Hi, I'm "Penguin" Pete Trbovich, and you overthink SEO!
That phrase is a tag on my own blog, for the occasional content marketing post. Really, I don't measure my expertise by my own website's ranking; I'm a freelance writer for the web who only needs a website as a virtual business card. Instead, judge my SEO expertise by the writing I do for clients - linked from my site on a regular basis.
In 20 years of freelance writing for the web, I have had the same argument with the majority of clients. That argument is that clients never stop making demands on how I write, while completely ignoring all the non-text factors on their site that are tanking their traffic, conversions, ad impressions, sales, and so on. I posted that argument on Reddit's r/freelancewriters forum and got a lot of agreement, so I know this isn't just me.
SEO (Search Engine Optimization if you just started playing along at home) is supposed to be the science/art of attracting web traffic through search engines. But there's a couple of problems with how people practice it.
The Two Reasons You Overthink SEO
The eCommerce world's primary mechanism for learning about SEO is to read about it online. That's a problem because the Internet makes a great library but a lousy school.
In the first place, SEO is a constantly moving target, due to the pace of updates and patches to Google's own proprietary search indexing algorithms. But the Internet preserves blog posts from 2003 still advocating outdated practices. Ancient methods that used to work stick around forever. The result is that web owners may have SEO information based on anywhere from several decades of outdated information, depending on where they left off reading.
In the second place, another problem is that Google's proprietary algorithms are, well, proprietary. Meaning that you can't see them. The very best SEO experts, some of whom even have insider Google knowledge, can only guess at what the latest patch or update is doing. Literally, it's all a matter of opinion. This creates a culture in which superstitious voodoo and cargo-cult methods have just as much of a foothold as sensible practices based on sound research. The best most of us can do is propose theories.
So the information that comes up when you search for SEO advice is composed of this chum:
- Outdated truths that are now functional myths.
- Educated guesses leading to half-truths.
- Temporarily correct truths.
That's it, all SEO knowledge we can ever hope to have will be a mixture of the above. To make matters worse, as time goes on, the incorrect information outnumbers the correct information. SEO is one of the most popular topics on the web, so it's one of the most populated. And here's another article adding to the pile!
Meanwhile, the last place anybody looks is Google's own webmaster guidelines. There's this mindset out there that Google itself isn't to be trusted when it comes to advising on how to run a website. Like they're "the man, man, why would they tell you the truth?" This line of reasoning is blind to Google's motive: They want to bring your content together with the people who actually want to see it. Let me repeat that:
Google's entire business model is based on helping people find what THEY want to find!
So dishonest, black-hat SEO practices are logically doomed before you even think of using them. Google became the number-one search engine because of this reason. Therefore, if your spammy keyword-stuffing voodoo were capable of swaying the biggest information technology company in human history into steering visitors to your website regardless of what they wanted - it would stop being the number-one search engine!
We're going to cite him a lot here but Google alumni Matt Cutts makes this very point while debunking the first myth:
I don't know how much more obvious this point can be made, and yet generations of website owners ignore it, refuse to believe it, scoff at the mere suggestion. Oh no, whatever you do, hold on to that faith that the richest technology company in the world can somehow be bamboozled by your hocus-pocus! And when you're done with that, head for some Las Vegas casinos to use your Martingale betting method and clean them out.
Every time I cite a common-sense practice advocated on Google's own webmaster guidelines, such as "Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines," I get this reaction:
No really! Write for people, not machines! People are your audience; do what the people want and the search hits will follow, not the other way around.
With all that introduction, let's dig into some keyword-less SEO strategies. All of these are SEO ranking factors that have nothing to do with what your on-site text is doing. We're going to try to make these all as future-proof as possible: Long-standing policies that are unlikely to go away.
