Online search is at an all-time high, Google processes over 8.5 billion searches a day, that’s almost a million searches a second. It holds 92.7% of the global search market share — that’s a lot of people looking for a lot of information. To have your website seen by those people searching online you’ll need to have search engine optimization (SEO) best practices top of mind so your content surfaces for the right readers.
Google has evolved quite a bit since it launched in 1998. The search engine is now sophisticated enough to finish our sentences. At the same time the SEO industry also matured. Many SEO experts possess a unique combination of analytical, technical, content strategy, and program management skills – the work of getting your pages to rank is both an art and a science. Even for skilled professionals, common SEO mistakes can sometimes impact your content ranking, and the rules of the optimization game are often changing.
What is search engine optimization (SEO)?
Definition: Search engine optimization is the practice of managing the content of a webpage to help move it closer to the top of user search results in Google and other search engines.
Why is SEO important?
Imagine your disappointment if you planned an extraordinary party and no one knew about it. Similarly, what if you spent days or months building web pages with content that should resonate with readers, but Google and other search engines simply pass them by? To drive traffic and readers to your site, your pages need to be optimized for Google and other search engines to “crawl” them – literally examine every word and object on the page.
If you structure your web content and architecture properly, intelligently, and holistically on appropriate pages, your pages will be crawled/discovered by the search engines and deemed valuable. As a result, your page will be ranked higher in search engine results, and make it more likely that visitors will find you and click through. In the world of competitive web content, this is how you get people to come to the “party” you’ve built.
Just a few hours of work can yield some real results. Here are some of the most common mistakes made by content providers and some SEO tips on how to avoid them.
SEO mistake #1: Targeting the broadest keyword possible
Trying to capture users with the highest intent will leave you frustrated. The broader your keyword, the tougher the competition, and the harder it will be for your page to gain a good ranking. For example, you’re probably not going to show up on the first page of search results when someone searches for “food”. But narrowing your focus and getting specific, “Spicy Chinese Food Delivery San Francisco”, could increase your rank.
Best practice: Be specific about your product or service, and don’t be afraid to focus on ranking for search terms with a lower search volume. If you make and sell traditional, hand-made Japanese swords in Midland, Texas, don’t aim to rank for “Japanese swords.” Let the content on your page specify that you make “Traditional Japanese Swords in Midland Texas” and you’ll claim the throne for that search result.
SEO mistake #2: Thin content
Content providers are usually strapped for time and resources, and oftentimes the landing pages made for paid marketing campaigns are also the ones used for organic search campaigns. The folly here is that the types of landing pages that work for paid advertising – pages that contain a Buy button and little content – don’t work well for organic search visitors.
Search visitors are often researching your brand or product, and they’re not necessarily ready to purchase or share their personal information in contact forms to access gated content. If a visitor to your website is greeted by a lack of helpful and quality content, or content gated behind a series of clicks and forms, they’re going to leave.
Best practice: Produce content-rich web pages built just for your organic search visitors. People clicking on a paid search ad are often at a different stage in their customer journey than people clicking on your pages via organic search.
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SEO mistake #3: Trying to optimize every page at once
Google won’t index every single page on your site. The likelihood of getting multiple pages on the first page of search results is low. Therefore, you must determine which page on your website is THE most important page to focus on for important keywords. For example, if you sell mayonnaise, you might want your homepage to rank number one for “mayonnaise”, as people are most likely to explore the rest of the site from there. Or, perhaps you want your store page to rank so that customers from around the world can order condiments from you. You probably won’t want your website’s blog post featuring a tuna salad recipe to take the top spot in Google.
Best practice: Nurture the content on your most important page(s), such as the homepage or the store; make sure the content is updated with relevant information and linked to from other pages. While second-tier pages like that recipe blog won’t be updated often, they should always link out to the homepage or to the store.
SEO mistake #4: Stuffing keywords in your content
Keyword stuffing, also known as “shoehorning”, is when content creators try to fit as many keywords as possible onto a page. This is done in an attempt to overly manipulate the website’s ranking in Google search results. This technique leads to a horrible website user experience.
