June 9, 2017

If you have been reading about SEO for longer than a few minutes, you have probably found some variation of “build your website/write content for people, not search engines”. We have preached this from day one, but it seems like it may be one of those things that people read, but don’t really understand what it means. In light of Google’s recent announcements of an upcoming penalty for “over optimization“, an even more recent warning of a webspam algorithm update (edit: now called “Penguin”), and a few years of algorithm updates and a spam-fighting panda, let’s take yet another look at modern SEO and some things to do, or not do, to avoid a drop in your search engine rankings or how to recover from a Google Penguin problem if you have already been hit.

New SEO RulesOne would think that by now most website owners would have figured out that trying to trick Google is a bad idea, but some may have done things months or years ago that they did not think would matter because “it’s the WWW and everyone lies, cheats and steals, right?” No, everyone does not. It is time to undo those SEO mistakes and bad ideas. For many, un-overoptimizing (huh?!) is going to mean undoing or removing a lot of goofy things that were done in the name of better search engine positions.

Keyword obsession, ill-advised tips and bad advice 
Forget what you “read somewhere” about keywords, density, interlinking, blog networks, link exchanges, link velocity, hyper-something-or-other… ugh! Too many to get into. In short, if you read something about SEO and it seemed like the writer just made up his own buzzword or it sounded like a crazy scheme, don’t let it take up space in your brain – and don’t add it to your online marketing plan.
As a matter of fact, forget that there is any such thing as a search engine algorithm. Forget for a moment that you are doing business online and think of the web the way you would phone solicitation, direct mail or any other form of offline marketing.  How much sneakiness and bizarre behavior would your potential customers tolerate in the “real” world?  Your online marketing should be no different.
Stop thinking “what will this mean for SEO?” every time you add something to your website. Instead, think “what will this mean to the people who visit my site?” or…

“Would I do this if there were no search engines?”

If you went to your website for the very first time, would it make sense to you? Or would it look kind of strange – repetition of the same few phrases in the titles, the copy, the navigation, the links to other pages, etc? This is especially important in the title element – the text that shows up as a link to your site in the search engine results. Keyword-obsessed webmasters will often fill up the title with their favorite keywords in order to rank well, declare victory, and then wonder why there is still no traffic coming to the site. That is because while you may think search engines want a list of almost random words, people do not. And Google wants to give people what they want. You may get a higher position with nothing but keywords, but a well written title is much more effective at getting users to click through to your site. Do put your most important target terms in the title, but you don’t need to repeat it so much that you left no room for branding. Yes, being on page one is still so much better than being on page two or lower. But if you are ranking within say, the top 5 to 7 spots, being attractive to users becomes just as important.

Think about your own web browsing habits. When you are searching for something, do you click on the very first search result without thinking? No, because you are not a robot. You usually take a second or two to get some idea of what the page you are about to view is about, and go to the site that looks not only the most relevant, but the most attractive to your interest, or possibly the easiest to understand. Now look at the titles of the pages on your site. Would the title make sense to you, as a rational human being who has no idea that search engine optimization exists? Or would it look like Google served up some sort of table of contents listing of tags or keywords?

You can also apply this to your meta description tags – the text Google usually shows under the links in search results. Do you have awesome advertising copy in your meta descriptions, or just a spammy list of keywords? The content of the meta description doesn’t mean much to rankings, though it does help establish relevance. The meta description is your opportunity to make a good first impression. Don’t be afraid to be a little clever in your descriptions – especially if you are in a competitive marketing niche where everyone is saying the same keyword-stuffed nonsense in their titles and descriptions. Titles and descriptions that read like a good advertisement will bring more traffic to your website – and it will be users who are more likely to stick around and absorb your message. And if that isn’t enough to break your keyword stuffing habits, think about that looming Google penalty for being “overly optimized.”

The takeaway here for those who are addicted to keyword position as a key SEO metric: switch to click-through and conversion rates. Those are a much healthier way to lose sleep over your web marketing. For content, focus on topics or themes rather than key phrases.  Write well, use a variety of words that mean the same thing as your beloved keywords and use the best SEO keyword research tools available – a thesaurus and rational thought.
(Didn’t we say we are not your typical SEO company?)

Link Building for People Not Search Engines
Article marketing, blog networks, “thousands of directories” and just about any other link you might get solely for the SEO value… OK, when have you ever found a really excellent website or business by following links from any of those? Of course some sites will still need lots of good incoming links to do well, but don’t count on those easy to get but hard to justify links to count for much.

