Have you ever heard that Google will blacklist you if you stuff too many keywords into your homepage? How about the idea that the more times a piece of content is shared, the higher it will rank in search engines?
These are only misleading half-truths, but many entrepreneurs and search engine optimizers believe them. For the record, keyword stuffing won’t automatically lead to you being blacklisted by Google, and it’s debatable where the line between “keyword stuffing” and “keyword optimizing” even lies.
And social shares may play a role in ranking potential, (correlation studies suggest that they do, though we all know that correlation doesn’t equal causation) but Google has repeatedly denied that they do. Furthermore, there is also strong correlation that content with more social shares also has more inbound links, and inbound links are known to be one of the top two strongest ranking signals; this has been corroborated by Google itself. So, making a claim that “more shares equals higher rankings” is only half-true, and it’s misleading.
So why are these, and other SEO misconceptions, so rampant, both within the industry and outside it?
The Plight of Half-Truths
First, there’s the tendency for “half-truths,” rather than outright myths, to circulate. There are, of course, outright myths and misconceptions, but most of these are relegated to people outside the industry. For example, if you’ve never tried SEO and you haven’t learned much about it, I imagine it’s easy to continue buying into the old stereotype that SEO is a cheap gimmick designed to game the system.
Half-truths permeate the SEO industry because we aren’t working with hard, direct information (in most cases). Google and other search engines keep their algorithms as proprietary secrets, giving us clues about what they consider when ranking results, but not spelling it out for us. Accordingly, when someone presents an idea that sounds plausible, it’s readily accepted as truth.
Take the social media shares claim as an example; earning more shares on your content does increase the likelihood that it’ll earn inbound links (since your content will be visible to more people), but it’s probably not the social shares themselves doing the work.
Is it a good idea to try to get more shares on your content? Of course it is, but it’s probably an even better idea to try to attract more inbound links to that content if your goal is to get it to rank higher in search engines, and getting more social shares on that content is just one of many ways to get more links for it.
Thus, it’s a half-truth that’s easy to accept, based on the contextual clues and instinctive knowledge we have about how search works.
The Pace of the Industry
Misinformation also arises because the SEO industry naturally moves so quickly. Though Google has transitioned from releasing big packets of game-changing updates to its algorithm to adopting a gradual, continual release schedule, the emergence and distribution of new technologies and search trends makes it hard for search optimizers to keep up.
This has a few effects on the spread of misinformation. First, it’s easy for previously valid information to become obsolete. For example, it was once a good idea to make sure the anchor text for your links had exact-match text to the keywords you’re trying to optimize for.
Second, in a desperate bid to be the first person to cover a new update or new search story, people often report on incomplete information. It’s actually a good thing that we circulate information in bits and pieces — that’s what helps us put together the big picture — but if you form an assumption too early, you might end up misunderstanding what’s really going on.
Finally, the pace and nature of the industry means people blog and converse very quickly. If a piece of bad information leaks, it will only take a day or two to circulate throughout the entire community. Fortunately, that also means the community is quick to course-correct itself, but in the short-term, it leaves more people exposed to that bad information.
How to Protect Yourself
If you’re new to the industry, or if you’re a seasoned expert who spends lots of time perusing for new information, there are a handful of measures you can take to prevent the spread and absorption of misinformation:
· Check your sources. First, make sure to check your sources. If a person at a networking event mentions an SEO tip, for example, consider whether they’ve had any extensive experience in the SEO industry. Someone with a career in SEO is more likely to give you accurate information than a novice. Online, get your news and information from individuals and organizations you trust. There’s no shortage of self-proclaimed industry experts in the SEO world, but not all of them have the same amount of expertise and reputation.
· Look for hard evidence. Anecdotal evidence may point you in a good general direction; if someone reports that they saw an overall ranking boost after engaging in a specific tactic, that’s not necessarily bad or wrong. However, it’s much better to rely on hard evidence, which is available across multiple companies and applications. Look for statistical analysis, real data points, and most importantly, replicability. Just because it works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for the rest.
· Cross-reference. If you see a piece of information from one source, even if it’s trustworthy, see if you can find the same information from another source. This is why it’s a good idea to have an extended, rotating list of news authorities in the SEO industry. If one organization reports that there’s a new update that does X, Y, and Z, see if another organization has independent data to confirm that it’s the case.
· Challenge your assumptions. Finally — and this is good advice for all search optimizers — never let your assumptions go unchecked. Things in the SEO industry change often, and misinformation is common. Make it a point to challenge your beliefs, and try to disprove your own hypotheses. This takes longer, and takes more effort, but it will get you closer to the real truth.
SEO misinformation isn’t going away anytime soon, but the better you equip yourself against it, the more you can resist its effects on your campaign.