April 1st, 2014 by James O’Brien
Mistake #1 – Reading out-of-date white papers and industry reports
I am a mature student (with a background in business improvement and consulting) going back to college to obtain a post-grad qualification in something that I need to know more about. My biggest gripe is that so many of the white papers being promoted on social media are more than 5 years old.
Five years in digital marketing terms is like a period in geological time, folks. Five years ago in digital marketing terms is like being stuck in the Jurassic. Thousands of companies have become extinct, new companies are at the top of the digital marketing food chain and the digital environment has changed – and so must we!
- Five years ago, no one had heard of SnapChat or WhatsApp.
- Five years ago, no one had heard of Google’s Panda (2011), Penguin (2012), or Hummingbird (2013).
These Google initiatives have had huge effects on SEO and SEM (Search Engine Marketing) and both get periodic updates, so great care is needed to avoid the dreaded Google Penalty (GP) which means that your website gets demoted to Page 57 of the Google search – which, in plain English means effectively stopping anyone from finding your page.
Panda – a change aimed to lower the rank of “low-quality sites” or “thin sites”, and return higher-quality sites near the top of the search results.
- CNET reported a surge in the rankings of news websites and social networking sites, and a drop in rankings for sites containing large amounts of advertising.
- This change reportedly affected the rankings of almost 12 percent of all search results.
- Google’s Panda has received several updates since the original rollout in February 2011, and the effect went global in April 2011.
- To help affected publishers, Google provided an advisory on its blog, thus giving some direction for self-evaluation of a website’s quality.
- Google has provided a list of 23 bullet points on its blog answering the question of “What counts as a high-quality site?”
Penguin – a code name for a Google algorithm update that was aimed at decreasing search engine rankings of websites that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines by using now declared “black-hat SEO” techniques involved in increasing artificially the ranking of a webpage by manipulating the number of links pointing to the page.
- Such tactics are commonly described as link schemes and the purpose per Google was to catch excessive spammers
- Also known as ‘spamdexing’ or ‘link bombing’
Hummingbird – a code name for a Google algorithm update that was aimed at taking a search engine query using long-tailed keywords and trying to decipher the context of the question rather than chase the specific keywords within the question. The goal is to provide results that answer a question, rather than link 3 or 4 disparate key words. This may be the first step in being able to ask a computer a question in normal language and getting an answer. SEO does not seem to be affected by Hummingbird … yet.
Users of Google Chrome may have noticed a small microphone icon in the right hand corner of Google’s search box (now on Google search as well). If the user clicks on that microphone (and has configured their computer for it) they may ask aloud the question they would have typed into the search box. The question is then displayed on the search screen, along with the results.
Watch this space.
Google Quality Guidelines
Google Webmaster Guidelines
Mistake #2 – Unreasonable SEO Expectations
When you launch your website or blog page, it doesn’t automatically appear as #1 on a Google search engine result page (SERP). Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is what people do to “help improve” the position of their (or their client’s) webpage on a SERP.
A SERP can be for Google, Yahoo or Bing, or any one of the hundreds of search engines that people use throughout the world – but since Google is the most commonly used search engine in the English-speaking world, this blog post is about improving your position for Google SERPs.
Even the experts cannot guarantee your webpage will be #1, so don’t believe the many SEO ‘snake oil’ salesmen out there. It simply isn’t a case of pressing a few buttons and, magically, your website appears at the top of Google’s search rankings.
The reality is much harder …due to Google constantly modifying how it calculates who is ranked where, effective SEO is a complicated, moving target that keeps everyone on their toes. A well-built, optimised site takes time to climb the SERPs and this can take anything from 3 to 6 months (or more, depending on the industry sector you are in and the competition for the keywords you are targeting).
A good SEO consultant can only influence Google’s index to favour your page more than that of another site. Sometimes, however, you simply can’t win. For example, if one of your top competitor has a well optimised site and has been first in the rankings for 5 years, chances are you won’t be over-taking them anytime soon in terms of SERP positioning.
Google rank is about authority – domain authority and page authority.
Domain authority means that if you are in Ireland, then the .ie domains are usually listed ahead of .com and .co.uk domains. If your market is in Ireland, you need a .ie domain and if it is in the USA, perhaps a .com would be better for you. If you customers are coming from the UK, then a .co.uk domain might suit.
