Popular SEO Myths

Search for the phrase “SEO myths” in Google (without quotes) and you’ll get 243,000 hits. With all the major search engines keeping their algorithms under lock and key, and making modifications without notice, it’s no wonder that false beliefs get perpetuated. It’s time to clear the air.

We published an article here on SEO Chat back in June 2007 about SEO myths. These things don’t seem to go away no matter how much you try to educate people. In fact, the search engines themselves contribute to their perpetuation in a sense. After all, they’re constantly tweaking their algorithms so the things that used to work simply don’t anymore – which leads to more myths when people stubbornly cling to old practices, or when a particular change makes it look like one thing is happening (i.e. a “Google 30” penalty) when the actual cause is something completely different.

Many myths come from wishful thinking. My favorite along those lines is a variation of “if I just do X, I’ll score high in the search engines.” And “X” can be anything from get enough links, submit your site to enough directories, get the magic amount of keyword density – you name it. The truth is that SEO is a process with no real shortcuts, and no ONE thing will guarantee you a top position in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Another form of “wishful thinking” myth states that “X is all-important,” where “X” can be PageRank, meta tags, or what have you. I won’t say that PageRank doesn’t matter; that’s another myth. But for most purposes it doesn’t. It really depends on what you’re trying to achieve. You can have a popular site and not have a PR of 10.

I expect this won’t be the last time we visit this topic. I’m including myths that are popular not only among practicing SEOs, but among some of the clients you might encounter. As you educate yourselves, you may also find that you need to educate your clients about actual SEO practices. The Ranked Hard comic strip that inspired this article makes that point very clearly. So without further ado, let’s bust some myths!

{mospagebreak title=SEO is Smoke and Mirrors}

Like the client in the Ranked Hard cartoon, you might encounter a prospective customer who tried to work with another SEO company that was secretive about its practices. Maybe they were told “our tactics are proprietary” or “what we do is far too complicated to explain.” Your prospect might even have been burned by this other company, so they may be leery about dealing with you.

Real SEO is not smoke and mirrors; it’s not a scam, and it’s not merely “a collection of tricks to fool search engines,” as Lee Odden points out in another article which debunked several SEO myths. But it’s easy to see why some people would believe that. There really are a lot of scammers out there who make incredible promises but use devious methods and care only about getting their victims’ money.

Speaking of incredible promises, let’s talk about another classic SEO myth inspired by scammers: an SEO can guarantee your placement at the top of the SERPs, thus eliminating the risk to your business. That’s hogwash; I’d use stronger language, but my boss would disapprove (especially if we start ranking for the term!). A firm that offers that kind of guarantee on your SEO is probably approaching it in a way that will harm your company.

Some companies that offer guarantees to get to the top of the SERPs will use keywords that no one else is using. So your site ends up ranking for less competitive keywords. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing, but if searchers aren’t using those keywords to find the kinds of products and services you offer, it’s pointless. If you sell raincoats in the US market, what good is it to hold a top-ranked position for “mackintosh” – unless you’re specifically selling to British expatriates living in the US?

Such firms may also use a limited selection of keywords for your website. That might work for a time, but using a greater diversity of keywords will put you in a better position the next time the search engines tweak their algorithm. Think of it as evolution in action.

Finally, another common trick for SEO companies that offer top placement guarantees shows up in the fine print of their contracts. Does it specifically say that they will use SEO to get there, or will they use pay-per-click? Just about anyone can get a top ad placement in Google if they’re willing to pay enough. But that’s probably not what you hired that SEO company for.

{mospagebreak title=SEO is All About Links, or Keywords}

I hinted at this myth in the beginning. Links are important, but how do you get those links in the first place? If you’re using link farms, exchanging links with sites that aren’t relevant, or engaging in other shady link practices, you won’t get the results you expect. In going for a huge quantity of links, it’s possible to forget that quality is very important. Many SEO experts say that a lower number of quality links will get you a higher ranking than a larger number of crappy links.

There are other myths that can be formatted this way. SEO company 2Disc.com notes a variation that says “SEO mainly consists of submission to (many) search engines.” There may have been a time when submission to search engines made sense; that time is long past. Even when it did make sense, it certainly didn’t mean that you would be instantly rewarded with a top position in the SERPs.

The opposite of the link myth says that SEO is all about keywords. To be specific, there’s a myth that says all you have to do is insert keywords in the meta tag to list your site for those words. Well, a lot of people started stuffing keywords into this tag, and the major search engines quickly became wise to this trick. So they don’t spider or index that meta tag anymore. In other words, don’t even bother with it.

Another keyword myth has to do with keyword density. One variation of this says that the more times you repeat a particular keyword on your page, the higher you will rank for that keyword. That is not true. Once you get past a certain level of keyword density, the search engines will read your page as being “spammy” and you may actually rank lower instead. Talk about getting the opposite of your desired result!

Another variation on the same myth, which I mentioned in the first section of this article, says that achieving a particular keyword density will give you a high placement in the search engines for that keyword. I suspect this isn’t entirely a myth; the problem is that I’ve seen too many different variations on what the “sweet percentage” is for keyword density. I’m halfway convinced that no one knows what the optimal percentage is. I have a suspicion that it might actually be different for different groups of keywords, but I can’t prove it. My advice is to make sure your content is relevant to your site’s theme and topic, and let the keywords fall where they may.

There is one place you shouldn’t let them fall, however: in hidden text for the eyes of the search engine alone. This is an example of keyword stuffing, and it may have worked at one time, but it can get you penalized now. Just say no.

{mospagebreak title=The Importance of Updating}

Okay, this particular myth is somewhat complicated. Jill Whalen, writing for Search Engine Land, revealed an eye-opening insight on this. Many site owners and SEOs think they need to update their sites frequently to score high in the SERPs. In fact, “Frequent updates to your pages may increase the search engine crawl rate, but it won’t increase your rankings.” In other words, you need to have quality to begin with; adding lots of content just to keep your site fresh won’t necessarily give you a better position in the SERPs. Whalen notes that “some of the highest ranking sites in Google haven’t been touched in years.”

So you don’t need to update your site to keep your rankings in Google, right? Wrong. You still need to engage in some routine maintenance, for the sake of both the search engines and your visitors. There are few things more annoying than trying to follow broken links or reading outdated material on a site that looked as if it would be useful from its Google listing. Also, updating your site encourages the search engine bots to come back and crawl it regularly.

While we’re on the subject of updating, do you need a sitemap and a robots.txt file? I’ve seen conflicting statements about this. The first thing that the search engine spiders look for is a robots.txt file, so having one and keeping it up to date is probably a good idea. Once the bots get the information from the robots.txt file as to where they’re allowed to go, they will check your sitemap and follow every link on it. On the other hand, these two items are not obligatory; as Jill Whalen explains, “If your site was built correctly, i.e., it’s crawler-friendly, you certainly don’t need a Google Sitemap.” But it couldn’t hurt.

I’ve covered some of the most popular SEO myths in this article. There are plenty more where these came from. Whether you’re hiring an SEO or furthering your own SEO education, I hope I’ve convinced you to approach what you hear in this field with an appropriate sense of skepticism. 

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