SEO Myths, Mistakes & The Madness of Crowds

Well, we’ve made it, folks. It’s day 3 of SMX and I have the reddest eyes in all of the land.  But that won’t stop me! We have four awesome sessions to make it through today and we shall be victorious!  I’m slightly delirious. But that just makes for better blogging. Or at least I think so.

Anyway! Up on stage speaking we have Michael Gray, Stephan Spencer, Jill Whalen and Shari Thurow.  I hear there’s only going to be one PowerPoint presentation so lets see if that holds true.

We’re doing introductions and Stephan Spencer says his book The Art of SEO is shorter than Bruce Clay’s book because Stephan is more efficient.  Hee.  Michael Gray gets the award for the best bio slide of the show.

SEO Myths

PageRank = Rankings

Stephan: The PR we see is not the real PR. Toolbar PR uses a random number generator to play with our heads.  Heh.

Michael: It’s a very rough approximation of anything.

Jill: There’s two kinds. There’s toolbar Page Rank that’s meaningless, but there’s also real Page Rank. That Page Rank is still important. When you hear Google talking about Page Rank, they mean the real Page Rank, not what’s showing up in the toolbar.

Stephan: Page Rank incorporates a trust and authority component but that’s for Google only.

Shari: She disagrees with Google’s interpretation of authority. She thinks its more popularity and that’s not the same thing as authority.

PageRank Sculpting = Rankings

Shari, Jill: Myth

Michael: Using nofollow to sculpt is a myth, there are other ways to sculpt. You can omit links from a page or you can say I want Google to see certain pages on my site, I just don’t want them to show up in the index.

Stephan: If you detect that a user has cookies enabled, you can add in all the links that are low value from an SEO perspective. If you use nofollows, Google does not give the remainder of the PageRank evenly across the remaining followed links.

Shari: If you don’t want people to click on a link, don’t put it on your site. If you want them to click on a link, put it on your site.  She wrote an article called You’d Be Wise To ‘Nofollow’ This Dubious SEO Advice for Search Engine Land about her views on the topic.  She thinks people should focus on creating good sites, not using band aids for bad site architecture.

Flash kills SEO; don’t use it

Shari: That’s an over-generalization. It depends on how you’re using Flash. There are some really good reasons to have a Flash Web site. One of the things she had to do was to build a site for NASA. It had to be on the Web but it had to be on a kiosk. The best technology for that site was Flash, but it also had to be accessible, as well.  There was a Flash version and a user-accessible version. The problem isn’t Flash, it’s how people use Flash.  You can use it, just use it well.

Jill: People have heard that Flash is bad so now they’re afraid to use it on their site at all.  You can use Flash on your site, but don’t design your entire site in Flash.

Stephan: You can make your Flash more accessible by using swfobject and swfaddress. It will sniff if your browser has Flash capabilities. If it’s a bot, it will not execute.

Michael: If you’re Ford or Coke, Flash is not going to hurt you. If you’re Bob’s Pet Store, you can’t get away with Flash.

Jill: There’s also a myth that the search engines can’t index the information. They can and they do, but it’s the Flash file that shows up. That’s not going to do people any good. The engines can index it, but it’s not going to help your page show up if they’re just indexing the file itself, which is what happens.

Stephan: Avoid Flash for your main navigation, product specs, etc.  If you want to show off a cool new cell phone and have it spin around, that’s really cool.

Shari: She disagrees with Stephan with the flash navigation. If people can complete their tasks more efficiently with Flash, give it to them. The goal isn’t to rank number one in Google, it’s to convert.

Michael: He disagrees with Shari. There are a lot of mobile devices that can’t use Flash. If you design your mobile site in Flash, people can’t use it.  You’re cutting off part of your user base.

Shari: She builds a separate mobile site.  [Michael asks why you would waste resources making two sites, instead of making one site that's accessible. Shari snips that if Michael took a few accessibility classes he might have a better understanding of what she's talking about.  Stay classy, people.]

