Search marketing consultant Mark Buckingham destroys his 10 favourite search engine optimisation myths and asks leading experts such as Google's Matt Cutts and Search Engine Land's Matt McGee for their opinion
Chances are, if you're reading this, you've dabbled with SEO to varying levels of success; from minor frustration to Google gratification. Whatever your experience, myths still abound the oft-laboured carousel of search engine optimisation: at its best, a well planned, ongoing strategy in the pursuit of visibility and primed accessibility, underpinning, informing and complimenting exemplary design usability and content. At its worst, a dark art, misunderstood, an unwieldy afterthought, a quick fix that did you more harm than good.
For truly effective SEO, working in tandem with good design, content creation and general business practice; look beyond the dashboard for the route to success.
Let's look at 10 of my personal perennial favourite SEO myths.
1. Satisfaction, guaranteed
Let's start with the bedrock of search marketing: there is really no such thing as guaranteed rankings when it comes to organic, or natural search results. Any company or specialist proffering such should be treated warily; ask whether they're referring specifically to organic search terms or paid search? Whilst is possible to speculate on long tail niche keywords searches, for all but the most niche key terms, results will vary and can take weeks, if not months. A good search marketer will set realistic expectations, using SEO to prime all areas of your website and content, rather than offer empty promises.
There are one or two hundred factors that influence your ranking with the search engines - no company or individual can control all of these.
SEO might be best achieved with great skill, but there are myriad external factors, dependent on the success of your products or services, not to mention a slice of luck, involved with determining whether or not you get visibility on the internet mantelpiece.
Search Engine Land's executive news editor, Matt McGee says: "The only way to even possibly come close to guaranteeing rankings is if you're doing it on the paid side and happen to have a term that you're willing to bid high enough on and to get high enough clickthrough to sustain top spot. Also, personalisation comes into play: what you see might be different to what I see, so there's absolutely no way to guarantee a number one ranking on Google".
2. A high Google PageRank = high ranking
Despite popular belief, Google PageRank does not equal your ranking. The idea that a high PR means you're going to rank across the board for everything is a myth. "For certain keywords a lower PR page might outrank a higher PR page, but the rankings don't specifically go in exact PR order", says Matt McGee. Having a high PageRank is nice but it doesn't automatically mean high rankings for everything, and it certainly doesn't automatically mean you're going to get tons of traffic and sales.
McGee adds: "It's still often seen as the number one factor in Google's algorithm when it's actually one of a couple of hundred factors. It's a very visible symbol for a lot of webmasters and business owners, but the more time you spend in the search world, the sooner you realise it's not the be-all and end-all."
3. Endorsed by Google
Put simply, if you're dealing with a firm who make any allusion that they're "endorsed" or "approved" by Google for optimisation purposes, it's likely they're a fraud. The reality is that Google does not endorse any SEO company. They do have Analytics and AdWords certification, so providers in these areas can take tests for accreditation. "Google definitely does not put their stamp of approval on any individual consultant or company", affirms Matt McGee.
Personally, I'm not opposed to the idea of some accreditation or regulatory standards, given this very subject matter, and unregulated nature of the search world, but I just can't see it happening any time soon. Google's Webmaster Guidelines and its beginners guide to SEO, as well as various esteemed resources on the web, should be consulted when undertaking any SEO or hiring a professional, but many professionals cite that what they teach you is very vanilla. McGee adds: "It gets you in the door but it's not always going to be everything that you need."
4. Meta tag keywords matter
A perennial favourite myth is probably the keywords meta tag. Google's head of Webspam and all-round search sage, Matt Cutts, says: "Google doesn't use the keywords meta tag in our scoring at all. It's just a waste of time to throw a lot of phrases into the keywords meta tag. It would be a better use of your effort to do things like speed up your website, because that can directly improve the usability of your site even independently of SEO." Meta tag descriptions, and certainly titles matter, but it's true the keyword tag is generally completely redundant across the board.
David Mihm, president of GetListed.org, agrees: "'Can you help me optimise my meta keywords?' This is probably the number one phrase I hear from small business owners who call and want me to help them with website optimisation. The fact is that no search engine uses them any more. Google, which rarely discloses ANYTHING important about its algorithm, formally declared it does not use meta keywords via its search quality guru Matt Cutts nearly two years ago. The two 'metas' that site owners should still worry about are including keywords in the <title> tag (extremely important for optimisation), and the meta description, which, although it does not seem to affect ranking, can be used to increase clickthrough rates from the search result pages."
