For the uninitiated, SEO is short for search engine optimization. It’s a mostly overhyped collection of methodologies (many questionable) for improving the search engine rankings of websites. In other words, trying to game Google.
19 common SEO myths
In short, search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a particular website by ensuring that the site appears high on the list of results returned by a search engine. The key to getting more traffic lies in integrating legitimate SEO techniques with high-quality content. It sounds like a straightforward process. It’s anything but.
SEO is a controversial topic and every “expert” has their own opinions and theories about it. So if you read something elsewhere that contradicts what we’ve written here, don’t fret — That’s normal. Most of SEO is voodoo anyway, and nobody really gets it except Google. And they’re not sharing.
Note: As of January 2023, Google Search had a worldwide market share of 92.9%. Consequently, our discussion of SEO myths is centered on the behavior (or misbehavior) of Google Search. However, the same principles apply to many other search engines as well.
Fact vs fiction
If you rely on search results for sales or leads, it can be disastrous if your web page rankings fall or fail to meet expectations. As a result of this immense pressure to rank well, the SEO industry is filled with assumptions, deception, misinformation, bad advice, and shady practices. Here we’ll try to separate fact from fiction.
01. SEO is all about backlinks
A backlink is an incoming hyperlink from one web page to another website. Let’s say, for example, that The New York Times references a wonderful blog post that you wrote, and includes a link to it. That’s a backlink, a very powerful one. From an SEO perspective, backlinks are important. Nobody is going to argue that point. But just how important they are is another matter.
Some professionals claim that backlinks are just one of the many tactics that can influence rankings, but not the most important. Others are convinced that backlinks are single most significant ranking factor.
Ten years ago it was easy to build effective links. Forum comments spun articles with website mentions, and irrelevant directories were all good sources of backlinks. Link-building consisted mostly of convincing site owners to add a link to your website whenever you could.
It’s not so easy now. Google has continued to make changes to its search algorithms that reward higher quality, more relevant links, and disregard — or even penalize — “spammy” links. Today, relevant backlinks still help with ranking, but they need to go hand-in-hand with other optimizations. Your website still needs to have relevant content, and it must be indexable.
John Mueller, senior webmaster trends analyst at Google, recently stated:
“Links are definitely not the most important SEO factor.”
02. LSI keywords will help your website rank
Latent semantic indexing (LSI) is a machine learning technique used in information retrieval that allows concepts within text to be analyzed, and relationships between them identified.
For instance, words have nuances that are dependent on their context. The word “right” has a different connotation when paired with “left” than when it is paired with “wrong.” Humans can quickly gauge concepts in text, but it’s much harder for machines to do.
LSI is a huge step forward for a machine’s ability to understand text. Unfortunately, the field of LSI has been misunderstood by the SEO community, which is convinced that using words that are similar (synonyms) — or linked thematically — will boost rankings for words that aren’t expressly used in the text.
But that’s not how the technology works. In addition, Google has gone far beyond LSI in its understanding of text with the introduction of BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers). BERT helps Google better understand the nuances and context of words in searches, to better match those queries with more relevant results.
03. Google Search uses your Google Analytics data in its rankings
This myth terrifies a lot of business owners. They study their Google Analytics reports, and feel that their average sitewide bounce rate is too high, or their time on page is too low. So they worry that Google will perceive their site to be low quality and won’t rank it well.
The theory is that Google uses the data in your Google Analytics account as part of its ranking algorithm. But Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes has stated repeatedly:
“We don’t use anything from Google Analytics in our algorithm.”
When you think about it, using Google Analytics data as a ranking factor would be really hard to control. For instance, using filters could manipulate data to make it seem like the site was performing in a way that it isn’t really.
Google would also need to understand the intricate ways in which each Google Analytics account had been configured. Using this data reliably would be extremely complicated to do. And, consider the hundreds of thousands of websites that use other analytics programs. How would Google treat them?
04. Long form content is better
This is a doozy. Perhaps the oldest and most persistent SEO myth: Longer content ranks better. More words on a page automatically makes your content more rank-worthy than a competitor’s. This wisdom is frequently shared in SEO forums with little evidence to support it.
