Worst SEO Practices

In business, many people talk in terms of “best practices” and “worst practices”. To start with, I would like to say that this is a BS term cooked up so that people have a way to back out of doing things the right way. It’s a politically correct term that people hide behind. I hate it. Instead of saying “you did this the wrong way” or “you took a shortcut that cost us time and money” people say “you did not adhere to best practices” and that somehow makes it less of a bad thing.

So here I present my list of SEO worst practice, or, SEO mistakes, in no particular order. This is going to cover both SEO implementation and theory.

1. Overselling optimization

The first mistake many SEO specialists make is to oversell SEO. Whether it’s their services or just the concept in general, it is really easy to get worked up over how much of an impact SEO can have, and sometimes clients think that they’ll instantly get to #1 on Google for whatever keyword they want if they just reformat their page titles.

It doesn’t work like that.

It’s important for SEO professionals, or people bringing the concept to their companies, to make sure that their clients know that it’s a slow process that might not show enormous results for their keywords. If a small mom and pop burger joint wants to target the “hamburger” keyword, they will probably not do very well, due to the ENORMOUS competition. It’s important to make sure that expectations are realistic.

2. “If only I did this, I could trick Google and improve my rank!”

No. You can’t. Sorry.

The first thing a lot of people say when they are introduced to SEO (especially those with some sort of stake in the project, whether it’s a content person, or a designer, or a developer) is “if I did X I could have my cake and eat it too!”.

Sometimes people suggest various methods of cloaking, which is in layman’s terms hiding content from the search engine so you can target keywords that might not be relevant to the site. For example if you saw that the keyword “puppies” wasn’t competitive (yeah yeah, unrealistic, cut me some slack!) but your site was about the rise and fall of Enron, you obviously won’t rank for “puppies”. But! says the enterprising new SEO recuit. “If I create a fake page with puppy information and then automatically redirect to my Enron page, I can get lots of hits!”

Trust me: If you can think of an idea on how to trick Google, rest assured someone else has already thought of it, tried it, succeeded, gotten caught, and had the loophole closed. It’s not worth spending any time thinking about.

Cloaking and other black hat SEO techniques can (and will) get your site blacklisted from most notable search engines.

3. Concessions

Someone will always oppose SEO. People actively working on a project will all of course want SEO, because it’s not undesirable for most any site.

That said, one person will always oppose the practical implementation of SEO while praising the concept itself. This is, honestly, one of the hardest things to deal with. Whether it’s a content writer not wanting to retool their text, or a designer not wanting to sully their wonderful design with ugly formatting (bold etc), or a developer not wanting to rely on 301 redirects and external js/css files, someone will want concession after concession.

“Well, we’ll implement this aspect of SEO if we don’t do this other aspect of SEO to maintain balance” or something along those lines.

Ugh. What people need to understand is, plain and simple, these “rules” of SEO are not meant as punishment, it’s meant as a complementary system that feeds and grows on itself. One aspect of SEO is not enough, ever. All of them is ideal.

Make too many concessions, and despite tons of effort, you’ll see little to no gain.

4. Too much Javascript!

Kind of a minimalistic header, javascript can be a pain in the ass for SEO. It’s not bad on its own. Stick all your javascript in an external file, reference it in the head, and away you go, nice clean page.

But, sometimes, javascript can be a burden. For example, what happens if you have a javascript-driven popup link on your site? The search bot won’t follow that link because it can’t. You now have deadspace search engine-wise on your site.

It’s tempting to use javascript, but in moderation.

5. Keyword stuffing/forgetting keywords

Covering both ends of the spectrum, keyword stuffing is the act of putting as many instances of a keyword on a page, or having way too many keywords.

This ultimately hurts SEO because the engine knows what you are trying to do. Think of a search engine as a self-aware machine. It is Skynet but without the killing part (so far). It is much smarter than you think.

Stuffing keywords will get you blacklisted, but forgetting keywords will get you laughed at. If the content writers don’t want to rewrite the content for web copy, or you forget to update it, and there are no keywords, the search engine bots will get confused and you won’t rank highly for anything. How is it supposed to know what your site is about unless you tell it?

SEO – How to sell it to your company

Learning about Search Engine Optimization is one thing. Anyone can load up some articles, read about some techniques, and try to apply them to your website. But what do you do when your company needs to adopt SEO practices?

