Common SEO Mistakes: 2012 Edition

SEO Mistakes Still Being Made by Fort Collins Business

If you own a business in Fort Collins and are interested in increasing the effectiveness of your website as a marketing tool, the best place to start is with the basics. Sadly, Site Image Studios (read more: SEO) is still seeing a lot of sites today that are not even doing that. What follows is our top 10 list for mid-2012 of fundamental SEO mistakes that can be easily and quickly remedied.

Irrelevant Backlinks

This is probably the most common mistake. My e-mail inbox regularly has messages from clients w/ a forwarded attachment from a Chinese or Indian SEO company offering them thousands of incoming links for pennies. Perusing the online SEO expert chatter, it's easy to see that incoming links are "good" for a site's true PageRank and position in search. However, what one might gloss over is the fact that those links should be first and foremost "relevant". For example: if you are a doctor links coming to your site should be from pages with contextually relevant medical information. The quality of that incoming page link is also a factor. If the page linking to our example doctor's website also has a hundred other links going to other sites, and/or contains no valuable and unique content, than not only will search engines not give you positive credit for the links, they will dock your search placement! Put yourself in Google's shoes... if people are buying incoming links and not naturally being linked by related sites that find your content useful, is Google doing a service for it's web surfers by promoting your site? No. Google understands you are trying to game their algorithm, and they don't like it. In fact, they may penalize your site for engaging link buying. The practice of buying incoming links is explicitly frowned upon by search engines. Focusing on quality content is your best bet for gathering incoming links. If you write well and provide users with resources they are actually looking for, the links will come on their own. Google's latest update, dubbed "Penguin", has recently demoted a vast number of sites for back-link trickery.

<H1> Tag(s)

Using multiple H1 tags is a really easy mistake to make. Often times I see WordPress installations with a H1 tag built into the template's default page display, and unaware site owners using another H1 tag at the top of their page's content. Looking at the source code of your site is an important step during your site's construction. It is important to identify what tags you are using and where. In the case of H1 tags, this is particularly important, because search engines tend to "freak out" a bit when they see the second. As they try to classify and categorize your page's content, search engines will look for the H1 tag straight away, and will only look at so many characters contained therein. If a second H1 tag is present, it may not look at it at all. It may devalue the page overall or confuse the categorization with the second tag in unpredictable ways. To be clear... you get ONE H1 tag per page. Only one. Use it well.

Keyword Obfuscation

This is another very common mistake and I see it most on websites that are keyword stuffing (see below). Let's say you have a site that primarily sells golf balls, just for example. The stated marketing goal of the owner is placement on page one for the term "golf balls". That's all pretty logical. Now let's say this company also sells golf accessories... gloves, clubs, shoes, bags, hats, shirts, etc... So in order to have the full offerings of this company made clear on the first page of the site, the navigation contains a bulleted list of items that looks something like this:
  • Golf Balls
  • Golf Gloves
  • Golf Clubs
  • Golf Shoes
  • Golf Bags
  • Golf Hats
  • Golf Shits
The search engine finally comes to index your page and see what it's about. It finds this list in the navigation, and since all of these pages are on the same domain, the search engine understands this list is about the site. So how will it classify the page and the site? Golf... stuff? It's about golf stuff. In general terms, this may help the site overall for the search term "golf *something*", but because the emphasis is the generic "stuff" and not the focused term "balls", it is hurts the designer or SEO's goal of a focused result for the term "golf balls". This lack of focus can sometimes be the difference of a page one or a page something else for the client's stated goal.

Not Using Image Alt Tags

Search engines aren't very good at looking at a picture and figuring out what it is a picture of and how it's relevant to your site's content. In order to help them out and make a site easier to use for the disabled, the image "alt" tag was created. In many browsers you can see this atribute with a text pop-up to the side of your cursor when you mouse-over an otherwise non-linked image. In your call for an image to display on your site, a small description of that image should be added to the code. If you want to write valid XHTML, the "alt" attribute is required for the img tag. Despite the fact that this will make your site more accessible, more useful in the eyes of search engines, and more focused with regards to content, people still seem to have problems incorporating it into their site's design and development. As a rule, you should always add the alt attribute. Make your description clear, concise, contextual, and correct. If you try to game the search engine by putting a bunch of BS in your image's description, they may give you a placement demotion for unsavory placement tactics.