Page authority is about age and popularity. Age is the length of time a site has been published and in Google’s index. Obviously, nobody can change the age of a website. Popularity is the quantity and quality of both content and relevant, incoming links a site has. Popularity can be influenced via a number of issues that ARE under your control. The most important of these are:
- Back links
- Social media
Recent changes in Google’s algorithm have brought in penalties for over-optimisation and poor quality links. In plain English, this mean that in order to rank highly now, you have to deserve it. This means that those at the top don’t just stay by virtue of their age and it means that the ‘little guy’ can get up there and compete on a level playing field.
So, take a good, long hard look at your site and your business.
- Are you producing quality content with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation?
- If you’re selling something, do you go beyond being a simple brochure site with the same information that can be found on hundreds of other sites?
- Why should people spend more than a few seconds reading your ‘landing’ page?
- Do you give them a reason for clicking to and reading your other pages?
- What is your website’s unique selling point (USP) and do you offer anything of real value or substance to visitors – something that is unique, different, or useful to them that they haven’t found anywhere else yet?
Generating extra traffic to your site via SEO is the objective but, first, you need to focus on ‘what’ information your prospective customers are looking for and try to give it to them. Put yourself in their shoes and try to identify what they are looking for. This is called a ‘content strategy’ and is not as easy as most people think.
Central to ‘content strategy’ is ‘keywords strategy’ and this isn’t easy either. You need to be realistic about the keywords people search for, i.e. do they call it something different to what you call it? Again, try to put yourself into their shoes.
For example, if you have a hotel and your market is in the UK, then use the world “holiday” whereas if your customers are coming to Ireland from the USA or Canada, you need to say “vacation”. If you want customers from both areas, then use both words.
However, you need to be careful. Overuse of keywords (either by excessive repetition or 20 different words for the same thing can be just as bad as not using them at all). Also, using common words might not work because everyone else is using them as well. For example,
“Ireland hotel” is used by every hotel in Ireland, so appearing on Google page #1 is unlikely. For example:
- “Ireland hotel” About 546,000,000 results (0.36 seconds) similar odds to win lottery
- “Ireland hotel with WiFi” About 24,400,000 results (0.31 seconds) 3/10 were Irish hotels
- “Ireland hotel free WiFi” About 3,970,000 results (0.41 seconds) 4/10 were Irish hotels
And using “Irish pub” will put you in competition with every Irish-themed pub in the world, on top of the few thousand that there are in Ireland. Using keywords like “SEO expert” will probably get you into the top 5,000,000 on Google but I doubt it will get you listed on the first SERP. For example:
- “Irish pub” About 58,300,000 results (0.28 seconds) only 1/10 was an Irish pub
Recent research has shown that trying to rank highly for these types of so-called ‘short-tail’ keywords is a waste of time, money and effort. The research suggests that keywords associated with higher conversion rates are usually longer phrases such as:
“Ireland pub with live music” About 29,600,000 results (0.25 seconds)
“Irish pub with traditional music” About 11,400,000 results (0.38 seconds)
“Irish pub with céili music” About 138,000 results (0.60 seconds)
“SEO expert” About 14,900,000 results (0.19 seconds)
“SEO advisor DCU graduate” ok, I’m just being cheeky here! 🙂
Longer tailed searches yield fewer results but the research suggests that they greater buyer intent, plus they would be a little easier to rank for as the terms are more focused and less generic.
Tools I recommend for conducting keyword research:
Google keyword planner
Google Adwords’ Keyword Tool
Google Insights for Search
Google Trends Keyword Demand Prediction
Mistake #3 – Putting Too Much Emphasis on Link Building
Link-building is still important but not as important as it was before Google Penguin. Some people are still not aware of this. Google might be somewhat reluctant to penalise large-scale advertisers to the full extent of their new rules but they have no reluctance in penalising smaller companies, so don’t get caught out.
In avoiding link farms and spamdexing, don’t get drawn into the trap of spending too much time on building links to your website, at the expense of creating compelling content and marketing your site through social media channels. Remember there are 3 routes to improving SEO:
- Back links
- Social media
More importantly, it’s not the number of links that count, it’s the quality. Just 1 inbound link from a high quality, high ranking authority site is worth more than 100 backlinks from low quality, low ranking websites.
