In the spirit of Halloween, columnist Jeremy Knauff shares some frighteningly outdated SEO tactics that simply won’t die!
As we approach Halloween and our Netflix queues again fill up with all manner of spooky, startling and downright horrifying monsters, I’m reminded of another kind of monster we should all be afraid of: outdated SEO tactics.
These tactics range from harmless but ineffective (like Casper the Friendly Ghost) all the way to completely devastating (like Freddy Krueger). And much like the bad guy in so many of the horror movies we all grew up watching, these tactics never seem to die, despite common sense, SEO professionals, and even Google warning people away from them.
So today, we’re going to delve into 13 outdated SEO tactics that you should be terrified of and avoid at all costs.
1. Link and article directories
Link directories are generally useless today, with the exception of high-quality, niche-specific directories that follow strict editorial guidelines.
Long before search engines were as powerful and effective as they are today, link directories served as a way to categorize websites so that people could find what they were looking for. Thanks to the simplicity of installing and using the software that powers them, marketers’ insatiable appetite for fast and easy links, and website owners’ hunt for additional revenue streams, link directories exploded in popularity.
But, since they didn’t provide any real value to visitors, search engines began to ignore many of these link directories — and they quickly lost their effectiveness as a link-building tactic. Eventually, link directories became a toxic wasteland of low-quality links that could actually get your website penalized.
Article directories are even worse. What started off as a way to share your brilliant insight with a larger audience while earning links, this tactic was quickly abused. Marketers began using software to “rewrite” their articles and submit them to thousands of article directories at a time.
As with link directories, article directories — now bloated with low-quality content — simply hit a point at which they provided no value to visitors. Marketers just used them for fast and easy links. Indeed, the glut of low-quality content flooding the web through these article directories appeared to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back right before the release of Google’s Panda update, which decimated countless websites.
With the exception of high-quality, niche-specific link directories — and you may only find one or two in any given industry — you should avoid link and article directories entirely.
2. Exact-match domains
For a while, exact-match domains (EMDs) were a hot topic because they became a silver bullet for search engine optimization. It was easy to throw up a microsite on an exact-match domain and rank far more quickly than a traditional, branded domain — often in weeks, sometimes in days.
With an EMD, your domain matches the exact keyword phrase you’re targeting. For example:
But much like a werewolf when the full moon wanes, EMDs quickly lost their power as Google adjusted their algorithm.
Exact-match domains have the potential to rank as well as any other domain, but they also seem to have a higher potential to be flagged for spam, either algorithmically or manually. They become an even riskier proposition when you consider that they generally aren’t as “brandable,” and as a result, the domain will generally be viewed as less trustworthy, which can reduce conversions and make link building more difficult.
3. Reciprocal linking
Search engines view a link to another site as a “vote” for that site — so reciprocal linking is essentially saying, “If you vote for me, I’ll vote for you.” This is the very definition of manipulative linking practices, yet that didn’t stop millions of marketers from blindly trading links, even with websites that had zero relevance to theirs.
Worse yet, rather than links embedded within valuable content, these links were often simply dumped on a “links” or “resources” page, sometimes broken into categorical pages, along with hundreds of other links, offering no value to visitors.
This tactic, though ineffective today, still stumbles slowly along like a putrid and rotting zombie, more than a decade after its death.
4. Flat URL architecture
This isn’t really a “tactic” as much as it is just the default way WordPress is set up, and most people don’t know that they need to change it.
Ex. 1: http://domain.com/page1/
Ex. 2: http://domain.com/topic1/page1/
A flat URL structure (Ex. 1) makes it more difficult for search engines to understand the hierarchy of your website because all of your pages are treated with the same level of importance, while a faceted or nested URL structure (Ex. 2) clearly communicates the importance of each page within your website in relation to every other page within your website.
The first step is to change your default permalink settings. Then, if you haven’t already, publish your second-level pages, and create corresponding blog categories; or, if they already exist, move them and set up any applicable redirects.
The slugs for your categories must exactly match the slugs for your second-level pages. This little detail is critical because it determines how search engines will value each page within your website relative to other pages within your website.
Once properly configured, each third-level page and blog post will appear as a sub-page of the applicable second-level page based on the blog category it is assigned to. In other words, each third-level page/post adds more authority to the page it appears nested under.
It’s important to think this through thoroughly because changing it later means having to redirect all of the pages in your website and potentially losing ranking.
5. Indiscriminate guest blogging
Contrary to what some people claim, guest blogging is far from dead. However, it has changed dramatically. To fully understand the context, it’s important to understand the evolution of guest blogging over the years.
