SEO is a constantly changing industry, and much of what you read in a passing introduction to the subject is outdated. We’d like to take this time to discuss several SEO tactics that are dead or dying. We’re not necessarily claiming that these tactics never work (although that’s true for a few of them). We’re simply pointing out that these tactics are losing value and place the future of your site at risk. All of these tactics are frowned upon by Google, and many of them can get you penalized. Some are more “gray” and still work, but can’t be expected to last long enough to be worth the investment.
Tactic #1 – Exact Match Domain Names
Like most of the tactics mentioned here, this can still work, but only if none of the other search results have anything going for them. There was a time when your domain name could give you a boost over your competitors, but this tactic was so abused that Google released an algorithmic update just to target exact match domains. (Here’s our infographic on the updates that came out in 2012.)
Today, exact match domains only really matter for branded searches. If somebody searches for Amazon, they’re going to get Amazon.com. Google is getting increasingly skilled at telling the difference between a branded search and a phrase search. If your domain is built to target a specific phrase, Google can usually tell, and this will only get more important in the future.
Instead of choosing a domain name that matches a commonly searched for phrase, choose a domain name that will stick in people’s heads. Look at all the successful tech companies and you’ll see that very few of them are keyword-driven. Google, Facebook, Kickstarter, Amazon, Zappos: these names are designed to be remembered, not to inform.
It’s also important to realize that the end of exact match domains doesn’t mean the end of keyword research. It simply means that keyword research is far more important for individual pages than it is for domain names. This actually leads us right into our next point.
Tactic #2 – Exact Match Keywords in Titles and Meta Tags
Keyword-stuffed meta descriptions are as dead as an SEO tactic can be. They offer no value whatsoever, except to encourage a click-through from the SERP. We can’t stress this enough. It’s good practice to get a call-to-action in your meta description, and that’s the only reason you should be using it. Stuffing it with keywords is only going to scare away users.
Exact match keywords in titles are a grayer area. If you can fit an exact keyword into the title, it’s still worth doing it, but that’s not really what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about cutting and pasting a keyword out of the AdWords Keyword Tool and giving no thought to your title. This should be avoided almost every time.
It’s not hard for Google to tell if every one of your page titles is simply stripped right out of the keyword tool, and users subconsciously pick up on it as well. This gets especially bad when the keyword phrase you’re targeting isn’t grammatically complete.
Work a variation of the keyword phrase into a title that encourages click-through and social activity. Put the focus on grabbing attention and encouraging clicks, rather than on the keyword.
You should still try to work the keyword phrase, or a subtle variation of it, into the title, but not at the expense of a memorable and eye-grabbing title. Don’t concern yourself with getting the exact phrase into the title. Adjust the tense and conjugation of your words as needed, and please don’t be afraid to add punctuation or adjust the order of the words.
If you pay attention to the search results, you’ll notice that exact match titles don’t show up as often as they used to. Instead, the keywords increasingly show up scattered throughout the title and the body. Google is getting better at interpreting the meaning of your query, and your approach should reflect this change.
Tactic #3 – Meta Keywords
I hope everybody who’s reading this already knows this, but meta keywords have absolutely no influence on search results whatsoever. This has been true since the end of the ‘90s. It can be good practice to include a few keywords in case your site gets scraped by some tool that still uses the meta keywords, but as far as SEO this one is just plain useless.
Focus on increasing your percentage of repeat visitors from the search engines. Google can measure how often users return to your site, and they use this information to determine how relevant your content is. I sometimes think of this as the present-day stand-in for meta keywords, since links are more accurately thought of as authority signals than as relevancy ones (though this isn’t completely true).
Analyze Google Analytics to find the pages on your site with the highest percentage of repeat visitors (the lowest percentage of new visitors). These are the pages that you want to promote and emulate the most. (Make sure that you are filtering yourself out of Google Analytics before taking this data too seriously).
Tactic #4 – Building Links with Duplicate Content
This one is not only dead, it never worked very well to begin with. Google can clearly identify when a piece of content is copied, and if you submit multiple pieces of content it will, at best, ignore all but one of them.
In the past, this may have been a decent way of capturing a link from the highest PageRank site willing to post your duplicate content, but today it’s actually just a good way to get yourself penalized. Google knows that spammers are trying to use this tactic in order to manipulate their rankings, and it very rarely works.
