Why So Many Myths?
Google’s made the claim that 10,000 signals influence their search results.
For starters, that’s a really difficult thing for anybody to genuinely know. How many lists of 10,000 can you recite from memory?
It’s not just that SEO is difficult. There’s a big machine that churns out SEO misinformation as if it were somebody’s job.
And for some, it kind of is.
Here’s why there are so many SEO myths.
1. The Hustler Economy.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s profitable to propagate SEO myths.
You may have seen stories about the FTC shutting down robodial scams from businesses literally claiming to be Google.
It doesn’t end there. In the age of The Four Hour Work Week, everybody wants everything faster.
The market demands it, so businesses sell this alternate reality as an assortment of SEO products.
In 2019, more business owners lack an understanding of SEO than possess it.
It may not always be this way. But for now, many of the largest SEO ventures remain purposeful misinformation machines.
2. The Telephone Game.
In 2015, MarkingProfs estimated that 2 million blog posts were written daily.
One of the loudest sources of search engine optimization information comes from a few of Google’s own content creators.
Their advice can be helpful. But often, it’s vague and ambiguous.
The copywriters that report on this are rarely professional SEOs.
They misinterpret this information. Other bloggers read and misinterpret that. Sensationalism tends to trump practicality and the advice that reaches the mainstream is rarely useful.
3. The Evolution.
SEO has changed.
Google’s been clear about where they’re headed: they want to reward sites that are naturally the most relevant and popular solution to very specific problems.
Their ranking signals are actually mostly the same.
It’s about words, code, and link building. But they’ve gotten better at managing them.
As such, SEO advice becomes outdated.
For example, there was a time when a link to your store could only either help or be worth nothing. After all, you don’t control who links to you.
Google’s 2013 Penguin update changed that and introduced external link penalties, alongside a manual tool to discredit them.
Debunking The SEO Myths
We know about hundreds of ranking factors. They’re influenced in thousands of ways.
In the same vein, there are hundreds of SEO myths.
I’ve fact-checked hundreds of the most popular myths using primarily patent filings, statements from Google, and the scientific method as evidence.
None of the above are individually perfect. But these tend to be our best sources.
What you’ll find below are high-level myths that are often perpetrated by agencies, brands burned by bad SEO strategy, and the like.
We won’t go deep on meta descriptions, or which search engines to optimize for (Google!), overall digital marketing strategy, bounce rate or click-through rates, or the very bad idea of keyword stuffing.
Instead, here are 10 of the most common and easily-disproven SEO myths.
1. Keyword density greatly improves page ranking.
On one hand, keywords matter.
Using them thoroughly and frequently matters. But chasing an exact percentage of keywords in a page’s text doesn’t.
In extreme cases, it’s harmful.
First, Google actually told us that they use something called TF-IDF instead.
It stands for Term Frequency-Inverse Document Frequency. Google talks about this in patent US 7996379 B1 and more elaborately in a 2014 blog post.
All you need to know is that it’s still describing density (frequency). That’s the “TF” part. But, they do this in the context of what’s actually normal compared to the rest of the web.
So, if you ratchet up specific keywords to a level that’s unusual for a topic, or start obsessing about your density of adverbs, Google perceives your site as a manipulative outlier and not a more relevant resource.
Second, Google recognizes synonyms, word stems like “s” and “ing”, and other variations in language. I’d even say this is the one area that they’ve improved most over the years.
In the mid-2000s, it was extremely effective to keep keyword density around 5.5% for most purchase-related phrases.
After about 6%-7%, dependent on the topic (TF-IDF and all), you’d get hit with a penalty and watch that ranking go away entirely.
These tactics no longer work. At least, not simply. Google’s constant work at recognizing natural language patterns is why.
2. Social signals are a ranking factor.
This one’s sticky, so hear me out.
Since the early 2010s, every search engine optimization blog has been slathered in posts about social signals.
These posts theorized that Google was deeply measuring by everything from your number of followers to your poor choice of Instagram filter.
Most of it was wrong then. The few that are still doing it are definitely wrong now.
In 2010, Google said that this wasn’t a thing.
In 2012, they said that they were trying it.
In 2014, they confessed that it didn’t work out and was again not a thing.
For a while, Google+ was a thing.
A concept called “authorship,” where Google tried to figure out who individual content creators were on social media, and track/reward that… that was a thing.
Little “+1” buttons on the results page were even (briefly) a thing.
All gone now.
