In recent months, a few non-SEO related and one search marketing publication gained significant attention with the good old technique of “SEO myths” posts.
A while ago I argued that I prefer to spread the correct SEO best practices than to repeat SEO myths, even when meaning to debunk them.
You know the brain does not always remember the “no”. It remembers the myths, so writing about them perpetuates them.
Well, the SEO myths posts written recently have been so successful that I had to rethink my approach of not mentioning what’s wrong.
When everybody talks about them anyway, I can do it as well without providing much more publicity. On the other hand, these posts weren’t really all factual. Some SEO myths aren’t myths. Some of the articles even contradict themselves. Other SEO myths are really myths but the explanation why is not really true. Finally, many misleading myths haven’t been mentioned at all while they wreak havoc on websites every day.
So, like it or not, I have to regurgitate the SEO myths mentioned in these posts from 2011:
- The top 10 SEO myths | Feature | .net magazine
- Top 10 SEO Myths… Dispelled – Search Engine Watch (#SEW)
- 7 SEO Myths You’re Probably Following – The Next Web
- The 21 Greatest SEO Myths of the Modern World – Noupe
The first ten SEO myths are taken from one or more lists mentioned above:
- You can or can’t guarantee rankings – surprisingly you can, but not as you think. It’s a good old SEO payment model, payment dependent on results measured in rankings. It works like that – you get a guaranteed ranking or you don’t pay. You only pay for the rankings you achieve. Sadly there are strings attached to such a guarantee. Most SEO providers I know who offer such a payment model do it risk-free, for them, not you. They just plug you in to their network aka linkfarm, so you get lots of links from the sites the SEO company has amassed or built up. Then the day you decide to stop paying, the plug gets pulled and you lose all the links.
- Google is (not) the only search engine – it depends on where you live. In many countries, no other search engine really matters. The UK, France or Germany are among these countries. This “myth” is still better than the “submit to 1000 search engines” one below.
- You need (not) to submit your website to Google – do you really need to “submit to 1000 search engines”? Well, no. Do you need to submit your site to Google? Well, not really. Can you submit it to Google? Yes, in manifold ways. You can submit your site to Google Places, or your inventory to Google Shopping or you can use XML-Sitemaps to “submit” your whole site to Google. Does it make sense? For new sites, ecommerce sites and local sites respectively, it does. On the other hand, what many people probably mean by “submit” is to “push” your site into Google. This is the more apt description. You can do it by link building. Using an actual form and pressing submit is possible, but it makes no real sense.
- You can or can’t cheat your way to the top – you can cheat search engines. Many black hat SEOs and spammers do. Why do you think you see all that crap on the Web? It’s because it works and makes money. Do I recommend it? Can you try it yourself? Heck, no. There are a few people out there who are much more tech-savyy, ruthless and money-hungry than I am. Some of these people work all day on perfect spam techniques. They use throwaway domains, hidden whois records and hacked computers for their purposes, to name just a few. Regular business people can buy a few links to get to the top but they may drop even lower than they started once discovered. People who did fail like that ask for my consulting all the time.
- Keyword density matters or not – I was surprised to read on SEW that keyword density indeed matters. The other myths lists said it doesn’t. It mattered ten years ago, but for a few years now the more keywords you use the more likely you are to get flagged as spam. Of course it’s nonsense not to use your keywords, but more than a few times is keyword stuffing aka spam. So keyword density matters as a way to raise a red flag.
- Your rankings do or don’t matter – rankings do not matter as much as they did a few years ago and they are localised and personalised in such a way that you can’t really rely on them. On the other hand, it’s very useful to take a look at your Google Webmaster Tools ranking reports to know why your traffic for certain keywords rises or falls. Rankings still matter in that they bring more traffic than no rankings.
- You can or can’t trade links to gain rank – this good old SEO technique makes me feel nostalgia. When I started out in SEO in 2004, quite late, many people had been doing SEO for years by then, and it was all about trading links, especially in Germany where I worked. Many people still trade links and to some extent it even might be beneficial. On the other hand it’s quite tedious and labour-intensive. I can bet that you can gain many more and better links by crafting such a nifty list as the one you read here.
- Content is king or not – either everybody is spreading this mantra or people are vehemently denying it. That’s both wrong. The more important question is: why is content king and for whom? I’ve tried to trace the earliest mentions of this phrase and wrote a whole article on it. In short: many large business models depend on the notion that content is king. They need your work to earn money. You are the peasant on their fields. It’s not called content farming by accident. You can SEO sites without writing content all the time. Think about it. I’ve been ranking for years with a site containing just a few pages of content.
