What’s The Number One SEO Noob Mistake?

Tim Hopma 12 years ago

Can you guess? Is it trying to use meta keywords tag? Is it misunderstanding of updates like Penguin or Panda? Is it measuring rankings over traffic?

Of course the answer will be my personal opinion - and we're going to go a bit deeper than tags or penguins to find it.

I've seen this mistake in thinking, a lot in the Q&A forums and with clients trying do-it-yourself SEO on their own sites. And it leads noobs down the wrong path.

To illustrate, before I give you the answer, let's look at two paraphrased questions I just answered in the SEOmoz Private Q&A today. (I have made them anonymous).

Q&A Question w/ Noob Mistake -  Example 1

"This page here [page about brand being a "scam"]... ranks high for KW [brand name], you can see it has keyword stuffing, will google automatically remove this page for being over optimized?

If I make this public on a forum would this encourage google to remove it as it should trigger the penguin filter?"

(bold added - that's a hint)

Q&A Question w/Noob Mistake  - Example 2

"At seemingly random times, Google will pick up the Review page as the top page which drops our rankings for "[keyword]" where we want the event level page to rank.  It will usually correct itself within a week but this is still unacceptable.

Should I use a canonical tag on the review page with the event level page URL? Or should I use a No Index, Follow Meta tag on the review pages to clean them out of the index completely."

(*ahem... bold added again)

So What's The Mistake?

Sure there's some technical fallacies in their proposed solutions. Penguin can't get triggered by posting about it, and you shouldn't use a canonical tag unless both pages are 95% or more similar.

But there's something deeper going on here. Its a mistaken mindset I see all of the time.

They're Entirely Ignoring The User

I still see noobie SEOs coming at SEO thinking its all about techniques and tricks. 

SEO noobs, beginners, and DIY's.  You can arrive at most of the solutions you're looking for by asking "what would be best for the user?"

I know - "do what's best for the user... blah blah...". Magical fairies come flying down to save you. In the SEO industry "focus on the user" is just about as worn out as "build quality content".

But the truth is, after a year of pursuing SEO as a career full time (been doing it on the side longer) and after answering probably 50+ private SEOmoz questions for a few months - this fundamental principle is still ignored. So we have to keep saying it.

Real SEO Is NOT About Tricks & Techniques

Take it from Adam Audette. REAL SEO is invisible. Its the harmonizing of technique AND usability. Usability in the SERPs, on page, and in link building (like forgetting to get links for referral traffic... ack!). It's when technique works with  the user and not against them.

And I do find this interesting.

Just look at number one on Google's Ten things we know to be true.

"Focus on the user and all else will follow".

Conspiracy theorists might say its all just a diversion or Google-speak, but I definitely believe if you focus on the user you'll be rewarded. Not ONLY in the SERPs but in traffic and conversions!

How Do You Determine What "Best For User" Is?

And how do you mix this into your SEO decisions? You've got to integrate user experience into your habitual thought process.

Quite honestly, for me much of this is an intuitive matter now, but backed by years of gaining a fundamental knowledge and awareness of UX and usability. I am NOT a UX expert. But what I AM, is someone who questions UX just as much as SEO when making decisions.

full discussion of how to determine what makes your users happy is a little beyond the scope of this post - but I'll offer a few suggestions and places to go;

These tips are for noobs looking to just get a basic understanding, or more seasoned pros looking to brush up or pass tips along to others.

  1. Webmaster Tools Data - Google is giving you impressions and CTR data, not only for the keywords (no "not provided" in Webmaster Tools) but by page as well. Use this data to understand if the pages you're getting to rank are actually getting clicks. I believe over the long term, Google does not want to rank pages that do not get clicks, and they are likely using CTR to some extent to feed into their ranking factors.
  2. Analytics - specifically read Analytics 2.0. I know, not a "UX" book per se, but critical at having an understanding of analyzing the behavior of your users. This data will then help you understand how your SEO decisions affect user behavior. It helps you answer questions. Is the "right" page ranking? Does the user like the page we have optimized for x keyword. Are these pages too "thin" and worth keeping in the index at all?
  3. User Testing - heat map or eye tracking tests, or other usability tests. Whether you conduct your own or find data to study. There's also companies like crazyegg who actually can do this as a service (no affiliation).
  4. Questionnaires and Feedback Forms - you can use a simple survey plugin like this for WordPress (never tried it) or use Survey Monkey
  5. A/B and Multivariate Testing - use Google Website Optimizer, Unbounce or KISSmetrics to test landing pages, headings, etc.
  6. Talk to (yes, actually go and speak to) anyone in the UX field - ask questions. Learn from them. Take them for coffee or a drink. We'd all have lots to learn if we all borrowed and learned and took lessons from one another - SEO, UX, CRO, PPC - we really need to talk to one another more, don't we!
  7. Read Up - Read "Don't Make Me Think" - the absolute classic on web usability
  8. Google Documentation - I've already mentioned "10 Things We Know To Be True" . And sure, some of what Google puts out there can be vague or "Google-speak". But their philosophy still is "what's best for the user". Check out the SEO Starter Guide [PDF]. Also check out Google Friendly Sites.
  9. YOUR BRAIN - A grossly undervalued skill is that of putting yourself in someone else's shoes. You can gain a lot from simply making this a regular practice of your SEO efforts!

