5 Big SEO Lies Google Wants You To Believe
But for the sake of your rankings, don't.
It's 2016, and SEO is the farthest from a bed of roses it's ever been. In fact, most of it has turned into a bed of itchy, sharp, potentially lethal thorns.
In the elaborate metaphor above, thorns stand for the risks SEOs constantly face. The risks of being penalized by Google for a not-so-white-hat tactic. Getting de-ranked because of an algorithm change, when a previously passable strategy suddenly turns into a no-no. Or — worst of all — being outranked by a competitor, only to discover they built a trillion of links overnight.
We hear fragments of those SEO horror stories every week, so we end up full of promising ideas we can't test for fear of doing more harm than good. And indeed, a lot is at stake. But… What if we put those SEO fears to the test? In this article, I've compiled a collection of 5 biggest myths about SEO that have been empirically proven wrong, along with some real-life examples debunking each.
Now, let the mythbusting begin.
1. You shouldn't build links for the sake of SEO.
We've heard it a million times: Google's not too thrilled about link building for SEO. The search engine's distaste for "unnatural" links starts right in the Webmaster quality guidelines:
The same approach is reinforced by Googlers whenever they are publicly asked about it. To give you an example, Google's John Mueller famously said that webmasters should avoid focusing on link building:
Yup, the idea is that your link profile should grow naturally over time, because you have this great content everyone's willing to link to. But would you survive in an industry where everyone is building links? And is link building really the Dark Side?
Contrary to what Google may say, links remain the search engine's strongest ranking signal. Here's a huge recent example to show you just how true this is to this day.
A couple of weeks ago, a Reddit user spotted a new site in Google's results, ranking for some pretty competitive keywords and rising to the top unusually quickly. The site turned out to be a collection of posts about "best" products of all kinds — be it kettles, laptops, or Father's day gifts. And yup, each post is full of affiliate "buy now" links.
Who's that little buddy there? Oh right, an Amazon affiliate link.
The site launched a little over half a year ago, and since then they've racked up some pretty impressive rankings in competitive niches. But how did they do that so quickly?
Footer links. No, seriously — footer links. If those aren't "intended to manipulate a site's ranking in Google", I don't know what is.
Apparently, this site belongs to the same publisher as US' biggest magazines, and these magazines' websites are all religiously linking to it from the footer. That includes esquire.com, elle.com, cosmopolitan.com, marieclaire.com, seventeen.com, popularmechanics.com. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Go on and check those yourself.
But really, sitewide links from the footer? Wasn't that a bad thing ten years ago already? Well, apparently not. Here's the website's summary from SEO SpyGlass:
You can see that almost all of the site's links are sitewide, and that they only started growing their link profile in January this year. Not the most natural-looking links I've seen in my life for sure, but they really are working out nicely for the reviews site.
Whether Goolge will admit it or not, link building continues to be the most important part of any SEO strategy. If you choose not to build links, you'll probably end up far behind your competitors who almost certainly are.
While it is true that you should ideally aim for high quality links from reputable sources, the concept of quality varies from industry to industry. The best actionable takeaway here is to closely examine the link profiles of your best ranking competitors to get an idea of what kind of links work in your industry. You can do it in SEO PowerSuite's SEO SpyGlass.
- In SEO SpyGlass, create or open a project for your website.
- Go to Domain Comparison and type in the URLs of your top ranking competitors' sites.
- In a moment, SEO SpyGlass will collect the backlink data on each of the sites you specified, and put up a comparison table so you can see each of the domain's core strengths and instantly tell where you are lagging behind.
- Navigate to the Domain Intersection submodule to see the domains that link to competitor sites but don't link to you. This is a perfect place to find the best link opportunities in your niche; specifically, look for sites that link to multiple of your competitors — these are more likely to link to you, too.
2. Clicks don't influence rankings.
Google's official position on whether or not SERP click-through rates have an impact on rankings has been inconsistent at best. If they could, they equivocated; but when asked about it upfront, they usually denied the idea, leading SEOs to believe that click data is too noisy and easy to spam to be used as a ranking signal. According to Gary Illyes:
Interestingly, these patents also include methods of getting rid of the noise and spam Google refers to as the reason for not using clicks for rankings.
But of course, just because there is a patent about something doesn't always mean that something is currently being used. That's where real-life experiments come in.
Rand Fishkin of Moz has run mutitple tests that proved that clicks have a massive impact on rankings. Most of the tests were the same in nature: Rand reached out to his Twitter followers and asked them to run a Google search for a specified term, click on result #1 and bounce back, and then click on another result and stay on that page for a while.
Guess what happened next? That other result quickly rose to the very top.
Interestingly, CTR seems to affect rankings in real time. After Rand's experiments, the listing users were clicking and dwelling on eventually dropped to about the same postition it occupied before. This shows us that a temporary increase in clicks can only result in a temporary ranking improvement.