Guest blogging has roots in traditional public relations. The basic premise is that you’re trying to leverage a larger, existing audience by publishing your article on an established publication. This helps you to:
- create more exposure.
- build authority, credibility, and trust.
- demonstrate your expertise.
- build a personal brand.
In the early days, you would seek out publications for guest posting opportunities based on the size and, more importantly, the relevance of their audience. The intent was to get in front of more of the right people, and this involved writing killer content that their audience would find valuable, which would usually include a short bio, and maybe even one or more links back to your own website.
Website owners attempting to keep Google happy by constantly adding fresh content were all too eager to publish a steady stream of posts from guest authors, and because links are the lifeblood of SEO, people quickly latched onto this tactic to build links and sucked the life out of it like a ravenous vampire.
Marketers soon began submitting guest posts to any website that would accept them in an attempt to acquire a link.
Your website is about construction? Great! Let me submit an article on construction trends, along with a bio that includes a link back to my crochet website — relevance be damned! The next predictable step was that many marketers began submitting completely off-topic articles, and website owners eagerly published them.
This is why we can’t have nice things.
Google understandably showed up like a mob of angry villagers with pitchforks and torches to put an end to this nonsense and, as they often do, created a lot of collateral damage in the process. Websites were penalized, and while some took years to recover, a many never did, so their owners had to start over on a new domain. A lot even went out of business.
For a while, people shied away from guest blogging, but today, it’s returned to its traditional roots.
6. Keyword stuffing
Back when search engines were only capable of interpreting simple signals, like keyword density, stuffing keywords by the truckload into a web page to make it seem more relevant was all the rage. What should have been just a few instances of a particular phrase sprinkled throughout a web page grew faster than a zombie outbreak.
This doesn’t work — and more importantly, it makes it look like you employ drunk toddlers to write your copy, which doesn’t do much to inspire trust in your company.
7. Exact-match anchor text
At one point, anchor text — the clickable text of a link — was a huge ranking factor. For example, if you wanted to rank for “Tampa contractor,” you would have tried to acquire as many links using Tampa contractor as the anchor text as you could.
Marketers predictably abused this tactic (seeing a trend yet?), and Google clamped down on it and dropped the ranking for websites with what they deemed to be unnatural amounts of keyword-rich anchor text backlinks.
The anchor text distribution for a natural link profile will generally have a lot of variety. That’s because if 100 different people linked to the same page on your website, each link would likely be used in a different context within their content. One person might link to your web page using anchor text that describes the product (“blue widgets,” for example), while another may link using anchor text that describes the price, and yet another might even link using nondescript anchor text like “click here” or something similar.
Below is an example of the anchor text distribution for Search Engine Land.
The majority of your anchor text will not be an exact match to the keyword topics you’re targeting unless they are part of your brand or domain name. And this is OK because today, rather than anchor text, Google places more emphasis on:
- the relevance of the linking website to your website.
- the authority of the linking website.
- the number of relevant links from authoritative websites pointing to your website.
I wouldn’t put too much effort into controlling the specific anchor text that others use to link to your website — it’s a waste of time, and it can potentially harm your ranking if you go overboard and create an unnatural pattern. The majority of anchor text for most websites with a natural link profile will generally be for branded terms anyway.
8. Pages for every keyword variation
Keyword phrases, in the traditional thinking, are dead. The old approach involved creating a separate page for every keyword variation, but fortunately, search engines are a lot smarter today, so this isn’t necessary.
Google’s Knowledge Graph, based on latent semantic indexing, started to kill off traditional thinking, but RankBrain drove a stake into its heart. Today, websites that still follow this antiquated tactic perform a lot like the zombie hordes you see mindlessly wandering around in a George Romero movie in search of fresh brains to devour.
RankBrain is just a catchy name for Google’s machine-learning artificial intelligence system (Skynet was already taken, apparently) that helps it to better understand the user intent behind a query. It can even help Google to (appropriately) rank a web page for keyword phrases that aren’t in the content!
This means that if you write content for a page about HVAC services, RankBrain understands that it would also very likely be a good match for a user entering any of the following queries:
- HVAC repair.
- HVAC maintenance.
- HVAC tune-up.
- HVAC cleaning.
If you’ve created individual pages for each keyword variation in the past, you may be tempted to leave them and just stop doing it in the future, but that’s not enough. You need to prune the unnecessary pages, merge content that can be merged, and create any applicable 301 redirects, because these unnecessary pages will have a negative impact on how Google views your website, and how often and how thoroughly it is crawled.
