Thank you to Emily Reiffer and our friends at Paid Traffic for sharing this content with the Acquisio team!
The search industry has undergone extensive changes over the years. This has presented a number of challenges and the industry continues to be rife with misconceptions over how search engines operate. Add in the regular updates and new factors that influence rankings, and it’s not surprising why so many of these continue to persist.
Many of these misconceptions can be downright dangerous and can actually harm, rather than help your business. One example is keyword stuffing which looks something like this:
Such practices revolved around the belief that keyword density—the number of times you use your primary keywords on a page—played a large role in rankings. While it may have been a factor in the past, search engines look at more than keyword density.
This is only one example of a common misconception.
There are many others that could be sabotaging your search engine marketing efforts. Here we look at some of the common misconceptions about traffic and rankings, and what to do moving forward.
“Ranking on the first page of Google guarantees more traffic”
Top rankings are highly coveted for obvious reasons.
Visibility in the search results for competitive keywords can be especially lucrative. A visitor who lands on your page from a search query is actively searching for a product or service that solves a particular problem. Compare this to someone who just happens to see your page from a Facebook post. The latter is far less likely to convert.
Search engine traffic then is incredibly valuable. But one study found that a majority of clicks go the top positions in the search results.
What ends up happening then is many businesses would invest thousands of dollars, and sometimes, even more, to rank in the top positions for a keyword. Then several months would pass with little to show for in terms of getting traffic.
A common misconception is that ranking on the first page of Google guarantees traffic. But this just isn’t true—what matters is how much traffic a keyword generates.
Let’s take the keyword phrase “how to renovate a kitchen on a tight budget” as an example. After optimizing and building relevant links to that post, it eventually reaches the top position in the search results. But analytics reveals that traffic levels have remained flat. Most of the time, it comes down to poor keyword research. And the Keyword Planner tool from Google shows that this keyword barely gets any searches:
This example demonstrates that top rankings on Google don’t necessarily guarantee traffic. What matters is the keyword you target. You could be ranking on the first page for hundreds of different keywords but that won’t necessarily translate to traffic if no one is actually searching for those terms.
Key takeaway: Rankings don’t guarantee traffic. You need to also consider how much demand a query generates. Use tools such as Keyword Planner to estimate traffic levels before devoting resources to ranking for a keyword.
“More content means higher rankings and more traffic”
This misconception can be just as dangerous as the first one.
Each post that is published on your site is new content for Google to crawl and add to its index. It stands to reason that more content means more opportunities to rank and generate traffic.
In fact, this strategy was extremely effective. By targeting different long tail keywords with new posts, you could essentially multiply traffic to your pages with little effort. So what many businesses ended up doing was churning out hundreds of pages of content.
Let’s say your business sells dog training materials. You might write separate posts that target the following phrases and could expect an increase in traffic:
- How to train a dog
- Tips to train a dog
- Dog training tips
- Dog training techniques
But then Google released the Panda update. This update primarily targeted sites that engaged in such strategies by lowering rankings for “thin sites” (e.g. content farms). Sites that provided quality results were rewarded with better rankings in the search results. Google would later release the Hummingbird update, a major update that affected a staggering 90% of all searches worldwide.
This update meant that the algorithm would be able to better understand the context of a query instead of looking at particular words. For example, before Hummingbird Google would treat two similar queries as separate such as “training tips for dogs” and “beginner’s advice for training dogs” even though the intent behind both searches are quite similar. The Hummingbird update dramatically improves the way that search queries are parsed.
So what does it mean in terms of rankings and traffic? It’s simple: Publishing hundreds or thousands of posts is no longer a viable strategy thanks to both the Panda and Hummingbird updates. You could have a hundred pieces of content all targeting similar keywords and still not drive a lot of traffic. Here is a better approach:
- Adapt your keyword strategy to include conversational queries (e.g. how to…, where is the…, etc.) and cover a topic exhaustively
- Use varying synonyms and other key LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing) terms naturally throughout your content
- Vary the anchor text that points to your pages instead of focusing on the main keyword
- Utilize structured data as much as possible for search engines to better understand your content
Key takeaway: You don’t need hundreds or thousands of pages to rank and generate traffic. In fact, it’s quite possible to generate traffic from tons of related long tail keywords with just a single post. The key is to focus on quality, not quantity.
