August 15, 2022

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Google’s digital marketing course offers bad SEO advice

That uproar you hear? It’s SEOs calling out Google today. 

Google’s new Digital Marketing & E-commerce certification course, which was announced May 2, includes cringe-worthy SEO advice so shockingly bad that one of Google’s search advocates – Danny Sullivan – is disavowing it.

What happened. It all started with a tweet from international SEO consultant Gianluca Fiorelli. In it, he shared this screenshot of a slide discussing how to avoid keyword stuffing:

This is Google’s official advice from the course:

  • Write more than 300 words on your webpage.
    • Your webpage is more likely to be ranked higher in search engine result pages if you write a higher volume of quality content.
  • Keep your keyword density below an industry standard of 2%.
    • This means that 2% of the words on the webpage or fewer should be target keywords.
  • Be thoughtful about keyword placement.
    • Your keywords should be used only once in the following places on each page within your website: page title, subheading, first paragraph, and body conclusion. 

“Seriously… ‘write more than 300 words’? and ‘keyword density’?” Fiorelli tweeted. “I mean… keyword stuffing is bad, sure! but solving it by spreading SEO myths that SEOs try to eliminate?

“I know that this course is very entry-level, but exactly for this reason myths like these ones should not be taught. Did the SEOs in Google review the course?”

“This can be ignored”. Danny Sullivan, Google’s Search Liaison, responded to Fiorelli, essentially disavowing the course. 

“I’m not on the team that produced that, nor are they part of the Search team,” Sullivan replied. “As someone from the Search team, we don’t recommend any limits or ‘density’ or anything like that. This can be ignored; I’ll pass it on.”

He then linked to Google’s advice from search, Google’s SEO Starter Guide. That document makes no mention of keyword density or word count minimums.

Keyword density. Keyword density is a percentage that tells you how often a keyword or phrase is used on a page. You divide the total number of times a keyword or phrase is used by the total number of words used. Then multiply by 100 and you have your percentage. (Or just copy-paste a URL or your text into a free online keyword density calculator.)

Here’s the fun thing with keyword density. I’ve spoken with many SEOs in the past who swear they successfully figured out the right keyword density in the past and it helped them rank pages. The exact keyword density varied – I heard anywhere from 2% to 10% was the sweet spot, depending on who you talked to (and what year) and what industry they were using it in.

So keyword density myth has a kernel of truth to it. Because it used to work. 

But let’s be clear: there is no keyword density “industry standard.”

Google has downplayed keyword density, as far back as 2006, when ex-Googler Matt Cutts shared advice about writing useful articles that readers will love. In part, he wrote:

“… in the on-page space, I’d recommend thinking more about words and variants (the ‘long-tail’) and thinking less about keyword density or repeating phrases.”

In a 2011 video, Cutts was asked: “What is the ideal keyword density of a page?”

Key quotes:

  • “So the first one or two times you mention a word, then that might help with your ranking, absolutely. But just because you can say it seven or eight times, that doesn’t mean that it will necessarily help your rankings.”
  • “I would love it if people could stop obsessing about keyword density. It’s going to vary. It’s going to vary by area, it’s going to vary based on what other sites are ranking it. It’s not a hard and fast rule.”
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But Google search has advanced much since 2011. Today, it’s not uncommon to find some pages ranking for certain keywords without ever using the keyword it’s ranking for within the page.

Keywords absolutely matter. But there is no magical ratio of keywords to content that can guarantee traffic and rankings. 

Eric Enge, president at Pilot Holding, wondered why Google even addressed keyword density. Enge said:

  • “Much better advice would be to have true subject matter experts create your content. If you do that the content will be reasonably keyword-rich in a way that is naturally a match to the topic of the content.”

Enterprise-level SEO consultant Jessica Bowman said she was shocked to see Google define any keyword density, which Google and SEO leaders have disputed for years. She also said:

  • “I do guide writers on the number of keyword repetitions to use in content (but avoid any discussion/research on density). The reason for specifying the number of repetitions for keywords is that in my experience writers won’t naturally mention keywords enough to establish relevance for the keyword you want to rank for.”
  • “When guiding writers, I include seven keyword types to guide writers such as: Primary keyword, secondary keyword, words that are part of an authoritative discussion on the topic, words to use in links, etc. Each has a number of repetitions to include. I find this guides the writer into a direction of building out robust content with an authoritative discussion that will perform well in search engines.”

Marie Haynes, owner of Marie Haynes Consulting, also said she was quite surprised that Google’s course provided specific advice on keyword density. She wondered if, perhaps, the person responsible for writing this course content wasn’t fully experienced in SEO.

  • “As with all SEO-related information you find on the web, this is a good example of why we should always have a strong reference to point to when making SEO recommendations. Not everything that is written on the internet is true, even if it comes from Google itself!”

Word count and SEO. Where did that 300-word advice come from? I highly suspect a Yoast page. Compare this quote:

“We advise writing more than 300 words for regular posts or pages, while product descriptions should be over 200 words. Why is that? A higher word count helps Google better understand what your text is about. And, generally speaking, Google tends to rank longer articles higher.”

To what Google says in its course:

  • Write more than 300 words on your webpage.
    • Your webpage is more likely to be ranked higher in search engine result pages if you write a higher volume of quality content.

See the similarity? It could be a coincidence. Or not.