So, instead of creating an individual page for every keyword phrase you want to rank for, create a more comprehensive page for a keyword topic. Using the HVAC example we mentioned earlier, this would involve creating a page about HVAC services, along with a subheading and content for each of the additional highly-related phrases.
9. Paid links
Paying for PageRank-passing links has been a clear violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines for a long time, but like the machete-wielding protagonist at Camp Crystal Lake, this one simply refuses to die.
I take a pragmatic view to buying links: They can work to improve your ranking in the short term, but you may eventually get caught and penalized, so is it really even worth it?
You might think you can be really careful — buy just a few links to get some traction and stay under Google’s radar — but that’s not going to happen. They are always hunting for both link buyers and link sellers, and it’s shockingly easy because all they have to do is follow the links.
You might get be thinking, “Pffft… I know what I’m doing, Jeremy! I’m careful when I buy links!” Sure you are. But can you say the same thing about the site owners you buy the links from? Or everyone else who buys links from them?
Let’s say Google catches one link buyer by identifying an unnatural pattern of inbound links — all they need to do next is evaluate the outbound links of anyone linking to that buyer to identify more link sellers. In turn, that will uncover more link buyers, which again uncovers more link sellers.
See how fast it all goes downhill? So just don’t buy links.
10. Low-quality content
I recently gave a presentation on digital marketing to a group of franchisees of a large national brand. While discussing the type of content they should be producing for their websites, one of the franchisees frustratedly said, “I can’t write articles for my website — it takes too much time and effort just to do what I’m doing now!”
Effective SEO requires you to regularly produce amazing content — which is, understandably, difficult for time-strapped marketers. A lack of time and resources can often lead to rushing content creation, or worse yet, outsourcing it to non-English speakers or budget services like Fiverr or Upwork. The resulting content is often the text equivalent of the unintelligible grunts from Frankenstein’s monster.
The days of simply producing content just for the sake of publishing something, are, fortunately, far behind us thanks to Google’s Panda update in 2011. Since then, the algorithm has been further refined and worked into the core algorithm.
Your content should be robust, well-written, accurate and engaging. There is no minimum or maximum ideal length; it just needs to be long enough to serve its purpose. Sometimes that may mean just a few hundred words, and other times, that may mean several thousand words.
While we’re on the subject of writing content…
11. Writing for bots rather than people
If you’ve ever seen a web page or an article that repeats a particular keyword over and over, awkwardly forces a keyword phrase into a sentence in a way that doesn’t make sense or incorporates unnecessary heading tags, then you’ve probably seen an example of someone writing for bots rather than people.
SEO has come a long way since the early days, when we had to really spell everything out in order for the search engines to understand and rank a page. You don’t need to do that anymore. Write for people, because they will be the ones buying your products or services.
12. Creating multiple interlinked websites
There are two approaches to creating multiple interlinked websites — and neither one is an effective SEO tactic today.
The first approach is interlinking several legitimate websites that you own. This is the lesser of two evils because if done properly, it won’t result in a penalty. However, it also won’t have much impact, if any, on your SEO efforts, since search engines place a high value on the number of linking root domains, not just the total number of links. Another black mark against this approach is that it reduces the resources you can direct to marketing your primary website.
An example of this being done properly would be when a residential home builder links to a mortgage company that they also own, because there is a high relevance between both websites.
The second approach, which is unquestionably black hat, is to create a series of websites just for the purpose of linking to other websites you own. Since this tactic requires you to create an ever-growing network of websites on such a scale that the only way to describe it would be a gremlin pool party, it’s an absolute certainty that you will also create a pattern that Google can identify, which will result in a penalty.
Instead of trying to build, manage and market multiple websites just to acquire a few measly links, focus your efforts on earning lots of high-quality links from other legitimate websites. An added benefit is that as those websites become more authoritative, their links to your website will become more powerful.
13. Automated link building
When links became an essential part of SEO, marketers predictably sought ways to maximize their link-building efforts using a variety of automated software programs. They blasted their links into guestbooks, blog comments and forums, submitted their websites to bookmarking services and link directories and spun poorly written articles by the thousands, for submission to every article directory they could find.
I’m all for automating certain tasks to improve efficiency within your business, but link building is not one of them because the only kind of links that can be built this way violate Google’s webmaster guidelines.
You can call me a purist, but there is simply no way to automate high-quality link building. That requires creating amazing content and developing relationships to earn links to it. There are no shortcuts.
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