So what’s the real deal with SEO? Way back in February 2011, Google started changing the rules with their first Panda update and it sent shockwaves through the SEO community.
I’ve long been a believer that it’s been Google’s intention to remove the ability from users and SEO companies to affect rankings in any way except down. As time goes on, Google seems to be updating their algorithms to do just that.
Don’t get me wrong, SEO companies are not going out of business any time soon, but it’s important to find out what they’re doing before you turn over your hard earned cash. If they are using old methods or tricks and shortcuts, your money may be better spent investing in a Ponzi scheme. It’s even likely that things that your SEO folks were doing before that were bringing you traffic may even be hurting you now and costing you rankings and traffic. Even for companies like ours who have tried to use best SEO practices and not use tricks to increase rankings, things aren’t what they once were.
I have found many, many articles and blogs proclaiming that SEO is dead but it’s not. It’s changed and it’s a lot more about content and “technical stuff” than it is about optimizing for keywords and creating backlinks. Be VERY wary of companies that will provide you with keywords before your content is complete!
There are a number of things that can affect your rankings and through some research (and a bit of common sense), here are some of the most important ones:
No content or poor writing – the simple fact is, search engines are not trying to simply create links to every website on the Internet. Their entire business model is around providing accurate, reliable and useful results for people who do searches. If they don’t think your site is relevant or has useful content, you shouldn’t rank high. The only way to fix that is to create lots of great content – otherwise, why do you really have a website?
Duplicate Content – make sure that you don’t create multiple pages or websites with the same content or search engines will penalize you for it. If you copy your content from someone else’s website, Google knows who did it first — you’ll get what’s coming to you for it.
Content below the fold – this confuses a lot of people. It’s a carry-over term from the print industry that really has no direct place in the world wide web but it’s here and we need to clarify the definition. The real meaning is that search engines consider content that is above the scroll line to be more important than content you have to scroll down for. That doesn’t mean the lower content is not relevant, it’s just going to affect rankings a little less than the higher content. It also doesn’t mean that your site shouldn’t scroll – people are used to that because they’ve always done that with websites. The problem this creates is that people try to cram everything in the top of the site which presents poorly and creates spammy content. The other problem is that different resolutions of screens mean different points at which the scroll starts.
Keyword stuffing – sentences like “Widgets by Acme Widgets are the best widgets to buy when you are buying widgets from a widget company” are a big no-no. You’d be surprised at how many people will try and increase your keywords that way. Sometimes, and it’s not easily apparent, but when the search engines go through your site, they are looking for patterns that SEO companies use to increase your keyword density and spam the search engines. Properly written content will not only contain the things that people are searching for, but will also flow in such a way that is easy to read and will be more attractive to the search engines.
Variable Meta Data – Search engines are becoming more wary of sites and pages where titles and meta tags change on each visit but the content doesn’t. Random generation of these elements is also a technique that some companies will use to spam the search engines that can cost you ranking. Page titles, keywords and description fields have limits to them for a reason. If the search engines detect that you are trying to get around these by present a new set of them each time the page loads, they can penalize you for it.
Doorway pages – these are pages that are designed and built with the specific intent of drawing search engine visitors to your website. Typically, they are standalone pages whose sole purpose is to act as a doorway to your site that has no links to it from the website. Many SEO companies still use these and they are a very bad idea. These days, they will not only drastically affect REAL traffic to your site, but they will also negatively affect your rankings when search engines discover what you are doing. The only thing these do now is provide SEO companies an artificial way of providing stats to you for traffic but its not relevant traffic.
Splash pages – these are similar to doorway pages in that they serve no real purpose to the website and the site typically doesn’t link back to them. In fact, Google’s own site will tell you “Google does not encourage the use of doorway pages. We want to point users to content pages, not to doorways or splash screens”. It doesn’t get much clearer than that!
Rich snippets – never heard of these? A lot of SEO companies have and it’s the latest tactic to spam search engines and it can cost you dearly. This isn’t something that can happen by accident – it needs to be done intentionally so just make sure it’s not being done to your site! As Google says, “we do reserve the right to take manual action (e.g., disable rich snippets for a specific site) in cases where we see actions that hurt the experience for our users”.
Unnatural links – these are links that some SEO companies will create to your site to increase your “backlinks”. They are artificial links that are intended to increase your site’s rankings in the search engine. Google will actually take manual action against a site that has unnatural links detected. If your SEO company is offering backlinks as part of your SEO program, think again and make sure they are not going to cost you rankings.
Hidden or semi-hidden text – you can’t see it but the search engines can. This used to be a VERY common technique to increase your keyword density without changing the look of your site. Again, the search engines are looking for results that their users can use so if the user can’t see it, why should the search engine. They’ll catch on pretty quick and Google is not known for being nice to people who try to spam their search engines.
There are many others but you are likely getting the point by now. Not all of these are intentionally done so its important to be using an SEO company that will not only do things ethically, but also has the knowledge to know how to fix and avoid some of these issues. On the other hand, there are still companies that will use outright deception to sell you on their techniques and get your money. In many cases, the short term effect is enough to get them paid for a job well done, but then when Google (and others) start detecting the issues, your traffic and ranking will drop, and in some cases your site might even be blacklisted altogether. Fixing these issues after the fact can be VERY expensive and take a long time if they can be fixed at all.
A good web design company will know the things that need to be done. First, the site has to be created properly from a technical standpoint. That means having navigation that the search engines can see, ensuring that content is not duplicated, making sure that your pages have titles and meta fields that match your content. Investing in a site tune-up is an inexpensive and simple way to fix a lot of problems – just make sure the company that is doing it is capable of doing it and understands today’s SEO world.
Don’t worry so much about optimizing your site for specific keywords. Even though this was the way it was always done, trying to do this now can cause some problems and lower your rankings. The experts are all saying (including Matt Cutts from Google) to simply use a large variety of words in your content.
Google considers link building to be spam so if you can add your site to a list or directory by simply submitting it, consider that it won’t mean anything to the search engines anymore and may end up costing you rankings in the end.
If you really want to keep things moving and improving, you need to keep the content fresh and up to date. You can use writers to create great content or blog posts but you have to make sure the content is actually relevant to your site. When you are targeting a particular market, it’s also important to realize that they aren’t necessarily going to flock to you. Find out where they are and go be there as well. That may be Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or other social media hangouts but if you expect them to do business with you, you need to be where they are. This will give you opportunities to share when you update your site but you will also find that the search engines can also be aware that you are hanging out in the same places and increase your rankings with those users.
One of the biggest and single most important things about search engines is trust. Sites that are brand new or that are poorly constructed, or are designed around keywords instead of proper content won’t be trusted by Google. You actually need to earn that trust and that starts with ensure that it’s trying to appear to be something it isn’t. Start getting your site in shape and Google will trust it in the long run and increase your rankings.
After all, you wouldn’t just allow someone that had very little experience or appeared to be trying to trick you to develop your website or do your SEO, right?
Jamie Penner is the Owner of V3 Mediaworks, a website development and hosting company, and has been active in the Internet industry in Nanaimo, BC on Vancouver Island. Jamie has been active in the Internet industry in the Nanaimo area since 1993.