Below is an example from Google of a keyword-stuffed paragraph:
“We sell custom cigar humidors. Our custom cigar humidors are handmade. If you’re thinking of buying a custom cigar humidor, please contact our custom cigar humidor specialists at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Best practice: Create content with actual human readers in mind, not solely to appease the search engines. Use natural language to describe products or services. Avoid excessive repetition. Use a thesaurus to include semantically related keywords in your content – related keywords will be picked up by the search engines.
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SEO mistake #5: Forgetting to crosslink
The benefit of well-written content is that good writing builds trust, and visitors are more likely to visit more of your pages after initially “finding” you. For readers to keep reading, you need to plan a thought out customer journey. Lead your visitor from where they’ve landed to what they should read next.
Surprisingly, a common mistake many content providers make is not including links to more content. If visitors don’t have a clear path of where to go next on your site, they’re more likely to leave.
Due to bandwidth, Google only crawls a small portion of many large enterprise sites. Their bots are more likely to find your most important pages if they are linked to one another. Too many websites bury or orphan their key pages. As a result, they do not get crawled and indexed.
Best practice: Make sure you link your pages to other pages, and that those links are clearly visible – especially for a site’s most important pages. Use critical tools like a left-side navigation bar with organized sections, or a list of related articles at the bottom of every page. Have links ready for relevant, related content where you want your readers to click next.
SEO mistake #6: Focusing on trendy short term content topics
Too often, writers focus on content that is relevant in the moment, relating their articles to current events and special occasions. For example, every year during the World Series, content writers tie-in their products around specific teams, players, cities, and game days. Those pages are relevant for the time, but they’re quickly deemed irrelevant by search engines.
Search engines observe web traffic to a page over months and years, and use traffic as a strong ranking factor. Google is looking at how much consistent traffic your pages receive during the entire time it exists. That timely World Series page isn’t likely to rank very high in search, and therefore it won’t bring in many new readers.
Best practice: Take an evergreen approach to content that can stay relevant to your business or product for years. Evaluate and refresh your top-performing content instead of starting from scratch every time messaging changes. Lists that receive annual updates, such as “The Top 10 Best Baseball Teams Ever” or “Tips on Saving on Baseball Merchandise” can be updated every season. If it’s a commonly referenced list, then it may see better ranking success. Final tip: to help your page build ranking, keep dates out of the URL and article title and keep them the same year after year.
SEO mistake #7: Using text in images
Images are an ideal way to break up long-form content or draw attention to a brand. But when it comes to SEO, pictures are rarely worth a thousand words. Search engines only use the text on each webpage to evaluate the content value of your page. They cannot recognize text within images, whether it’s a brand name, graphics on a chart, a button, or an image just for decoration.
Placing too much text within an image will cause issues with accessibility as well, since screen readers are not able to identify the content properly. And if you do use some text, you must include a caption and/or an alt tag (under 100 characters) to explain the contents of the image.
Best practice: Don’t embed important text within your images. For example, rather than dropping in an image of a Buy Now button, create a button using text. Use HTML to display text on your webpage. Avoid headers or menu item text within images.
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SEO mistake #8: Ignoring search engine marketing (SEM) data
Many companies have one siloed team working on SEM, and another department working on SEO, and poor communication between the two. While search results list paid and organic listings side by side, that is often not the case for the teams driving each effort. All too frequently paid and organic search content creators do not take all marketing channels into account when creating fiscal year plans and allocating budget and resources. This is a huge miss. When your SEM and SEO teams don’t work together, they lose opportunities to maximize top-performing marketing campaigns.
Best practice: Set up a quarterly review between paid and organic teams to review key activities and organize actions together. If you act in unison, your prospects and returning customers will benefit from coordinated activities and content. Use the web traffic data in Google Search Console and AdWords before finalizing your company’s overall SEO strategy.
Editor’s note: Rachael Fishman contributed to this article in the past.