Understanding the difference between impractical SEO tactics and practical ones is the first step to this whole SEO thing making sense.
If you’re an SEO professional, or you aspire to reach a professional level, you should educate yourself on all areas of SEO, even its shady past.
You probably won’t choose to implement many tactics from the wild west era of SEO, but you should be able to recognize if other SEO providers have used any of these methods and create a plan for fixing them.
For everyone else, understanding the evolution of SEO and how it has been implemented can be a real eye-opener. You can also build your knowledge of what works in SEO by also learning about what doesn’t.
It’s likely none of the following will help drive real growth to a business, at least not the long-term sustainable growth that also compounds over time. So let’s dig in…
1. Anything That Looks, Smells or Sounds Like a “Hack”
This one is obvious. Search engines hate hacks. People generally hate hacks too.
Most ranking-related hacks are pretty obvious to spot. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a hack. If it sounds too quick or easy to deliver legitimate SEO results, it’s almost definitely a hack. If it is a tactic focusing on one very specific micro-level technical detail and it’s not really how that thing should be used in the first place, definitely a hack.
User experience never lies and even if you hack your way to position one of search results with over-the-top technical SEO stuff, it’s a ticking time bomb until you crash and burn real bad.
Understanding these hacks from a theoretical point of view is not an issue. Just don’t bend over backward trying to implement them on a site. It simply won’t work.
Many SEO beginners go through old forums and posts thinking that something is ok to implement. Often because they don’t understand the nuances of good SEO.
Good SEO never requires shady hacks. It just requires that you truly and genuinely give people what they want throughout their search experience.
2. The Magic Bullet A Clueless Client Asks For
Clueless clients may also ask for questionable things. You know, like:
- Let’s make all our keywords the same color as the background.
- Let’s add a bunch of keywords into all areas everywhere because it’s good for SEO!
- Let’s make our SEO text so small a microscope couldn’t even see it.
They all say they heard it was “good for SEO”.
Two words. Bad. Idea.
Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a place for creative solutions that balance the UX and SEO needs of a website. But going overboard never helps and could put your client at risk of a nasty penalty.
Usually, designers are the ones most likely to receive these strange requests from clients who become self-proclaimed SEO pros overnight after reading about how XYZ is great for SEO. Or they chatted to their mate’s mate who knows some marketing.
Other clients may just be on a tight budget and they hire “SEO pros” on the cheap who are actually not professionals at all. They just offer cheap SEO based on “hacks” (see point number one).
Be wary of any kind of tactic an SEO beginner claims is going to be their saving grace. It’s just not. There’s no magic solution to SEO success. They’re just guessing, most of the time, or blindly taking someone else’s advice without fully understanding the context of the opportunities available to their own site.
3. Guesseo + Lucky Flukes
This all leads to what I call “guesseo”. It’s when you guess what kind of things are going to work.
You and I can sit here all day long speculating at how Google works and what it likes. Heck, we can even write a blog post making it sound like we actually know what we’re talking about.
That doesn’t make it real.
No matter how much it boosts the ego.
Guessing is simply a theory that something may work. Not that it definitely will work.
Many blog posts about SEO are written by people who do not have extensive experience doing the work. They don’t have the knowledge that comes with doing the grunt work and solving complicated SEO challenges.
Mostly, they either share what pros are already saying. Or they share what most people (aka the majority) are saying, even if those people aren’t pros and haven’t tested what actually works.
All of this, and yes, I mean all, is theoretical SEO. You’re basing your SEO success on other people’s theories and those people often have no data to back up what works. Their advice is so generic it makes vanilla seem like the most flavorsome flavor out there (not that I’m judging, I love vanilla… but you know what I mean).
Moral of the story, don’t take blog post advice at face value. Think critically about the expertise behind the author. Look for proof that the tactic they share is something they have excelled at implementing. Then consider if it is feasible to add to your SEO toolkit.
Always avoid this: “Here’s one graph, of this one thing I did that one time, that totally worked (so obviously it will work for you too, right?)”
Wake up people, that’s not enough to prove a tactic can hold its weight for years to come. What’s to say it wasn’t just a guess + a lucky fluke?
4. Technical BS
A lot of theoretical SEO is due to overly complicated technical BS.
It could be some super crazy technical tactic that is impractical for most people to implement (ahem, inserting keywords wherever you can into HTML and CSS code). Sure, you could try it out and it may even work.
But when you weigh up the reward for effort, it’s going to be a little meh.
It’s also likely going to fail our longevity test. Search engines aren’t dumb, they’re just slow. How long until they catch up to such tactics and devalue the effect they have?
If a technical thing you’re thinking of implementing just because “it’s good for SEO” stopped being good for SEO, would it still make sense for you to do it?
Speed improvements? 100% yes, always. Keyword stuffing your code? Meh, it won’t compound over time even if it’s good for right now.
All in all, things that actually do work but are probably not going to keep working for a long time, well, they just don’t make a whole lot of sense for most people to go out of their way to implement.
If you’re working on your own site and want to do some of this for fun or as an experiment, go for gold! SEO testing is the best way to learn what works and what’s a load of BS.
5. Trending Tactics
If there’s ever been a group of people more prone to shiny object syndrome than SEOs, I’d love to meet them!
The SEO community loves chasing tactics. I don’t get it. The new tactic of the week won’t just magically improve your SEO performance. Tactics that improve your efficiency, sure I get that.
But a brand new technical tactic that starts trending and becomes all the rage within the SEO community? I always question its longevity and you should too.
Let’s take a current example that I will call the “301 redirects” tactic. Its a crazy hot topic in SEO groups at the moment!