By no means am I suggesting you become a UX / usability expert. What I AM suggesting is simply acquiring a fundamental understanding of it, so that thinking of the users becomes a habitual thought process - just as much as optimizing for the engines.

Your Goal Is To Get Usability Into Your Daily Thinking

Then, when you are faced with a decision on how to solve an issue, you can also focus on what's best for the users and not just the engines, come up with better solutions - not just tricks and techniques - and that's a HUGE win for everyone all around.

Find Me (Dan Shure) In The Following Real and Virtual Places

  • I'm speaking at the Distilled NYC Meetup June 27th
  • Twitter - @dan_shure - (I'm most active here)
  • Evolving SEO Blog - I post when I'm inspired and have time!
  • In the MOZ Q&A's and at MozCon the end of July (as an attendee - come say hi!)

BONUS: If You're Wondering - How Did I Answer Those Two Questions?

Q&A Answer One - (A "Scam" Article Ranking for Brand Name)

I didn't think this was so much a misunderstanding of Penguin, as much as someone looking for a quick solution - when really the problem may really be with the brand and their own site. They're also taking the buzz-word of the month, and trying to force it into the scenario.

The mindset was, "let's look for the fast solution and just get that other page out of there".

But I would step back and ask - why? Why should the "scam" forum discussion be removed? It was a legitimate forum discussion, by real consumers, with no trickery re: link building. And maybe it should rank there to provide an alternative point of view on the brand.

So my paraphrased advice was (and I cut and paste from Moz - changing to keep things anonymous);

"Unfortunately I don't think Google is going to remove this for "keyword stuffing" - the content is within a forum, and I'm sure Google knows to treat a forum differently than regular content.

That said, the only way to "beat it" is to focus on some pro-active PR in the SERPs.

You could also create your own content around the word "scam" as in "[Brand name] is NOT a Scam and here's why...." etc (because also, people are now searching '[brand name] scam' - its in Google suggest).

Look at what Zappos did for the search [zappos coupons].

You can also consider a wikipedia article and enter the business info into Freebase. This will boost the "entity search / knowledge graph" aspect. And don't forget either rel = author and schema.org for this as well.

Also, this may be a HUGE can of worms, but there seems to be a bunch of different domains regarding the [brand] - this of course spreads out linkjuice and authority, and can also create confusion with users. That's a bit beyond the scope of handling within Q&A, but fair to mention, since I think its taking away from the brand signals."

In a nutshell I've told them they need to make THEIR stuff BETTER - and provide Google with more things that deserve to rank for the brand. Hard pill to swallow sometimes, but I'd much prefer an SEO consultant to be honest than nice.

Q&A Answer Two - (The Wrong Page Is Sometimes Ranking)

To keep anonymous, let's say page one is for air conditioners (all about selling them) and page two is simply reviews of air conditioners. The original site was not e-commerce at all, but you'll get the idea.

My answer (paraphrased and made anonymous);

"Before you [add a canonical or de-index], the reviews page IS useful to have in the index if you could also rank for "air conditioner reviews" (which you're bottom 2nd page now I think).

On-Page Stuff

Now, your title tag for the reviews page says "Buy Sharp Air Conditioners" etc - I would change this to reflect more the reviews content, and not use the word "purchase" or "buy". (ie: Make it obvious the page is about REVIEWS, not the page you actually purchase on).

Internal Linking

I'm also curious - only some product pages are linked to from the homepage etc (popular products etc). I'm curious of any of those pages have this issue - since a link from the homepage would pass more authority to it (and not the reviews page). I know its unreasonable to link to every product, but if adding air conditioners to the homepage is feasible, that may help.

Back Links

Lastly, building a little more authority to the air conditioners page may help - if there's anyway for you to receive natural (not too optimized) back links to the air conditioners page, that might help boost its authority too.

But really, I think the title tags being very similar could have a bit to do with it. Google may not be sure what the distinction is between the two pages, and offering that a bit more might help.

IF none of that ever works - I would not use canonical. This is only supposed to be for pages that are nearly identical (like 95% the same or more). At that point a removal request in webmaster tools and a noindex tag on the reviews page would be your last option.

Hope this helps!"

I'm so friendly.

But again, you can see the person looking for a technical trick before questioning if it is clear which page should rank to begin with. What I've told him to do, is to actually focus on the fact that, the differentiation between the content is unclear, and they should work to clarify this for the SERPs and users, which will in turn likely start ranking the right page.
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