Google and Twitter have had an on/off relationship with Twitter’s firehose data. And ‘social’ can mean a lot of things.
Mostly, it means links: links to your articles from a social media site and internal links, pointing at those links, when you gain followers, from within those social sites.
We know that backlinks are a ranking factor. We know that social media can have a positive impact, directly and indirectly, on links. But that’s it.
Social media popularity correlates with link popularity, but so does being Kylie Jenner. Being Kylie Jenner is not a ranking factor.
3. Links don’t matter.
Google’s Gary Illyles reminds us 10 times a year that PageRank is still one of the top factors in Google.
PageRank is purely about links and link building. It’s at the core of how Google models popularity.
Unlike content, it’s the one element of Google that’s difficult to game at scale.
It’s not going away.
It doesn’t matter how much artificial intelligence, voice search, or wearables, or whatever else becomes the fashionable SEO topic of the day.
Links are the best input that Google has for understanding how popular something is on the web.
So long as there’s a web, that will be true.
4. Content doesn’t matter.
If links are Google’s best measure of authority, content is our best measure of relevance.
Content (mostly) tells Google what searches to rank your site on. Links (mostly) just tell Google how high to rank it.
I can’t imagine that this is really that controversial, but it’s worth reiterating, because “content is dead” and “links are dead” are still two of the most popular search engine optimization mantras.
Amazingly, at the exact same time.
The reason is pretty simple.
Too many hustlers have a vested interest in telling you that SEO is simpler than it is.
If they’re not good at doing, talking, or writing about content creation, of course, they’re going to try to sell you on links. The reverse is true as well.
If you focus only on backlinks, you’re neglecting the experience of your eventual target: a human being. If there’s no content, the visitors essentially has to guide themselves through the sales process entirely on their own, without a lot to help them make a decision. And if there’s nothing to help move them towards a sale, they likely won’t make one.Maddy Osman, SEO Content Strategist, The Blogsmith
5. SEO is a one-time activity.
In my experience, there are two SEO paradigms.
First, you see the most from creative agencies and SEO software vendors.
In this world, SEO is a set of simple best practices. It’s 10 or 20 things that you can get right from a simple, relatively mindless audit.
Look, I get it. That has a place. If SEO is a quick best practice, then sure, do it once and forget about it.
If you’re building a new website, you have to look at it this way. Otherwise, you’re never done and ready to launch.
The truth is, though, that you are never done if you view SEO as a competitive activity.
If 10,000 things impact Google (as we covered), you always have an opportunity.
That’s true until your site is plastered all over page 1 for everything that you could possibly benefit from in the rankings.
This is typically 10s or 100s of thousands of keyword variations.
If somebody ranks better than you in Google, that’s not just the way that it is.
There’s a math equation in play. And you have influence over virtually every single one of its variables.
SEO is a long-term investment. When you sign on for an SEO campaign you’re saying, ‘I’m using this % of my marketing budget so that my web site is stronger 6 months to a year from now.Joe Chilson, Head Writer and Project Manager, 1Digital Agency
6. Only the #1 position on Google matters.
It’s true that in most studies, the #1 organic (unpaid) position yields 35% of clicks and falls off dramatically from there. From around 15%, to 10%, and down to 2% by the bottom of page 1.
Also, that only 3%-4% of clicks go to Google ads.
Smart consumers can separate which is the T.V. show and which is the commercial.
Few Google results are still just 10 blue links. As of 2019, there are hundreds of additional search features (and counting).
Using structured data, brands can make simple improvements, like making sure your review engine can display those little yellow review stars for products.
Or, it can be as elaborate as appearing 4 to 5 times on page 1 in all different callouts.
7. Buying 20,000 backlinks for $10 will work.
Have you considered buying backlinks in bulk?
By definition, the easier a link is to get, the worse that link is.
In part, because this is how PageRank works.
The more links on a page, the less those links are worth.
But there’s another reality just doesn’t settle in with business owners until it’s too late.
If you’ve ever purchased en mass… have you seen who also gets links from those same sites?
Everybody. Beginning with the worst of the worst.
If a link is available to anybody, by definition, that’s a bad link.
Google calls these “free-for-all (FFA)” sites. They’re loaded with porn, pill affiliates, and a multitude of other dodgy stuff that you probably don’t want to see your brand beside.
At best, that’s worthless.
Worst case, you can find yourself in an SEO hole that could take years to dig back out of.
8. Using Google Ads will increase organic ranking.
You hear this one a lot from PPC agencies.
It’s not true. At least, according to Google.