- Meta tags do or do not matter – meta tags, especially the keyword and description tag, do not matter for rankings, unless you stuff them with keywords, which means you can then probably get banned. The description tag matters for your CTR (click through rate) in SERPs (search engine results pages). The more enticing, the more clicks in theory, but in practice sometimes it’s better to not add them at all and use the time on real SEO. Many clients ask for meta tags among the first things they want to do “for SEO”. That’s the wrong approach. It’s like asking for cosmetic surgery on a dying patient. In contrast, title tags really matter. Google often overrides your meta description by the way.
- (Toolbar) PageRank is important or not – many webmasters to this day obsess about PageRank, the visible toolbar PageRank aka green bar. Do you think staring at this bar every day will help your SEO? I don’t think so. It’s like trying to raise the temperature by staring at the thermometer. I’d suggest some heating instead. Let’s extend this metaphor. Do you think all you need is internal PageRank to get to the top in Google? It’s like saying that all you need to survive is blood. You don’t need to drink, eat, sleep, love or take shelter when it’s cold.
The second group of ten SEO myths are quite common fallacies I’d like to see debunked (more often) but mostly haven’t been covered by the recent lists:
- What Google or Matt Cutts says is the ultimate truth – they have to represent the Google agenda, obviously. They will only say what is in the interest of the corporation. As Google is no charity or NGO, their foremost goal is to make money – so they will tell you things that benefit their business even if they are not entirely true. In most cases they will just tell you what they want you to know and leave out the rest.
- Google ads do not impact your organic rankings – while it’s not as simplistic as saying that Google can be bribed to rank you up in organic results, Google ads, especially on-page ones aka Adsense, can both have a positive or negative impact on your SEO performance. Too many Adsense ads can get you downranked. Also, the number and position of Google Adwords in the search results influence how far your organic results get pushed down. Last but not least there is conversion attribution, and thus we know that people who see your ads might already know your brand and thus be more likely to click or even +1 your organic results next time.
- Google is your friend or enemy – many people identify so deeply with Google that they treat the mega-corporation like a person, a friend or enemy. It’s like loving or hating the road infrastructure. On the Web, Google is part of the infrastructure. It’s huge and impersonal even if there are some familiar faces. I’m known to be critical of Google but nonetheless I use many Google services. Isn’t that hypocritical then? Well, I don’t love or hate roads either but I know when not to cross them and that you have to look out. It’s the same with Google.
- The most important page for a query is on top – most normal people to this day have no clue how Google determines the ranking of search results. Even SEOs do guesswork. Most average users assume though that the most important or “best” search result is number one or on top. That’s simply not true. #1 is reserved for the best optimised, most popular or the site with the biggest budget to buy links. Just consider Wikipedia, is it really the most relevant when you search for [films]? Of course not, you don’t want to know what a film is. You want to know what films are new or get recommended.
- SEO is only about search, search engines or Google – many people who tend to pronounce SEO dead are doing it because they assume that SEO is about search, search engines or Google only, as the acronym suggests. So whenever Google changes something significant the voices appear again telling us that SEO is dead. SEO is about optimisation for traffic, conversions or ROI, so whatever route Web users take there will always be SEOs paving the way. Be it search, social media or whatever is next.
- SEO is about manipulating search results – this is another ages old SEO myth that is still prevalent. I wonder why nobody attempts to debunk this misconception. Manipulation sounds not only negative, it also implies a harmful motivation, as if to trick people or search engines. There are SEO practitioners who believe it, but they are doing it wrong. Optimisation is not manipulation. It is, as said above, paving the way, improving both search results and the user experience. You have to grasp that to become successful as an SEO in the long run. Otherwise you will be always a step behind Google and its changes, like many of the Google Panda victims.
- SEO is only good when there is already a demand for your product or service – part of it is true – when nobody knows that there is a product with a particular name they can’t search for it directly. They will search for something more descriptive though, for example [hair loss solution]. So you simply have to rank for a more generic phrase before people start searching for your product. There are lots of resources on SEO for startups by the way.
- You have to hoard PageRank and thus can’t link out – the heyday of PageRank is long gone. Toolbar PageRank is largely meaningless, while internal PageRank is just one ranking signal among at least 200+, yet many webmasters assume that having PageRank and keeping it at all costs will help them rank well in Google. Such black hole sites don’t link out at all or only use nofollow on outgoing links. They are an anomaly that Google treats like a dead end. Google needs links for its algorithm, so when a site does not have any of them leading to other sites it’s an island. It has disadvantages beyond the simple ranking factors. Sites that don’t link out also get much fewer incoming links. It’s like people who never talk with others and when they do only perform a monologue. They are called loners. Google does not like loner sites.
- Google is only about search – Google is not even solely an Internet company anymore. It has so many products and services in all kinds of areas and industries that you will soon have difficulty in finding something that Google does not yet do. Energy, space, cars and even agriculture is part of Google! In manifold ways SEO will adapt to it. Right now there are already specialists for numerous Google services and offerings. Local SEO, mobile SEO and ecommerce SEO are just the beginning.