Here’s something I learned through trial-by-fire: selling the concept of SEO is an incredibly easy task. Selling the practices, though, is difficult. Everyone wants to reap the benefits of increased traffic and better placement, but no one wants to commit to changing their behavior and work style.

Anecdotally, I recently took the plunge and introduced the concepts behind SEO to the company I work for. The idea was met with enthusiasm, for sure. The tasks were laid out, and it was decided that, experimentally, we would try it on one of our products.

This is where first resistance was met. Interestingly enough, the people who were fine with changing their ways were not the ones I expected. Content writers were fine with changing how they wrote, PMs were fine with building it into their schedule, Marketing was fine with a new method of keyword analysis and selection, and all three of these groups were fine with working together. In terms of the technical side of things, though, there were some bumps.

Briefly mentioning to some colleagues of mine some SEO concepts, I usually ran into disagreement. Things like how to redirect a page, or not to use Javascript to link were met with dissenting opinions. After some time, I was able to convince them, but at first there was backlash. I suppose that when you’ve been doing something for a while, it’s tough to hear that you should do it differently.

Another roadblock was from the design side. They wanted to have a specific way of naming images to make it easier for them, namely the idea of adding a prefix (m for menu, l for link, etc) to every image, including the page name in there, and using underscores. I suggested that, instead of using image names to convey organization, use folders and subfolders. /images/home/topnav/keyword-image-name.jpg, for example. That idea did not go over very well, not to everybody, and so the image names were not optimized.

To show you how important image names and other image-related factors can be, consider that just yesterday, I received a spike in traffic on this blog. After some investigation, it turns out I have received a TON of referrals from google image search, because my Macbook review page is the first result in a google image search for the term “macbook”. This garnered some serious traffic, so don’t try to argue that image names are irrelevant!

Another roadblock in selling SEO to the company as a whole is people who want to use SEO to cover their asses, or just improve their products before it is ready. One of the more important aspects of enterprise-level SEO is having a process in place. A process will severely reduce overhead for SEO and make it virtually transparent, once initial education costs are over with.

It can be tough in the meantime, as word of SEO and related success is sure to spread around the company. If you are the one taking this initiative, prepare yourself to get an onslaught of requests to implement SEO into sites. You’ll get lots of questions, like “how long would it take to implement on my project”, and “just tell me what to do so I can do it myself”. You’ll need to know how to deal with these kinds of requests, since your sell will likely garner these kinds of requests once or twice a day.

In short, you want to sell to the people that will allow you to quietly set up a process that will eventually get disseminated to the rest of the company. It can be really tough to do, sadly, but the payoff is more than worth it.

How to find and avoid SEO scams

A friend of mine brought this topic to my attention recently (thanks T!), so I thought I would riff on it a bit.

 Search engine optimization has become a pretty hot topic recently. Everyone wants a piece of the SEO pie (which is a topic I am saving for another day … oy vey), but where do you look for enlightenment on the subject? The market is chock full of people who know their stuff – even though many people disagree on certain finer points or how to specifically implement things, most people agree on a lot of ideas and topics.

Unfortunately there are a lot of people who simply do not know what they are doing who are making assloads of money off of it. How do you spot the good from the bad?

The best defense against people running an SEO scam is a little bit of knowledge. You can find tons of free advice on the internet. I mean, tons. There are forums, communities, portals built off of the idea of sharing thoughts on optimization. If you are truly clueless about SEO, I can tell you right now that it would be a waste of your money and time to attend a seminar headed up by a guy whose website looks like this: http://www.1seomichigan.com/ .

This guy’s site, Michigan SEO or whatever he wants to call himself, is an SEO disaster. This is his sales pitch to the world, and he failed. Miserably. And then, what’s more, he tricks you.

SEO basics

 First of all, the basics of SEO are not present. You may notice as well that the site looks hideous. How pretty your images are does not matter, fortunately. Anyway what does he do wrong?

Right off the bat, there is a large chunk of the top of the screen that is made up of images. That is not great, because keyword position on the page (also called prominance) can affect SEO. Next, the header there is large, and yet does not help his SEO as much because it is styled with CSS instead of using a CSS-styled <h1> tag. Header tags matter, yet they were ignored here.