A case could be made that appearing in both ads and organic means more overall clicks.
The source of this study is naturally biased, but they say that buying their ads could do just that.
Click-through rate is a controversial ranking factor with some undeniable evidence. But there is zero evidence that suggests Google Ads will directly improve your organic search rankings.
Paid ads can help you identify and refine the keywords you want to target organically, but paid campaigns won’t automatically improve your organic rankings.Ailsa Chibnall, CEO, Border7
9. Mobile-first is irrelevant.
The 2018 Mobile-First update was one of the impactful updates in years.
Most don’t understand it. Google has discussed mobile-friendliness as a factor since the 2000s.
It fits right in line with dozens of long-time user experience factors.
Mobile-First didn’t reward great mobile experiences so much as it punished content that was potentially invisible over mobile.
All those sites that use media queries to hide certain sections on mobile? Their traffic fell off a cliff.
Maybe you were one of them?
10. SEO doesn’t work.
According to Borrell Associates, SEO will be an $80 billion industry by 2020.
It’s not hard to test the basics. Drop a handful of keywords on a page. Wait a month or two. They’ll begin to rank.
You can draw a few hundred clicks this way in a matter of hours.
Compare that to what the Google Ads keyword planner would have cost you. Most commercial searches cost $5 or $10 on average per click.
That’s $1000 – $2000 in would-be advertising placement that you now own and don’t need to rent each month.
Big brands are beginning to understand it.
They’re hiring entire SEO teams. Job titles like “taxonomist” are increasingly popular to serve specialized SEO roles.
On “SEO is Dead”
“I don’t know if this is a “myth” per se, or if it’s just cynical marketers trying to drum up clicks on a sensational headline, but SEO is not ‘dead.’
This headline is used for many things in marketing (for instance, I’ve seen many ‘forms are dead’ posts. They’re not.
Actually, SEO one of the few scalable growth channels for unicorn companies.
It’s not just for well-funded startups or big players, though. All the companies I’ve worked for (LawnStarter, CXL, HubSpot) have been largely supported organic acquisition (ie SEO and content marketing).
I’ve consulted for several small businesses (of many types including ecommerce, SaaS, services, etc.) and we’ve increased revenues primarily through content and SEO strategy.
Anytime you read a post about how ‘[X Marketing Tactic] if Dead,’ realize it’s either written an ineffective marketer or a cynical marketer looking for clicks, or the channel has been dead for years before the article was written. SEO is alive and well.” Alex Birkett, Sr. Growth Marketing Manager, HubSpot
Staying Ahead of the SEO Curve.
SEO is evolving and you should, too.
Brands are hiring teams of professionals, but it’s difficult to know who to trust.
Even if SEO isn’t your focus, it pays to be able to see through the misinformed, the contradictions, and the hustlers.
1. Listen (cautiously) to Google.
Follow Google’s own blogs, YouTube, and Twitter personalities.
Listen to people like John Mueller, Gary Illyes, and Danny Sullivan.
They’re impressively engaged with the community and give out far more information than they owe us.
As you do, realize that Google itself is complicated. It’s not managed by a single person and Googlers frequently contradict each other.
Googlers frequently answer direct SEO questions with “we think you should…”, not because it’s how they rank, but because it might actually be less manipulative of their results.
2. Choose your experts carefully.
In nearly 17 years of SEO, I can’t name one professional SEO that I agree with 100% of the time. There are only a select few that I agree with 95%.
And that’s part of the fun. SEO is opaque.
It’s why, when we fact-check SEO, it all fits on a sliding scale of confidence.
Many of the people that I’ve learned from are pretty quiet these days, but occasionally active.
People like Aaron Wall, Todd Malicote, A.J. Kohn, and others.
In the time that I’ve done this, it seems that two full generations of SEO’ers have come and gone.
Also, realize that most bloggers and speakers optimize their business for success very differently from you.
There are two SEO industries. Every year there are sexy new SEO tactics that are wildly inefficient or just don’t work in an industry that isn’t all about doing search engine optimization for SEOs to talk about more SEO.
It’s fun to follow that stuff, but it may not be for you. Keep to systems.
3. Keep experimenting.
A lot of on-page SEO is very simple to try, wait a few months, and see. Many of the most creative SEO strategies still benefit from just taking those well-educated shots in the dark.
If time and resources allow, maintain a stunt double website or brand.
Lastly, talk about your experiences with peers. They’re trying things that you probably haven’t thought about to drive traffic.