"How many keywords do I need in my content to rank with Google?"

On the surface, this is a seemingly innocuous question that many dealerships ask as they prepare to launch a new site. Even so, delving into arbitrary thresholds regarding keyword numbers - and in terms of density compared to the rest of your automotive content - is most assuredly skirting into dangerous territory. Don't believe it? Just ask the countless companies and brands that have felt the wrath of Google and other search engine leaders for engaging in keyword stuffing and over-optimization.

If you'd rather not see your search engine optimization (SEO) plans travel down this dark and damaging path, then join us as we dig into the discussion surrounding the history - and future - of unethical keyword usage. From here, you'll have all the insight you need to understand the nature of keyword stuffing and density abuse, as well as where the search engine leaders draw the line between "just right" and "too much."

What Is Keyword Stuffing?

If you're unfamiliar with the notion of "keyword stuffing" and the mishandling of keyword density in general, then it's worth taking a moment to bring you up to speed with a simple and straightforward explanation of this concept. At its core, the webmasters over at Google note that this tactic is all about "gaming the system," or artificially enhancing site rankings via webpages loaded with targeted keywords.

Here's a look at how keyword stuffing plays out on paper:

"Looking for a new or used car? Our new or used car selection can't be beat when it comes to finding the right new or used car. Connect with our new or used car specialists today at xxx-xxx-xxxx or via email at [email protected] if you're in the market for a new or used car."

Care to take a guess at which keyword is being pushed in this excerpt?

The above example might come off as a little over-the-top or outlandish initially, but it helps highlight this process in a tangible and real way - especially once you start imagining whole pages filled with such low value content. In total, the Google webmaster review of this decidedly "black hat" approach points to the following as methods that fall within the scope of keyword abuse:

  • Phone number lists that don't add value to the user experience.
  • Blocks of text that list off cities, states, and other regions a page has targeted for ranking purposes.
  • Repeating the same word or phrase to an unnatural degree.

The truth of the matter is that any variation of keyword stuffing a dealership might leverage isn't about quality content or information that helps the end user; it's the SEO equivalent of a "get-rich-quick" scheme. The results can be overwhelming at first glance, but the success that comes with this approach is both fleeting and ephemeral.

A Once Potent SEO Tactic

Before keyword stuffing officially became the poster child for black hat operations as we know it today, there was a time when it actually stood as one of the most potent SEO strategies on the web. Industry experts like the team from the Kissmetrics blog point out that this period of the Internet's history was a veritable "Wild West" environment where virtually any tactic - no matter how dubious - was fair game.

"Back in the Wild West days of SEO, over-optimization was the way that sites gained rank. Stuffing a site with tons of keywords, or sending thousands of spammy links to a site was the quick-and-easy way to boost a site in the SERPs."
- Kissmetrics Blog

However, there's no denying that this "anything goes" era is dead and gone. You can even trace the moment that keyword stuffing and the utilization of exploitative density tactics met its demise to one exact point in time: Google's now infamous and game-changing Florida update.

As Barry Lloyd of Search Engine Guide explains, Friday, November 21st, 2003 was the day that "all hell broke loose." If this date doesn't ring any bells for you, just know that it lives on in infamy within the SEO community as the day that Google went live with a search result filtration system designed to take aim at keyword stuffing and overly-optimized pages.

The end result of this earthshattering rollout? Tens of thousands of pages not only fell from their coveted top ranking positions, but also completely disappeared from relevant search engine results pages (SERPs) entirely. Lloyd goes on to note that many offending pages that tripped this filter had occupied these positions for months - and even years - prior to the algorithm adjustment.

"If the density of the optimization, both on and off the page, appeared too artificial, then a filter was tripped and down went the page - solely for that phrase."
- Barry Lloyd, Search Engine Guide

To put things mildly, Friday, November 21st was the day that changed SEO forever. Since the Florida update went live over a decade ago, Google has continued to wage a war against keyword stuffing by issuing manual penalties and unveiling numerous other algorithm updates. Not surprisingly, Bing and Yahoo have also joined the cause during this timeframe via their own anti-spamming measures and updates.

Understanding the Repercussions That Follow "Black Hat" Methods

When it comes to the repercussions faced by those who enact keyword stuffing strategies and abuse the concept of keyword density, it's safe to say that the hammer most definitely falls heavily. For an example that probably hits a little too close to home for those of use in the automotive world, Marketing Land's Danny Sullivan suggests looking no farther than BMW and the manual penalty Google served up to this leading German manufacturer back in 2006.

After running afoul of Google thanks to a serious case of "cloaking" and keyword stuffing via a series of "doorway pages," BMW's site was pulled from Google's index for three whole days. It might not sound like that big of a deal initially, but the damage done by such a drastic move was both substantial and lasting.

To help put this punishment into perspective, having your website pulled from all relevant SERPs and earning a PageRank score of zero is the SEO industry's equivalent of the death penalty. This phrasing sounds like a full-blown case of hyperbole initially, but once you realize that BMW lost access to a potent stream of organic traffic, took a massive hit to its brand image, and had to spend years restoring its authority with Google and customers alike, it doesn't take long to realize how serious the backlash is for those who think they don't have to play by Google's rules.