What I’m trying to get at here, folks, is that this guy doesn’t use basic SEO techniques on his website. There are more, rest assured that it’s not very good from an SEO standpoint. Using a neat SEO keyword tool I found while cruising around one day, I did a keyword analysis of his page. Ideally you want a few keywords (I usually use 4 keywords, sometimes of multiple words) with between 4-7%. More than 7% is okay, but more than 10% is bad. This is “density” on the page so your keywords need to be used a lot. The more words, the more times the keywords need to be used to even be considered keywords.

Now look again at that guy’s site. He has a LOT of words. Lots. He has more than a homepage should ever have. So looking through his page for keywords, there are, literally, none. The highest density is around 2.86%. To really be considered a true keyword, you should have at least 4%. To be considered a minor keyword, you’re looking at between 3 and 4%.

According to my friend, this guy recommends you have 10 keywords of 4% each, and so your keywords should account for 40% of your page’s content. This is, obviously, terrible advice. And to put the icing on the cake, he doesn’t even follow his own advice. He recommends 10 keywords at 4%; he has 0 keywords above 3%.

Sales pitch

This guy’s sales pitch is his images. Clearly, they are there to attempt to show off his awesome SEO skills with which he uses to own Google. Let’s look closer at these claims, and I can tell you why they mean nothing.

Claim #1: 7 out of the top 10 sites!

Myth: This makes him a good SEO person

Fact: He is using obscure search terms in that image, to make himself look better.

Seriously, look closely. Sure he has 7 sites on that page. But look at his search term.  “bonacure michigan” is the term. Guess how many TOTAL sites use that term? 184. Guess how many people a month search for “bonacure michigan”? How useful is that 7/10 now?

Claim #2: These are our keywords, we beat out 160,000 sites, we occupy 3 spots

Myth: This proves that his SEO methods work

Fact: Not so. Again, he uses an obscure keyword. While it may or may not be impressive to you that he has three sites in the top 160,000 sites, remember that most likely very few people are actually trying to optimize for “ope michigan” or whatever that term is. With your website you will have competition, people who are actually TRYING to beat you will if you listen to this guy’s advice.

Keep this in mind: if this is proof of greatness, I am at least ten times as great as this guy at SEO. Do a search for my name plus SEO, “James martin SEO”. This blog is the first result, and I beat out over a million people for that spot. Again, though, how useful is that? Not many people search for that!

Rampant claims

This site, and keep in mind that this guy, for the sake of this article, represents all SEO scammers everywhere, makes grand claims about Flash here. Some of them I made myself, and was corrected by Adobe. He claims:

MYTH: Search Engines Cannot Read Flash

TRUTH: Search engines see Flash as a Black Box. It cannot see what is actually going on inside of it – so a lot of your text and words get read as artwork…. Which doesn’t do you a whole heck of a lot of good!THE REAL WORD PERSPECTIVE: As of this writing only
one search engine can read the keywords that you place inside
of your Flash movie….
This is somewhat wrong as well. There are ways you can take Flash and make it useful for SEO. I have talked about it before on this very blog. Ways like SWFObject can allow you to stick content where the Flash goes and the search engines can see it. Plus, Google can index Flash content. Not superbly awesome, and it (rightly) ranks it way lower than actual html content.

Scammers will use Flash as an example of something to avoid at all costs. This is not true. You should avoid using all Flash, for sure, but you can use Flash on your site without worrying if you have a competent SEO person behind the helm.

Conclusion

I could go on about what this guy is doing wrong. So how do you find someone who is doing things right? The best way would be to search for meaningful terms. The next would be to learn a little yourself about SEO and apply that knowledge to the SEO person’s site.

Of course, if you’re learning about SEO in general, what good is hiring someone? The benefit here would be to help you apply SEO to your specific site, instead of to teach you the basics.

You can also remember that if you plan on spending a lot of money learning SEO techniques, you could always contact me instead! I probably charge less.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to email me James Martin, or leave a comment below!

Do image names really matter?

I find people asking me this question all the time lately. Image names, file names, do they really make a difference? Alt tags are important, obviously, but what about filenames?

Luckily, the answer to this question is easy. Yes they matter. That’s it. That’s the answer.

To be a little more precise, image names make a big difference in search engine optimization. If you don’t care about search engines then I guess you can stop reading right here. If you actually care about web traffic, though, search engines should make a huge difference.