Poor quality links from sites that are not within your site’s general topic area can do more harm than good. Links are a form of ‘Vote’ for your website and as such it makes sense to have backlinks that come from a site that is within the same product or service niche as your company’s site. Similar to content and social media – stay on topic!
Mistake #4 – Writing Ineffective Meta Titles and Descriptions
The importance of Meta Tags in SEO has changed quite a lot in the last couple of years. In the ‘old days’ a meta tag was something added to make web searching easier, i.e. telling the search engines what the content of a web page was about. The Meta tag was the first thing the search engine spider looked at when determining the relevance of a page to a user query.
As such, the Meta Tag retains this function but, nowadays, it should be also be used as part of the overall Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) strategy. For example:
- Your Meta tags should contain appropriate keywords or phrases
- It’s a bit like planning a letter or essay, i.e. list the main points (in this case, words)
There are three key sections and, as a general rule, you should aim to fill up the character limits within each of your Meta Tags. Anyone who has used Twitter should be well used to playing around with sentences until they fit within the character limits. For Meta Tags, the limits as follows:
- Page title – 70 characters
- Meta description – 160 characters
- Meta keywords – No more than 10 keyword phrases
Your page title and meta description are frequently pulled to form the snippet that appears whenever your pages are listed in the natural search results. The content you choose for these three areas can be a major influence in the ability of your website to appear higher up the SERPs.
Not properly optimizing your Meta Tags is akin to going into a boxing ring with one hand tied behind your back. Use as many characters as you’re given access to. Think about your Page title tag and your Meta description tag as being the first introduction that many new visitors will have to your company and products or services as they browse down the first page of their SERP. Given how important this ‘first impression’ is, properly utilising the number of characters you’re allowed is vitally important.
It’s the difference between a ‘click through’ to your website or being over-looked. Given how hard it is to appear on a SERP, it makes complete sense to make it easy for the browser to click on the link.
Pay special attention to the way your target keyword phrases are presented. Although the practice of keyword stuffing for Meta Tags is frowned upon, this doesn’t mean that these key words and phrases shouldn’t be included in your tags. You have to be more strategic about how you introduce them.
- Write your tags for yourself
- Evaluate them by asking yourself, “Would I click through based on this information?”
- Do a peer review and ask someone else to do likewise
- Re-write, re-test and REPEAT until the tags work
- This simple task and code change should form part of weekly SEO Review process
Each Page Title tag needs to be unique, so if you have a website with 20 pages – each page needs its own set of tags. If you have identical Page Title tags on all of your pages, the search engines will see them as similar, may interpret this as keyword stuffing and your page rankings may suffer as a result.
This is something you can test regularly, so:
- Change and test on weekly basis
- If you notice an increase in organic search traffic, it could indicate that you’ve hit on a winning combination of meta tag text
Mistake #5 – Poor Quality or Duplicate Content
We’ve touched on this above, i.e. the Google Panda update means that Google is penalising sites that don’t provide original or quality content. What you do for SEO can either push your website up or down in the rankings. In the past, people have been able to get away with simply copying and pasting the top-ranking sites’ content into their own web pages and watch their rankings move up. Google Panda is penalising this ploy.
You might get away with this for your Meta Tags but you won’t get away with it on your webpages. This update is designed to
- reduce rankings for low-quality sites
- reduce rankings for pages that are perceived as low value or of little use for users
- reduce rankings for pages that appear to copy content from other websites
Panda is also aimed at increasing rankings for pages that it considers high-quality
- original content that has user value
- information such as ‘cited’ research, in-depth analysis and reports, thought leadership, etc.
Matt Cutts Talks Google Panda Basics: Make Sure You’ve Got Quality Content
Mistake #6. – Over-use of Keywords in Page Content (aka Keyword Stuffing)
Keyword stuffing is putting a keyword or key phrase multiple times within a webpage, to the extent that the page doesn’t make much sense because of the repetitive keywords. Think about writing an essay at school – you are not going to get high marks for repeating the same word or phrase over and over.
The word (or phrase) only has to appear once for Google to see it. Repetition will get you noticed but for the wrong reasons. In school, your teacher might think you have a very limited vocabulary, whereas on the web, Google will think you are keyword stuffing.
