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A few months ago I challenged myself to rank pages without using the keyword phrase in the title tag.  After some experimentation I got it to work.

In a recent Webmaster Hangout, Google’s John Mueller stated that overdoing the keyword phrase can cause Google to become wary of a web page. Is it possible that adding keywords to title tag, H1. etc. could work against you?

SEO Keywords Best Practices

In a conversation with another search marketer he said that his recipe for on-page SEO was:

  • Add keywords to title
  • Add keywords to URL
  • Add keywords to H1
  • Add keywords in content

That formula is the traditional SEO best practice going back to at least 2000. I know because I was there.

The formula was to add your keywords to the title tag, H1, content, in the URL, and then put the keyword in the anchor text in a link to to a .edu or .gov website, add it to the content and bold it, add it elsewhere and italicize it, grease it up then slap it online. Instant rankings.

That was then. And apparently, today is then, too.

Modern SEO best practice still says to do this:

  • Add keywords to title
  • Add keywords to URL
  • Add keywords to H1
  • Add keywords in content

My question to myself was, is ranking today the same as it was in 2000? Clearly it can’t be. That’s why I challenged myself to rank a page without the keywords in the title.

I will show you one example. There are many examples out there.

I did a search for “how to get a business loan with bad credit”  and noticed that nearly every single web page was missing those keywords from the title tag. The only page that featured that keyword phrase was at the bottom of the search results.

Only the bottom of the search results had an exact match with query and keywords in the title tag

Only the bottom of the search results had an exact match with query and keywords in the title tag

Query Expansion

Obviously, query expansion plays a role in ranking web pages that do not feature the keyword in the title tag.

Query expansion is a method where a search engine will find web pages that answer the search query, even though the keywords aren’t on the web page.

Search engines do this by adding synonyms, using stemming and other methods to identify more pages to consider.

The net result is that it makes standard keyword SEO practices obsolete. Mentally, most people will agree, this is so.

Yet knowing this, many will continue to SEO like it was the year 2000:

  • Add keywords to title
  • Add keywords to URL
  • Add keywords to H1
  • Add keywords in content

Keyword Stuffing and Trust

What got me thinking about this was a recent Google Webmaster Hangout where John Mueller states that using keywords too much may cause Google to lose trust in the web page.

Here is what Mueller said (in the context of ranking category pages):

“Another thing that I sometimes see, especially with e-commerce sites that kind of struggle with this kind of a problem is that they go to an extreme on the category page in that they include those keywords over and over and over again.

And what happens in our systems then is we look at this page and we see these keywords repeated so often on that page that we think well, something is kind of fishy with this page, with regards to these keywords, well maybe we should be more careful when we show it.”

I am not saying that adding the keyword phrase to the title tag will make Google think your web page is “fishy” however, John Mueller put that out there and in my opinion, it pays to heed what he says.

Obviously query expansion plays a role in that business loan keyword phrase and in many other keyword phrases.

But one must consider everything because there are many ranking factors and according to John Mueller, there are factors that work against you. De-ranking factors?

Trust and Lack of Keyword Stuffing

Mueller continued his advice about avoiding keyword stuffing and said that a lack of keyword stuffing will make Google trust a page more.

“So that when we look at this page we’ll see… this is a reasonable page, there’s good content here, we can show it for these terms. We don’t have to worry about whether or not someone is trying to unnaturally overdo it with those keywords. “

Should You Keyword Stuff Your Title Tag?

I still rank pages with the keyword phrase in the title tag. So absolutely, do not take this to mean that adding keywords in the title tag will have a negative effect.

The point of this article is to show that some SEO formulas may be considered to be obsolete or out of date. It may be time to catch up with how Google ranks sites today.

Nobody know exactly how Google ranks websites. Ultimately, SEO is a matter of opinion, experience and interpretation of the results.

Get it wrong and your SEO can backfire. It happens all the time.