Stephan:  He thinks if you stick your HTML links at the bottom of the page (to make up for a Flash navigation) the engines are going to discount those links.  He doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

[Things are getting pretty feisty between Shari and Michael/Stephan. The men are arguing that creating two sites doesn't make sense and that you should design for your average users; Shari thinks they all need to take accessibility classes to understand her. Poor, Shari.]

Pages must have valid HTML

Stephan: If the entire Web had to validate to rank, most of the Web wouldn’t.

Michael: You don’t have to but you’ll get a more consistent rendering.

Jill: If your site is showing up fine in the browser, you’re good.

Must use text links in navigation, not images

Jill: You don’t have to use text links. You can use the Alt attribute and put your anchor text in there.

Shari: If images allow customers to complete their tasks more efficiently, then use them. There’s an appropriate time to use text links and there’s an inappropriate time to use text links. She thinks text links communicate visited/unvisited pages extremely well.  She won’t hire anyone who tells her she has to use text links for SEO.

Michael: You don’t have to use text links, but don’t use an image where you don’t have to.

Stephan: You’re better off with text links but you won’t tank your SEO with an image.  Just use the alt attribute.

Must use H1, H2, H3, etc

Stephan: Some folks continue correlation with causation.  Your rankings didn’t improve because you use an H1. They improved because you use keyword-rich headlines and then wrapped them in an H1. When you’re testing something, test one thing at a time.

Michael: He likes them for readability but it doesn’t matter for SEO.

Jill: She’s happy everyone agrees with that now because it didn’t always used to be that way.

You must have a certain keyword density on a page, 250 words on a page

Jill: She says she made that number up many years ago.  She told her copywriters to write 250 words a page.  So it’s her fault.  Use whatever you need to say what you need to say and get your keywords in.

Shari: The hard part about this myth is that it seems true because SEO and findability are about the scent of information. When people type in keywords in a search engine, they want their keywords validated by pictures, video, text in the search results. When they click on a link, they want to see their keywords validated on the page. It’s called orientation. It should happen within .5 seconds. If you put keywords in your Title tag, in your H1, in your alt tag, etc, you ‘validate’ their keywords and they feel like they’re in the right place.

Michael: It’s not a percentage you’re going for.  You need to mention on the page what you want to rank for.  Don’t go for the magic number.

Stephan: The only use for keyword density is the edge cases.  No occurrence of the keyword you’re targeting or if there’s too many.

Duplicate Content = Penalty

Stephan:  It’s so incredibly rare that they penalize. It’s a filter. Your page is still in the index, it’s just that Google wants diversity in the search results. So if your page looks very similar to another, it’s a poor user experience to show both. So one gets filtered.

Shari: There are multiple duplicate content filters.  You can get a duplicate content penalty but it’s rare.  The search engines aren’t trying to penalize sites that distribute their articles.

Stephan: It feels like a penalty because you do get poor rankings, but one way to avoid this is if you’re the source of the article content, instead of just getting a link to the byline of your homepage, get a link to the source.

Jill: If you sell products and you’re using the manufacturer’s description, there are thousands of sites using the same text. You won’t be penalized, but your text may be filtered out. You want to either write your own content or have UGC on your site.

Stephan:  Just taking a twitter feed and adding it to a page doesn’t suddenly make it nonduplicate content. That’s not enough. You need to re-jig what you created and make a unique version of it.

XML sitemap = Rankings

Shari: An XML sitemap is not a sitemap. It’s a list of URLs that are on your Web site. There’s a wayfinder sitemap that’s good for users and an XML sitemap that’s good for search engines. If the only way the engines can access your site is from an XML sitemap, that’s a bad thing.  You want an XML sitemap if your content changes constantly, ie a news site. Ideally, you shouldn’t need an XML sitemap for the engines to see your content.

Stephan: If the only way the spiders can find your content is through an XML sitemap, they’re orphaned and they don’t deserve to rank.  Not even you linked to it. Don’t use this as a crutch to fix your poor internal linking structure.

Michael: If you have a big site, you need a sitemap to help expose your content to the search engines.

