SEO Tips – Separation of Myths from Facts.

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.

SEO Tips are like a red blanket on forums, newsgroups and blogs across the web. Wave it around, and you’ll have masses of bull-headed participants charging at you from all corners. Everyone thinks that they, and only they, know the truth, and they’re extremely eager to tell you what you’re doing wrong and what you should be doing instead. Because their uncle’s dentist did it on his site, and now he’s number one!

Stay away from these people. Yes, that’s right – I am telling you to stay away from anyone that tells you that any one particular thing is guaranteed to get you great rankings on the search engines – because they’re wrong. When it comes to SEO tips, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits all approach, no golden rules that will always lead you straight to early retirement and a private jet. Of course there are general guidelines – textual content, relevant links, and so on. But with SEO, the answer is much more likely to be “sometimes” if you’re asking whether or not a particular technique works.

It’s easy to see how people draw the wrong conclusions. They tweak a meta tag, add a particular link, or change their headline to H1, and boom, they’ve climbed up to #3. Great. But don’t assume that your changes were the driving force. Your website doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It could have been a great new link to your site that made the difference, or a slight change in the search engine’s algorithm. It’s even possible (and this is something that people always seem to overlook) that it had nothing to do with what you did right, and more to do with what your competition did wrong. Maybe they were penalized, who knows. The point is: don’t assume that you have all the answers – unless you work for Google, you really don’t. In this talk, I’m going to cover some of the more pervasive myths, and try to add a little “sometimes”, “maybe” and “there are no absolutes” to the mix. Next time you come across someone touting the latest gospel truth, you’ll hopefully be a little more wary.

I’m going to say very little about PageRank, because I feel it’s been covered ad nauseam already. I simply want to say: those who obsess about it are wrong to do so, and so are those who claim that “PageRank is dead!”. It was never as important as some people thought, but it certainly still has its uses.

Quite simply, PageRank is a system that Google uses to determine which pages are more important or credible than others. Based on links, PageRank plays a role – but not necessarily the most important role, at all – in deciding which order the search results should be ranked in.

If you spend time, any time at all, obsessing about the numbed and size of that little green bar, please stop. It’s not helping you, and I’m sure your time could be put to better use.

Tip 1: Don’t fixate on PageRank.

Links and link strategies
As people learned more about PageRank, all kinds of crazy schemes and strategies reared their ugly heads. All that anybody seemed to hear was “Links! More links! Higher PageRank!” and so the whole circus took off. Nowadays, there are plenty of places on the web where you can buy text links from sites with particular content and certain PageRanks. Want a link from an “authority science-related site” with PR 9? It’s yours for $1250. Perhaps you’re more modest, and want a PR4 link from a software site? It can be achieved for a mere $35. Sadly, people fall for these scams, as if a real “authority science” site would link to the highest bidder, even if it meant that they had to include a prominent link to “Cheap villas in Spain” on their index page. Where has common sense gone?

A cheaper, more popular solution has been to set up link pages where you trade links with anyone who’ll have you. Apparently it doesn’t matter that you sell photo software, you think your customers would love to see your links to herbal tablets, card tricks and folding furniture. The more links, the merrier, right?

Wrong. Because Google and the others quickly caught on to these types of schemes, and now it’s not so easy to boost your own PageRank simply by buying a few links or setting up homespun networks. In fact, Google doesn’t like link-buying – as you’ll see when we discuss the so-called sandbox further on. They’ve even gone as far as recommending that you mark any links you sell with the “no-follow” tag, to make sure you don’t “affect your reputation in Google”.

Google doesn’t like link farms, either, and they’ve actually stated that on their Information for Webmasters page. The simple act of you linking to someone that Google doesn’t like could hurt you – because there’s now a thing known as “bad neighbourhoods” that you’d be wise to avoid.

But there’s no need to be scared. It’s quite simple really. Just think quality, rather than quantity. Link to sites that you feel are genuinely interesting and useful for your visitors, and seek out links from similar sites. Don’t accept any link you can get. Think of links as friends. Sure, if you went out on the street with a fistful of dollars you’d probably find some people who’d be willing to call themselves you friends. But is a random, money-grabbing stranger the type of friend you want? No, and it’s not the type of link you should want either.

Tip 2: Quality links are better than quantity of links.

Meta tags and keyword density
In the early days of SEO, meta tags were abused. People stuffed their keyword tags with all kinds of irrelevant nonsense, and as a result they now play very little, if any, role in the search engine rankings. But to go out and declare that “meta tags are useless” is both short-sighted, ignorant and downright silly.

