Although the world of SEO could change in an algorithm instant, content marketers always have some control — read that, some control — over how their efforts might rank in search engines. Ultimately, good content is king. However, sometimes bad optimization just happens to good content, like a rhino trying to play Mozart on a kazoo… or badminton with a bazooka… or hopscotch on a cupcake.
While SEO basics remain important, there are several practices that simply must go. They are rhinos that will stomp all over your content efforts. So stop them. Stop them, please.
Avoid the following bad SEO tactics (aka the four rhinos):
- Poor user experience
- Misplaced keyword focus
- Lazy link building
- Duplicate content
1. Poor user experience
There is no one thing when it comes to poor user experience (UX). A plethora of problems face your visitors if you haven’t listened to their complaints or kept pace with technology trends. And yes, UX does have an impact on your SEO results — that is, a bad user experience leads to behaviors that impact your rank.
What are the key indicators of a bad user experience?
- High bounce rates
- Low dwell times
- Fewer inbound links
- Less social shares of content compared to your competitors
Other factors that could negatively affect your rank include:
- Poor navigation
- Complicated site architecture
- Slow site/page speed
- Popups, modals, overlays and interstitials that interfere with a visitor’s ability to interact with the content
- Low-quality content
- Lack of mobile optimization
In the past, companies may have had two teams when it comes to their websites — one focused on design/UX-related issues and another focused on search engine optimization.
It’s not uncommon for these two teams to be at odds. A gorgeous design may harm technical SEO — and a well-optimized page may not be as “cool” as the gorgeous design. But times are changing, and UX and SEO must come together.
Expert advice on user experience
Based in the United Kingdom, Dan McCarthy is the co-founder of Zeno Assessment Software and CEO of Verax Consulting. McCarthy has almost 20 years of experience building, merging and improving the processes behind IT organizations and has a firm understanding of what’s behind the curtain.
He spoke to ClearVoice regarding the importance of seamless, quality content — and the need to place a premium on the visitor’s experience:
The search engines — and particularly Google — have been telling us for years that quality of reader experience is paramount. So an obvious tactic in SEO is to listen out for what readers are actually saying about their experiences. I am hearing a groundswell of complaints about opt-in and other types of pop-ups on websites. People don’t like to be interrupted — they want to read a well-written piece of content without distraction.
When asked what we should expect from search engines in the near term, McCarthy put on his predictive hat to do some forecasting.
One of two things will increasingly happen: people will immediately abandon any site that interrupts them, or the search engines will actively penalize opt-in pop-ups or other technology that ‘takes over’ control of the experience from the reader. Content marketers could do worse than follow the BBC’s example in providing an immersive experience that is focused on the content, like their article on the secret lives of young IS fighters. Yes, that is ‘pure’ journalism — but it contains so many lessons about what search engines will be looking for.
Bottom Line: provide great content in a variety of formats, and stop interrupting the reader.
It seems that storytelling, an uninterrupted experience and quality content are all mandates moving into the future.
But, as Gartner’s Robert Bellovin warns, rich content should never be at the expense of page speed:
As a higher percentage of users access their web content via mobile devices, page speed will continue to be a crucial factor. Users do not want to wait 5-10 seconds for their content to load — they want instant access. If you’re unable to deliver that, it’s fairly likely they will just click back to Google to find a website that can. This means if your site is not running quickly, your user engagement and trust metrics will reflect it, and eventually that will impact your organic performance.
Other than page speed, Bellovin also cites how mission-critical user experience is — and will be — moving forward when it comes to ranking algorithms.
Many believe that user experience has become a significant part of the ranking algorithm. This aligns with Google’s long-term mission to ensure that their search engines are only surfacing high-value content that best answers a searcher’s query. If your website’s content, navigation, internal linking and page speed aren’t in a good place, it is going to be hard to remain at the top of a competitive SERP. These days you need to be executing on the full package if you expect to play in a competitive SERP!
Addressing your user experience
If your website is mature or very large (or both), your site’s architecture may have strayed into the “overly complicated” zone. Give your site a good look. Can users easily find what they want within at least four clicks? If you were to diagram how your site is organized, would you see an obvious, clean hierarchy? If not, you’ve got some work today.
Marieke van de Rakt, founder of Yoast Academy and CEO of Yoast, writes that the ideal site structure looks like a pyramid and includes levels like:
- Subcategories (for large sites)
- Individual pages and posts
Beyond making navigation easy for your visitors, this approach to website architecture helps search engines understand the relevance of your pages in the context of your overall site. A totally flat site architecture or one that doesn’t interlink makes it more difficult for Google to understand the relevance of each piece of content.
As a marketer, you may be tempted to interrupt the user while he or she is on your site. After all, you want to get those leads in the funnel! However, you should resist the temptation to add pop-ups and other interrupters to every page. Entice users to stay a while and they will come back often, but don’t annoy them or else they might have the final word… and it could be ‘goodbye.’