Taken out of context, the tactic sounds legitimate “let’s 301 redirect an old yet authoritative domain to our main website. The authority will flow from that site and bolster our main site so we don’t lose traffic”.
If you’re a designer or a developer you’re probably like, “what’s the rage about anyway?”
At a surface level, it doesn’t seem all that crazy. If a client owns a couple of domains, it makes sense that you would 301 redirect the one they’re not using to the one that they are using.
But, what SEO “tactic chasers” are doing these days, is going out of their way to invest in an expired or dropped domain. You know, like the ones that people forget to renew. They weigh these up based on their SEO stats (especially the link profile).
They buy the domain (often for hundreds if not thousands of dollars). Sometimes they set up a new website or restore the old content using Wayback Machine. Other times they just do a straight redirect.
They spend hours combing through relevant domains, looking at SEO stats trying to find the perfect domain to redirect to their site.
Just because it works now, that doesn’t make it a practical SEO tactic for everyone to follow. Besides, Google has already figured out ways to trace these kinds of methods and devalue their performance.
John Mueller, a Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, has even confirmed that Google’s spam team can easily identify such a tactic.
So for any other such “trending tactics”, think about it. What would it take for one person at Google, just one, to figure out that SEOs are doing this? And then what would it take for them to apply a penalty or to devalue the effect of that tactic?
Something like this may seem to work now but won’t work forever. That’s why I think of such techniques as being theoretical. Good to know in theory but not a reliable technique you can always bank on.
6. SEO Minutiae
In addition to over-the-top, confusing technical elements we also need to chat about minutiae. It’s because of minutiae that we see SEOs who post a laundry list of 200+ ranking factors that could influence rankings.
To give an example, we can’t just say that “headings” or “images” are ranking factors. It’s about the properties of these. For instance:
- The number of H1 tags on a page
- The spread of keywords and variations across all heading tags
- The total number of heading tags compared to the ratio of content
- The types of heading tags
…and so on.
Each of these tiny details can be considered as separate ranking factors. And it’s these elements that many SEOs obsess over.
But again, as a fan of practicality, this brings up the question of what is it really worth stressing out about all these minutiae? How much life force are you prepared to sacrifice thinking about these things really?
I’m here to live my best life and to help as many others as I can to do the same. Life’s too short for SEO minutiae. So my take on it all is to focus on what’s really going to impact results in a meaningful way.
SEO Ranking Factors That Matter
Now, at this point I should clarify, not all of these sorts of factors are bad. We have a laundry list of best practices for designing an SEO page for a reason. Stick to that list, but don’t expect that it alone will be enough to get you ranking.
For instance, yes it’s important to only have a single H1 tag on a page. But if you have 2, it’s not going to break the internet. Sure you could fuss over it and get all your pages to one H1 tag. Will it be bad for your rankings to keep two? Maybe in a really small way, though in most cases, probably not.
If you have more than 2, then it’s definitely worth fixing up. But again, this is just so you meet the minimum standard of best practices. Such minutiae don’t always impact results.
Here are the ones that are known (and thoroughly tested and documented) to impact rankings directly. You should never skimp out on these:
- Keyword in your URL
- Keyword in the meta title or SEO title (ideally close to the front)
- H1 heading close to the top of the page
- Keyword in the H1 heading
- A mixture of at least a few H2s and H3s
- Sprinkle keywords in sub-headings and body content as appropriate
- Add multi-media to your page (images, videos, infographics, audio – whatever floats your boat!)
- Have a decent amount of unique content on the page (don’t go minimal for SEO)
Cycling back to point number 3, if you don’t want to be left guessing what’s needed and how much to focus on or how many keywords to add, invest in a specialist SEO tool. My recommendations are either Page Optimizer Pro (all the SEO science you need to rank, at the click of a button) or Surfer SEO (sleek UX and loved by many SEOs and writers all over the world).
These give you the perfect recipe for optimizing your content for SEO success, on any keyword.
Best of all, they focus on the ranking signals that matter so you don’t have to stress about any more minutiae and guessing at what’s needed.
7. SEO Stats That Aren’t Real & Don’t Affect SEO Performance At All
SEO tools often spit out a stack of stats and data that can be quite overwhelming for anyone who is new to this field. It’s also hard to know which numbers actually make a difference for rankings.
For instance, let’s take the “Domain Authority (DA)” score. This is a metric created by Moz. Moz’s tools offer this metric as a way of measuring the authoritativeness of a site.
Other SEO tools have their own versions of this metric so you can’t compare the score between tools, just within a tool. In any case, doing SEO to improve your site’s DA is pointless. There’s no link between DA and rankings or search visibility.
Practical SEO focuses on improving the metrics that matter instead.
These can include the organic traffic your site receives each month, the number of keywords in top positions, and also the revenue generated from SEO activities. These metrics are tied to business growth.
8. One Size Fits All SEO Checklists
The final case of theoretical SEO comes down to following a stock-standard SEO checklist. Many designers resort to this thinking it is what will drive SEO success.
For instance, consider the list of things an SEO plugin asks you to fix up. The more you fix, the closer you get to a green dot of approval or a score of 100%.
The thing is, you can tick all the SEO boxes, get all the dots of approval and still fail with your SEO strategy. Invisible SEO mistakes that plugins and one-size-fits-all checklists can’t pick up are the ones that designers and SEO beginners are most prone to making.
Some examples of invisible SEO mistakes include:
- Assigning the wrong keywords to the wrong types of pages
- A site structure that is not SEO friendly
- Hidden content elements that search engines cannot access
- Pages on your site that compete on the same keywords
No plugin can identify any of these mistakes for you. That’s where you need some SEO chops to go beyond the one-size-fits-all approach to ensure a website is actually optimized for SEO in the best way possible.
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