But here's a word of caution: while Rand's tests with human participants have shown impressive results, experiments that used bots to manipulate this data did not show any. Google stores lots of information on every individual searcher, including searching and browsing history, and is well aware of the techniques that can be used to artificially inflate clicks. The search engine's just too smart to let the feedback of a bot — a searcher with no history, or one with a history that does not look natural — mess with the search results.
Rand's experiments clearly show that the more your pages beat the expected organic CTR for a given position, the more likely you are to be upranked. So yup, that's another reason to do what you should be doing anyway — optimize your Google snippets for clicks.
- Check on the CTR of the snippets of your landing pages in Google Search Console to identify the ones you need to focus on first. While CTR values for different positions in Google SERPs can vary depending on the type of the query, you can refer to this study by Chitika for average click-through rates to help you identify the low-hanging fruit.
- Got a list of those? Open up SEO PowerSuite's WebSite Auditor and create a project for your site.
- Go to Content Analysis and select a page to optimize its snippet. Give the tool a moment to analyze the page's content.
- In the Content Editor submodule, switch to the Title & Meta tags tab, and start composing your title and description. Make sure they clearly communicate the value of clicking through to your page to searchers. If appropriate, use a call to action and instead of simply describing what your page is about, address the searcher directly, and inform them about the benefits of navigating to your page, choosing your product, and so on.
As you do that, remember about your keywords — it is still recommended that you include your target terms both in the title and description, and the closer they are to the beginning, the more prominent they'll likely appear to Google.
- Once you're happy with your snippet, hit Save page to save the upload-ready HTML file to your hard drive.
Here's a bit of a pro tip for those of you who do paid search: consider A/B testing the snippets of your AdWords ads, and then incorporating the insights you get from those tests into your organic listings.
3. Keywords are no longer important.
In 2013, Google's Hummingbird update seemed to shatter everything we knew about keywords and on-page SEO. Apparently, keywords were being replaced by concepts and topics, and keyword targeting didn't make much sense anymore.
And it wasn't just Hummingbird. The Knowledge Graph and RankBrain were also geared, at least in part, towards understanding the meaning of queries in a more human-like manner and focusing less on individual terms within the query. Here's what Google's Amit Singhal said when annoncing the Knowledge Graph.
To be fair though, Googlers never openly stated that keywords were no longer important. This myth, in fact, was put forward by SEOs themselves, extending what Google actually said about their objective to understand queries as "things, not strings" to a more extreme "concepts and topics are replacing keywords completely". Some even suggested that marketers switch to 'theme-based SEO' and forget keywords for good.
Sure, there's a lot of cutting-edge technology behind how Google understands queries, but there's little magic. Let us be honest: strings are still strings, because there's no such thing as a 'thing' in computer language processing — and there never will be.
Of course, this is not to undermine Google's advances in the field. Hummingbird and, later, RankBrain have undoubtedly changed the search engine into a more understanding creature that considers context and related concepts in addition to the phrase you type into the search bar. All of that changes keyword research immensely, but it doesn't make it any less important.
OK, let's put this into practice. Let's say you have a site about plants. Maybe it sells plants, or maybe it's a blog for anyone looking for plant care tips. Anyways, you're writing an article about this little cutie called Aglaonema.
You know it's called that, because you're a plant geek. What you don't know however, is that people who are less plant-savvy would call it a Chinese evergreen.
So ideally, you'd just go ahead and create your page about Aglaonema, and provided it's a really good page with quality content, it'd natually attract backlinks and you'd rank in Google for both keywords.
Alas, even though these "strings" are a "thing", Google doesn't seem to know about it — yet.
Take a closer look — these are two very different SERPs for two keywords that are absolute synonyms. There is a bit of intersection further down the search results, but it only occurs on pages that mention both words in their content.
Looks like a bit of keyword research wouldn't hurt after all.
In the age of semantic search, keyword research has surely gotten less straightforward, but no less important. Its complexity has stretched well beyond something you can do manually. SEO PowerSuite's Rank Tracker has 20 keyword tools integrated right into it to help you out.
- Launch Rank Tracker and create a project for your site.
- Go to the Keyword Research module and click Suggest Keywords.
- Pick one of the 20 keyword research methods to use (you can later repeat the process for the rest of the methods).
- Type in the seed terms to base your research upon and hang on a moment while the tool is looking up suggestions and automatically grouping them by topic (so you can target entire groups of related terms with each of your landing pages).
- Now, examine the keywords and keyword groups Rank Tracker has found. Look at their competition, search volume, and efficiency, and pick the best terms for targeting by selecting them and hitting the Move to Target Keywords Module button.
- Under Target Keywords, you can now analyze the Keyword Difficulty for the terms you white-listed and build your keyword map by assigning the keywords to specific pages on your site.
4. Social signals do not have SEO value.
Like click rates, social signals are perhaps among the most controversial factors for SEOs. Back in 2010, Matt Cutts openly said that engagement metrics from social media are used in the ranking algo. But later, Google started to deny the idea. For instance, here's what Matt Cutts mentioned in one of his videos from 2014:
To be fair, the statements Google made about not using social mentions for ranking my very well have been true at the time. But things change; and if you've been following Google's comments on the topic, you've probably noticed that they have not been denying the impact of social signals on rankings lately. A little over a month ago, when asked about Rand Fishkin's click experiments in a video Q&A, Google's Andrey Lipattsev said the rankings of those pages didn't go up just because of the clicks:
And facts also tell the same.