Just how stupid do you think Google is people are?
Maybe you are thinking, “I have to rank #1 so I am going to put comma separated keywords in my title element instead of something people would like. Screw Google’s guidelines”

recover from Google penalty

Need Google Penalty Help?

Hey, it’s your website. If you feel that being #1 is a more important goal than reaching your target audience and showing them how good your products or services are without looking like a spammer, that is up to you.  Google is getting smarter every day, getting better at recognizing even the more subtle attempts at manipulating the results, and recognizing things that make sense to people, not just search engines. Before long, that top spot that seems so important will be taken by a website that conveys its message well – to people.

“But what about my keywords? Don’t I have to have extra special secret keywords in every title on every page and use them somewhere between 2 and 7 percent of the total text so I can be #1?”

Seriously, forget everything you ever “read somewhere” about keywords.

  • Sam T.

    This is total BS. My site got hit by Panda a year ago. My main keyword which drove half my traffic was gone. My content is good and I only get it from RSS feeds from famous blogs. Then I got a warning about unnatural links in webmaster tools which was wrong. The SEO company I hired posted articles on their authority blog network said that the warning was not because of them. Now I have been attacked by penguin which they say is about bad links. My other two keywords are now gone. I paid good moneys for those links so I know they are good. Google keeps changing the rules. They want to wipe out small businesses or make us all pay for their Adwords and Adsense.

    • Wow – where to begin…

      If I understand you correctly, you get your site’s content from other blogs? If so, that is EXACTLY why you have seen your rankings decline since Panda – it isn’t “your” content, but it is someone else’s.

      “Unnatural links” – when Google warned you about that, it was probably about those blog articles OR the links you paid for (you do realize that paid links are a violation of Google’s guidelines right?)

      Your penguin problem is probably about the same things – artificial links and I am betting that all of those links used the same or very similar anchor text (the words that the user clicks on in the link).

      I understand your frustration, but the fact of the matter is that Google has not really changed the rules, but they are definitely doing a more thorough job of enforcing them. So when you took some bad advice or hired an unqualified or dishonest SEO or link builder, you may have been able to get away with it for a while.

      I am not saying any of this to cut you down, but I do want you and anyone reading this to understand that there is a lot of bad information out there about SEO, what to do, and what not to do. There is plenty of good information available too, but apparently it isn’t as attractive since the truth is that SEO takes a lot of time and it is work and “get to #1 in Google for $99” sounds much better to people who are new to internet marketing.
      A great way to start learning about real SEO without so much confusion is to go to Google itself:
      Google’s Webmaster Guidelines
      and Google’s SEO Starter Guide

      And if you need help rehabilitating your website to try to get those penalties and filters removed, help is available.

  • neverpaintagain

    Some good points here. We got hit and we have learnt our lesson. I have spent the past 6 months trying to get rid of some awful links, with some success, but we got link bombed by a rival company, we know who, but i cannot prove it to google so where does that leave me? Still in the wilderness. Would love some advice on how i can recover before i go insane. Or bankrupt.

    • If your link profile was squeaky clean before the link bombing started, you may have some luck with a Reconsideration Request that includes any evidence you may have. I recently read a case study of a similar negative SEO campaign that left some footprints. https://moz.com/blog/to-catch-a-spammer-uncovering-negative-seo
      The spam link builder who was hired had some public conversations via Twitter with someone at the suspected company, along with a few other indicators like previous work for the competitor’s SEO company. So there may be hope. Get in touch if you need any help tracking down bad links or working on improving your SEO and link profile to help make the bad links less damaging.

  • Gece Basliyor

    So is it now a bad practise buy directory links? I am considering buying fast approved links from some 4-5 pr directories to get my zero pageranked website visible on google? Is it a bad idea?

    • Buying links is never a good idea. Buying directory links is even worse.

      The “PR” or PageRank of the directory does not matter much, as PR is rarely updated and is one of hundreds of ways Google measures the quality of a site.

      I recently wrote two articles about the “death” of older, spammy link building practices like directories, which you may find helpful if you are still thinking of going for “easy” links.
      The first article addresses how and why certain link building methods no longer work well, and can trigger a penalty:
      The second, explains how those same tactics can still be useful if you use them wisely:

      • Gece Ba?l?yor

        Thank you for your comment. I read your articles a little late. We bought 5 directory links and published some articles in a month. I geuss it is not a big mistake yet. By overdose usage i want to think that you meant hundreds of paid links to a webpage. We will slow it down and work on content and our blog. I hope we will not get punished by those fluffy and cold animals from the north pole 🙂