5. Cheat your way to the top
Attempting to tricking Google, Bing, et al, and trying to manipulate search results is a bad idea, and even if you succeed, if and when the search engines discover your site’s deception, you risk your site will be removed from the index, with potentially disastrous business consequences.
It's arguable that Google et al might miss the odd page with a few sneaky invisible keywords; after all, this might be the work of an errant (but potentially well meaning) assistant and not your own work. But a trend or consistency of black-hat SEO is likely to do you much more harm than good as the search engines get better and better at sniffing out sites, from dubious redirects to affiliate link farms, that simply don't deserve to be there.
The basic adage is, if it works for the user, it's likely to have a place on Google; how far up you climb is dependent on myriad of factors, and those sites that cheat aren't just risking their credibility, but usually reek of over-optimisation, which in some cases can be a by-product of a site that was never really designed to please its audience first and foremost. Being gung-ho in your quest for high rakings at the expense of your content is nearly always a futile process.
6. Keywords? Cram 'em in
The notion that keywords that every page needs a certain percentage of time to outrank the competition is a fallacy. Says Matt McGee: "I've always said you do have to use the keywords, you need to have pages that talk about the products and services you sell. There's no perfect number: it's not that if you mention the keyword seven times on this page I'm automatically going to rank well. It doesn't work that way: there are so many other factors and a page that gets a lot of inbound links with the right anchor text can rank for terms that don't even appear on the page. The notion that there's a perfect percentage for keywords simply isn't true. "
Furthermore, your copy should be persuasive, informative and punchy: you'll only serve to limit your copy's punch by simply clawing keywords into the text. Be verbose, create opportunities to talk about your company, products and niche verticals, but never, repetitive.
David Mihm: "It's a myth to say 'I will optimise your website’s Keyword Density'. It is important to include keywords on your pages but there is NO 'magic number' of times to use a keyword. Write your text for humans!"
7. Spending money on Google AdWords boosts your rankings
The assumption that spending money on AdWords will somehow engender you to Google and thus advantage your organic search listings is an understandable, but untrue, belief. Google has said so many times over the years, but the myth never seems to go away.
It's no mistake, however, to identify some correlation between targeted ad spend and your site's organic coverage. Search expert Matt McGee, says: "I've seen studies over the years that suggest that when you have good visibility on both your paid and organic it increases clickthrough on your pages, and thus traffic, increasing awareness, which leads more to links, etc, etc. So I certainly think there's nothing wrong with spending money on AdWords. But it's a definitely a myth that there's a direct impact on your rankings."
8. Land here
Every page on your site should be treated as potential landing page; you can't assume a visitor is going to land on your homepage or your products overview page. The idea that you have one special search landing page is not helpful. All pages are possible landing pages.
9. Set it and forget it
It’s true that continually jostling for higher rankings, making incessant iterations and tweaking, doesn’t give you time to sit back and monitor the success of your hard work and can be a fruitless process. However, it's also unadvisable to go to the other extreme and assume SEO is a 'one off' project. Good SEO never really ends, much like a successful company wouldn't settle with just one single marketing investment.
If you think you've achieved all your SEO, I'll bet you're not making the most of your website and your offline marketing activities. There's always more that can be done, and even if your rankings don't immediately benefit, your site will. Even with limited resources, even adding or improving a single page every month is better than leaving a static site to flounder, which may, in time, be superseded by your competition and afforded less 'currency' by your users and engines alike.
10. Rankings aren't the only fruit
A lot of people come in to SEO thinking that the end goal is to get rankings; but the end goal is to make money. "If a number one ranking for a certain keyword isn't making you money, it's worthless. If a number three or number four ranking is getting you clicks, you're converting your traffic into customers, then that ranking is much more valuable," says Matt McGee.
This is my favourite myth of all. Being on top is great, but, in my opinion, it isn't the be-all and end-all and it won't necessarily yield your site maximum conversions. Naturally you need prominence, but it's the quality of the site and your content that also matters. I'd wager a site in fourth place on the first page, above the fold, that fulfils the visitors' requirements is, by and large, going to be more successful than one that belies its pole position through lacklustre content, relying more on inbound links and other good fortune to supplant its superior competition.
What really matters is the speed, depth and richness of the content you deliver, and where your audience buys into it, you, your brand, services, or products, and how consistent that message is across the web and in the real world. SEO should be a laboured but fluid process, priming your good work and ensuring it's tweaked, organically, for maximum accessibility; not just an afterthought. Good SEO is about putting your best foot forwards and continually developing the site to be simply as good as it can be. Place your visitors first, and the search engines will follow.
Remember, rankings are a means to an end, they are not the end itself.