“The only way to increase rankings is to build more links”
Links formed the foundation of Google’s early ranking algorithm. Instead of simply reading the content on a page (like what early search engines did), the founders decided to focus on the relationships between sites. If more sites linked to another site, it stood to reason that others found it useful and relevant.
Links were like a voting system where a page with the most links were deemed as popular. So the algorithm was designed so that links would carry a great deal of weight. But this created a problem as you might expect.
Once it became known that links were a major ranking factor, webmasters began spamming their sites with links from completely irrelevant sources while using automated programs. Just like with keyword spamming and content farming, it was possible to game the system. As a result the quality of the search results started to deteriorate.
To combat web spam and questionable tactics, Google released the Penguin update. Many sites that relied on automated programs or engaged in paid link schemes suddenly saw their rankings and traffic plummet.
Links are still important to rank. But Google’s algorithm considers much more than the number of links a page has. It also considers other factors such as:
- Domain age
- On-page signals (e.g. keywords in titles, etc.)
- Page performance
- Mobile friendliness
- Anchor text
- Site security
- Social signals
What about guest posting?
Matt Cutts (former head of the webspam team at Google) made the following statement about guest blogging:
“Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company.”
Many in the industry cited the statement as proof that guest blogging is no longer effective. But really he was referring more to the practice of generating links from spammy sources by using poorly written content. He has since retracted his statement:
Guest posting still works to a certain degree and can be a highly effective strategy for building quality links and getting traffic to your pages. But avoid engaging in any link schemes or using automated programs.
Key takeaway: Your site still needs links to rank but quality and relevance matters. A link from a relevant source carries far more weight than a link from a spammy site. Guest posting is still an effective strategy to build quality links when done right.
“Paid search improves organic rankings”
Does advertising on Google AdWords boost rankings in the search results?
Organic rankings are typically achieved through SEO efforts such as content optimization and link building (among other things), while paid search results are managed entirely through AdWords by bidding on and creating campaigns around relevant keywords.
But despite what you may have heard, the two are completely independent of each other.
In other words, advertising on AdWords has no impact on organic rankings. And any efforts you put into ranking organically doesn’t translate to higher ad positions in AdWords. Even if you stop advertising on AdWords, your rankings in the organic search results don’t suddenly start to drop off.
However, advertising on AdWords is still enormously beneficial and can benefit your SEO strategy in the following ways:
- Getting more keyword data: If you are going to devote resources to ranking a keyword, you want to make sure that the keyword is worthwhile. Keyword Planner is a valuable tool for keyword research but traffic estimates can vary wildly. By bidding on certain keywords, you can get more accurate keyword data and further refine your keyword list.
- Increasing click through rates: There is some correlation between click through rates and rankings. If a page has a low click through rate, it indicates that people are not finding it useful or relevance. AdWords can be used to test headlines and optimize their click through rates. These results can then be applied to pages on your site.
- Improving geo-targeting: Another way that AdWords can inform your SEO strategy is to bid on traffic from different locations. This helps you gather invaluable data such as which areas generate more clicks and which are worth investing more into. If your business has multiple locations, you’ll be better able to allocate resources.
Each of these provide valuable insight that can better inform your SEO marketing strategy.
Key takeaway: Advertising on AdWords has no correlation with organic rankings. But what you can learn from an AdWords campaign can translate to a more competitive SEO strategy.
Google’s ranking algorithm has seen dramatic changes over the years which has also led to a number of misconceptions. Many of these can be downright dangerous to your marketing strategy and could even lead to a ranking penalty. The best way to minimize your risk is to focus your efforts on creating a high-quality site with attention to user experience.
All screenshots by author taken July 2017
Image 1: Google
Image 2: Giphy
Image 3: Chitika Graph
Image 4: Screenshot from Keyword Planner
Image 5: Giphy
Image 7: ThingLink
Image 8: Screenshot from Matt Cutt’s Twitter
Image 9: Edited screenshot of Google Search