The basis for these erroneous claims are the many “studies” that have been released over the years that state “facts” about the top-ranking webpages. One of the most famous claims that:
“On average, pages in the top 10 positions in the SERPs (search engine result pages) have over 1,450 words on them.”
It’s easy to interpret this information in isolation and assume it means that pages need about 1,500 words to rank on page one. But that isn’t what the study reveals. This is an example of correlation, not necessarily causation.
Just because the top-ranking pages in a particular study happened to have more words on them than the pages ranking 11th and lower does not make word count a ranking factor. John Mueller of Google has repeatedly dispelled this myth.
05. Google imposes duplicate content penalties
Another common SEO myth. The theory is that if you have content on your website that is duplicated elsewhere on the web, Google will penalize you for it. Not true, never has been.
Google understands that the web is made up of mostly duplicate content — If none of it ranked, we’d rarely get decent search results.
However, having copy that is taken from another web page might mean you can’t outrank that other page. Search engines may determine that the original source of the content is more relevant to the search query than yours.
Since there would be no benefit to having both references in the search results, yours gets suppressed. This is not a penalty. This is the Google algorithm doing its job.
06. Bounce rate is a ranking factor
Bounce rate is the percentage of visits to your website that result in no interactions beyond landing on a single page. It is typically measured by a website’s analytics program.
Some SEO professionals argue that bounce rate is a ranking factor because it is a measure of page quality. However, there are lots of reasons why a visitor might land on a web page and leave without further interaction with the site. Maybe they found all the information they needed on that one page, and left the site to call the company and book an appointment. In that instance, the visitor bouncing has resulted in a lead.
Bounce rate just isn’t reliable enough for a search engine to use as a measure of quality. A visitor clicking on a search result and then returning to the search result page (commonly called “pogo-sticking”), would be a more reliable indicator of the quality of a landing page. It would suggest that the content of the page was not what the user was after — So much so that they have returned to the search results to find another page, or try a different search.
07. PPC advertising helps search rankings
This myth claims that Google will favor websites that spend money with it through pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. This is simply false. The Google algorithms for ranking organic search results are totally separate from the ones used to determine PPC ad placements.
Keep in mind that running a paid search advertising campaign through Google might benefit your site for other reasons, but it won’t directly benefit your ranking.
08. Keywords in URLs are an important ranking factor
Traditional SEO wisdom claims that you should stuff your page URLs with relevant keywords — It’ll help your page rank better. Unfortunately, this tactic is not quite that powerful. According to John Mueller of Google, keywords in a URL are a very minor, lightweight ranking signal:
“Keywords in URLs are overrated for Google SEO. Make URLs for users. Also, on mobile you usually don’t even see them.”
If you’re thinking of rewriting your URLs to include more keywords, you’re likely to do more harm than good. Redirecting a bunch of URLs can be risky, and should only be done when absolutely necessary.
“You know what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid dream? And you know that if you don’t have a pencil and pad by the bed, it will be completely gone by the next morning. Sometimes it’s important to wake up and stop dreaming. When a really great dream shows up, grab it.”
09. Domain age is a ranking factor
This claim asserts that if a website has been around for a long time and is ranking well, age must be a ranking factor. This myth is as old as the world wide web, and Google has renounced it many times.
In fact, as recently as July 2019, Google Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller replied to a tweet that claimed that domain age was one of “200 ranking signals” saying:
“No, domain age helps nothing.”
The truth behind this myth is that an older website has had more time to do things well. For instance, a website that has been live and active for 10 years may well have acquired a high volume of relevant backlinks to its key pages.
A website that has been running for less than six months will be unlikely to compete with that. The older website appears to be ranking better, and the conclusion is that age must be the determining factor.
10. Better content equals better search rankings
I wish. One of the most common complaints in SEO forums and Twitter threads is:
“My competitor ranks above me, but I have better content.”
Unfortunately, the quality of content is a subjective consideration. If it’s your own content, it’s harder still to be objective. Maybe Google doesn’t consider your content better for the search terms you’re looking to rank for. Perhaps you don’t match searcher intent as well as your competitor does. Or, maybe you have “over-optimized” your content and reduced its quality.