Non-keyword SEO factors you need to know:
Confirmed by Patent #US-6285999-B1, this is the practice whereby a page in your site that is linked from every other page is treated as "more important," ranking-wise, than other pages. In other words, if there's one page on your site that you want to rank higher than the other pages (such as your online store, sign-up, "about us" page), stick a link to it in your blog's sidebar. Simple stuff. You're probably doing this anyway, but it is an example of how navigation is important to your site's health.
URLs using hyphens and not underscores
As Google guru Matt Cutts shows us, hyphens are better for separating words in your URL:
Given the choice between "this_topic" and "this-topic," go for the hyphen. The reason is that underscores are an important programming syntax symbol, and Google wants to separate programming-specific terms from other terms. WordPress and most other CMS (Content Management Systems) do this automatically with multi-word topics anyway.
Using HTTPS as opposed to HTTP
As of the mid-2010s, Google now ranks sites using HTTPS higher than those using HTTP, and will continue to do so forever. This means across the board, regardless of whether your site accepts any user input at all. The "S" stands for "security," of priority importance in Google's mind. When it comes to the web, can you ever have too much security? Any modern web host should be providing an SSL certificate free and all major webmaster software such as CMS use HTTPS by default. If you have an older website (like mine), converting from the old HTTP to HTTPS will be a concern.
To say it again: "HTTPS EVERYWHERE," every single website:
Linking out to quality websites
According to long-standing Google engineer Matt Cutts, "parts of our system encourage links to good sites." This means there's not one, but two mistakes you can make with outbound links: (1) Never linking to anything, and (2) linking to garbage. This is a typical "gotcha" for spammy webmasters, who lack the good taste to understand why linking to a Wikipedia page is better than linking to their buddy's house-o-sales-funnel-spam.com domain. Cite your sources link to helpful explanations where the user would benefit, just run your links with your users' best interests in mind, and you'll do fine.
If your site dies on a mobile device, you're dead and Google will bury you. No matter how much we may like it, the times have changed and the mobile user is reigning king supreme. That's not a happy state of affairs for those of us who have to create content because we were a marginalized enough demographic back during the desktop-only era. Nevertheless, Google counts your site's mobile friendliness as tantamount to many other factors. This is never going away. Once again, most modern webmaster tools such as Wordpress are mobile-friendly out-of-the-box as long as they're properly updated. Even if you have hand-coded HTML / CSS left over from the turn of the century, it's still mobile-friendly as long as it follows W3C best practices.
You can check any URL anywhere on Google's own mobile-friendly tester. Easy-peasy lemon-squeezey!
High-Quality Inbound Links
This has been a long-standing policy with Google, put in place by Google-founder Larry Page himself. Inbound links (coming to your site from other domains) are cash money as far as Google's ranking is concerned - as long as they aren't from spammy domains. Literally that's all there is to it. However, you also have the least control over this factor. Obviously (to anyone with the sense God gave a rock) the backlink you can buy automatically becomes a low-authority backlink.
The best you can do about this is be a good little site offering quality information, service, enlightenment, or entertainment to the web, and hope fortune smiles upon you.
Conversely, there's a lot of panics out there about low-quality backlinks harming your rank. This importance is decreasing rapidly by the day as more and more web owners panic overpacking "disavow" tags into their site. Relax. Google doesn't let a good site go down just because ten nasty sites spread a rumor about it.
Inbound links are also better for your ranking when they are:
- Use good anchor text
- Come from a related site in your niche
- Have a .gov, .edu, or a Wikipedia in their domain name
Conclusions - Surplus Keyword Attention Disorder
The number one takeaway from non-keyword SEO ranking factors is that old sites are being punished if they aren't being updated with the times. Site architecture and navigation are much more important than most people give them credit for. And if your site is tanking on SEO, there are about a dozen different places you should be looking before you berate your poor, hard-working freelance writer.
There are so many, many more things to consider in webpage ranking - sans keywords - that we could make this a whole book. But beyond that, keyword practices themselves are subject to their own rainbow of crazy. I'd estimate that 90% of everything everybody thinks they know about SEO text is nonsense.
That, in itself, is a different article for "someday."