In a big case study by Branded3, the agency ran an experiment to analyze the effect of tweets on rankings in Google on one of their sites.
The 8,528 pages analyzed were divided into three groups:
- 1-99 tweets (5,322 pages)
- 100-499 tweets (1,382 pages)
- 500+ tweets (1,824 pages)
Then, Branded3 checked the rankings of each page, using the first four words from the page's title as a keyword.
While there was a bit of correlation between tweets and rankings in all three groups, the pages with 500+ tweets provided the most interesting results. The average ranking positions for the group were as follows:
|# of tweets||Average Google rank|
The graph below is particularly interesting: it shows the Google ranking for pages with over 1,000 tweets. As you can see, with 7,500+ tweets, a first page ranking is almost inevitable.
With the strong connection between social shares and rankings, you can't afford to overlook these metrics in your strategy. SEO PowerSuite's WebSite Auditor can give you a pretty solid idea where each of your site's pages currently stand in terms of social media engagement.
- Launch WebSite Auditor and create or open a project.
- Once the tool has crawled your site, switch to the Pages module and go to the Popularity in social media tab. Here, you'll find social share counts for every page of your site, including Facebook shares, Google +1s, LinkedIn shares, Pinterest pins, and more.
Now that you can see the status quo, you've got to do something to earn more of those social signals. This topic deserves a guide of its own, but your first steps should definitely include monitoring the new mentions of your posts and pages, along with some competitive research to give you an idea of how and where your competitors promote their content. You can do it all with an app for social media and Web listening, like Awario.
5. Keyword-optimized anchor text is bad for your SEO.
Ever since the first Penguin update in 2012 (whose main focus were spammy links, over-optimized anchor text, and link relevancy), we've been hearing about the dangers of keyword-rich anchor text. In its guidelines, Google tells webmasters explicitly that optimized anchor text can do more harm than good.
Let's be clear on this: Penguin's no joke and can be hard to recover from. Anchor text diversity should be one of your top concerns if you're building links.
But none of that means your anchors shouldn't be optimized for your target keywords. In an interesting study on the effects of Penguin, Microsite Masters thousands of sites to investigate whether websites that saw a ranking drop after Penguin were guilty of over-optimizing too many of their anchors. Interestingly, it turned out that websites that got hit had their target keyword for anchor text in over 65% of their backlinks, while sites that had keyword-optimized anchors for 50% fo their links or less were "all but guaranteed" not to be affected by Penguin.
But let's put this to life. If you do a Google search for "click here", you might be slightly surprised by the #1 result:
Just in case you haven't noticed: the top page doesn't even have the words "click here" in its content.
A quick analysis in SEO SpyGlass shows that 3% of the page's links has the "click here" anchor text. To be clear, that's the 5th top used anchor in the page's link profile, after "adobe reader", "get adobe reader" , "adobe acrobat reader", and "acrobat reader".
That tells us that anchor text is still a strong relevance indicator for Google, and you can (and should) use keywords in your anchors — or, you'll be outranked by competitors that do.
Backlinks with exact match anchor text still robustly correlate with rankings, and it's not optimized anchors that can get you in trouble with Google, it's lack of anchor text diversity.
As things go in SEO, there's no universal share for keyword-rich anchors in your link profile that will guarantee you top rankings. The best way to go about it is taking a look at your top competitors for hints on anchors and their distribution that works in your niche. Again, SEO PowerSuite's SEO SpyGlass is your best friend here.
- Launch SEO SpyGlass and create a project for your top ranking competitor.
- Switch to the Summary submodule for a breakdown of the competitor's link profile. Here, you'll get a solid idea on the diversity of their anchors and get an anchor cloud for their links. Apart from helping you out with diversity, this dashboard can give you a good idea of anchors you may not have thought about before.
Do the same for your other competitors to find out the anchor trends that work in your niche, and… link build away!
To do the search engines justice, none of these myths are in fact their fault. Not entirely, anyway. They are often born and reinforced by SEOs themselves, heated up by fears and the gaps in what we know about Google's algorithm.
If you think about it, all these myths boil down to one: "the SERP is a democracy". It's far from being true, and that's not because Google's imperfect. It's because technology at large is imperfect. Every new cutting-edge system and algorithm is inevitably followed by equally cutting-edge ways of gaming it.
It is especially hard for Google to stay "fair" because it is trying equally hard to stay fresh. If you think about it, it's a bit of an "either or" situation, and a lot of cheating goes unnoticed as Google tries to deliver content to searchers as it happens. It's a sacrifice they make for the sake of the real-time Web Google's — successfully — trying to create.
As always, I'm looking forward to your comments and some great discussion. Any SEO myths you can think of that are not on this list? Please share your thoughts and experiences below.
By: Masha Maksimava