Take time to ensure your site has an easy-to-use, logical navigation system. For example, if you had never visited your site before, would you know how to reach the ‘contact us’ page? Could you find important product information? Is movement down the webpage intuitive… or just irritating?
Then ask yourself key questions about performance such as:
- How well does your site perform?
- Do pages load in a reasonable amount of time on both desktop and mobile?
- Is it optimized for the small screen, big screen and everything in between?
And do an honest review of the quality of the content on your site:
- Is your written content worth reading?
- Are your visuals and videos captivating or boring?
- Is the content something they’d take time to share with a friend?
Candid self-assessments such as these will help save you grief when it comes to problematic page rankings — and will ultimately boost the traffic numbers you desperately want and need.
Better user experience is also an important aspect in the overall customer experience, especially in situations where the majority of customer interaction occurs on your website. With Gartner reporting over 80% of organizations expecting to compete primarily on CX, getting your user experience in order is a top priority.
2. Misplaced keyword focus
Keywords have long been the focus of many digital marketers. Many marketers have obsessed over keyword rankings and spent countless hours researching and optimizing pages for a high-value keyword or long-tail keyword phrase. Starting now… maybe even yesterday… you need to stop.
Over the past several years, Google has rolled out several algorithms and updates that have already thrown the practice of single keyword-focused pages and optimization out the window. Google’s Hummingbird and RankBrain algorithms have taken search to the next level by connecting the semantic dots to better understanding a user’s intent rather than simply looking for a page that is best optimized for the keyword or phrase.
This ever-evolving, machine-learning artificial intelligence has changed the keyword game from what it was — and will continue to revolutionize it moving forward.
Expert advice on keyword focus
There are several different areas to consider when it comes to keywords. In fact, here are a few keywords from various SEO experts on the topic.
Avoid keyword stuffing. According to entrepreneur and online marketing expert Neil Patel, “Instead of stuffing it [a keyword] repeatedly into the content, you should focus on sub-topics and related ideas. That means pulling in all of the semantically related information and context around a topic.”
Why does Patel recommend this approach? Google’s Quality Guidelines make it pretty clear:
‘Keyword stuffing’ refers to the practice of loading a webpage with keywords or numbers in an attempt to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results. Often these keywords appear in a list or group, or out of context (not as natural prose). Filling pages with keywords or numbers results in a negative user experience, and can harm your site’s ranking. Focus on creating useful, information-rich content that uses keywords appropriately and in context.
Prioritize intent over keywords. Moz co-founder Rand Fishkin seems to be in full agreement with Patel’s comments above regarding authentic usage versus unnatural keyword stuffing. Fishkin’s advice to marketers and SEOs is to: “Serve the goals of the searcher. Deliver the experience they need and the answers they want. This is vastly more important than any simplistic keyword use rule.”
Focus on related topics. Fishkin also writes that:
Google wants to see documents that intelligently use words and phrases that connect — semantically, lexically and logically — to the queries searchers are using. Those topics help tell Google’s on-page quality analysis systems that your content is: A) on-topic and relevant; B) includes critical answers to searchers’ questions; and C) has credible, accurate information.
Google’s algorithms can understand searcher intent better than ever and evaluate content that meets the user’s needs. Write your content with the user in mind, and you will improve your SEO.
Andy Crestodina, co-founder and CMO of Orbit Media, recommends putting some focus on longer keyword phrases with fewer SERP features. Why? SERP features like featured snippets, related questions and ads with site links are pushing even high-ranking results further down the page. Ranking in the top three on Google isn’t the same as it used to be.
While he sees the merit in homing in on these phrases with lower commercial intent, Crestodina also recommends you fight hard for winning your own featured snippet. Position 0 can be an enormous boost to your website. He suggests you check out Ahref’s guide on winning featured snippets.
Things to remember with keywords
While keywords remain important — they provide the starting point for your overall research — they are no longer the most important thing to focus on when creating content. Google doesn’t want you to write for search engines, it wants you to write for their end-users who also happen to be your likely readers and customers.
Here are the big three takeaways:
1. Understand what your potential customers want and search for, and form content around that intent. Include your prized target keywords, but also include related and synonymous terms.
2. Refer back to the earlier sections on featured snippets. The same things you do to gain those placements on Google will serve you well overall.
3. Write like a human being. Be conversational in your content and keyword usage. You are writing for other human beings, after all, and Google’s RankBrain along with other AI and machine learning initiatives are getting smart enough to understand natural language patterns.
3. Lazy link building
Of course, link building is always in, but only if you implement smart linking strategies. Lazy link building is out. In fact, it has been out for a while now. Still, some people continue to risk their site’s traffic and conversions by relying on less-than-reputable link building strategies.
It’s worth repeating that Google doesn’t like it when you build unnatural or spammy links.
Google’s Link schemes documentation tells you everything you need to know, but here’s a quick snapshot:
- Don’t buy or sell links that pass PageRank.
- Take it easy on excessive link exchanging and cross-linking (like on partner pages).
- Stop over-optimizing anchor text links on guest posts and off-site articles.