A variation on this tactic that has also worked in the past it to “spin” an article by running it through an algorithm that creates automated variations of it. This process results in very low quality articles that are no longer exact copies. Anybody who tries to read the articles can immediately tell that something is wrong with the grammar and that bizarre synonyms have been chosen. Google is no longer fooled by these tactics and can usually tell the difference between content written by a human and content written by an algorithm.
It’s still possible to get multiple links from a single piece of content, and the best way to do it has always been the best way to do it: post your content somewhere where it will reach a massive audience and attract natural links as a result.
It no longer makes sense to create and submit a piece of content if the only benefit is a single link back to your site for each publication. This has never been the kind of a link Google wanted to count and it’s never been the best way to grow your link profile.
To build the highest quality links, and grow your link profile at the fastest rate, you need to get published in a place where you’ll actually get read. What is the SEOmoz or SearchEngineJournal of your industry? That’s where you need to be published, because it sends referral leads directly to your site, and creates a ton of natural links in the process.
Don’t waste time on content submission that only results in a single link back to your site under your own control. It’s just not worth it anymore.
Tactic #5 – Keyword Density
This is another outdated tactic that, much like meta keywords, actually hasn’t worked for many years. There is no specific number of times you should use a keyword on your page, or a certain percentage of your content that it should make up.
As with many of the other tactics on this list, too much emphasis on keyword density can actually end up hurting your rankings. Thinking about keyword density while writing also makes it very difficult to write worthwhile content. The more time you spend pondering how to fit a keyword into a piece of content, the less time you’ll spend thinking about how to write sentences that keep users engaged and informed.
Instead of worrying about keyword density, you can capture a much larger space in the search engines by bringing in long tail traffic. The more in depth your content goes, the more long tail traffic you’ll bring in.
Research has a way of expanding the vocabulary of your content. As you dig deeper into the problems your users want solved, and mine the tough sources for original information, you’ll also serendipitously discover and use keyword phrases you would never have found in the keyword tool. Since they’re naturally attached to the subject at hand, they’re also commonly searched for along with your core keywords.
In addition, you can use the keyword tool to find related keywords, and discuss them within your content. When you do this, however, it should serve the end user. Don’t go out of your way to use several variations on your core keyword. Use the keyword tool to find related topics, and discuss them naturally within your blog posts.
Tactic #6 – “Unique” Content that Serves No Real Purpose
We’re currently exiting the period where “unique” meant little more than “not plagiarized.” Your content needs to be consistently creative, and there are things you can do to make that happen.
There was a time when it was easy to rank content as long as it was technically unique, in the sense that those exact words hadn’t been said elsewhere. All it took was enough links. This is still possible, but it rarely lasts long. It’s not sustainable.
Google’s Panda algorithm is designed to identify how well a piece of content serves its purpose. Leaked guidelines for Google’s quality raters make this abundantly clear. If your content doesn’t meet its intended purpose for the user, or it has no purpose to begin with, it will eventually be taken down by an algorithm update or a human quality rater.
Focus on the true meaning of unique, as in “unique selling proposition.” Your content must be designed to fill a hole in the idea marketplace. It must add value that no other prominent piece of content on the subject adds. That value can come from the research, the tone, the target audience, the medium, the personality, the user experience, or one of many other ways to differentiate yourself.
The point is to focus on unique value, as opposed to merely unique words. You accomplish this by identifying the specific problem you are trying to solve, and solving it for your target audience better than any other piece of content on the web can. If you can’t do that, you need to choose a different topic, because you’re chasing a fool’s errand.
Tactic #7 – Exact Match Anchor Text Links
The anchor text of a link hasn’t lost all of its value, but it’s no longer the most important ranking signal out there, and if you pursue anchor text overzealously you will end up with nothing more than a penalty to show for it.
Over-optimized anchor text sends a very clear message to Google: you have direct control over the links pointing toward your site, so they are not natural. In their eyes, this also means that they are irrelevant as a sign of your authority on the web.
When you build backlinks yourself, you should move away from anchor text and start focusing on your conversion rates. Place links where they are more likely to be clicked, and use anchor text that’s more likely to result in a click-through. You can test this a bit by experimenting with AdWords or a different text link ad service if you wish.
The anchor text isn’t completely ignored, and it’s still used to find clues regarding what the linked page is about, but you should avoid too much emphasis on it. It’s generally best to just discus the linked content in the way that makes the most sense, and then attach the hyperlink to the part of the sentence that’s most likely to get clicked on.