- SEO is dead or will die eventually – as mentioned above already, the notion that SEO is dead or will die eventually stems from the assumption that it’s a discipline depending on Google, search or search engines. Even if all three disappear, SEO will in one way or another still be there as long as people try to find things and don’t know everything.
The third batch are SEO myths that are often perceived as truths even within the SEO industry. I have discovered them to be not true though, even if many people might disagree.
- SEO is only about money – while the ultimate goal of commercial SEO is to make people earn more money from their websites, SEO can be used for all kinds of endeavours, non-profit or activist sites among them. You can use SEO for the common good. For example, you can be an SEO for a holocaust memorial, which was work that I considered once. SEO is also about friendship. There are few industries, niches or even subcultures so closely knit as the SEO industry. Ultimately SEO is about giving, and the more you give away, the more links you get and the better you rank. Does your site consist only of sales copy? Well, that’s bad for SEO.
- Ethical SEO is about not cheating search engines – for years the term ethical SEO has been used as an synonym for the industry-specific term “white hat SEO”. The only ethical thing about being white hat is that you don’t cheat search engines and clients. According to this definition, you can optimise a weapons manufacturer’s site and be perfectly ethical. In my opinion ethics in SEO is about much more than not cheating. It’s why, how and for whom you work and whether you exploit sweatshop employees in Asia to spam blog comments as well.
- You can’t link out to competitors – nobody seems to really contest this widespread myth even though many SEO blogs actually link out within the SEO industry. Just check the heavily interlinked backlink profiles of many SEO publications including this one. Even if your link pushes your competitor, your site sends additional ranking signals to Google saying “this is a balanced resource”, whereas sites that only link their own properties get classified as “linking schemes”. Generally speaking I prefer to consider other people from the SEO industry as my colleagues. Sites that stand in the way, such as Wikipedia, or compete for clicks, such as Google itself, are sometimes better suited to compete with.
- You have to hide your advanced techniques as a competitive advantage – one of the oldest SEO myths is that you have to hide your best techniques like a secret so that your competition doesn’t use them against you. That’s ridiculous. I doubt that there is a single SEO tactic nobody else knows about that only you have discovered and use. Most techniques are in use by many people at once, even when they are not yet widespread. If you think you are the first it’s best to proclaim it as quickly as possible so that everybody considers you an expert for having discovered it. Those who have been hiding it won’t get the publicity, links and respect.
- Social media and blogging are not part of SEO – some people consider SEO to be artificially limited to some strictly search engine related measures. When they use social media or blogs they are convinced that these measures are separated from SEO. In reality social media, blogs and SEO are highly intertwined. Of course social media and blogs are more than just about SEO in the traditional sense, but more modern definitions of SEO and internet marketing recognise the fact that all three are part of a bigger process sometimes referred to as inbound marketing.
- Google employees are not responsible for search results, the algorithm is – whenever an algorithm update hits the Web and website owners lose traffic and business to the point where some businesses go bankrupt, Google is quick to point out “it wasn’t us, it was the algorithm”. The algo is seemingly like the ghost in the machine. Once you start it, it develops a life of its own. Of course that’s just the official version to protect Google from class action suites. Both search engineers and human quality raters decide how the algo works, so it’s people who are responsible not robots.
- Optimisation for Facebook is not SEO – this is a strange one. As Facebook is not a search engine by definition, many people don’t think that optimisation for Facebook can be referred to as SEO. Well, Facebook has a search engine and even an algorithm. So at the end of the day I don’t care whether it’s called a vegetable. As long as users use it to find things and visit websites I’m into it.
- Search engines fight SEO – for many journalists who write about SEO, to this day every update Google performs is like a battle in the everlasting “war on SEO”. They like to ignore the fact that Google publishes SEO advice itself and that SEO practitioners actually do Google’s work of fulfilling their guidelines so that that search engine can index and rate website content correctly. Search engines depend on the SEO industry for fixing the mistakes they commit.
- You have to write boring headlines for Google – another SEO myth spread by misguided journalists is that SEO or Google “kills the witty headline”. SEO and Google only kills the nonsensical headline. People on the Web don’t want puns, they want to understand what a post is about. You can add a pun anyway. You can have more than one headline or optimise the title tag for SEO while leaving the headline for hipsters.
- SEO myths lists are great to spread awareness about SEO – as mentioned in the beginning, there is a widespread assumption that by spreading the myths somehow miraculously people will only remember the best practices. You just have to say meta tags and keyword density often enough for people to realise that they do not matter, right?
It’s not enough just to read about the myths.
You need to learn proper SEO and practice it yourself by testing, trial and error plus rinse and repeat. You have to find out what works yourself and employ the tactics that actually work for you, no matter whether some consider them myths or not. The more people you ask in the SEO industry, the more potentially different opinions you get.