Among clients, forum members, newsletter subscribers, and seminar attendees, many hours of my day are spent answering questions about organic SEO. One thing I’ve noticed is that newbies and oldies alike are paralyzed when it comes to optimizing their websites because they have an irrational fear of doing something wrong.
Part of this fear and uncertainty comes from a misunderstanding of SEO and how it should be used as a marketing tool. SEO is not some sort of paid placement or a search engine positioning tool. Due to ever-changing search engine algorithms, attempts to move up in the rankings by a few positions for one specific keyword phrase are mostly futile. This is not to say that it can’t be done, it’s just that the jump will not be permanent.
This effect is even more pronounced because today’s search engines have numerous data centers as well as personalized and geographical components to them. In other words, doing a search for a specific keyword phrase at different times or different days or even on another computer may show your site ranking differently in the search engines each time. Therefore, it’s critical to look at the big picture for your SEO campaign, as opposed to sweating the small SEO stuff.
The important things I’m talking about are stuff like the age, popularity, and authority of your site, as well as its usability and overall appeal to its target audience.
By the small stuff, I mean the picky details that paralyze people. Things like how many words or characters should be in a title tag. Or in what order those words should be placed. Or how many times a keyword phrase should be in the copy. Or how many keyword phrases any page can be optimized for. Or should commas be used in the Meta keyword tag. Or should file names have hyphens in them. Or should headlines use H1 tags (or H2 tags, or whatever).
Guess what? None of that stuff matters! Pretty crazy coming from an SEO, huh? But seriously, it really doesn’t matter. When you get caught up in those minor details, you will lose your focus on what does matter. For instance, arguably one of the most important SEO things you can do is in-depth keyword research. Yet time and again those who have no data on what people are really typing into search engines will ask in what order the keywords should appear in their titles. Half the time, they’re using words that people don’t type into the search engines!
And then there are those who stress over the number of times a keyword phrase should appear on their page, yet the page is buried so deeply in the site architecture that it won’t be given any weight by the engines anyway!
Despite what Google and their webmaster guidelines would like you to believe, there are no rules when it comes to SEO, and making honest mistakes isn’t going to get your site banned. Too many or two few words somewhere is not going to land you in Google Hell. Playing with your title tags until you are satisfied that they are helping to drive traffic to your site is a good thing, but there is no absolute right or wrong formula for them. You could create your title tag using 50 different configurations and still have the same rankings.
This doesn’t mean you should stuff keywords anywhere and everywhere. It simply means that if you’re truly making your site better for your human visitors while also keeping the search engines in mind, you can pretty much do whatever you want—it’s your site! Never be afraid to test out lots of different SEO techniques—you can’t hurt anything permanently. Just be careful of falling into the old trap of mixing up cause and effect. Remember that rankings go up and down at any given moment in time, and making your headline an H1 may not have caused the higher (or lower) ranking that you noticed a few days later. Most likely, the difference would have occurred with or without your change.
Good SEO for the 21st century is not contained in the small stuff. Like most marketing strategies, it’s about building up credibility and trust for your brand and your website, which in turn will naturally help it in the search engines as you work on (but not obsess over) the small stuff.
Jill Whalen, CEO and founder of High Rankings, a search marketing firm outside of Boston, and co-founder of SEMNE, a New England search marketing networking organization, has been performing SEO since 1995. Jill is the host of the High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.
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