Whether you're a hotel in Torquay, a catering business in Dundee, or sell software as a service in London, you'll undoubtedly have heard of the importance of SEO, or search engine optimisation.
But solid facts about SEO are surprisingly hard to come by, and there’s a lot of conflicting information floating around out there.
Can you really trust those emails promising to get your business’ website onto the front page of Google in just a few weeks? Is it even possible to rank first in such a short length of time?
The short answer is no. There is no secret recipe for getting your website to rank higher than your competitors', and Google doesn’t make a habit of handing out checklists of things we should do to win at SEO.
But the good news is that there are a number of untruths that we can confidently dispel here and now.
Join us as we put these seven SEO myths to bed once and for all.
SEO in a Nutshell
Search engines like Google and Bing work by sending out ‘crawlers’ to all corners of the Internet, indexing the pages they find so that they can present them to search engine users on the hunt for various subject matter.
Whenever one of their users performs a search, Google generates a list of web pages in an order based not only on their relevance to the user’s query, but also on Google’s own top-secret algorithm, which takes into account everything from a site’s level of accessibility to its authority on the web.
It clearly pays, then, to make sure that your website is easy for Google’s invisible robots to access, and that you’re serving the kind of content that the search engine deems valuable to users.
The problem we face — and that thousands of people make a living offering solutions to — is that it can be hard to know precisely what Google looks for when determining how to rank content.
Thankfully, Google has been taking steps in recent years to level the playing field when it comes to doing just that.
Gone are the days when businesses could get their sites to rank higher by packing their pages full of keywords or by manufacturing hundreds of links to them from bogus sources.
As Google’s algorithms become increasingly sophisticated, it becomes more and more possible for smaller businesses to inch into the search engine's top spots simply by having content that is original, useful, and well presented.
In the meantime, however, don't fall prey to these old SEO myths:
SEO Myth 1: Websites with more pages rank higher
You might think that having a website with hundreds of pages will encourage Google to rank it higher in searches. After all, more pages means more chances to target keywords specific to your business, right?
In reality, however, website bulk doesn’t necessarily mean more visibility.
Google values useful, quality content over sheer volume. It will never give a 100-page website precedence over a smaller site that's serving better quality content in a user-friendly manner.
Focus on making every page you create a mine of valuable information. Keep your content up to date, fix any dead or broken links, and ensure that you're not repeating yourself on multiple pages (the last two especially are big no-nos in Google's eyes).
There’s nothing wrong with turning your business' website into a veritable encyclopedia of content, but every page you create needs to serve a purpose — bulking up for the sake of it won't achieve anything besides giving your visitors more to wade through to find answers.
SEO Myth 2: You shouldn't use outbound links
We know that Google considers the ‘authority’ of a website when deciding where to place it in a list of search results.
You'll often hear people using the term ‘link juice’ when discussing this, with the idea being that websites share a fraction of their authority, or 'juice', with external sites by linking out to them.
If you’re an up-and-coming food blogger, for example, and a world-famous chef links to you from their website, then you'll receive a few drops of their 'juice' — their link acting as a vote of confidence from a trusted source.
Google, in turn, will acknowledge that your site must, therefore, be fairly credible and will bear this in mind the next time it includes your site among search results.
But what if you then share some of your own link juice with others? Won't linking to another site reduce your site's authority online?
This is a common concern website managers have. In fact, fearing that their authority would be 'diluted' by referring their visitors to an external site, some even go so far as to enforce a blanket ban on outbound links.
Research has shown, however, that so long as you're linking to credible sources, outbound links do not have a negative impact on your own website's ranking.
In fact, according to a study over at Reboot, good outbound linking can actually improve your ranking in Google searches.
Link juice, it seems, might not be the finite resource that people once feared.
Even if it is, the impact of sharing a fraction of your authority with another website can, it seems, be offset by the fact that you're providing your visitors with a better overall user experience and access to other, equally reputable sources.
SEO Myth 3: More inbound links = better rankings
So, if authority sites linking to my website can give me a leg up in search results, surely the more people who link to my site, the better?
As mentioned earlier, there was a time when websites that got lots of inbound links would be given pride of place in Google search results.
Google quickly wised up to the fact that people were playing their system, however, and adjusted their algorithms so that not just number but quality of inbound links play a part in a site's ranking.
Today, rather than giving your site a boost, large numbers of links from spammy, low-quality websites will actually have a negative impact on where you rank.
This is why it's important to monitor the sources of your website's traffic and to follow links back to their sources. If you notice that a particularly unscrupulous website has linked to yours, you may want to 'disavow' the link, effectively telling Google's bots not to associate your site with the one linking to it.
