(SEM Bootcamp articles are no-frills content designed to bring small business owners up to speed on the concepts and techniques needed to market their businesses online.)

One of the questions I hear over and over again when I teach a search marketing boot camp is "How do search engines know which of my words are my keywords." These folks believe Google has a "list" of keywords and they come to your site hunting for them. While I can understand their line of thinking, the idea that search engines dub certain words on your site as your keywords isn't really true. That said, it's actually a common misconception among people who are new to the world of search engine optimization.

Since a basic understanding of how search engines do their job is paramount to building a solid foundation of search engine optimization knowledge, let's do a little delving into how search engines view your content and your keywords.

Search Engines Can't Read

Ok I may be overstating it a little bit, but in the most literal sense of the word, search engines cannot read. They can detect patterns and match patterns, but they do not comprehend what they're reading. This means they don't come to your site thinking "gee, I'm going to learn about red rubber balls today, I hope this site talks about them." Instead, they visit your site and look for patterns of letters that happen over and over again.

Then they realize those patterns define the content of the site.

Let's see this in action.

Jump Rope

I mentioned earlier that search engines look for patterns. They don't really know what a particular word is, but they do know when certain letters repeat themselves in the same way over and over and they'll take note of this. Sometimes those patterns form words, but the reality is they could also be complete gibberish. Either way, those patterns stand out.

So, if a search engine was indexing a cluster of text from a web site and saw the letters j, u, m and p showing up over and over again next to the letters r, o, p and e, they'd take note.

Let's see this in action:


When a search engine spots these repeating letters, they do some analysis to find out how often those letters show up, where they show up and so on.


Suddenly, our search engine knows this section of text is probably about "jump ropes" even though the search engine has no idea what a jump rope is. This makes "jump rope" one of the keyword phrases for this section of text.

Rubber Balls

The same approach holds true for the phrase rubber balls as well. Let's say a search engine spider was reading the following snippet of text:


Once again, the spider is going to note a pattern where the letters r, u, b, b, e and r show up next to b, a, l, l and s fairly often. They'll take that info and throw it into their database and figure out what pattern of letters represent the keywords for this bit of text.


Understanding Keyword Density/Frequency

This is why the concept of keyword density and keyword frequency first came into play. In order for search engines to say "hey, this pattern shows up fairly often, that must mean something..." the pattern has to show up fairly often. This is why you need to make sure you're working keywords into your content.

On the other hand, the knowledge that search engines looked for repeating patterns made it easy for search marketers to try and figure out the exact ratio (keyword density) of keywords to other text.


Unfortunately, once everyone started writing for the same "ideal" keyword density, the density stopped being effective. (This is partly why off-page factors now count so heavily toward rankings.)

Now you still need to make sure you have enough occurrences of your keywords in your copy to make them stand out, but there's not really any magic formula to follow.

Word of Warning: Do not shove your keyword in there too many times or you'll ruin your visitor experience. A good rule of thumb is to read your content out loud. If it sounds forced, it probably is.

Why You Can't Target Too Many Keywords on One Page

Now that you have a basic understanding of how search engines find and analyze the keywords in your content, you may be ready to ask another common question.

"How many keywords can I target per page?"

The general rule of thumb on this is two or three keyword phrases per page. Here's why:

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.

If you look at this example of text, you can easily see "red marbles" standing out.


However, if I show you a section of text that includes all three of my example phrases:


You'll notice there are so many things trying to stand out, that nothing stands out. What happens here is a jumble of competing keywords all competing for attention.


The engine can't sort out which one is the most important and your page of content and your keywords lose all effectiveness.

Make it Easy for Engines but Focus on Visitors

While I'd love to tell you to focus solely on your visitors, the truth is it's not possible. Search engines do require your attention and a bit of special work done just for them, but your primary focus should still be the visitor. This means you need to understand how search engines "identify" these keywords while still recognizing the need to work them into well-crafted, engaging content that will lead your visitors down the path to conversion.

Make it easy for the engines by working your keywords into your content, headlines, title tag and links. Once you've done that, focus in on your readers.

July 22, 2008

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


A great explanation Jennifer. Liked the image of the competing keyword balls. Is the answer to dedicate each pagee to a particular keyword rather than trying to be everything to everyone on every page? For example, the same way that separate FAQ pages can boost search engine results.

While you're mostly right, you're missing a very simple, direct, and useful answer to provide the questioner.

"The way Google knows what keywords to look for on your page is by considering what keywords LINK to your page."

This answer, while a half truth, will help reorient newbs to an appreciation of link value. Furthermore, the part about it that is particularly true is that any keyword you aren't being linked to for is highly unlikely to rank at all.


This article wasn't about links, it was a back to basics article explaining how engines "read" the content on your web pages. I'll cover keywords and links in another article down the road.

Also, while links ate VERY important, you can (and I have) ranked for great phrases, even competitive ones without having an inboundd link that uses the phrase. It helps, but it isn't the defined of success.


In general, I don't mind optimizing a page for two related phrases. If I run out of pages for targeting, it likely means my site needs more content anyway. :)

This was a great article. I'm trying to rewrite my company's Customer Service and Security FAQs with a nod to keywords and active links. I like your advice about remembering the visitor and not adding the keywords too many times. I think that I have been doing just that. Thanks for the advice.

