Brace yourself, another round of Google core updates are coming this summer. These major algorithm changes tend to shake up SERP results, redefining who the winners and losers of search engine marketing are. More importantly, they determine which SEO strategies are in—and which are definitively out. The specifics, however, of what ends up being praised or penalized aren’t always obvious. Google can be cryptic with the changes to the algorithm, leaving marketers scrambling trying to figure out what they did—or didn’t do—correctly.
So with a potential upheaval on its way, now is a very good time to evaluate your current SEO practices and perhaps, make a few changes. Google has repeatedly demonstrated that they value user experience and its related metrics above all else. If your website and content don’t prioritize that, you’re at risk of getting battered in the next core update. If you’re unsure where to begin, the best place to start is by ditching old and outdated SEO tactics that aren’t just ineffective but can actually hurt your website’s rankings.
1. Obsessing Over Keywords
The early internet, or more accurately, early search results rankings, was once ruled by a single key metric: keyword density. Earning the favor of SERP results was purely a numbers game, and one that could easily be manipulated. Keywords still are, and likely always will be, an important part of search engine optimization, but as rankings have shifted to focus on the quality of a web page’s content and the experience it provides, the influence of keywords alone has long since declined.
Despite this, many still cling to a keyword-obsessed approach to SEO. This often results in an act known as keyword stuffing. This is when keywords are crammed onto a web page in an attempt to get a certain website or page to rank for a wide net of (often irrelevant) search queries. It can involve using an unnatural frequency of a certain word or phrase, heavy use of unrelated or low-quality terms, or listing data (such as phone numbers or cities) in a way that provides no value to the user.
One of the most heavily penalized attempts of keyword stuffing is more technical in nature and far sneakier, being virtually undetectable by the end-user. These tactics can include:
- Putting white text on a white background
- Hiding text behind an image
- Positioning text off-screen
- Having a font size of zero
- Hyperlinking a small character in a chunk of text that might otherwise go unnoticed (like a punctuation mark, for example)
Such actions are in direct violation of Google’s Webmaster guidelines and can cause your site to be slammed with a high spam rating. In the worst-case scenario, your website can be removed entirely from its index. As search engines continue to move further away from machine-based indicators of whether a site is quality or not, the harsher the penalties will be for sticking to this outdated tactic.
2. Over-optimizing Your Content
Whereas the technical forms of keyword stuffing have mostly been left behind, the act of key phrase overkill is still alive and well. This is known as over-optimization and is a close extension of keyword stuffing. One important difference between the two is that this is often done unwittingly by individuals who think that they are following SEO best practices. Here’s an example of keyword stuffing provided directly from Google:
We sell custom cigar humidors. Our custom cigar humidors are handmade. If you’re thinking of buying a custom cigar humidor, please contact our custom cigar humidor specialists at email@example.com.
Did your eyes cross by the time you got to the end of the snippet? Although the keyword might very well be relevant to that business, this type of writing is clearly meant for bots and crawlers, not a human reader. As we mentioned previously, oversaturated content might have worked a decade or so ago, but that certainly isn’t the case anymore. The unnatural repetition of the keyword or phrase itself is a red flag, but it also provides little to no value to the user.
Even if you did manage to lure someone to this page, this kind of uninformative content will have users immediately heading for the exit. Your bounce rate is likely to be sky high which then signals to search engines that your kind-of-spammy site is failing to provide what searchers want—a double digital whammy. Whether this form of keyword stuffing is an intentional attempt to manipulate ranking or not, it can still result in your site getting flagged as spammed and deindexed.
You’re probably wondering: “How much optimization is too much? How do I know if I’ve used a keyword enough times?”. This is a question that is hotly debated amongst industry experts. There are plenty of so-called rules of thumb in regards to keyword density (“Use no more than five times per post”, “Use once every 300 words”, “Only use the exact phrase once per article”). The truth is, however, that there is no hard-set limit. Ultimately, the further you get away from following gimmicky rules, the closer you will get to creating natural-flowing content that’s informative and readable.
3. Manipulative Anchor Text
Say for example that you specialize in selling handmade green mugs. If another website links to your site using text that mentions “handmade green mugs”, the match in relevancy can be highly beneficial to your rankings (in addition to the benefit of the backlink itself). Long-tail keyword phrases can be particularly useful by conveying matching intent as well as topical relevance. Seems like there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain from anchor text, right? That’s how early website owners saw it.
Until Google’s Penguin update nixed the ability to manipulate rankings through over-optimization (keyword stuffing and keyword density strike again), anchor text was another not-so-subtle way that webmasters would try to shoehorn their sites into ranking for all sorts of queries. They would use overly keyword-rich text (example: “buy handmade green mugs for kids”) for internal and external links. However, their biggest offense was the use of this same anchor text repeatedly (super sketchy, which we’ll get into) which artificially inflated their rankings.
