You probably know that Google turns up more than 23 million hits if you search for SEO. It also turns up 174,000 for the phrase “SEO mistakes” (without quotation marks). So if, while you’re reading my article, you discover that you’re doing something you shouldn’t be, take heart – you’re in good company. And it isn’t too late to make amends.
If you really are just starting to do SEO, by reading this article you can learn from the mistakes of others. And if you’ve been doing SEO for a while but never made these mistakes, don’t feel excluded; there’s no way I could cover every possible mistake in a single article. Indeed, judging from the links I turned up, I could fill a whole book with SEO mistakes to avoid. At least a couple of chapters could be devoted to blogging mistakes, which I don’t plan to cover in any great detail here.
Making mistakes in the way you optimize your web site can cost you, both tangibly and intangibly. The tangible cost, of course, comes in money, whether your site is directly engaged in e-commerce or makes its money from advertising. The intangible cost comes in lost traffic and wasted effort. Even when the rest of your site’s SEO is impeccable, certain mistakes can wipe out all the benefits you’d otherwise gain.
Before I go into detail about the specific things you need to avoid, I’m going to tell you what I think is the biggest SEO mistake anyone can make if they’re serious about making money from their web site. That mistake is neglecting to stay on top of the trends and information pertaining to the field. Since search engines tweak their algorithms all the time, what worked a year ago may not work today. There are certain parts of the field that will never change – content will ALWAYS be king – but the keywords you use in your optimization and where you put them for the best effect, for example, is the kind of thing that has already changed and will probably continue to change in the future. That said, let’s take a look at some more specific SEO mistakes.
What could be more basic than your domain name? Perhaps that’s the reason that so many SEO errors revolve around this basic necessity. Maybe it’s because I’m an editor as well as a writer, but to me, one of the more painful mistakes has to be misspelling your domain name. If you’re buying your own domain name, and you know how to spell well, that might not be as big an issue. But if you don’t, or you’re simply telling a web site designer to buy it for you, you can run into some problems.
Kalena Jordan writing for Site Pro News mentioned the client who thought he’d told a designer to buy CartoonCentral.com. The designer heard CarTuneCentral.com. The latter was available; the former was not. But that’s not the only kind of mistake you can get into with spelling. Remember that a domain name doesn’t show up in the browser in CamelType – so think carefully about what it might spell if the capitals fell in a different place. PenIsland.com is a deliberate parody site, but there have been cases of others that weren’t, simply because they didn’t think about what their chosen domains might spell with different stresses.
Let’s move from spelling errors to a canonical matter. I suppose you could still consider this a spelling issue, though. Is your site spelled www.yourdomain.com, yourdomain.com, or www.yourdomain.com/index.html? Think fast, because you get to pick only one. Google, however, will see all three – and its duplicate content alarms will go off. You can avoid this issue by deciding that one site spelling is canonical and using the appropriate redirects for the other spellings. From what I have read, the current consensus for the best URL format to use isn’t any of the ones listed above, but www.yourdomain.com/, with the slash on the end. Whichever format you use, be consistent.
Not all domain debacles come from spelling errors. Some come from math errors – or, more precisely, forgetting to pay the bills. In 1999, Microsoft forgot to renew its Passport.com domain; in 2003, it forgot to renew its Hotmail.co.uk domain. In both cases, generous individuals paid the fees and handed the domains back to the software giant, but not all stories have such a happy ending.
Finally, here are a couple of domain name mistakes I hope most of you know better than to make. The first is buying the .biz version of a domain name when the .com version is available; .com top level domains are still better known and more respected than .biz domains, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. And the second is promoting a site you don’t even own. Make SURE you buy the right site and spell it correctly in all of your marketing literature and advertisements.
When I talk about the wrong kind of exposure in this case I don’t mean bad publicity. I mean exposing information to the public that they were never intended to see. Jordan gives one example involving a common web site management platform that stored site statistics in a folder labeled /statistics/. If that folder wasn’t password-protected, anyone who knew that such a folder existed could read it, which meant that “many unwary webmasters unwittingly published full traffic data for their site on the Internet,” Jordan explained. That security hole may or may not exist today, but the principle certainly holds: if you don’t want the whole world to see a particular file, secure it.
Another example of the wrong kind of exposure is what happened when AOL published a search data report in 2006. Its publication was intentional, but it was not well thought out. Supposedly AOL tried to scrub the personal information off of the search data it published, so that searchers would remain anonymous. It didn’t quite work that way; at least one major publication was able to identify one of the users from her searches. The mess led to the resignation of the company’s chief technical officer.
If your company handles any kind of personal information for your users, it should be secured so that it can’t be accessed by the malicious – and it can’t be published by the unwitting. Speaking of “unwitting,” make sure that anyone who publishes information to your web site – your website designers, for example – knows what should and should not be published. You may want to keep sales tactics on an “internal only” section of your web site that your customers never see; after all, you probably don’t want them to know the tricks you use for up-selling and cross-selling your products.
Timing may also play a role in what you want the public to see. For example, you may not want a press release published before a particular date. Think what would happen if Apple’s own employees published announcements of the company’s new products a day before Steve Jobs presented them!
It’s not too unusual for me to get lost – but I don’t appreciate being insulted when I do get lost, especially if it’s not even my fault. I mention this by way of introducing an online staple that I really hope is dead: the insulting 404 error page. I can certainly understand why a company might want to customize its error page. If the site can’t find the URL that a visitor used, then a custom-built error page might be able to steer him or her in the right direction. But will they even want to be bothered if they encounter an error page that says something like this:
“404 Error. You’ve obviously typed in the wrong URL. Either that or the page you are looking for no longer exists.”
Excuse me?! That was the actual text of at least one custom-designed 404 page. Jordan notes that the page contained “No apology for the missing page, no recommendation to use the navigation to find what they were looking for, just an insulting message that accuses the user of being an idiot.” If I ever encountered that error page, you can bet I wouldn’t be returning to that site any time soon.
Another matter to consider is your site’s general usability. How easy is it for a visitor to navigate your web site? Do the links on your site describe where they lead well enough? Do you use breadcrumbs so that they know where they are at all times?
Furthermore, does your site’s hierarchy or information architecture make sense? You can certainly have a link leading off the home page called “Products,” but if you have a lot of products you might even want to group them under logical subheadings: “Home Widgets,” “Automotive Widgets,” “Office Widgets,” or whatever kinds of subheadings make sense. If your site navigation and architecture is poorly constructed, your users can’t find what they’re looking for, and neither can the search engines.
As bad as all this sounds, I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to SEO mistakes. I may write a second article covering mistakes that concern specific on-page and off-page optimization issues. In the meantime, now that you’re informed, you can avoid making a lot of potentially costly missteps with your site’s SEO.