SEO Myth 4: Social buttons should be removed
Google places a great deal of value on overall user experience, so it makes sense that its algorithms should favour websites with quick-loading pages.
This has prompted a lot of site managers to remove things like Facebook and Twitter share buttons — which usually require plugins, or add-on software, and can add bulk to a page — in an effort to rank higher.
It's true that these buttons can increase load times, but removing them for sake of a few milliseconds is like shaving your head to lose weight. Technically, you've achieved your goal, but there are more effective ways to go about it.
Whenever someone uses a social button to share your website's content in their social networks, they effectively become influencers for your brand. We know that people are more likely to engage with content if someone they know puts it right in front of them, so why make it harder for people to share yours?
However important Google’s algorithm deems site speed to be, an abundance of website traffic will always have more impact on your site’s ranking in search engine results pages than the boost provided by removing your share buttons.
Look for other ways to speed your website up (removing large images or flashy ‘intro’ screens, for example) before giving your social buttons the chop.
SEO Myth 5: Short/long posts rank higher in searches
When popular entertainment blogs share posts consisting of a couple of lines of text, a YouTube video and a handful of embedded tweets, you might be tempted to think that shorter posts perform better in searches.
Or perhaps you're wondering whether Google, in response to the rise of the 10-second news piece, now favours the slightly lengthier article?
The truth is, word count means nothing to Google, and executives at the company went on record a long time ago, stating that the length of a piece of content is not an influencing factor in the search engine’s algorithms.
Instead of worrying about word count, focus on creating compelling content that’s only as short — or as long — as it needs to be.
SEO Myth 6: Images and videos don’t matter in SEO
Images and video are a hugely important part of SEO, not because Google’s crawlers can judge their quality (they can’t — at least not yet!), but because they add enormously to the user experience.
No matter how compelling your writing, unless it's broken up with some headings and related images, and perhaps supplemented with some high-quality video, charts and infographics, readers are likely to switch off.
Visual media, therefore, is integral to the overall user experience and plays a key role in engagement.
There's even more to it than that, though. In order for your pages to rank highly in searches, the visual media found within them needs to be optimised for the web and has to communicate with Google.
A few things you should always do when using video and images on your pages:
- Use alt descriptions. Alt, or alternative, descriptions can be easily added in the code of any image on a website. This is text that appears when floating your cursor over images, but it’s also vital for people with visual impairments who use screen readers to browse web content.
- Use descriptive file names. Calling an image file “DSC2576.jpg” is no help to Google whatsoever. Instead, use a brief but descriptive file name for your photo so that it can appear in Google image searches.
- Reduce image file sizes. You want to use high quality images, but not at the expense of page load times. Consider using TinyPNG or Kraken.io to reduce the size of your images if you don’t have access to dedicated software.
- Use subtitles. If you’re using video on your website, then the same kind of accessibility options should be considered. Does the video work on both desktop and mobile devices? Have you provided captions? Google is taking notes.
SEO Myth 7: A website’s age affects its ranking
Older websites (usually) have more content on them for Google’s spiders to crawl, meaning that they have an advantage over brand new sites trying to rank for similar search terms.
A domain's age, however, has zero effect on where Google places it in search rankings — and any age-related disadvantage your fledgeling site may have will dissipate entirely once it has been live long enough for Google to index it.
Here’s Matt Cutts, the former head of the webspam team at Google, on the subject of domain age:
"To the best of my knowledge, no search engine has ever confirmed that they use length of registration as a factor in scoring. If a company is asserting that as a fact, that would be troubling. The primary reason to renew a domain would be if it's your main domain, you plan to keep it for a while, or you'd prefer the convenience of renewing so that you don't need to stress about your domain expiring."
The moral of the story? Newer, smaller sites can outrank older ones provided that they have genuinely useful, well-curated content.
It can be frustrating trying to keep up with Google's constantly evolving methods of ranking websites, especially when a single tweak to the algorithm can suddenly knock one of your best ranking pages down to bottom of page two.
But Google's increased focus on the overall user experience, as well as the quality and relevance of a website's content, can only mean good things for the small business owner — the type of person who has neither the time nor capital to invest in finding chinks in the search engine's armour.
It's important to keep abreast of changes in the world of SEO, but to begin with it's best to focus on creating high-quality content that can be accessed by users across multiple platforms. And for that, there are no shortcuts.
In the meantime, steer clear of anyone who promises you the SEO world and who claims to know all of Google's secrets. Chances are, those same secrets will change six months from now anyway.