Old Habits Die Hard

With such stiff penalties awaiting anyone who is willing to step out of line, there can't be that many SEO professionals that still leverage these dated black hat tactics, right? While that's a logical way to view the situation, the sad reality of our industry is that there are still plenty of SEO firms and so-called "experts" that think keyword stuffing and absurdly high density rates are acceptable practices to utilize on behalf of their automotive clients. In fact, some of the biggest names on the web - like Quick Sprout's Neil Patel - also can't quite figure out why these underhanded (and painfully obvious) tactics still see the light of day.

"It's old news that keyword stuffing is bad. This is one of the earliest tricks in the SEO playbook… In spite of the warnings and consequences of keyword stuffing, I still see it happen."
- Neil Patel, Quick Sprout

How can our industry still be trudging through the mire that is keyword stuffing and other black hat practices, even with all of the updates and changes implemented by Google and other search engines standing directly in opposition to these strategies? It all boils down to two big problems - ignorance and apathy - that still run rampant among certain segments and professional circles within the SEO community.

Old habits die hard for many members of this community, and leveraging "stuffed" pages is no exception to this rule. To put it bluntly, no matter how many times Google retools its algorithm or hands out a penalty, there will always be someone waiting for their chance to be the "smartest person in the room" and try to sneak a quick one by the search engine world.

Do Keywords Still Matter?

After sifting through all of the information we've covered here, it's time to finally address the proverbial elephant in the room: Do keywords matter in today's SEO landscape?

Forbes magazine's Jayson DeMers points out that keywords most certainly do still have a place in the design and development of properly optimized and "crawlable" sites. However, these digital assets clearly no longer hold the place of prominence they once did in the Internet's past.

"To put it simply, keywords do still matter in 2016. Chances are they'll always matter, to an extent. However, as search engines have become more sophisticated, they have started putting far less emphasis on specific keywords, and more emphasis on the meaning or intent behind those keywords."
- Jayson DeMers, Forbes Magazine

Among the cutting edge members of the SEO world, the focus now has shifted away from raw density and quantity considerations and more toward long-tail keywords and how best to uncover user intent via these selections. DeMers, this time in a piece for Search Engine Watch, notes that the connection between user intent and long-tail keywords is one that not only defines the future of SEO, but also paves the way for increased conversion rates and more relevant site traffic.

The Rise of Semantic Search

Outside of this shift away from keyword stuffing and other relics of SEO's "Stone Age," the future of search queries and results pages also falls within the realm of semantics. For those not familiar with the key points behind semantic search's rise to prominence, here's a quick rundown of this concept from Erin Everhart of Mashable:

"Semantic search uses artificial intelligence in order to understand the searcher's intent and the meaning of the query rather than parsing through keywords like a dictionary."
- Erin Everhart, Mashable

The utilization of semantics - specifically via Google's Hummingbird update - is all about uncovering the interconnected relationships between terms and phrases within the search query, and not just assigning search results based on a targeted keyword. In other words, when a potential customer types "used trucks" into the search field, Google is going to delve into all of the following considerations as it tries to figure out exactly what the person on the other side of the screen is looking for with his or her search:

  • Prior search history.
  • Relationships between other stored data.
  • User location.
  • Spelling, grammar, and other linguistic variations.

We could sit here all day and rattle off the countless attributes that play into the semantic search experience offered up by Google's Hummingbird update and how these changes fold into this search leader's desire to "organize the world's information," but you're probably picking up on the idea at this point. Simply put, Google's big plan is to continue developing its understanding of user intent to an even greater degree via semantics - a measure that further invalidates the already waning allure of keyword stuffing and other black hat tactics.

Sorting out Industry Best Practices

So now that we've walked you through keyword stuffing's past, present, and future, it's time to come to a few conclusions regarding where the SEO industry and its best practices stand today:

  • Keyword stuffing as an effective SEO tactic is dead and won't be coming back to life anytime soon.
  • Don't mess with the black hat side of SEO if you plan on keeping your site indexed and ranked by Google and the rest of the search engine "Big Boys."
  • High keyword density is nice, so long as it feels natural and complements the rest of your site experience.
  • Long-tail keywords and locally-relevant selections that speak to user intent are most definitely in vogue and important.
  • Semantic search and garnering a deeper understanding of the user experience is the future of SEO.
  • Many of the highest ranked websites don't target specific keywords, aim for some arbitrary density percentage, or leverage SEO gimmicks and trickery. Instead, these sites focus on winning design and impactful content in order to rank highly.

Once you put all of this together, the message becomes pretty clear in a hurry. Getting your site out in front of future customers and climbing your way to the top of the search result rankings requires a commitment to forward-thinking SEO, as well as placing an importance on a great user experience.

At this point, there's no doubts that you're up to speed with the conversation surrounding keyword stuffing, so there's only one question left to ask: Does your dealership want to heed this advice and enact an efficient and effective SEO strategy, or would it rather test its luck by falling in with those who still think leveraging keyword stuffing and other underhanded tactics is worth the risk in 2016?