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SEO… We Love To Hate You.
The good news about search is that long gone are the days when you had to rely on whether or not your site could get to “number one in Google”. Now with so many promotional platforms, social networks and other opportunities online you can get exposure for your business, build an audience and generate leads and sales without pulling your hair out over SEO.
And the good news about that is the better you are at not doing search engine optimization and about winning the battle for attention in other ways, the better you’ll do in search. Call it the Great Paradox of Google’s New World Order.
In other news… we still need search. You can’t learn and discover everything without actively looking for what you want, and to date the best way to find what you want is to hop over to your favorite search engine and pop in a few keywords.
Plenty of businesses rely on search to generate qualified traffic, leads and sales. Missing out on a good search listing can mean the difference between making money and… well, not.
So to ignore search optimization would be naïve. But to obsess about it would be madness. There are just too many factors to consider and the thing that can really make you want to pull your hair out is that some of those factors can seem contradictory.
Troubles set in when you take that information and pick your own interpretation. Or maybe only hear one side and interpret it as a rule, unaware that there’s more to it.
Next thing you know, your site is plummeting in search, your traffic is drying up and suddenly there’s not enough hair left on your head to pull.
So rather than give you a how-to, I’m going to give you a how-to-maybe. These are a couple of conundrums that you should be aware of if you’re trying your hand at SEO, or even if you’ve hired someone to help you. After all, it always pays to understand what’s being done on behalf of your business.
Keywords In Anchor Text
Anchor text is the word or words on a page that link to another page. For example, these words right here are anchor text (and when you click them you’ll get to a page with our podcast where we talk about some of these very conundrums).
One of the “good to dos” when it comes to optimization is to include keywords in the link text so that instead of having generic, unrelated words (like “words”, “here” and “anchor”) you would use keywords related to the subject. Better link text in my example would have been “listen to our podcast about SEO” because that mentions SEO which is a search term I wouldn’t mind being found for in Google.
Sounds easy, right? Anyone can comb through a web page, change a couple of “click heres” to “buy my red shoes now” and call it a day.
Back in the early days of search when the idea of clicking was still somewhat foreign to a lot of people, we all put links on our page that told people to “click here!”
Once clicking became a natural part of our psyches and search engines started looking for keywords in very specific places (like link text), we moved away from “click here” and started putting keywords into links. Those are the more natural links we’re used to today, where we’re not specifically told to click but we understand that either a different color, a different font or a bit of underlined text means that we can click to get to more stuff.
The problem is that once people knew search engines were looking for keywords in link text, suddenly every keyword became a link. And that made a bit of a mess.
So along came Google and started slapping sites on the hand for abusing anchor text. And Google spokesperson Matt Cutts came out and said… hey people, stop putting keywords in anchor text!
Except he didn’t really say stop. He said stop doing it, like, so much.
The end result is some confusion about whether keywords are good to have in anchor text or the next penalty waiting to happen.
The answer, as the title of this post might indicate, is not black and white.
The answer is…
You can have links that say “click here” and that’s ok.
You can have links with keywords and that’s ok.
But if you have too many or not enough of either, that’s not ok.
The most definitive advice I can share on the subject is to link to and from pages – whether they’re on your site or on another site – in a way that makes sense for your reader. If it makes sense to tell someone to “click here” then do it. And if, in the context of an article like this, it makes sense to send someone to another article about SEO and website penalties, then do that, too.
The paradox stands true. The less you try to please Google, the more you will.
Keywords On Your Page
There are lots of places to put keywords. Here’s an article I wrote back in 2012 that still stands true.
Keywords can be part of your page text. They can be in the titles or ALT tags of images. They can be in your page titles and META tags. They can be in headings, and of course in links.
Some of those are visible to you and your site visitors. Everyone can read keywords in your page text. Or in a heading on the page.
But others are only visible to search engines. The META description, for example, is hidden in your page code and invisible to the reader unless it’s shown as part of your search result. ALT tags are also invisible to most people, but can be seen by visitors who have images turned off. You can even see them pop up sometimes if you hover your mouse over an image on a page.
If you have just enough search optimization know-how to be dangerous you might think that you need to include keywords in all of the places where Google is looking.
The problem is that just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Back in the days of “click here” links, one popular SEO trick was to insert a bunch of keywords at the bottom of every page using the same font color as the background color of the page. For example, I could pop a laundry list of keywords at the bottom of this page in a white font that would be invisible to you against the white background.
