- Website optimization is a multi-discipline sport involving HTML, design, link development, and social media
- SEO is a process not a project. SEO oriented site modifications have a limited shelf life
- There are no guarantees in SEO. Search engines constantly modify how they rank websites, so a one-and-done update won’t do much for the long term
Recently my company undertook the laborious process of redesigning our website. After five years, it was not only time for a cosmetic face lift but also serious surgery. We met with several design firms to discuss how to best rebuild. Not surprisingly, the aesthetic discussion quickly turned to talk about search engine optimization (SEO). Re-tooling the website was a good time to reconsider our organic positioning within the Google and Bing search results. However, I was surprised to hear factually incorrect advice from a few of our design partners. Fortunately, I know enough about SEO to get myself into trouble.
There is such confusion about SEO because it a rather esoteric topic. Relatively few people do it day-to-day. Moreover, website optimization is a multi-discipline sport involving HTML, design, link development, and social media, to name a few. No wonder Google’s ranking process is such a mystery to most of planet earth! The situation is worsened by the web’s ability to spread rumors and falsehoods at lightening speeds. This makes it incredibly hard for the layman to separate SEO fact from SEO fiction. But these five common SEO myths should help you start to clear the confusion.
Myth 1: Meta tags are crucial
This is perhaps the oldest SEO miconception. Meta tags are descriptor words built into HTML pages. If you view the source code on most home pages, you will find a line of HTML code that says “meta” that lists a group of terms describing the website. Early on, Google’s PageRank algorithm did consider meta tags when determining the search engine result pages (SERPs). Websites would create long lists of metatags to gain better positioning. At the time this seemed like a good idea. However it was easily manipulated, and companies soon abused the practice. Today Google does not look at meta tags when organizing SERPs. In fact, the normally secretive company outright said so:
This is not to say that meta descriptors don’t serve any function. Indeed, they work in tandem with the title tag to entice click-through by highlighting the keywords in the displayed results. If a search term matches the meta and title tags, the term will appear in bold in the fragment of text beneath the underlined title result. Instead of meta tags, Google now considers how relevant words are used within the website’s HTML code. Even then, that is but one of PageRank’s many considerations.
Myth 2: Paid search influences SERPs
Many people wrongly believe that search engines rank websites higher if they purchase terms as well. Sadly, I hear this one a lot from the uninitiated. It would make sense that a company would want to leverage product A to sell product B, but Google does not think that way. Neither Bing nor Google have ever used an ad spend to create their natural listings. In this regard, search engine marketing (SEM) is a completely autonomous area from SEO. The SEM sale teams have less say in how their companies are run than comparable salesmen at offline media. Google’s relevance mantra is central to their view of the web, certainly far more important to them than anything else. In fact, because they adhere so strictly to that mantra, Google makes so much money. Lastly, given the widespread use of third-party redirects that advertisers use to internally track their clicks, the search engines don’t necessarily know the destination URLs of every advertiser.
Myth 3: SEO is an OTO project
Quite a few of the designers implied that they could transform our ranking simply by redesigning our website. They assured us that within a few months our site would enjoy a permanent top ranking. It troubles me that so many people do not understand that SEO is an ongoing process, not a one-time project. Google’s PageRank algorithm changes on an irregular basis. Bing’s formula seems to change just as much. No one knows exactly when or how will it change in the future. As such, any SEO-oriented site modifications have a limited shelf life. It is not uncommon to come to work on a Tuesday only to find that the natural results changed overnight. The engines do not give advanced warning when their methodologies will change. And, to add insult to injury, they typically don’t explain what exactly changed ex post facto! The cliché “expect the unexpected” applies. It is not unreasonable to offer a bonus based on a change in rank within a specified period of time. It is unreasonable, however, to expect that new position will last forever.
Myth 4: On-site design alone can change ranking
Google’s PageRank factors both on-site and off-site considerations into the search results. On-site (or on-page) considerations include how the HTML is written. Particularly, the headers must include detailed descriptions of the website content. Such is on-site optimization. However experts agree that on-site architecture is less than 50 percent of PageRank’s formula. Back link development, or off-site factors, is less well known but nonetheless hugely influential. Inbound links to the website are of paramount importance. Google believes that websites with many incoming links (i.e., other websites link to it) have more so called authority over a specific subject than another site with less links. More incoming links equals more authority, which in turn results in higher organic position. This is not a case of either on-site or off-site, but rather both. To be sure, if you incorporate best practices when rebuilding a poorly designed you can definitely expect better ranking. But for well-built sites in competitive categories (especially e-commerce), active link building campaigns are a must. In those cases the benefits of on-page modifications will be relatively minor.
Myth 5: Rank is an absolute
Search engines constantly modify how they rank websites. Not only that, they also have begun changing their page layouts to be more locally focused. Both Google and Bing are fast moving to include the most relevant search results for your geographic area. Type ‘pizza’ or ‘new computer’ into the search bar and increasingly Google will show a map of related local businesses.
As the web evolves to be more social, Google is feeling sociable as well. They are beginning to display micro blogs for certain, more personable searches. A person’s tweets, for example, may appear in searches for their name. I expect that location-based services (e.g., Foursquare, Gowalla, etc.) will soon begin appearing within searches too. All of this makes it very hard for anyone to guarantee that a website will have the same rank order in every market on every day. A person in Cleveland will no longer necessarily see the same results as a person in New York City. If someone guarantees you first position, they are misinformed.