- At best, your page rank will suffer
- At worst, your entire website could get a Google penalty
When keyword stuffing is done deliberately, it is VERY obvious. When done accidentally, it might not be obvious to the writer but it is obvious to the Google spyders. A quick method on how to check to see if your webpage might be suffering from repetition, read your text out loud and see if it tells a story. If it sounds fine to you and to those you read it to, it’s good to go.
Apart from being a potential SEO problem, it’s also a digital marketing problem. Web browsers (potential customers) search for certain keywords, choose from a list and, hopefully, end up on your site. This is known as the marketing funnel. Once on your site, they hope to see those keywords in a useful format and, if so, will want to engage further, i.e. go a little bit further into the marketing funnel.
If they cannot see their keywords (because they are hidden from them in Meta Tag format), or they appear over and over in a nonsensical way, they will leave your website (abandonment). This is what constitutes a poor user experience, i.e. low page impressions per visit. Since Panda, Google now views this practice negatively.
- Analyse page views per visit (if its below 2, you need to improve)
- Analyse bounce rates (the lower the better)
- Analyse how much time they spend on your site (the higher the better)
- Do this for your competitors and see how you compare (often a humbling experience)
Mistake #7 – Focusing on SEO instead of ‘engaging’ with your visitors
SEO primarily about attracting visitors to your website but it doesn’t end there. It’s a bit like dating insofar as there’s little point in getting a date and then saying nothing when you are on the date. If you do it is unlikely your date will stay for all three courses on the menu. A marketing funnel also has three courses, i.e.
- Top of the Funnel (TOFU)
- Middle of the Funnel (MOFU)
- Bottom of the Funnel (BOFU)
It is important to remember that high quality, effective websites do the following:
- Attract visitors to the website
- Engage with the visitors
- Entice them into a sales process
Never lose sight of the traditional marketing role, we are doing this to make money.
Follow up-to-date SEO ‘best practice’ and Google guidelines where you can but …
- Focus on providing value to the people who choose to visit your site
- Make their satisfaction your ultimate priority
- Your goal is high search rankings
- Your reward is increased revenues
Mistake #8 – Not aligning Social Media to SEO
One of the most under-appreciated aspects of SEO is that of aligning SEO strategy with social media activity. Many SEO and social media teams don’t communicate with each other as often as they should in order to develop a well-coordinated, comprehensive digital marketing plan.
It is extremely important that SEO is integrated into social media activity.
Use Social Media for Link Development
It’s no secret that social media has become increasingly important from an SEO standpoint as the engines have incorporated social signals (e.g., likes, shares, views, etc.) into their ranking algorithm.
Align Your Blogging for SEO & Social
Blogging is one of the most cost and time-effective ways to build links and authority in your space – provided you can write consistent high quality material. Not only does this type of content attract links within industry circles, but it also ends up being keyword focused content that tends to rank well for a number of long-tail terms that are relevant to your business model.
Align Your Blogging Team for SEO & Social
Since blogging is so important for SEO, train your blogging team on SEO best practices and provide them with a list of your most important keywords along with the preferred landing pages for keywords on your site. Thus, as bloggers are creating new content, they will have a higher propensity to be well optimized around the keywords you are targeting. Also, any internal links that are created within the blog will complement the rest of your SEO goals.
Leverage social media sites to promote SEO
Social media is more than just blogging – leveraging sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other community sites is critical from a content marketing standpoint. Rather than create a new URL (sometimes a new micro-site) to promote a new piece of content, it is better (for SEO) to update an existing URL that already has some historical link connectivity.
Mistake #9 – Treating Social Media as a hobby
Many people think social media is great fun, a place to chat about your hobbies and personal interests such as sports, cars, food and slagging off celebrities. This is a big mistake.
