The intelligence of Google’s ranking algorithm has come along in leaps and bounds over the years, largely to the benefit of the Internet in general – the inevitable corollary being that many of the SEO tactics of days gone by are no longer effective (and in some cases now work to the detriment of the page they were intended to boost).
What is keyword stuffing?
Sometimes rather oxymoronically referred to as “over-optimising”, “keyword stuffing” is the practice of jamming as many target keywords into the display text or hidden markup of a webpage as possible (often regardless of any concern for its readability in the eyes of an actual human being) in the hope that this will convince Google of said page’s overwhelmingly high relevance for those keywords. Just look at how many times these keywords come up!
The example provided by Google is as follows (reproduced here in the form of an image, so that Google doesn’t think this website is guilty of keyword stuffing!):
The writer of the above hypothetical example would be hoping that this would be enough to convince Google that their site was the number one destination on the web for all things relating to custom cigar humidors and put them at the top of the search rankings – and wouldn’t it be nice if that were all you had to do?
Of course, it doesn’t work that way, and if it did, that company’s competitors would have to fill their sites with spamtastic, keyword-packed paragraphs to keep up – and pretty soon the entire Internet would become nothing but an unreadable mess of word salad with little or no value to human readers.
Google’s engineers know that if search engine users found nothing but keyword-stuffed nonsense pages, the usefulness of the service would be in jeopardy and they’d all eventually be out of a job; and so their algorithm is constantly updated to try to identify good-quality content which is of genuine value to humans – and to penalise transparent attempts at gaming the system.
What even is a humidor, anyway?
Why is keyword stuffing bad?
As well as being generally ineffective, keyword stuffing is ultimately sort of a pointless tactic in any case.
Let’s say it did work, and our spam-packed site sat majestically at the top of the Google search results for cigar humidors – time to celebrate, right?
Well, not really, because any actual potential customers who click our link are going to say to themselves, “Yuck, what is all this nonsense? This looks super dodgy, I don’t think I want to buy anything from this site.”
In short: even if a visibly keyword-stuffed website did do well in search results, it wouldn’t be of any real use to anybody (and probably would have an appallingly low conversion rate for the webmaster).
Sometimes the keyword stuffing is done in such a way that it is not visible to the end user, and is either camouflaged in the layout (for example, by hiding words in white text on a white background) or by disabling their visibility via stylesheets (using display:none) – the latter tactic completely hiding the spam from human users, but preserving its readability for Google’s search spider.
This brings us onto the second reason that keyword stuffing is a bad idea: Google takes a dim view of the practice, and will actively penalise any website that it catches trying to manipulate its algorithm in this way.
A famous example is BMW’s German website, which in 2006 was caught trying to rank a spam-loaded page that auto-redirected human users to a nicer, cleaner version and was ultimately banned from the search engine – note that this happened nearly thirteen years ago, and you’d better believe that Google has since gotten a lot more sophisticated about spotting crude attempts to get an advantage over the competition.
“Webmasters are free to do what they want on their own sites,” Google engineer Matt Cutts has said, “but Google reserves the right to do what we think is best to maintain the relevance of our search results, and that includes taking action on keyword stuffing.”
What do I do if my site has been penalised for keyword stuffing?
Sometimes, keyword spam is implemented not so much out of a conscious desire to unfairly game the system but more of a general innocence about how websites work, or an outdated notion of SEO best practices.
Consequently, well-meaning users are occasionally surprised to find that their website has been blacklisted by Google and often end up feeling like they broke a rule nobody actually told them about.
Fortunately, Google do accept appeals in this matter. Once your site has been cleaned up and the spam excised, you can file a Reconsideration Request in Google Search Console and hopefully have it reviewed for re-inclusion in the search rankings for your target keywords.
What’s the alternative to keyword stuffing?
So, if you’re not allowed to stuff your pages with paragraphs full of product names and possible keyword permutations, what can you do with your page content to ensure good positioning in Google’s search results?
As with many things in life, the answer is that there aren’t really any shortcuts; Google’s algorithm wants to favour content that is the most useful to the largest number of people, and so the solution is… write really great human-readable content.
It may sound like an anticlimactic answer, but the truth is that there are no magic techniques to make Google “think” you have a great page full of really relevant and helpful information (apart from actually just honestly making that page).
The algorithms today are very sophisticated and able to tell with high accuracy which pages are likely to be the most valuable to human readers, and while there are often optimisations that can be made to a page’s meta-information and header tags for a bit of an SEO boost, few things are as powerful as high-quality content.
After all, content that is genuinely engaging for human readers is much more likely to be linked-to from other sites and shared on social media by interested users, and you simply can’t get that kind of organic word-of-mouth marketing by using spammy pages that look like they’ve taken keyword steroids.
Fundamentally, keyword stuffing is both useless and dangerous when it comes to boosting your presence in Google’s search rankings, and it hasn’t been a serious SEO technique for at least a decade. Nonetheless, we still see its influence in many websites, even today.
Even if it did somehow end up ranking fairly well, a spammed-up website wouldn’t do much except contribute to the general white noise of Internet spam – and consistently lose readers to competitor sites that featured genuinely interesting and useful page content.