First of all, who knows what the future holds? Even if your meta keywords don’t appear to be making much difference today, it’s entirely possible that they might tomorrow, or next year. For what it’s worth, I would certainly recommend making sure that you use relevant keywords and phrases in all your keywords meta tags. It doesn’t take long, and it could end up being helpful.

The meta description tag is something of a gem – most people tend to ignore it, or just stuff it with the same, boring text on each page. This is a shame, as it can be a really valuable marketing tool. Why? Because Google often uses snippets from them in their search results. If you write a good, solid and appealing description, it might not matter that you’re #3 rather than #1 – the searchers will be struck by your snippet, and click on your link instead of your competitions. So don’t leave it to chance.

From meta tags, there is a very small step to keyword density. This is a ridiculous science that tells you to use certain percentages of keywords on your pages – if it’s less than 5%, or 12%, or whatever, you stand no chance at all. This is complete and utter rubbish. Search for a term, any term at all. Look at the websites in the top ten, and count how many times they keyword appears on all of them. Do a percentage check with the overall word count? Is it the same, or very similar, on all the top sites? Of course not. Keyword density as an absolute concept does not exist. I know this is particularly upsetting to all you developers, because you love your figures, formulas and calculations – but they’re not going to help you this time.

Of course, keywords matter, and keyword usage and placement matter, too. But it’s definitely not the Golden Ticket. How can I be so sure? Because some pages rank highly for very competitive keywords without using them anywhere on the page. Do a Google search for the phrase “click here”. Number one, out of 6.7 billion pages is the download page for Adobe Reader. “Click here” doesn’t appear anywhere on this page – not in the header, not in the page content, not on any images. If you view Google’s cache of the page, you’ll see that it says “These terms only appear in links pointing to this page”. In other words, this page is number one because countless websites with PDF documents point to it with the words “Click here”.

Tip 3: Meta descriptions are important, use them and don’t fixate on keyword density.

Sandbox and Ageing delay
You’ve undoubtedly heard a lot of talk about the Google “sandbox” lately. Lots of people claim that they know how to get out of it, some are adamant that it never even existed, while others despair because they can’t seem to escape it.

Personally, along with many other people in the industry, I prefer to differentiate between the “sandbox” and something called “the ageing delay”. So what are they?

The Sandbox is something that supposedly affects sites that buy a lot of links, or use linking schemes to artificially boost their popularity. The main outcome appears to be that the links don’t have the desired effect – you don’t see an increase in PageRank or rankings. Some people claim this doesn’t exist, and I’ve never seen it happen – but then I don’t buy links or participate in linking schemes.

The Google Ageing Delay affects new sites, and this is something I’ve witnessed countless times. In brief, it is almost impossible for new sites to rank for competitive phrases before they’re at least 6 months old, often a year. Yes, you can still rank for phrases that very few people search for, and you are definitely indexed, but you don’t get any significant traffic from Google. One way around it is to create an incredible buzz around your product and get lots and lots of links and social bookmarks, but this is easier said than done.

Tip 4: Be patient. New domains may take time to rank for competitive terms.

Dangerous tricks
There are some SEO tips that you should never consider doing. Some of them are old tricks – hidden text and invisible links still show up every now and then. Overstuffing your content with keywords is also likely to raise red flags. But there are other things that can get you banned from Google – and once you’re banned, it can be very tricky to get back in.

Cloaking is perhaps the most infamous trick, but what exactly is it? Put simply, it means that you show one version of a page to the search engines, and a completely different version to site visitors. This means that the search engines read a page that is stuffed full of keywords and therefore might rank it highly, whereas human visitors are redirected to a page with normal content. If you’re found guilty of this, it doesn’t matter if you’re BMW – you will still be penalized.

Finally, the scary truth is that linking into bad neighbourhoods can also get you banned – so if you have a forum on your website, you’d better make sure it’s not being spammed.

Tip 5: Stay away from dangerous tricks when it comes to SEO.

I hope I’ve made my main point sufficiently clear – SEO is more art than science, more kitchen cooking than lab chemistry. Take a little bit of that, and little bit of this, and with any luck, it will work – but sometimes it’ll be a miserable failure. Just keep trying, keep improving your site, and don’t be tempted by SEO tips, tricks and shortcuts – eventually you’ll get there.

Tip 6: Need expert SEO advice? Try SoftwarePromotions.

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.