In some cases, better content will equal better rankings. In others, the poor technical performance of the site, or its lack of local relevance, may cause it to rank lower. Content is just one factor among hundreds in the Google ranking algorithms.
11. Tabbed content affects rankings
Google has debunked this myth as recently as March 31, 2020, but it has been a contentious idea among many SEO professionals for years.
The premise is that Google will not assign as much value to any content that is sitting behind a tabbed interface or accordion structure. In other words, text that is not viewable on the first loading of a page.
However, if the content is visible in the source HTML, there is no reason to assume that it is being devalued just because it is not apparent to the user on the first load of the page.
This is not an example of “cloaking,” and Google can easily fetch the content. As long as there is nothing else that is stopping the text from being viewed by Google, it should be weighted the same as content that isn’t hidden.
12. You need to publish new content every day
Google loves frequent content. You should add new content, or revise existing content every day for “freshness.” We’ve all heard this idea dozens of times, but where did it come from?
Back in 2011 Google implemented an algorithm update that rewarded fresher results in the search engine result pages (SERPs). Why? Because — for some queries — the fresher the results, the greater the likelihood of accuracy.
What this algorithm update does not mean is that newer content will always outrank older content. Google decides if the query deserves “freshness” or not. If it does, then the age of content becomes a more important ranking factor.
This means that if you’re creating content purely to publish something newer than your competition, you aren’t necessarily going to benefit. If the query you are looking to rank for does not deserve freshness (for example, a fact that will not change), then the age of the content will not play a significant part in rankings.
So, if you’re writing content every day thinking it’s keeping your website fresh and more rank-worthy, than you’re likely wasting your time. You’d be better off writing well-researched, thoughtful, and useful articles less frequently — And making them highly authoritative and shareable.
13. Google places a high value on domain authority
PageRank was a link analysis algorithm used by Google to measure the importance of a web page. Google used to display a page’s PageRank score (1 to 10) on its toolbar.
Google stopped updating the PageRank toolbar display in 2013, and in 2016 they confirmed that the PageRank metric would no longer be used to determine search results.
In the absence of PageRank, many other third-party “authority” scores have been developed to determine the “value” of a page. However, no calculation can ever be an entirely accurate reflection of how a search engine values a page.
To confuse the issue even more, some SEO practitioners will refer to the ranking power of a website in conjunction with its backlink profile and, this too, is sometimes referred to as the domain’s authority.
14. SEO takes at least three months to have an effect
This excuse helps a lot of agencies get out of awkward conversations with their clients. It also leaves a lot of wiggle room if you aren’t getting the results you promised.
To be fair, there are some changes that will take time for the search engine bots to process. Then it can take some time to see if those changes are having a positive or negative effect. And more time might be needed to refine and tweak your work.
However, that doesn’t mean that any SEO activity you carry out is going to have no effect for three months. Day 90 of your work will not be when your ranking changes magically kick in. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
If you’re targeting niche terms in a very low competition market, you might see ranking changes as soon as Google recrawls your page. A competitive term in a very crowded market could take much longer to see changes in rank.
A study by SEO software suite Ahrefs suggested that of the 2 million keywords they analyzed, the average age of pages ranking in position 10 of Google was 650 days. This study indicates that newer pages struggle to rank high. However, there is more to SEO than ranking in the top 10 of Google.
For instance, a well-positioned Google Business Profile (formerly Google My Business) listing with great reviews can pay almost immediate dividends for a local company. Also, just a small tweak to a page title could see an improvement in click-through rates. That could be the same day if the search engine were to recrawl the page quickly.
Although it can take a long time to see first page rankings in Google, it is naive to reduce SEO success to a 3-month window.
15. Google values backlinks from all high-authority domains
The greater a website’s authority, the more a backlink from it will impact your site’s rank. That’s a frequent SEO claim, but it’s not the whole story.
For one, it’s debatable whether Google has a consistent concept of domain authority (see “Google places a high value on domain authority” above). More important is understanding that there’s much more that goes into Google’s calculations of whether a backlink will impact a site’s rank.
Link placement, relevancy, contextual clues, and link attributes should all be considered when chasing a link from a “high-authority domain” website.