Shari: If you have a good information architecture, you don’t need a sitemap.  Think of stuff like this as a band aid. You do need a video and a mobile sitemap. Those are good ideas.

Canonical tags vs 301

Stephan: He favors 301s. He’s found enough cases where the canonical tag was not obeyed, even though the format was correct. He’s a little wary of using it. He prefers 301s.

Michael: He agrees.

Inbound links from certain TLDs count more (.edus)

Michael:  He likes .gov links.

Jill: She thinks TLD a re the same. .Govs aren’t better because they’re .govs, they’re better because .govs tend to get better links.  That’s why they rank well.

Buying links = banned

Shari: No.

Jill:  How are they going to know you bought them? Google doesn’t magically know money was exchanged. If there’s no way for them to know, there’s no way for them to know. If you’re using a broker, there may be footprints in the code. If you’re just making a deal with someone, there’s no way for them to know.

Michael: You’ll never buy enough links to push CNN.   If Google thinks it’s a paid link, they’ll just discount it.

Stephan: There are lots of indicators that can make a link look dodgy.  If you’re next to bad links, if keywords suddenly appear in crusty old posts, etc.

Competitors can’t harm you

Stephan: You can torch your competitors putting them on link farms.

Jill: If you have a decent link profile, then people can submit you to junk and it won’t have an affect on you. But if that’s all you have, it’s going to hurt you.

Linking out helps SEO

Michael: It helps if you link to him.

Jill: If you link to SEOs it helps your rankings for sure.   She’s never believed it but some people don’t want to be a ‘dead end’ site.  Don’t not link out because you’re afraid of losing Page Rank

Off-page vs on-page factors

Michael: You won’t rank without links, it doesn’t matter how good your on-page SEO is.

Stephan: A 3-legged stool can stand up.  A two-legged stool is pretty dangerous.

Shari: She looks at off-page criteria as validation for what you’re doing on site. If the off-page site reinforces the on-page stuff, that’s the best.

AdWords advertisers rank better

False.

Google Endorses Some SEOs

Shari: Publicly, they won’t. But if you talk privately to people, they will recommend people.

Jill: If you get an SEO on the phone who says they’re a Google-authorized SEO — no.

SERP clicks affect rankings

Jill: That’s a tricky one. They have all that data so they certainly could use it, but it would be so much.

Shari: In personalized search, they do. If you keep ignoring something over time, they’re keeping track of that.

Michael: He believes they’re trying to use user data to validate what they’re seeing in other places. If you play the social game, you’ll have a page that’s fairly deep in and the link data hasn’t hit yet, you’ll see it pop in that second spot. If it gets the links, it’ll stay. If it doesn’t, it’ll drop out.

Stephan: If this was an important signal, it would be gamed like crazy.

Bounce rate affects rankings

Jill: Not every site uses Google Analytics so that wouldn’t be fair.

Stephan: I don’t think Google would do anything that’s not fair. Hee!

Goal of SEO = Ranking

No. The goal of SEO is to make money.

And we’re out!  Thanks guys.  Who doesn’t love starting their morning off with a good SEO fight? ;)

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About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.

Get social with Lisa at Twitter

13 thoughts on “SEO Myths, Mistakes & The Madness of Crowds

  1. Of course the point of SEO is listings! That’s why I create crappy, spammy content that can link but never convert!

    Nice summary, for those of us too foreign to get to SMX, at least! Cheers dude.

  2. You don’t have to have google analytics for Google to measure your bounce rate. If a user clicks to your site in the SERPs and then returns to Google, they could effectively consider that a bounce with some criteria wrapped around it (length of time between the click and the return, for example).

    And to add onto the valid HTML bit: Anybody who has ever written a parser or a scraper will tell you how much easier it is to get the information you’re after when things are laid out neatly and in a consistent manner. The more jumbled the html elements get, the more difficult it is to algorithmically say ‘this is this and this is that.’ Google is really really good about making sense of what is what, even when html is a mess, and I bet they’d get it right the majority of the time. But why not make it easy for them?

