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How Search Engines See Keywords

Friday, 25 July 2008

Jennifer Laycock's recent post on How Search Engines See Keywords over at Search Engine Guide really surprised me. It harks back to the 1990s, with talk of keyword density, and doesn't match my understanding of modern search engines at all. It especially surprised me given the author: I felt that Jennifer was pretty savvy about these things. Maybe I'm just missing something really crucial.

Anyway, my understanding is that the search engines index each and every word on your page, and store a count of each word and phrase. If you say "rubber balls" three times, it doesn't matter if you also say "red marbles" three times: the engines don't assign "keywords" to a page, they find pages that match what the user types. This is why if I include a random phrase on a web page exactly once, and then search for that phrase then my page will likely show up in the results (assuming my phrase was sufficiently uncommon), even though other phrases might appear more often on the same page.

Once the engine has found the pages that contain the phrase that users have searched for (whether in content, or in links to that page), the search engine then ranks those pages to decide what to show. The ranking will use things like the number of times the phrase appears on the page, whether it appears in the title, in headings, links, <strong> tags or just in plain text, how many other pages link to that page with that phrase, and all the usual stuff.

Here, let's put it to the test. At the time of writing, a search on Google for "wibble flibble splodge bucket" with quotes returns no results, and a search without quotes returns just three entries. Given Google's crawl rate for my website, I expect this blog entry will turn up in the search results for that phrase within a few days, even though it only appears the once and other phrases such as "search engines" appear far more often. Of course, I may be wrong, but only time will tell.

Posted by Anthony Williams
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You are right. That article had to be written ten years ago.

[Deleted rude comment about Jennifer]
by Joe mcsween at 15:00:33 on Monday, 21 January 2019

Hmm, honestly Anthony, I reread my article to see if I had poor word choice or something and I can in no way see how my article does not match up with what you said.

My entire point was that search engines don't "identify" some words as magical keywords, because search engines don't know one word from another. (Thus, your point that "wibble flibble splodge bucket" is just as valid a keyword phrase as "search engine marketer."

So with that baseline set, I went on to explain how search engines look for these patterns and examine how often they occur to help determine if they might be important patterns.

I specifically noted that keyword density is no longer something people need to aim for because it's "too easy" of a factor to get just right. Thus, keyword density testing is out and good old natural language use that takes those keywords into account and works them into intelligent copy is in.

I really honestly don't see how that differs from what you are saying unless you simply read to the point of the article that mentioned keyword density and stopped reading to come write this post. Had you read to the end of the article and taken note of the part where I explained WHY keyword density is no longer a factor, and we still differ in opinion, then I can only suppose semantics are at play here.

by Jennifer Laycock at 15:00:33 on Monday, 21 January 2019

Jennifer, thanks for responding. I did read your entire article, and I just read it again. It's comments like

"It's the repeating patterns that makes keywords stand out as important. Put too many repeating patterns (keywords) into a page of copy and suddenly, nothing stands out. In other words, if you try to tell a search engine that five or six phrases are all "important" by using them often in your content, the engine is likely to decide none of your words are important."

that made me respond. As I understand things, search engines don't care whether you say a word or phrase once or many times on a page (or even never, if the links to that page use it) in determining whether or not to list your page for a given search. Things like the number of uses affect *rankings*, not whether or not your page is in the results.

It is the *user* of the search engine who decides what keywords are important, by actually searching for them. The search engine then finds those pages that contain the searched-for word or phrase, and ranks them. Both this page and your page now show up as positions one and two in the results for "wibble flibble splodge bucket". Will this affect your rankings for other keywords? I doubt it.

I agree that too many keywords might make it confusing for your readers, and thus result in a lack of conversions, or a lack of incoming links, or a lack of sales, or whatever, but this is entirely separate from how the search engines see the keywords on your page.

by Anthony Williams at 15:00:33 on Monday, 21 January 2019


by todd at 15:00:33 on Monday, 21 January 2019

You made some decent points there. I looked on the internet for the issue and found most individuals will go along with with your website.

by Michael Yu at 15:00:33 on Monday, 21 January 2019

I agree I read Jens article before I read yours, and I got the same feeling that some of the information was very outdated. I completely agreed with your article. I literally read both articles about 3 min apart, and you kinda confirmed the impression I had, and Jen is a great writer but I feel some of the information in her article was outdated,...I'm not trying to bash her, just my opinion... I will keep reading your posts, Thanks!

by bobby tucker at 15:00:33 on Monday, 21 January 2019

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