One good way of seeing what the content on your page looks like to a web crawler is to use a program like LynxViewer. Lynx is a command-line based browser that is neat to use but not widely popular for many obvious reasons. My apologies if you are reading this on Lynx. Obviously you can’t view images in a command line (ASCII aside) and neither can the search engine crawlers.

They can, however, see image names and alt tags. Alt tags are best considered the same as content on the page. Don’t put anything in an alt tag that you wouldn’t want written as content, because that’s how it’s seen. Image names, though, are completely obscured to the user (unless they really want to find out, but honestly out of the thousands of images you see every day how many do you check?). This makes it awfully tempting to want to name it something useful for the developer. Popular examples are rightMenuAboutPage.gif or headTopWhiteCorner4.gif. Sometimes we use auto-generation programs to get image names and end up with 3459584711938.gif.

These filenames are hurting your optimization efforts. rightmenuaboutpage is not a word, much less a keyword you want to optimize for, but Google and other search engines give weight – arguably more than alt tags – to file names. In essence you are dilutingyour keyword pool with gibberish.

Okay so what do I do about it?

Another tempting methodology is to name your files better, but with underscores. white_elephant_ears.jpg tells me that you have a picture of a set of white elephant ears. It does not tell this to search engines.

I know, I just said that search engines give weight to filenames. That’s still true. The problem with the above elephant example is that it uses underscores. This is interpretted by a search engine as an actual character as opposed to a space. It’s the equivalent of putting ANY character there. You might as well use “t” instead of an underscore because it’s the same thing to a search engine crawler. whitetelephanttears.jpg.

The solution is to use dashes. It has been proven in the past (search around) that dashes do better than underscores when optimizing images for search engines. white-elephant-ears.jpg is the equivalent of telling google “white elephant ears”, which is presumably what you want. This technique will help you increase keyword density, add new relevant keywords, and increase search engine traffic (in theory).

Summary

Really, if you don’t have keywords, or some sort of descriptive word to use as a filename, you should get some. This won’t work as well without useful text in the filename. Still, a slightly irrelevant filename will do better than 458712937.jpg.

Ultimately a combination of useful filenames and descriptive keyword-oriented alt tags will go pretty far in increasing search engine ranks. I read a blog just this morning about a guy who increased his traffic threefold from search engines merely by optimizing his images. Obviously there’s no guarantee that you will see these same kind of results, but it will certainly be a step in the right direction.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to contact me, James Martin.
Email me, or comment below!

Top 4 reasons you should learn SEO

There’s been a lot written about search engine optimization, and the topic can be controversial. Developers think it’s marketing, marketing also thinks it’s marketing and then fails, and content writers are glad they don’t have to worry about such things. This is the state of many companies right now, and probably one of the biggest reasons that SEO is such a lucrative field right now.

As a developer, I find it invaluable to learn SEO tactics and techniques. Here’s why:

1. Initiative in the workplace

Most developers know nothing – or more accurately, care nothing – about search engine optimization. It’s not our job, who cares? If you take the time to learn, and take initiative to enforce its practices, then your value to the company will go up. Or your job will be outsourced to some third party vendor.

Developers are more interested in new technology to worry about optimization of old technology, much less technology that no one really understands. New versions of Visual Studio, .NET, Gnome, upcoming tools like Silverlight and LINQ can distract developers away from boring old optimization. With SEO skills you will stand out in a crowd, add to your resume, and provide a skill that relatively few people possess.

2. Save time now, play harder later

The fact of the matter is, unless you hire a hands-on consultant, developers will be doing the actual grunt work behind search engine optimization. HTML coding including alt tags, page titles, etc. usually fall under that jurisdiction. Certainly changing IIS settings can be included in a dev’s job in a pinch. If you start of coding things for SEO, then you will definitely save time later.

The reason for this is optimizing is incredibly easy if all the wheels are turning on a project. It can be like a beautiful machine, all the gears turning and everything falling into place, if people are educated from the get-go. However, retrofitting existing projects can be a chore. A terrible, complicated chore. Scour a website and find all the images, add alt text, change the filename to something meaningful, and make sure all the links are updated. Test, because that’s a major change. After testing, push live. Repeat for all the other minor yet significant changes.