    The reasons H1s probably made a difference for awhile, is that it was easy to parse the text out of that tag and say ‘this is important.’ These days, their logic is more advanced, so they can determine what the headline is by other things — they don’t need it so clearly defined.

  3. Great coverage Lisa!

    But…like I said in the session PageRank is ONE word. When you write Page Rank 2 words, it’s a different meaning (where page’s rank).

    Also, in case anyone reading this didn’t get that it was a joke, when I said “If you link to SEOs it helps your rankings for sure” I was of course–kidding.

  4. I’ve got a few points here:
    The one difference between ALT attributes vs text links is that I’ve never seen an example of a page that ranks ONLY based on the alt text pointing to it – where we’ve all seen examples of sites ranking based only on anchor text. Alan Bleiweiss and I even did separate tests of this: http://www.dotcult.com/testing-alt-attribute-indexing

    On competitors harming you, I asked this very question to Matt Cutts while chatting at SMX advanced. Basically, what I inferred from his discussion, is that Google uses a “scalpel” approach rather than a penalty approach. That is, they don’t penalize you for having bad links, they simply don’t count the bad links at all – this way you can’t do any benefit and your competitor can’t do any harm.

    The one caveat is that people who build spammy links also do other things that are against the webmaster guidelines, so many SEOs may be associating those penalties with the much easier to identify spammy links. (correlation != causation)

    I’d also recommend using canonical AND 301. 301 is more powerful, but canonical helps in those cases where you can’t control how others link to your site – especially your online media or paid search team and their tracking IDs.

    Jill, I’m glad you said that about.gov domains. I’ve long been a proponent of saying “links from .edu and .gov don’t count more because they’re .edu and .gov, it’s simply that .edu and .gov have higher quality content, which gets more links, which gives them more pagerank” Good to hear people killing this myth, it’s one of the ones I hate most.

    I was “ryan from dearborn” in many of the cutts webmaster help videos – and myths are what I tried to focus on. My goal is to get “decrees from Cutts” out there on as many myths as possible.

    I would have loved to be on this panel. I think it would have been a blast. I’m sad I couldn’t make it to NY.

  5. Ryan, you’re just not looking hard enough. After you did your test, I did my own with a word only in an alt attribute and it pulled the page in question right up when I searched for that word. So alt attributes definitely work.

    None of us can say for sure that they are given the same weight as text links, but I personally believe they do as long as they’re reasonable and not keyword stuffed (just like text links).

  6. Ok guys…. so how do we stop clients obsessing about PageRank (one word)?

    Clients are obsessed with their PageRank and the number of links you can get them each month…. no matter how much you tell them to ignore the PR they will still be obsessed.

    I can understand why there is an obsession with PageRank, but I am at a loss as to how to reassure people that relevance is more important and that sites with PR0 can still get top positions.

  7. So there is some kind of hidden PR that is “real,” as opposed to the toolbar PR, which is fake? How is one to know what the real PR is, and does it really matter? PR is one of those issues that confuses me.

  8. So there is some kind of hidden PR that is “real,” as opposed to the toolbar PR

    Yes.

    How is one to know what the real PR is

    You can’t.

    and does it really matter?

    No it doesn’t. You’ll get real PageRank by having a great site that people discuss online. It doesn’t actually have a number associated with it.

  9. At the end of the post you say “No. The goal of SEO is to make money.’ and whilst I agree that almost every sensible action a business makes is somehow connected to making money, we all seem to have lost sight of what SEO is.

    The goal of SEO is not to make money. SEO is just one link in the chain of your money making process. The goal of SEO is to bring relevant traffic to relevant site pages from the search engines.

    I would love to hear views on this. SEO’s are not all conversion rate experts, this is a completely different skill-set and the next link (after SEO) in your money making chain. Surely SEO KPI’s must be based on search engine traffic (quality and quantity) and not conversions. Why would you be held accountable to something you are not qualified to improve?

    Great write up BTW :)

  10. The SEO is one of the most effective techniques to attract interested visitors to a Web site, and get more hits if your website ranks among the top search results, since almost no navigator runs over two or three pages of listings to satisfy your query.

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