- Don’t place guest posts on unrelated or irrelevant blogs and sites.
- Skip link building in directories. Search Engine Roundtable reported that Google’s John Mueller said that “generally, web directories do not help with SEO or rankings.”
- Avoid unnatural link creation:
- Text ads that pass PageRank
- Hidden links
- Low-quality bookmark sites or directory links
- Links in templates that are widely distributed
- Forum posts that contain links in the signature
- Use rel=”nofollow” on links when you don’t want to pass PageRank.
Expert advice on lazy link building
Monitor your backlinks to get rid of bad links. The Ninja Outreach blog talks about the importance of monitoring your backlinks. If you’ve had someone build links for you in the past, this is very important. You need to know what sites are linking to your site, and you need to clean up the bad and potentially harmful stuff. The answer? Use a tool to identify the links you need removed and perform a link removal outreach campaign.
On that point, Ninja Outreach instructs, “Make sure your outreach email is personalized. Never threaten a webmaster and be nice when you ask them to remove your link. With the backlinks you can’t remove, you have to create a disavow report and then submit it to the Google Disavow Tool.”
Bottom line: Don’t expect mass quantities of links to beat great on-page SEO. It won’t work.
Once again, we consult Rand Fishkin as to why our thinking needs to change with regards to link strategies.
We need to change our biased thinking about links and content from the days of 2012. Back then, it was still the case that a few more links with anchor text would move even an irrelevant, low-quality page of content above better and more valuable pages. Today, it’s vastly more likely that very-well-linked-to pages (as in the example above) are getting their butts handed to them by marketers who go above and beyond with their on-page SEO efforts, winning despite a link deficit because they deliver the content and the experience Google (and searchers) want.
Suffice to say, quality over quantity wins again.
As for the perception that leaving comments on forums containing backlinks (also known as spam) works, turns out, according to Neil Patel, not so much.
Patel writes about the futility of commenting for the sake of getting a backlink:
Many commenting platforms… try to police this [spam commenting] by blocking certain accounts. Unfortunately, if your site gets big enough, you’ll always have to battle spam comments. That’s why many commenting platforms, even on WordPress, will automatically nofollow these links.
All that time spent leaving comments with links and you get a nofollow? That’s a lot of wasted time to get nowhere. As for the strategy around dropping the exact match anchor text, Patel shares that, “Search engines will take a look at all of the anchor text being used to link back to your site to spot bad patterns.”
If you are writing posts in a way that forces the use of a keyword just so you can get an exact match anchor text link, you’re doing it wrong. Google wants to see a natural link profile and warns against exact match anchor text links in the link schemes document referenced earlier.
Things to remember with links
The key here, yet again, is to focus on the user when you earn your links. Do the sites you attempt to gain links from have relevance to your product and your audience? Does your content add value to the audience of the website where you hope to gain a link?
It’s time to change your mindset from building links to the idea of earning links instead.
You can easily build links on a lot of low-quality sites. But earning links from high-authority sites takes time, great content, talented resources, budget and effort. Though it may take more time on the front-end, it’ll ultimately be a worthwhile endeavor that could pay off when it comes to SEO ranking.
4. Duplicate content
You most likely don’t approach content and site development with the aim of creating duplicate content. Sometimes duplicate content just happens by accident or ignorance. For example, you may have multiple pages that feature products with their descriptions.
If you use the same descriptions on all pages, that’s duplicate content. Similarly, if you use the first few sentences of your blog posts as teasers/summaries on your blog homepage, search engines may consider that duplicate content as well.
Why is duplicate content so bad?
When you’ve copied content from another website and placed it on your own without permission, it’s plagiarism. Not only is this unethical, but it could have ramifications in the realm of duplicate content.
But what about the guest posts you’ve written and want to re-post on your own blog? That can cause problems for you or the host site if you forget to follow procedures to implement a rel=canonical link. Without the rel=canonical link, you leave it up to Google to guess which site deserves to rank for the post.
Then there are the cases of duplicate content on the same site. In Neil Patel’s aforementioned blog entry, he writes, “…many times, you will cause your own duplicate content problems. And you might not even realize it. For example, the same exact content might show up at multiple points throughout your site. This is detrimental because Google might not know which page to pass authority to. Your ‘credit’ gets split and distributed to several different pages.”
This begs the question: Would you rather have one strong page or three weak ones? Guessing your answer is the former and a resounding ‘yes’ for that matter.
How to avoid duplicate content
In theory, avoiding duplicate content is very easy: don’t post the same content on multiple pages. In practice, avoiding duplicate content can be very hard. Do I have to rewrite these descriptions/blog summaries/whatever for each new page?
Take time to conduct a site audit to find instances of duplicate content — including duplicate page titles. There are multiple free tools to help you do this, or you may prefer to use a subscription service like Moz or SEMRush. After you’ve identified instances of repeat messaging, get to work revising it.
For all future content creation, set up guidelines for yourself and any content creators you hire. Make sure everyone understands that duplicate content isn’t just lazy, it can also hamper your SEO progress.