Now consider getting a set of images already named correctly from a designer and placing them on a new page during the development phase. No new work so far, you do that anyway. The designer made a very subtle change in the way they work and things are already progressing smoother. Then consider getting a list of alt tags from a content person with a key to what image they belong to. Place alt tag in image tag, and you’re done. That’s it. Much easier than hunting and pecking each existing image, and the best part is this was all done without spending any extra money.

3. Save the company money on consultants

Consultants cost. They can cost big time. And yes, consultants can be useful if you don’t know what you are doing, or if the boss deems it necessary to double-check and validate what you are doing. Learning SEO techniques will make this process smoother, at the very least, minimizing costly consultant time. It can also eliminate the need for consultants if a knowledgeable person takes the time to educate others. Some companies may be more comfortable having an outside come and explain things to them for whatever reason, but internal resources should, and often do, take precedence.

And who knows? More money in the company coffers may mean more money for you at raise time.

4. Personal use

It may not seem like there are many personal uses for SEO, but there are. Consider wanting to start your own personal site, say a natural dog food recommendation site. Right now there is a lot of competition for “natural dog food”, the search term brings up 28 million hits on Google. According to the tool overture, the term gets searched only 4482 times in the month of January.

This means the ratio is:

4,482 / 28,000,000 = 0.000160071429

That is obviously not ideal. Very very small number of people looking for the same thing as you. Broadening out to just “dog food”, though, gives you the following: 26,964 searches in a month, and 84 million pages. This time the math looks like:

26,964 / 84,000,000 = 0.000321

Still not ideal, but a step in the right direction. The higher the ratio, the more likely you are to get hits on your new site. This can be used to target a specific niche audience and get great search results. Search results translate into higher number of visitors, and your site may be off to a successful start. In the example above I chose some random keywords based on things I saw around me (wordpress’ suggested tags, actually) and came up with those numbers. If I were really making a site about dog food I would play around with keywords / searchers more trying to get that ratio up. Is there a specific brand or area I could single out, or a highly searched brand that gets little sites mentioning it, etc.

All done through a little bit of knowledge. SEO is an important skillset, and should be a tool in the repertoire of many programmers, but sadly it is often overlooked. The results you can get by a little bit of applied knowledge can surprise you.

 If you look around, you can find other sites that display technical knowledge of SEO and project management as well. Good to know I’m not alone.

 


 Questions? Comments? Contact me, James Martin, if you care to further discuss the topic.

Email or comment!

How to Sell Search Engine Optimization

Search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the cornerstones of a successful website. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the benefits of proper SEO management and are further unaware of the ease at which it can be implemented with proper planning.

 I am currently fighting the good fight where I work, attempting to get SEO awareness adopted by management, content editors, developers, web designers, project managers, and everyone in between. And I won’t lie, it’s a hard sell. Sadly, people in charge of technology rarely fully understand it. This is not a rip on managers and business types, but rather just an observation that many people in positions of power lack the technical expertise that people like developers have come to take for granted.

For instance, one person I tried to convince to hop on the SEO bandwagon said that it was not necessary to plan for SEO unless marketing tells you that there is a problem. Obviously, people with technical knowledge of web development would tend to disagree, considering that it is umpteen times more difficult to retrofit an existing web page with search-engine oriented code than it is to start from the ground up.

With a new project, you can plan for all the little things that add up – image names, formatting the page titles correctly, setting up sitemaps, making meaningful links, etc. After a site is deployed and has grown for a few months or years, you may lose track of all the images that exist, or all the links to images, or a multitude of other things.

Another tempting argument against adopting SEO company-wide is that you need “a guy” for SEO. This, I heartily believe, is a mistake. It’s tempting to want to hire “a guy” to handle all that for you, but this is not in the spirit of SEO. A consultant may come on temporarily to help out, but ultimately it is the company itself that needs to change. Small changes, sure, but “a guy” will not help out as much as it would seem.

 The bottom line is that SEO is not a marketing thing, a development thing, a design thing, or a content thing. It is a combination of all of these groups and teams that need to come together to market the site. Cross-department pollination, so to speak. Marketing needs to come up with key terms and monitor the status of things like advertisement (adword keywords, for example), and those key terms should then go to content people to make sure they are including them in the content.

Likewise, content people should inform marketing if they are using a term that is not on the list regularly that deals directly with the site. This list of keywords should then be kepy