Going Meta Crazy

Meta tags typically are found in the header section of your web page's source code and are not plainly visible to somebody visiting your site. They exist primarily for search engines and indexes which are trying to index your content by describing what the page is about. Most people familiar with building websites are aware of the "keywords" and "description" meta tags. Usually a search engine will only read so far before they ignore the rest of what is in the tag. For instance, Bing might use about 6 keywords in the "keywords" metatag before ignoring the rest (Google largely ignores the "keywords" meta tag altogether). Google only reads about 155 characters (not words!) in your description. If you go a little over on your keywords or description, the additional content will likely be ignored. If you go WAY over what they read, you could get a ding or demotion in page value for stuffing the descriptions. Again, this practice is viewed as trying to "game" the search engine, and any time you do that you risk being labeled as a "bad guy". Beyond abuse of the tags themselves, I also see a lot of websites that use a "kitchen sink" approach to the tags themselves. You see, there exists a galaxy of different, less often used meta tags. I've seen sites with over 40 descriptors in their source code before. Tags like "author", "robots", "distribution", "rating", "pragma", "generator, "abstract", and "comments" can tell useful things about a page, but it's contextually dependent and particularly on commercial websites, make the page appear over-produced. Search engines like it when you follow SEO best practices, but if you put in every possible meta description it's going to look unnatural. If you are selling widgets, is it really relevant who the "author" of the site is? Now books... that might be another matter. As a general rule, if you don't know what the tag does or specifically why you are using it on any given page, don't.

Not Using 301 Redirects

When you move or delete a post or page on your site, there's a high probability that that page still exists in the index of search engines, and that there may be some incoming links to the site. Perhaps you have moved your site to a new domain, or are merging two sites into one. In these instances Google recommends using a server side 301 redirect, which points those outdated back-links and index listings to the correct or new page. In this way you can preserve your PageRank and keep your site from appearing to have dead links. The 301 redirect means the page has permanently moved to a new location. Not using 301 redirects can lead to the impression that your site's content isn't important and that the site is not being actively maintained.

Ignoring SiteMaps and Page Crawling Errors

A sitemap helps search engines discover and index your site. Without it, search engines have to muddle along on their own, following links on all of your pages to determine site structure on their own. If your sitemap is out of date, it may contain pages that no longer exist, or omit pages that have been recently created. This creates errors when search engines "crawl" or index your site. Again, this causes a myriad of problems for your site. Most modern open-source content management systems (CMS) like WordPress and Drupal have plugins for automatic sitemap generation that largely render this problem moot, but I still frequently see sites without any sitemap at all or with a sitemap that is woefully out of date.

WordPress SEO Plug-ins

It can be a bit tricky to find a good SEO Plug-in for WordPress. Some of them do more harm than good, making it easier for site owners who may not be well versed in why white hat SEO is the way to go start down the path of smarmy placement manipulation tactics that will hurt their site greatly later down the road. Others inject code or compress code that can cause parts of the site to function improperly, leading to errors in certain server calls or the display of their content. Still others just do too much in a generic way, making the site appear over produced in SEO terms while remaining generic in focus and impact. There are some good SEO plugins out there, but make sure you research the one you select and understand what it is doing. Is it linking every one of your pages to the developers SEO site? What kind of comments and unnecessary code are being injected into your site and why? Are some of your scripts behaving strangely or breaking when "minified"? Are duplicate or irrelevant tags being created? An SEO tool can save you a bit of time and give you finer control of your site, but it is not a replacement for SEO knowledge and experience. Most SEO tools are weighed in on by SEO experts across the web... make sure you do your research before you select one, and make sure you know what it is doing and why.

Keyword Stuffing

Do you sell coffee? Is your coffee the best coffee out of all the coffee options available? If someone likes coffee, and wants the coffee-est coffee ever roasted by coffee experts in a coffee roasting coffee house that serves coffee loving coffee heads, can your coffee meet their coffee loving coffee needs? Yikes. That - is - pure - garbage. Nobody wants to read that. It sounds stupid, makes your clients think you are stupid, and will not help your site rank. Why? Because search engines are not stupid. They know that this drivel does not represent normal language at all. They can see that the word "coffee" is the focus of your site from your title tag, description, and content, and they have a pretty good idea of what you are up to. You are keyword stuffing your site to make it look like you are more focused on this topic than the next site. The problem is, when search engines detect this, they know you are trying to game them. Their response may range from demoting or "dinging" your site's placement for being spammy and providing weak content, to outright banning you from their search results altogether. It won't always hit you on the first pass. There are levels of search and just because you got away with something for a few months doesn't mean your luck will continue. It will catch up with you eventually. It's more important to work on the quality of your content than mere keyword density.

Page Titles

Search engines only show at max about 66 characters of your page title. So why are some people writing a book in their "title" tag? For one, it looks again like you might be trying to game the system when you do this. If you want to write an effective page title for your site, I suggest you do a few things. Keep the title short, and make sure it makes sense to a reader. Avoid starting your title with "Welcome to" or "the" as these words aren't helping get your site properly indexed, and if someone bookmarks your "welcome to" page it's going to be alphabetically under "w" which puts it at the bottom of their bookmark list. Avoid words like "great" or "awesome" as these are just filler and again, not useful for indexing. Use a dash - or bar | for separating ideas in your title. Finally, and most importantly, don't use the same title on every page. It renders every title on the site useless, since you re effectively telling your users and the search engines 1) your titles are not accurate, 2) you don't care, 3) the differentiation of content on this website is irrelevant as is the content itself.
For more tips and information regarding SEO best practices, I strongly recommend reading Google's Webmaster Guidelines at this link. If you are interested in setting up a website, marketing, or SEO assessment with Site Image Studios, please contact us here!
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