Every industry has its myths and so does the SEO world. Google tries now and again to shed light on common misconceptions. However, there is only so much a small team of outreach professionals can do to raise awareness at international conferences, so here are the 10 most SEO myths, busted by former longtime Google Search employee and SEO expert.
Myth #1: SEO is a level playing field
In theory – or so it goes – SEO is a “fair competition,” where every website stands the same chance to compete for queries. Except it isn’t. It hasn’t been for a long time and it never will be “fair” again. Similar to any other market where two companies are competing, no offer is exactly the same. In the case of SEO, different websites show different on- and off-page SEO signals. Consequently, they rank differently. These SEO signals include but are not limited to page performance, technical setup, SERP real estate and backlink profile to name a few that can be measured and improved. This is what Search Engine Optimization is all about. Yet it is never back-to-square-one for everyone.
It is true that Google grants brand new domains a Google Honeymoon Period. This is a brief moment during which the website ranks well, despite not having accumulated sufficient SEO signals yet. Sites that tend to do well during this grace period stand a good chance to excel for relevant competitive queries consistently. Most however drop once Google has gathered sufficient data “confirming” the new website’s true ranking. While the Honeymoon Period gives new websites some help at its launch, SEO is not a level playing field competition.
Myth #2: SEO is a one-time project
At industry conferences, attendees hear people say that it is important to “get it right” to rank. This is true, yet not entirely accurate. Like any other company investment in assets, over time that very same investment will inevitably wear off. Best practices of the past become outdated or downright obsolete. To keep up with the competition, especially in the more lucrative niches, SEO needs to be considered an ongoing effort with planned, periodic spurts of increased activity scheduled ahead of time. Some factors such as snippet representation, directly impacting user experience and signals must be continuously monitored and improved. The same applies to page performance, which again is directly responsible for how users experience the website. Other factors, such as managing backlink liabilities, may only require spot checks and be part of an annual on- and off-page SEO audit.
Myth #3: SEO is backlinks
Links are fundamental to the internet as we know it. Without links, most search engines would not be able to find and crawl new content. For Google, backlinks also represent a ranking signal. However, contrary to popular perception, backlinks may harm website rankings. Next to manual spam actions (aka Google Penalties), there are also Google Algorithms such as Penguin tasked with identifying websites predominantly linked from low-quality websites. Google’s continuous mantra is that links must be based on merit, rather than paid or building schemes. Sites optimized with a disregard for Google Webmaster Guidelines will likely be in the crosshairs. But, SEO is not merely about PageRank passing backlinks.
Backlinks should be actively pursued, however, not for an illusionary PageRank gain, but to grow conversions, which is the primary purpose for optimizing websites and does not pose a risk that the site may be penalized and disappear from SERPs altogether. Google does leave a door open for sites that had been in violation with Google linking policies at some point by providing the Disavow Tool, which allows a website to disassociate from undesirable backlinks.
Myth #4: SEO is user signals
It is wrong to assume user signals are unimportant. They are a relevant SEO factor. Google’s entire business model rests on its user loyalty. Google measures its user happiness and utilizes the data in order to improve its product. In that sense, user signals truly are a factor. However, Google does not share the data they use, not even with the verified Google Search Console site operator. Therefore we’re left with GSC impressions and click-through rate as the only confirmed indicators regarding user perception of the site and their behavior. While the combination of high impression volumes and low CTRs usually indicates that user signals can be improved, these limited insights are only one part of a much bigger SEO picture. How and if they can be improved depends primarily on the website’s unique selling proposition, which is by far more important.
Myth #5: Google hates my website
The personal animosity complaint is as frequent as it is irrational. Google has never demonstrated a dislike of a website and it would make little sense to operate a global business based on personal enmity. The claim that a site does not rank because of a Google feud is easily refuted with an SEO audit that will likely uncover all the technical, content, on- and off-page shortcomings. There are Google penalties, euphemistically referred to as Manual Spam Actions; however, these are not triggered by personal vendettas and can be lifted by submitting a compelling Reconsideration Request. If anything, Google continues to demonstrate indifference towards websites. This includes its own properties, which time and again had been penalized for different transgressions.
Myth #6: Google AdWords has an impact on SEO
Despite years and years of educational work, one of the most common SEO myths remains the notion that Google AdWords has a positive impact on website rankings. Organic, natural search is fiercely independent of paid search. Regardless of the budget committed to AdWords campaigns, Google AdWords is not an SEO signal.
Myth #7: Keywords are key
In their infancy search engines relied heavily on the density of keywords on landing pages to correlate their relevance to queries. Fast-forward 20 years and keywords have lost much of their SEO importance. Google has always been ignoring meta keywords, and while they crawl and index collapsed and behind tabs content, they tend not to rank sites for content, including keywords not visible to users. Keywords in URLs are not being used for ranking purposes either. Keywords are unlikely to have any desirable impact on CTR, especially in comparison with rich snippets breadcrumbs, which do help users navigate. The times of counting keywords on pages and attempting to identify a fleeting ideal ratio are a thing of the past. Content, which can be represented by data as much as by written words, is important for the context of the website, however, keywords are not relevant.
Myth #8: SEO is ‘freshness’
Yes, Google seems to be fond of content freshness. However, only when freshness is a factor to user intent. For sites operating in fast-paced news, vertical freshness can translate into a competitive advantage. That includes a small selection of actual news outlets like newspapers, magazines or portals. For the overwhelming majority of websites, freshness is not important as an SEO factor and no amount of changing publishing dates on old articles is going to convince Google it’s fresh content. Consequently, other then for news sites, freshness is not important.
Myth #9: Social signals are an SEO factor
Comments, likes, votes and social media engagement of any sort – including links emanating from social media channels like Facebook or Twitter – are contrary to popular theories not contributing to SEO as a ranking factor. That is not to say that they are irrelevant to online marketing. Google isn’t taking social media factors into account for good reasons, most importantly the data available is fragmented and unreliable. However, there are good reasons to consider social media outreach operations an integral part of brand building. And while social media does nothing to boost rankings directly, it has a great long term effect on factors that do matter for SEO. Brand recognition and loyalty is established with superb products and services or providing a unique selling proposition with as a two-way communication and feedback channel. Brand websites that aspire to become leaders in their vertical with a social media strategy have a tangible advantage when competing with other websites for user attention in Google SERPs. In short, social media helps to boost brand recognition and CTR, which matters for SEO. After all, Google, while not admitting in so many words publicly, still shows a preference for websites that are popular with users.
Myth #10: SEO is magic
Lastly, search engine optimization complexity is occasionally reduced to statements indicating SEO is both an art and science that makes it difficult to understand. Portraying SEO as too complex to explain isn’t beneficial, let alone accurate. Yes, SEO is data-driven. Frequently the amounts of data required to address an issue can be immense. At the same time, there are a multitude of signals both on- and off-page that can conflict with each other. Because SEO is so data-driven, even complex problems can be broken down into small, manageable data chunks to be analyzed and explained. On the chance of robbing the SEO industry of some of its magic, there’s no Voodoo involved. At the end of the day, almost every SEO signal can be broken down to KPIs that can be explained.
What is your favorite SEO myth or common misconception? Let’s help each other and shed some more light on what counts when it comes to search engine optimization. Share a tweet or talk to me at an upcoming industry event. It’s high time for some transparency in the SEO industry.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.