Google’s search representatives have said, repeatedly, that word count or content length is not a ranking factor. Here’s what Google’s John Mueller said in:

  • 2018 on Twitter: “Word count is not indicative of quality. Some pages have a lot of words that say nothing. Some pages have very few words that are very important & relevant to queries. You know your content best (hopefully) and can decide whether it needs the details.”
  • 2019 on Reddit: “Word count is not a ranking factor.”
  • 2021 in a Google Search Central SEO Office Hours video: “From our point of view the number of words on a page is not a quality factor, not a ranking factor. So just blindly adding more and more text to a page doesn’t make it better.”
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Benu Aggarwal, president and founder of Milestone, said Google talking about word count has no place in any discussion around creating high-quality content. Aggarwal said:

  • “Good quality content starts from understanding four things: who is my customer, what are they interested in, what do they wish to accomplish and what questions do they have. Knowing this is critical before creating relevant and topical content. I feel like Google has not updated its own guidelines to match up with evolutions in search.”

Regardless, the correlation between word count and ranking has long been a hot topic of SEO studies. The problem, as always, is correlation studies are generally for entertainment purposes only. 

I started in SEO in 2007. Around that time, 250 words was considered best practice for blog posts. Then it basically started to increase every few years. 250 became 500, then 1,000, then 1,500. Last I saw, HubSpot was claiming 2,100-2,400 is the ideal length of blog posts.

We also had some briefly popular concepts, like 10x content and skyscraper content (until people figured out “results may vary” and not everybody wanted to read a novella before learning how to screw in a lightbulb).

My advice on writing content is simple: write what it’s worth. It should be long enough to be comprehensive and better than what your competition has published. 

Word count is truly one of those “it depends” situations – it depends on the type of content, the format, your goal, the audience, the industry, search intent, and lots of other variables. Also, blog posts are not product pages or other types of pages. As Enge told me:

  • “Just to point out one obvious issue, on many e-commerce pages you’d expect that there would be fewer than 300 words on the page, and likely little to nothing that appears in some form of a paragraph (i.e., mostly bullet lists of features).”

Why this is bad. Google said “all course instructors are Google employees who are subject-matter experts.” But this advice clearly calls into question the validity of this course and the value of the certification.

This situation made me think of a quote from the movie “Inception”:

“An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.”

Replace “idea” with “SEO myth” in that sentence, and that’s the problem. Somebody from (or on behalf of) Google wrote this course. I suspect many Googlers watched and gave sign-off on the content of this course. 

Now, many are predicting that some people will use this course to claim to be “SEO certified” by Google. 

Plenty of bad SEO myths have made the rounds over the years. But the origin for most of those myths could always be traced to conclusions drawn by practitioners and influencers publishing articles or “research studies,” speaking at conferences, or sharing updates on social media. 

Google has provided plenty of high-level guidance around SEO best practices, but nothing as specific and outright wrong as this before – let alone in digital marketing training that ends with official Google certification. 

Bowman said this is another reminder that you need to be careful what type of content you read – because sometimes it’s outdated advice, even if it was recently published. Bowman also said:

  • “It’s better to get an understanding of SEO by learning from SEO industry thought leaders who have been around for a while – where you can see across the board what seems to be working and legitimate tactics, so that you can identify what is bad or questionable advice. From there choose the ‘person’ you want to train you and your team, because this Google certification shows that even known and respected companies have people giving out bad advice.”
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In fact, most of Google’s search representatives have tried to debunk these bad SEO myths in the past. Repeatedly.

Why we care. Google touted this certification as a way to upskill or reskill employees. The problem: this course has bad SEO advice. Anyone who takes this course is learning bad practices that somebody, at some point, will have to help them unlearn. 

Yes, the course is “free” right now. But people invest their time (which is one thing they can never get back) in this certification, all to learn some bad SEO practices that wouldn’t have even helped you rank a decade ago. 

While Sullivan brushed it off, saying it can be ignored, the people taking the course probably won’t read his tweet disavowing it. Or the other tweets and social media updates calling it out for inaccuracy. Or the articles calling it out, including this one. That’s the problem. And it’s one that can’t be ignored. 

Jori Ford, chief marketing officer at FoodBoss, gave credit to Sullivan for his response, but hopes to see a more thoughtful one that outlines what Google is doing to correct/rectify vs. saying, don’t follow the advice. Ford said:

  • “We all make mistakes, but even Google suggests using SEOs, because let’s be honest, search is forever changing, so much so that not even internal teams are always up to speed. This is a solid example of just that.”

In 2016, Google concluded SEO certification would be a “bad idea.” Well, they were right. Here we are in 2022 and SEO is part of Google’s certification in digital marketing. And it’s certainly proving problematic, just days after launching it as a piece of its digital marketing certification. 

Google is a trusted authority. It is the biggest search engine in the world. Most people taking this course (again, given by Google employees who are subject-matter experts) will trust the information they are being taught about SEO. Hopefully, Google will update this course and have it reviewed by true SEO subject-matter experts. 

If Google keeps teaching SEO myths, these SEO myths will only continue to spread like a virus. Except this time, the myth is coming straight from Google itself. 


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About The Author

Danny Goodwin is Senior Editor of Search Engine Land. In addition to writing daily about SEO, PPC, and more for Search Engine Land, Goodwin also manages Search Engine Land’s roster of subject-matter experts. He also helps program our conference series, SMX – Search Marketing Expo. Prior to joining Search Engine Land, Goodwin was Executive Editor at Search Engine Journal, where he led editorial initiatives for the brand. He also was an editor at Search Engine Watch. He has spoken at many major search conferences and virtual events, and has been sourced for his expertise by a wide range of publications and podcasts.