Google has since wised up. Now, as with all other aspects of SEO, trying to game the system through anchor text can also land you in spammy territory—and here’s why:
Naturally acquired backlinks are bound to have deviations in the anchor text. Unless you specifically instruct each external site that links to your web page, what to say, they would all come up with their way of anchoring to you (ex. “artisanal green mugs” or “green mugs made by hand”). As such, repeated use of keyword-rich anchor text looks veritably unnatural. It makes it appear that you paid for those mentions, something Google despises sets off their spam radar.
Another type of anchor text to avoid (or at most, use sparingly), is what’s known as exact-match anchor text. This is when the anchor text being used is identical to the URL of that page’s destination (i.e. www.mugs/best-handmade-green-mugs-for-kids.com) or targets the same keyword as the destination URL. Ideally, anchor text should be diverse, a mix of:
- Branded anchor text (Using the name of the company, site, or person as anchor text to an identically named domain—this is always a safe option)
- Partial match anchor text (Includes the target keyword or phrase along with other generic or otherwise unrelated words)
- Semantically relevant anchor text (A variation of the target keyword that includes few if any of the same words as the original target)
- Diluted/Random anchor text (Seemingly unrelated text that includes few or none of the target keywords)
What You Should Be Doing Instead
As consumers have become increasingly sophisticated and tech-savvy, so have the strategies to vie for their attention. Search engines have also evolved accordingly, constantly making changes to algorithms to stay a step ahead of those who would try to manipulate rankings.
Put User Experience First
Earlier in June of this year, Google announced a new ranking algorithm called Core Web Vitals that is based solely on user experience with a web page (this is separate from the other two-part core update that is slated for July 2021). Although these updates primarily pertain to technical SEO, they solidify the shift away from machine-derived metrics and gamified tactics that historically affected website content, thus completing the prioritization of human users which first began years ago.
Search engine optimization has always been something of a moving target but Google has made it clear what its priorities are. The only way to keep up is to prioritize user experience over everything else. If you want to make search engines happy, you have to stop trying to make them happy. No longer will search engines reward sites that use tricks to inflate specific metrics or buy links to fake relevancy and authority. Google is forcing us to do what they’ve been saying all along: focus on providing a great user experience by providing relevant, informative content.
Make Changes…Or Else
You might be tempted to stay your course if it seems that what you’re currently doing is (still) working. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Our advice: keep up with the times or risk facing Google’s wrath. As search engines continue to refine their algorithms, the SEO techniques that served you reliably will eventually stop being effective.
Eventually, those techniques won’t just fail to perform but will earn penalization as they go from a white hat SEO tactic to black hat, which is thoroughly outlawed. This is exactly what happened to the outdated SEO tactics we listed in this article. At one point, those tactics worked really well. Now, they’re all grounds to potentially get your website banned from Google.
Where To Start
We know that those old SEO habits can be hard to break. Over-optimization of keywords through anchor text, metadata, or simply the content itself, is something that most of us do inadvertently, simply because it’s what we’ve been doing for so long.
First off, let us say that you don’t have to abandon everything you know about SEO or what you’ve done previously. Although those particular tactics are outdated, some of the foundations of those approaches are still sound.
Like, for instance, the keyword research that goes into making over-optimized content. Instead of pounding away at a few (most likely overly-keyword dense) phrases or terms and forcing them into a webpage, use that research instead to get a better understanding of the topic at hand. That research should shape the nature and depth of your on-page text. Having your location(s) and contact information prominently displayed is important, but instead of spamming your website with it, build up ultra-local content pertaining to those specific areas you service.
The good news is that it’s very possible to transition your now old-school strategies to the modern age without having to start from scratch. However, the not-so-great news is that simply avoiding those tactics moving forward may not be enough to spare your site from penalties. You may also need to go into old content and remove instances where you keyword-stuffed or over-optimized—and that’s where we come in.
How Buzzbait Can Help Get Your SEO Strategy Up To Date
Our expert team can handle the time-consuming process of going through all of your existing web pages to ensure that they aren’t violating Google’s quality guidelines while still following SEO best practices. While we’re at it, we’ll dive into the nitty-gritty, conducting keyword research to ensure you’re targeting the most lucrative and relevant keywords and have enough content on the subject to keep up with the competition.
Have a shallow or toxic link profile? We can fix that. We’ll clean up your internal linking strategy, verifying that your anchor text is helping rather than hurting and also helping your users navigate deeper into your website. We’ll also take a peek under the metaphorical hood to investigate your backlinks; pruning the bad ones and making suggestions on how to score ones that will boost your site’s reputation.
Ultimately, our goal is to help your business rank. We do this by positioning you as an expert in your industry and then making it easy for users to find. It’s a one-two punch of engaging content provided on a well-designed website (which we can also help with). By focusing on user experience, which is now synonymous with SEO, you’ll be primed to score well on the ranking factors Google and other search engines are continuing to prize above all else.
If you’re ready to get started and ditch those old, outdated tactics, give us a call. Whether you want us to clean up what’s already there or build you a new plan of attack, we can do it all. Want to give it a go at fixing an over-optimized site yourself? Take a gander at our blog for other helpful SEO tips, written with business owners who manage their own marketing, in mind.