In addition, it’s wise to use bare URLs, branded links, links containing the exact title of the linked page, and partial match anchor text.
At the same time, you shouldn’t spend too much time trying to make your links appear “natural.” If you’re doing things right, most of your link profile should already be natural, as we’ll get at the end of the article.
Tactic #8 – Keyword Heavy Footer Links
It doesn’t matter whether they’re outbound or internal links, keyword heavy footer links are a bad idea. The footer has been abused as an SEO tool for quite some time, and Google has wised up to the fact. The search engines now place most of the emphasis on main content, and for the most part ignore links in the footer. Excessive keyword use in the footer is just asking for an algorithmic demotion.
Use the footer to reduce your bounce rate. Google most likely measures “pogo-sticking” behavior, where a user clicks onto a site, clicks back, and goes to the next site. Users who instead stay on the site, and don’t return to the search results, tend to be more satisfied with that result.
Instead of filling the footer with keyword links, fill it will calls to action for more content that will interest them. Test, test, test and find the links that encourage the highest click through rate. Keep users on your site so that they are more likely to remember your brand, share you with their friends, subscribe to your newsletter, and ultimately convert. Keep them from returning to the SERP and sending a negative signal to Google in the process.
Tactic #9 – Site-Wide Links
Nearly every client we’ve dealt with who was hit by Penguin or an unnatural link penalty had a problem with site-wide links, either on- or off-site. Whether they’re backlinks or internal links, a link from every single page on any website is generally a bad idea, especially if it’s keyword optimized.
Don’t get us wrong. You want a link back to your home page from every page on your site; that’s just good UI. And if a few sites happen to put you in their blogroll that’s rarely a problem, especially if they used your brand name rather than a keyword.
But if site-wide links end up making large part of your backlink profile, or nearly every page on your site links to every other page, you’re just asking for trouble.
For your internal links, just include a few links in your main body and make a few recommendations at the end of each blog post. This keeps users clicking through and seeing what you have to offer, which is great for engagement. There’s no reason to link to a single page from every other page on your site, unless it’s your home page, or it’s part of a “best of” list in your sidebar.
As for external links, you should essentially never build a site-wide link yourself. Don’t worry too much about site-wide links if they’re natural, but as for your own efforts you should stick to contextual links or calls to action in your signature. Links should look more or less editorial (although not to the point that you’re disguising the fact that it’s your link).
Tactic #10 – Unnatural Links
In general, you should avoid any unnatural linking scheme. What do we mean by this? Well, Google’s terms of service indicate that any link intended to manipulate rankings is a violation. Many SEOs fail to understand this, and mistakenly believe that their links are within Google’s guidelines as long as the quality levels are high.
I suppose we’re pushing things a bit by saying this tactic is “dead,” as it can still work quite well, but consider yourself on thin ice. Even quality links are in Google’s gray area if you built them yourself, in particular if the link offers little or no value outside of SEO. If there’s reason to believe that the link only exists to manipulate your rankings, there’s reason for Google to disregard the link.
Stop building links to manipulate your rankings. I know, this is almost heretical in some circles, but it really is the only way to stay within Google’s terms of service, and it’s actually the fastest way to build links.
Instead of focusing on building links to grow your presence in the search engines, switch over to building links for referral traffic. This is the only method defensible as a long term marketing strategy.
How could this be the best path to improving your rankings? It’s simple. The pages that send the most referral traffic are the pages that Google wants to rank in the search engines. Focus on building links from those sites, and you will focus on promoting yourself with the influencers that matter most.
Google does not want to see your pages ranking on backlinks that you built. That’s an inconvenient truth for many SEOs, but there’s no getting around it. If you focus on referral traffic, you end up focusing on tactics that result in natural links. It’s the simple law of numbers. The more often people see your content, the more often they’ll link to it. In the meantime, your hand built links will come from the sites that send the most positive signals to Google, and actually indicate that you do have some influence.
It’s the path of least resistance. Cheating is harder.
There’s no point investing in outdated tactics that can’t be expected to work long term. While some of the tactics we’ve talked about can still be effective, this is only true in the short term. These are SEO strategies that can, at best, give you a false sense of security about the future, and all will eventually leave you dead in the water if you rely on them exclusively.
We realize we’ve taken a few strong stances here, and we welcome all feedback.