(This post was originally published on May 22, 2015, and has been updated to be even better!)
Once upon a time, the Internet was fairly straightforward. People published their stuff online, and search engines crawled around looking for indicators of what websites were about.
But then, spammers started overusing these signs to get their spammy pages onto the first page of search results. And innocent websites were the casualties of these evil plots.
So search engines got more sophisticated. And spammers figured out the new tactics. And the cycle continues as spammers and search engines try to stay one step ahead of one another.
As this cycle spirals out of control, the amount of information on how to optimize a website increases exponentially – and the old information doesn’t go away when things change. As a result, there is a ton of dated, conflicting, and otherwise misleading information floating around. People continue to state it as fact, or take pieces of it out of context, and SEO myths are born.
Let’s cut through some of the myths and try to get to the reality of SEO.
Myth: Search Engine Optimization is a checklist you only need to complete once.
After all, it’s optimized or it’s not, right?
Nope. While there are a few website fixes that are quick and easy to put into place, SEO is an ongoing process requiring good habits, fresh content, and ongoing effort. You have to invest in your website over time because:
- You publish new pages and content that need to be optimized.
- Links break from time to time and need to be corrected or removed.
- Fresh content and updated pages are important for maintaining a strong SEO standing.
- Various competitors put in the effort and you fall further and further down the list.
- Search engine algorithms evolve and change over time.
All of this means your website SEO is a process, not a checkbox.
Myth: The search engines will figure it out
I don’t even know where this one came from. You wouldn’t write a book and expect a publisher to buy it, or a distributor to just show up, read it, and start selling it for you. So why would anyone expect search engines to do that with their websites?
When you really stop and think about what search engines do, it’s pretty darn cool. They interpret search queries and sort through millions of pages of content, and attempt to make sure that users get the best answers to their queries.
But they’re not magic. If the information search engines need in order to understand your site isn’t there, they will not magically figure out that your site exists and index it for searches for “veterinarians in [your area].”
It also helps to tell the search engines that your website exists so they know to look for it rather than waiting for them to come to you from some other online link:
Myth: Link building is dead
SEO is confusing. There are tons of people out there who are trying to figure out the secret formula that gets them the top spot in the SERPs. They write about it and talk about it and ask Google about it, and real people at Google try to answer their questions. Then people get all wound up about what so-and-so at Google said, and they take snippets out of the video chats and publish them out of context for other people to see and get more confused about, and before you know it, heads everywhere are exploding.
So search engine optimizers went a little nuts when Google’s John Mueller commented in a Q&A session that focusing on link-building was a bad idea.
Many heard “link-building will get your site penalized.” But Mueller also said in that same answer that making your content easy to link to is a solid strategy. So what did he mean?
In the past, Google (and other search engines) used the number of inbound links as a signal about the quality of the content. In theory, the more links you had, the better your content must be. When scammers figured this out and started developing tactics to spread thousands of inbound links in devious ways, search engines then added quality of inbound links as a measure.
That is, they look at whether other relevant websites with a good reputation deem your content good enough to recommend to their own readers.
So what Mueller is saying is that:
- Google ranking algorithms can see through black hat link building techniques and will penalize your site when you use them, and,
- Google uses more than just inbound links to rank pages, so focusing exclusively on link building at the expense of other SEO techniques will not do much to help your search engine rankings.
Myth: Guest blogging is dead
What’s with all of the SEO-obituaries? Well in this case, once upon a time, Google’s Matt Cutts said so.
Content is content. Good content is good content, and crappy content is, well, crappy content. Just because something on a blog came from a guest author doesn’t mean your site will be penalized!
The “guest blogging” Cutts was referring to was the kind that results in crappy content on crappy websites. Specifically, spammers offer money to post something on your website’s blog, or collect money to accept something for some spammy website. The whole thing stinks from beginning to end because it results in useless collections of completely random, poorly-written (and sometimes plagiarized) content that exists solely for link-building.
But a groomer asking if you would write an educational article about allergies for his blog to help his clients understand (with a link to your practice website), or having a trainer write something for your blog about the benefits of positive reinforcement in training (with a link to her website) is still legitimate content creation!
- Don’t blog with strangers. That is, only ask for articles from people and businesses you know. The goal is to post something valuable for your readers. When the roles are reversed and others are asking you for posts, only write for them if they have that same goal in mind. You don’t have to know them in person, but check out their website thoroughly to make sure they are who they seem.
- Keep the audience in mind. If someone is writing a post for your blog, give them an idea of who they are talking to, and if you’re writing for someone else, ask about the audience you’re writing for.
- Put the author byline, a bio, and a link, but avoid the words “guest post” just in case – search crawlers may flag the term as a point of caution when considering the content on the page.
Danielle Lambert wrote a post for us because we asked her to share some examples of social media posts that drive traffic to veterinary websites. Our readers get the benefit if her tried-and-true methods, she gets a couple of links, and Google doesn’t penalize anyone. It’s win-win-win!
Myth: Social media doesn’t affect SEO
Google says they don’t use things like the number of followers you have on Twitter or the number of shares your content got on Facebook as metrics in search rankings – that part is true. But that doesn’t mean social media doesn’t affect your site’s search rankings.
There is a huge positive correlation between social media presence and search rankings. This is most likely because social media helps with brand awareness, relationship building, content distribution, increased traffic, inbound links, and more – and all of these things are good for your rankings.
Myth: SEO is all tricks
SEO can be frustrating. You might feel like you’re trying to do all the right things while other sites are finding ways to trick the search engines into ranking them higher.
The algorithms are getting smart. Search engines can read content, but they can’t actually comprehend what they’re reading and pass judgement about the quality of what’s there. So they are being programmed to interpret specific user behaviours as signals about the quality and relevance of the content on the page. That is, they are reading human signals to determine the value humans are receiving from clicking specific pages.
There are definitely tricks out there, but as companies like Google, Bing, and Yahoo! become aware of them, they implement changes to try to screen out the tricksters and return relevant high-quality results. So while SEO is confusing and complicated and has an awful lot of little items to do and check off your list, what it boils down to is really quite simple: is your content written for people? Is it organized in a logical, user-friendly way? What is the experience of browsing your site?
While some of the items we all do (or should do) for SEO purposes are there specifically to give information to the search engines, the vast majority of the focus is about content organization and browsing experience.
- When we add alt text to images, we’re really making images accessible to people using screen readers or who have chosen to block images.
- When we design our websites so they follow a logical data structure for search engines, we’re really designing it to be user-friendly so people can find information easily.
- When we add internal links so search engines can understand our sites, we are really helping people find additional helpful content on our websites.
- When we create meta descriptions for pages and posts, we are really telling people who see the content on a SERP what they will find if they click our links.
- When we put effort into making our websites load more quickly, we’re really saving people time when they’re trying to find something.
- When we spread the word about our content so that we get inbound links, we’re really hoping that more people will read and get value from our content, and share it with people they know.
The bottom line: do what you can to optimize your website for search, but always keep your readers first.