Keywords and key phrases — how do I use ’em?

Here at, we get lots of questions about search engine optimization (SEO) and competing for keywords in search results. “What about META keywords in my page headers?” in particular is a question we’ve heard a lot this past year.
Keywords are old technology. Keywords are an old way google and other search engines once used — before the mid-2000’s — to allow site owners to specify what they thought was important about each page. Keywords lived in an invisible META tag in each page’s header (the info each page loads before it starts loading human-readable content). That tool was rife for abuse though, because it allowed site owners to compete for all kinds of keywords they weren’t actually mentioning when real human visitors showed up to read the actual content of the page. So google dropped keyword info from its calculations of page relevance for search results.
Here’s how it works now. Search engines index the human-readable content of each page, and calculate a statistical weight for EVERY word and phrase combo on the page itself. If you’re talking, in your content, about the keywords and phrases your customers are searching for, then you’re already doing almost everything google wants from content.
The big trick – and it’s no trick, really, it’s good old-fashioned customer knowledge (if you already know them well) and/or customer research (if you don’t yet) – is understanding the words and phrases your customers use when they ask questions about your service, and then making sure those words and phrases appear in your pages’ content.
In a perfect world, you’d assign ONE page of your site to be the anchor for any particularly hot key phrase, so that several of your pages aren’t fighting each other in search results for that phrase. Then you want to make sure that key phrase appears a couple times – verbatim, it’s not enough for the words “vehicle”, “fleet”, and “repair” to appear near but not adjoining each other if you want to compete for “vehicle fleet repair” – within the content of that page. It can make a guest appearance on other pages of your site too, just not at anything like the same frequency.
A good rule of thumb is to aim for about 5-8% keyword / key phrase presence in your total word count for the page in question. Our site recipe has a baked-in tool (WordPress SEO by Yoast, it appears right under the content box on your edit screen for every page and post) that can help you measure your key phrase density, and other search-related factors, for every page you’ve published. Cool, right?
An even rougher, but still useful, rule of thumb is that any key phrase you’re competing for on a given page should appear often enough that a human reader would know you felt it’s important, but not so often that the reader would think you’re sounding weird for saying “vehicle fleet repair” (to use our previous example) for the eighth time in four paragraphs of content.
If your keyword / key phrase also appears – again, verbatim – in the title for the page, that’s even better.

Want more info about keywords, key phrases, and competing for search rank?

We can’t think of a better, more reputable resource than Joost de Valk, author of the SEO by Yoast and a trusted authority on real-world SEO for regular folks. Go check out his blog and get some advanced tips and techniques for really great search optimization, including how to really access and leverage the snazzier features of WordPress SEO by Yoast.
Now get out there and win the search wars for your hot key phrases!
Posted in FAQ, How-to Articles, Intermediate, SEO and Site Traffic.