I have been ranking very well for FoolishScam and Scamastrated, now that I have the hang of keyword importance I'll go for my company name.

Very well done, and you have illustrated another important point "write for your intended audience".

As an absolute beginner I have written, using Microsoft Visual Web Developer, a pure HTML site. I take what you say about Keywords, but don't understand what the contributors to this discussion say about Links (what are 'links' in this context?). Also, my site has several references to the word 'Cantores Olicanae' both in the site name and in the text, but nothing appears for my site when I search for it in Google. The site has been up and running for 4 months.

A Wood, Your pages containing the keyword must be in the Google index for it to appear in a search result. You can check to see what pages are indexed by using the "site" command in a Google search.


This will return the pages indexed in your site.

Hello Jennifer,

I am just learning about keywords and how to place them into a description so for me this information cleared up many questions. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Great!!!!!



This post really surprised me, especially with it harking back to keyword density, and doesn't match my understanding of modern search engines at all.

I had started to explain my understanding here, but it took up too much space, so I've moved it to my blog:


Thanks for the explaination. It makes perfect sense.

Too many clutter keywords confuse the search engine. Gone are the days that you stuff a site with keywords hoping that the page will rank. However, it is still best if you write naturally for certain keywords. This way, search engine is happy and user is happy!


You may want to read the article again. A mention of keyword density and a promotion of keyword density are not the same. In fact, you might notice that I said

"Unfortunately, once everyone started writing for the same "ideal" keyword density, the density stopped being effective. (This is partly why off-page factors now count so heavily toward rankings.)

Now you still need to make sure you have enough occurrences of your keywords in your copy to make them stand out, but there's not really any magic formula to follow.

Word of Warning: Do not shove your keyword in there too many times or you'll ruin your visitor experience. A good rule of thumb is to read your content out loud. If it sounds forced, it probably is."

With that, I'll include the response I left on your own blog post about my article.

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.

I responded in the comments on my blog (http://www.justsoftwaresolutions.co.uk/webdesign/how-search-engines-see-keywords.html), but thought I'd quote myself here for your readers:

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.

To me, it's clearly implicit in Jennifer's heading "Why you can't target too many keywords on one page" that she's talking not just about how search engines match user search queries with keywords incorporated on web pages but also how those matching pages are then ranked. Clearly one could target a hundred keywords on one page and have all of them ranked number one if they are all unique keywords or any character strings that are unique in the particular search engine's index. In that sense there's no limit. If one is aiming to be ranked number 1 for highly competitive terms, then it isn't possible to target too many highly competitive keywords on one page and that was the point I thought Jennifer was making. Links are a separate issue since they were not within the scope of the article. For really competitive terms we all know that you can rank number one by having the keyword in the anchor text of your inbound links and not even on the page at all (eg keyword = click here). But leaving the issue of links to one side, one would really aim to include keywords in the page title, the indexing of which has a relatively short fixed length and that presents a constraint. Pages will rank better for highly competitive terms if the pages are tightly themed with titles, headers, links etc. narrowly focussed around a small number of keywords. Ewan Kennedy.


To save time, I'm simply going to respond here. I don't want this conversation to go in circles, which is where it's headed, so I'm going to offer one final rebuttal and let it be. If you wish to continue disagreeing with me, it's certainly your right.

You seem to think my article was written to explain how search engines decide which phrases to index you for. It isn't. As best I can understand your posts, you feel my explanation of "which keywords search engines think are important" translates to "which keywords your site will be indexed for."

What I meant by important (and thought was clear, but apologize if it wasn't) was RANK well for.

Yes, you will be indexed for ANY word or phrase that appears on your page. No arguments there. But I never really gave a rip if I was indexed for a term if I wasn't also ranked well enough to drive traffic from it.

Read my article again with the understanding that I'm talking about important = rankings rather than important = indexing. Perhaps then you'll understand my point. Perhaps you won't. Either way, there was clearly need to clarify my points a bit, so I'm glad you gave me the opportunity to do so.


Thanks for the clarification. It is not clear from your article that important=rankings, and if read with that view there's a few things that seem out of place, but I'll leave it now.

It's good to have sorted out the misunderstanding, and I'm glad it *was* a misunderstanding, and not that you were advocating something at odds with my view.

Good stuff... I am going to bookmark you and keep reading... Sounds like I may be trying to put too many key words in each post... I focus on Dayton Ohio Real Estate but do put many other tags in there as well... usually about 3 key words per post?

What do you suggest, just one per post?


wow that's great article thnks

Thanks for the explaination. It makes perfect sense.

Great information, thank you

I'm sorry Jen, I agree with Anthony on this one. Your post just seemed way too outdated and in my opinion gives terrible advice to someone new at SEO. Just my 2 cents...

Question: I attempted to help a friend establish a free website at yola.com. Using dial-up it took me some work to get started.
Some of the text of his emails to me were very good so I put them as suggested content on a few pages and wrote him how to go to the site and put on what he wanted.
He thought I had 'published" his confidential notes to me. Can you give me an estimate of the probability that someone could have found the site given that I included no keywords nor anything to have the site appear on an "index?" Thanks, js

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > SEM Bootcamp: How Search Engines See Keywords