believe most web copy is rather poorly written, I tend write unique meta-tag content for each page.

The meta-description tag is a good place to put descriptive sentences and phrases, utilizing your most important keywords. I always try and put a call-to-action to encourage people to click on the link from the SERP to the web page. Simple phrases such as, "Read more about our (keyword 1, keyword 2, keyword 3)..." or "Read details about (keyword 1, keyword 2, keyword 3)..." are very simple ways to include important keywords in a meta-description tag.

As for the meta-keywords tag, I spend more time on that tag if I know that it is used to determine relevancy in a site search engine. Many database-driven sites have a search function, and the meta-keywords tag is often used to determine relevancy. If visitors type in keywords into a site's search query, the results should be accurate. Keyword phrases in the title tags, main body content, and meta tags can help make site searches more accurate.

Since I know that Google, for example, does not use the meta-keywords tag to determine relevancy, I am more concerned that the meta-keywords content delivers site visitors the most accurate page. If that means repeating a keyword more than three times in this tag, I will do it. Here's an example:

<meta name="keywords" content="stock photography, royalty-free photos, rights-managed stock photography, color photos, black and white photo, royalty free images, high quality photos, rights managed stock photos, graphic image" />

If you hear a search engine marketer emphatically state "Keyword stuffing!" you might want to dig a little deeper. This meta-keywords content is perfectly acceptable and is actually used on one of my colleague's sites for site search purposes. But remember, every site is unique. This particular meta content is specifically created for a site search engine. Yahoo might consider this content to be keyword stuffing.

If a client does not have the budget or if I personally do not have the time to optimize the meta-tag content for my own sites? Then I will write meta-tag content for the most important pages. Other content carries far more weight in determining relevancy.



Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules as to how many times a keyword phrase should be repeated on a site or even an individual HTML tag.  "Three times" in the meta-description tag was a general guideline presented to search engine marketers years ago. Heck, I even remember publications when it said seven times in a meta tag was perfectly acceptable.

Through usability tests, focus groups, and site statistics software, Web site owners can determine the amount of keyword repetition to make a page appear focused on a topic. If the content appears focused to your visitors, it is probably focused to the search engines as well.


Shari Thurow - photoThis article originally appeared in WebProNews and has been updated by author Shari Thurow since its original publication. If you would like permission to publish this article for your online newsletter, blog, or web site, please fill out our contact form or call us at 847-426-4256.

Shari Thurow is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine optimization (SEO), web site usability, information architecture (IA), and web design firm. She is also the co-author of the book, When Search Meets Web Usability.

For more information about our search engine optimization, search usability training, and site design services, please fill out our contact form or call us at 847-426-4256.

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