Keyword Prominence As A Google Ranking Factor: What You Need To Know

Keyword prominence is an SEO best practice that involves using the target keyword for the page early in order to send a strong signal to Google about what the page should rank for.

It’s a concept comparable to the journalistic standard of never burying a slab. To bury the board means to hide the main focus of the story under information that is less relevant to the reader.

This is considered a mistake in journalism because it sends a confusing message about the most important details in a given story.

Burying a lede in a piece of web content, with “led” being the target keyword, is considered bad SEO practice because it sends confusing signals as to what the page is about.

This is the consensus within the SEO industry at least. But is it an unsupported theory or has Google confirmed that keyword prominence is a ranking factor?

Here’s more about the keyword prominence claim, followed by the evidence to support it.

Claim: Keyword prominence is a ranking factor

The appearance of a keyword on a page is said to play a role in search rankings.

Search engine optimization (SEO) specialists advise using the target keyword for the page early in order to take advantage of the ranking signal known as keyword prominence.

Keyword prominence correlates positively with higher rankings. The closer the keyword is to the beginning of the titles and body, the more prominent it will be.

Using a keyword less prominently is said to reduce the chances of ranking for that keyword.

When performing a Google search, it is common to see results where the exact keyword you entered appears at the beginning of the page titles.

Anecdotally, it can be shown that keyword prominence is a ranking factor.

Has it been confirmed by Google?

Let’s take a look at the supporting evidence.

Keyword importance as a ranking factor: directory

early evidence

Evidence supporting keyword prominence as a ranking factor dates back to 2011 and is cited in Dossier Video with former Google employee Matt Cutts.

It discusses how Google captures keyword usage when crawling the web, and that the first few uses of the keyword will send signals to Google about the main focus of the page.

However, Cutts warns site owners not to overdo it with keywords, because more isn’t necessarily better.

“The way modern search engines, or at least Google, are built is that the first time you mention a word – [Google thinks] “Hey, that’s interesting, it’s about that word.”

Next time you mention that word, [Google thinks] “Well, it’s still about that word.” And once you start mentioning it a lot, it really doesn’t help much. There are diminishing returns. It’s just an added benefit, but it really isn’t that big.

… So the first time or two you mention a word more than that might help your rankings, for sure. But just because you can say it seven or eight times, it doesn’t mean it will necessarily help your rankings.”

Modern evidence

A lot has changed in SEO since 2011, but Google’s guidelines on keyword importance remain the same.

Here’s more recent evidence from John Mueller of Google who touched on this topic in 2021 during one of his works Weekly question and answer sessions (at the 6:43 mark):

I recommend, if there’s something you want to tell us that your page is about, to make that as visible as possible. So don’t put that as a one word mention at the bottom.

But instead, use it in your titles, use it in your titles, use it in your subheadings, use it in captions from images, all of these things to make it as clear as possible for users and for Google when they go to the page that this page is about.

So that’s kind of the direction I’m going to take there. You don’t have to worry about whether or not Google can reach the 20,000th word. Because if you’re talking about the 20,000th word, and you’re saying that’s the most important keyword for my page, you’re really doing things wrong.

You really need to make sure that the information that tells us what that page is about is as clear as possible so that when users go there they say “yeah I got to the right page, I’ll read what that page has to tell me”.

Mueller makes a great point about thinking about the importance of keywords from a user experience perspective.

Going back to our lede burial analogy, when you use the most important keyword as early as possible, you end up optimizing for readers and Google at the same time.

Other considerations for keyword prominence

We touched on how keyword importance affects SEO, how it affects user experience, and now we’ll discuss how it can affect CTR.

Mueller highly recommends making your most important keywords visible in your titles, headings, subheadings, and main copy.

Not only are page titles an SEO factor, but they can also influence click-through rates from organic search results. This is another reason a keyword site is especially important, because rankings mean nothing without traffic.

In English, we read from left to right, so a page title with the keyword closest to the beginning will grab the searcher’s attention because it matches what they typed in the search bar.

The goal of SEO is not just to appear higher in search results, but to get searchers to click through to your page above others. Strategically placed keywords can help achieve this.

Now think about what your visitors will do when they land on the page. They are more likely to skim through the content than to read word for word.

With this in mind, you want to use the keyword as early as possible in an article. You want to make sure the reader will see it while they’re skimming.

Use the keyword towards the first paragraph, or even in the first sentence if you can. You want to immediately show the reader that they’ve found the right article to help them with their search query. Otherwise, they will leave.

As you continue to write content, be sure to use the keyword again in titles, and anywhere else a reader’s eyes are likely to jump to as they skim the page.

Keyword prominence as a ranking factor: our judgment

Keyword prominence is a sure ranking factor.

Google has repeatedly maintained that using a keyword at the beginning of copy is better, from an SEO standpoint, than if it first appeared at the bottom of the page.

If you want to increase your chances of ranking for a particular keyword, include it in your intro paragraph. Use the keyword early, but don’t use it too often, or you might run into keyword stuffing issues.

For more information on how often a keyword should appear on a page, see the chapter on keyword density.

Featured image: Paulo Bobita / SearchEngineJournal

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