16. You can optimize copy once and then it’s done
The term “SEO optimized content” is pretty common in web agency land. It’s used as a way to explain the process of creating copy that will be relevant to frequently searched queries. Unfortunately, this idea implies that all you have to do is write it once, then forget about it.
Not true. Ultimately, how searchers look for content over time might change. The keywords and phrases they use, and the type of content they want, could alter.
Also, search engines may revise what they interpret as the most relevant answer to a query. Perhaps the intent behind the keyword is perceived differently. The layout of search engine result pages can also change frequently, rearranging content in unfamiliar ways.
If you publish a page only once, and then don’t adapt it to user needs, then you risk falling behind.
17. Your website won’t rank well unless it’s lightning-fast
There are a lot of great reasons to make your web pages load fast: usability, crawlability, conversion rates. Speed is critically important for the overall performance and profitability of your website, and that should be enough to make it a priority.
However, is it absolutely essential to ranking your website? Probably not. Site speed is important, but it’s just one ranking factor among many.
Like most ranking factors, page load time alone won’t earn you a top spot on the SERPs, but a slow speed will hold you back from ranking higher. So what should you do? Try to improve your site speed, but keep optimizing your other search factors as well.
Also, keep in mind that Google rewards a good user experience (UX). Stripping down your site to a few bare-bones lines of HTML won’t necessarily boost your search rankings if you’ve destroyed the visual appeal or overall UX of the site in the process. You need to optimize both site speed and user experience to improve your search rankings.
Finally, when you’re in the weeds optimizing your site speed, do it strategically. Instead of trying to decrease all page load speed metrics at once, focus on the time to first byte (TTFB) metric first. TTFB is the time it takes for the first bits of website data to reach your browser. It’s arguably the highest-impact page speed metric.
So, page speed is definitely one of the ways Google decides which pages should rank above others, but not a major one.
18. Google recommends using only one H1 heading per page
Despite direct guidance from Google about their use, the SEO industry still can’t agree about how to use headings. So, does Google prefer using only one H1 heading? The answer is no.
Google’s John Mueller has stated that publishers are free to use as many H1 headings as they want:
“You can use H1 tags as often as you want on a page. There’s no limit, neither upper or lower bound. Your site is going to rank perfectly fine with no H1 tags or with five H1 tags.”
19. SEO is dead
In case you didn’t know, Google is an American technology company founded in 1998 that specializes in internet services; primarily online advertising, search services, and cloud computing. In 2015, Google reorganized as a subsidiary of a conglomerate called Alphabet.
Now, do you really think Alphabet — a multinational technology behemoth worth $1.4 trillion — is going to let you predictably manipulate the search results of its most profitable subsidiary, and the most powerful advertising platform in the world? Good luck.
No, SEO isn’t dead. But sometimes I wish it were.
As a web designer and developer, you need to separate myth from fact when it comes to search engine optimization. Here are some steps to help you navigate this complicated topic:
Educate yourself: Stay current and informed on the latest SEO trends and best practices. Read reputable blogs and websites, attend webinars, and participate in online forums to get correct and up-to-date information.
Verify information: Don’t believe everything you read online. If you hear about a new SEO technique or strategy, take the time to research and verify the information before implementing it on your website.
Focus on quality: Rather than trying to manipulate the search engines, focus on providing high-quality content and a positive user experience. This will help you build a strong online presence and attract organic traffic over time.
Ask for help: If you’re unsure about the validity of an SEO tactic, reach out to a trusted expert in the field. They can often provide accurate details and help you avoid costly mistakes.
Test your theory: If you’re considering a new SEO strategy, start with a small test to see if it works before fully implementing it on your website. This can help you avoid any potential negative effects on your search engine rankings.
- Outbound Links to Authority Sites Good For SEO?
- How long does it take to rank in Google?
- How to Spot SEO Myths: 26 Common SEO Myths, Debunked
- Google’s latest search algorithm to better understand natural language
- Overlooked Speed Factors That Impact Google Rankings
- H1 Headings: Over 50% of SEOs Doing it Wrong?
- Search Engine Market Share Worldwide
Revised: Mon February 13, 2023 at 1:06:10 PM PST