But search engines can read them, so that made it very easy to use keywords without actually messing with the meaning or flow of your content.
But, as you may guess, Google got smart. And they said… hey people, stop cramming keywords into your page!
And they did a big smackdown on sites using that trick, which is – wisely – no longer attempted today. But we still needed to use keywords so Google told us where to place them.
Then a whole new crop of troubles arose, namely that people began cramming keywords into every nook and cranny. Page content got messy and sometimes unreadable. The whole idea of “user experience” went out the window in favor of the coveted “number one spot in Google”.
Seeing the madness they had wrought, Google told us to cut it out with the keywords, already, and smote sites for overdoing it.
These days, keywords are still important. And the places we use them are still important. But there are other considerations, too, like the idea of “semantic search”. Semantic search aims to produce results based on concepts, not necessarily based on some exact match to a specific word or phrase on a page.
That means if you write a page about SEO and never actually use the words “search engine optimization” your page can still be found because it’s topically relevant.
That sort of blows the whole idea of keywords out of the water.
And yet… how often do you really find a site in search results that doesn’t match a keyword?
Again, the conundrums. We need keywords. We need to put them in the right places. But we need to make sure we’re not using them too often. Or too infrequently.
Again, I’ll give you the best advice I can which is do what works for your content. If it sounds like you’re using the same word over and over… you probably are. Even if it’s not purposeful, polish your writing so it sounds more natural.
We’d be wise to vary our words and phrases rather than sticking to a single “exact match” that we want to be found for.
And do include language that your customers use. If you’re avoiding your own insider-industry-lingo and using straight talk that is likely to be how your customer types terms into search, you’ll be ahead of most of the competition.
And now for the most maligned and misunderstood SEO tactic of all. Backlinks are a simple concept turned into an unbelievably complex challenge. A backlink is nothing more than a link on another website that clicks through to yours.
Every time someone links to one of your blog posts (or to any page on your site) you can tally up another backlink.
Why do you care? Well, beyond the fact that it’s always great to be recognized for your work and that it can drive additional traffic to your site, backlinks are a way for Google to judge how good your site is.
The reasoning goes like this: if a lot of people are linking to your site, it must be good.
A simple popularity contest.
Except… as you may imagine, Google built a mousetrap and the internet built… well, the internet built backlinks. And lots of them.
For a long time in the early days of SEO, every webmaster and search company had a form letter that went something like this:
Dear [random person I may or may not know],
I’d like to exchange links with you. I’ll put a link to your website on mine if you put a link to my website on yours.
Entire link farms were dedicated to building links and winning search popularity wars.
Then Google built an even better mousetrap and the internet… well, the internet still built backlinks.
It wasn’t until one of the more recent Google updates that backlinks became a real albatross for websites that had been building them indiscriminately – and even for some that hadn’t been building them at all.
Just having backlinks became a tremendous problem and one of the primary reasons for penalties on sites.
And yet, as with all good conundrums… we still need them. Google still counts them.
The solution to this contradiction is right in line with everything else I’ve said here so far.
You need backlinks.
But not too many.
And not too few.
And to throw fuel on the fire, you don’t want just any old backlink. You want a quality backlink. From a quality site.
If it’s a “bad” backlink you can disavow it.
And if you’re worried about giving backlinks you can always make them “nofollow”.
If all of that sounds a little Greek, you’re not alone. That’s part of the danger of picking one tactic and going with it when you don’t have a good grasp on the nuances.
If you’re going it alone, make sure you keep an eagle eye on your Google Webmaster Tools. You’ll be able to see when there’s a problem and you can take action to correct it.
In the meantime, I’d advise against proactively building links and let them come to you – the kind where people find your stuff and like it so much that they want their readers to check it out, too.
Your Customers Are The Ticket To SEO
Remember what I said earlier about how the less you actually “do SEO” the more Google likes it?
That’s not entirely far from the truth.
If you spend less time trying to figure out algorithms and more on your customers and the content they want then that’s a good chunk of the battle right there.
Besides, no Google rank can compensate for a poor website or inadequate content.
So be mindful of the search tactics you try. Never hang your hat on one tweak or a single idea. Even the things I’ve mentioned here today are only small parts of the whole picture and even if you did them flawlessly that still might not equal search success.
Google wants good content. And so do your customers. Everything else follows from that.