- If you type it, and post it – it’s out there
- If it’s out there, it may come back to haunt you
- Keep business posts ‘on message’ or ‘on topic’
- Keep business posts ‘professional – it’s your livelihood
- Keep your social life separate – it can affect your business
- Most corporates now have a social media policy for their employees
- Employees can now damage a company based on their online activities
- Many companies now have a social media policy and it extends to personal accounts
We’ve all heard the urban myths of someone bitching about his boss or his company in a restaurant without knowing his boss was sitting behind him. We’ve all heard about the celebrity speaking ‘off the record’ while the camera was still on. With social media …
- Everyone on the planet can hear you on social media
- Social media is always on
Famous gaffs include:
Mistake #10 – Not Having Enough Patience
The penultimate, most common, mistake is not having patience. As previously mentioned, appearing as #1 on a SERP is definitely NOT an overnight process. It can take weeks, if not several months, for your website to develop enough authority and rank to be viewed as a reliable, high quality source of information by search engines.
Successful SEO requires a long-term investment because if you get into the Top 5, it costs money and time to stay there. The first SERP usually lists 10 URLs but if you want to succeed on mobile and tablets, you need to be in the Top 5 to be seen without scrolling down. This is known as ‘above the fold’ and, even on desktop/laptop computers, the Top 5 get most of the traffic,
- The ‘Top 5’ get over 72% of all the traffic
- The #1 ranked site gets more traffic than those ranked 2 to 5 combined
Ideally, you want your website to climb slowly in the rankings because a sudden increase may send Google a signal that you are engaging in shady SEO practices.
If you do the weekly analytics,
- The statistics may not always be what you want them to be
- You may get frustrated, annoyed, or even angry
- You may begin to wonder why you are spending all this time creating new content, experimenting with Meta Tags, aligning your Social Media, etc.
- You may be tempted to give up or take short-cuts (whatever about giving up, don’t take the short-cuts – especially link farms or paying for likes on Facebook or followers on Twitter)
Hopefully, you’ll see spikes in website traffic, increases in engagement and sales revenues will increase. It might take 2 weeks… it might take 2 months… or it might take 2 years!
Even if no one else is offering what you offer and you are #1 on the first Google search page, you will eventually have competitors and you will have SEO issues, so it’s probably best to look at SEO sooner rather than later.
If, like most people, your company is not in the Top 5, by experimenting, analysing, tweaking SEO, and then re-analysing, you should definitely see improvements in your rankings. Best practice changes – it’s not a fixed menu – it evolves as new research throws up new insights, so keep in touch.
Mistake #11 – Hiring a poor SEO Agency or Advisor (Consultant)
You ‘get what you pay for’ is an often used maxim, but sometimes even the ‘reassuringly expensive’ advisors can deliver amazingly poor results. In a world filled with end-user endorsements (and negative comments) it is amazing to hear about so many small and large business owners still making the mistake of implementing poor or just downright awful SEO advice.
If your business is an eBusiness and depends on website traffic being converted into business leads, you cannot afford to engage a lazy, out-of-date or incompetent SEO agency/consultant. Using outdated tactics will most likely result in your website being penalised or banned by Google, just be ignored by the potential customers. This is the most dangerous SEO mistake a business can make. For example:
- Expedia lost 25% of its visibility on Google, and saw a 4% loss in the share price of its stock
- Lyrics site Rap Genius was penalised by Google resulting in an 80% drop in page hits
- JC Penny (outed by NY Times), penalised by Google but profits went up via customer loyalty
So, where hiring a bad SEO agency used to be just a waste of money at worst, but now they can damage your reputation for good. Apart from Google ‘Penquin’ violations and consequent penalties, beware of adverts offering the following :-
- Low price, 100% guaranteed SEO success offers
- Offers to build large numbers of links
- Offers to improve content via keyword stuffing or copying competitors’ content
- If you’re using Social Media to improve your SEO, it’s only a matter of time before Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and all the rest of them outlaw ‘like’ and ‘follower’ and ‘connection’ farms too and penalise you when you are caught
The cost of ‘fixing’ a Google penalty for SME’s may outweigh the cost of abandoning the site and starting over. Abandoning a site, brand and all of the associated goodwill may be a bridge too far for many small businesses, so it is probably better to have a completely un-optimised site rather than having one badly optimised by a cheap, ill-chosen SEO agency.
So, when choosing an SEO agency, ask them for a client list and check these sites out. Do a quick check on their backlinks. If they have a lot of poor quality or dubious backlinks, then you know what type of advice and service they received. Alternatively, look for endorsements on LinkedIn or comments on other social media platforms.
Tools for checking if a website has poor quality backlinks:
Follow me on Twitter, @jamesobrienDCU