Deadly Sins Against SEO
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a specialty that is intricately woven into many other disciplines: website design/development, information architecture, copywriting, website usability, analytics and conversion analysis, etc. Successful SEO hybrids are web professionals who are equally skilled in SEO and another area of expertise. For example, many search-savvy web developers understand how search engines access content on a website, and they make it as easy as possible for search engines and searchers to access that content.
Many SEO professionals work very hard to understand other disciplines to create the best overall searcher experience. Yet we meet with a lot of resistance. Copywriters don’t want to want to change their clever headlines (that often lack crucial keywords). Designers take great offense when you tell them that Flash was used inappropriately. Even landing page and conversion specialists are dumbfounded that we optimizers are trying to prevent a sale, at least from their perspective. Here are some of the top SEO sins I commonly encounter.
Sin #1: Eliminating important keywords
I have this beef with a wide variety of professionals, be they journalists, public relations (PR) professionals, information architects or website usability professionals. I constantly observe landing page professionals remove important keyword phrases from pages… after I put them in. And the tug-of-war begins. Who is a website owner to believe: the search usability expert or the conversion guru?
For search engines and searchers to accurately determine the “aboutness” of a web page, the page needs to contain important keyword phrases, and the page needs to appear somewhat focused on those words. I am not saying that web pages should contain a sea of black text. I am not saying to eliminate calls to action and other important sales copy. But I am saying to stop eliminating important keywords that successfully communicate the “aboutness” of a page.
Guess what? It might mean that some items will not appear above the fold. But that’s okay, because users/searchers will exhibit important finding behaviors long before they click “add to cart,” which brings me to my next SEO sin….
Sin #2: Not accommodating searcher behaviors
One of the reasons I contradict landing page professionals is what I perceive as ignorance on their part. All too often, I encounter a profound lack of knowledge about common searcher behaviors, such as orientation. Before users “add to cart,” and before users determine the product/service they wish to purchase, they are going to land on a web page and quickly ascertain whether or not they have: (a) landed on the most appropriate page, and (b) landed on the most appropriate site. And they are going to orient very quickly. In fact, successful orientation should occur in less than 1 second.
Successful orientation, reinforcement of information scent, and validation of user/searcher mental models ultimately leads to customer satisfaction, brand credibility, increased findability and sales. Keywords are a critical part of the scent of information and successful orientation. Landing page and conversion specialists might convince you to place more products/services to appear above the fold, but you are also doing that at the expense of critical finding behaviors.
Prioritization is a key skill of a qualified information architect, which brings me to my next beef….
Sin #3: Making sites difficult to navigate
With all due respect to landing page and conversion specialists, site navigation and relevant page interlinking isn’t exactly their forté. In fact, conversion specialists seem so overly focused on sales and conversions that they often lack the objectivity needed to construct intuitive site navigation schemes and labels.
I have seen global navigation schemes that are completely inappropriate for a site, all in an effort to get as many internal links as possible to important “sales” or “conversion” pages. I have seen “page interlinking gone wild.” I have seen keyword-stuffed navigation labels that are incredibly difficult to scan. On the flip side, I have also seen content orphaned when it shouldn’t be orphaned. I have seen links buried or de-emphasized that shouldn’t be buried. And all of this “conversion” advice comes from persuasion architects, landing page specialists and conversion professionals. Which led me to conclude that hiring a landing page or conversion expert to come up with a site’s information architecture might not be a wise decision.
Information architects tend to be more objective than any person involved in sales. They understand that finding behavior consists of browsing, querying and asking. They accommodate these three finding behaviors into site navigation schemes and other navigation labels, such as headings and titles. They determine the order in which information (and navigation) should be presented via a variety of usability tests and other data.
Information architects do not ignore or discount business goals. They try to make websites more intuitive. Their goal is to make task completion easier and more efficient. The end result? More sales, conversions, and findability.
Sin #4: Using tools vs. developing skills
A tool can be effective if the person using the tool has aptitude, skill and talent. A tool is not a substitute for skill. For example, I can hammer a nail into a wall to hang a picture, but I do not have the skill and aptitude to build an entire house. This is analogous to SEO. Knowing how to use various keyword research tools does not automatically make a person an effective search-engine friendly copywriter or information architect.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the initial need and usefulness of many SEO tools. A keyword density tool can be useful for people who are not accustomed to writing with keywords and applying them appropriately on a web page. Some of the search engines’ webmaster tools help site owners pinpoint easily overlooked crawlability roadblocks.
Problems often arise when SEO professionals use these tools as a crutch instead of becoming true optimization chefs. For example, one tool will say that your content’s keyword density is too much and another tool will say that the content is perfect. And search engines have not used keyword density to determine rankings for a very long time. What about users/searchers? What keyword density tool determines what your target audience thinks? At some point, search-engine friendly copywriters should know how to write effective content without relying on such tools.
Sin #5: Misinterpreting data by taking numbers out of context
A number without context is just a number. A number taken out of context can lead website owners down the wrong path.
Here is an example that has been driving me crazy for many years. I know of a sales/conversion expert (who touts himself as an SEO professional) who created this word calculator. This calculator supposedly determines the number of times you use your company name on a web page. The reasoning is that if you use your company name too much, your site content is more focused on your company name and brand than on site visitors.
On the surface, this sounds somewhat reasonable. But what if your company name contains keywords, including the primary keyword phrase you wish to target? Or your trademark? What about navigational queries, when the searchers’ intent is to go directly to a website or even a page within a website? Navigational queries are far more common we might imagine, often up to 33% of search engine queries. Why would any website owner make it difficult for a person to arrive at the official company web site?
Bounce rates can be an indication of meeting searcher expectations (for a “quick fact” informational query) or not meeting searcher expectations. Increased page views per visitor can be an indication of confusion (poor navigation and labeling) or interest. Eye-tracking data can show the page elements (text, graphic images, videos) that people view and the order in which they view them. But people view content differently, based on individual scenario and user goals, especially during eye-tracking tests.
I have been a strong believer in web analytics and usability testing since the mid- to late 90s. But I am equally a strong believer in accurately interpreting that data.
Sin #6: Treating symptoms instead of solving the problem
Sometimes, I swear the SEO industry has become the industry of band-aids and workarounds. Is your entire site designed in Flash? There’s a workaround for that. Do you have a content management system (CMS) that generates an uncrawlable URL structure? There’s a workaround for that, too.
Again, don’t get me wrong—some SEO workarounds are necessary because the “powers that be” who are employed at the commercial web search engines do not yet know how to deal with the new and emerging technologies that enhance and enrich the searcher experience. In addition, software developers seem to discount or ignore crawlability and indexation issues when they create CMS software. Therefore, we SEO professionals find it necessary to use these workarounds until software is developed to accommodate web crawlers.
Nevertheless, many workarounds are not workarounds. Many workarounds are band-aids for genuine site problems. For example, site maps (both wayfinder and XML site maps) are still used as a substitute for a site’s poor information architecture and crawlability issues. A wayfinder site map is a web page that all sites should have as a part of defensive design. But if the wayfinder site map is the only way in which users can directly access desired content? Then the solution is to fix site navigation and supplemental page interlinking.
Likewise, XML site maps (also spelled XML sitemaps) are commonly used as a crutch. If a site has 50,000 pages and a search engine is not crawling all of the pages, the problem might be duplicate content delivery, substandard or non-existent third party link development, poor navigation and interlinking, poorly implemented URL workarounds, and so forth. A URL list is not going to fix those problems.
I have to admit that I found it very difficult to identify my top SEO sins, as each SEO professional has unique challenges. What SEO sins do you commonly observe? Let us know in the comments section below